As a minister, nothing makes my stomach hurt like the phrase “church-shopping” and the statements that often come with it:
- “I didn’t like their worship style.”
- “The pastor preached a little long.”
- “There weren’t enough programs available.”
The list goes on and on. One could write a book about the many issues that this concept of church-shopping points to in the church and in our hearts.
For the sake of time and my blood pressure, I would like to propose just one idea:
Church is about catholicity, not consumerism.
What does it mean to be catholic, anyways?
Here’s how Donald McKim defines it:
Catholic (Gr. katholikos, “universal,” “general”) Term used since the 2nd century to designate the Christian church throughout the world. It is opposed to “sectarian,” which refers to those who have separated from the worldwide church. It is a mark of the church along with “one,” “holy,” and “apostolic.” (The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, 44–45).
In short, to be “catholic” means to hold to the faith once delivered to all the saints (Jude 3). Being catholic means that we are united through common faith in Christ. There is much to say about this, but that is a song for another time. Today, I want to focus on the practice of being catholic.
With catholicity as the foundation, church becomes understood as the visible and invisible mystical union of the saints.
The dynamic of finding a church, therefore, changes from consumeristic to simply planting ones roots with the local body of believers. The sad reality, however, is that church has become about the individual and her tastes or preferences, rather than a shared faith and practice that form us together as the Body of Christ.
But if the visible church and the invisible church are united as the one Body of Christ, then it matters how we approach our interactions with the local church.
As an Anglican priest, I come from a particular understanding of how this unity should look. I believe catholicity starts at the local level, and it comes from two broad areas:
- common formation through common prayer, and
- the parochial—or community—church model.
Common Formation through Common Prayer
Shared formation begets shared identity. Therefore, common prayer ought not to be simply an ancient option in the free market of religion, but rather the Church’s timeless and subversive response to our heart’s sinful inclination toward militant individualism.
Our Western ears might barely fathom the idea that someone would tell us how we ought to worship. The nerve! But hear me out.
I imagine most of us who are reading this are from “the West.” All you must do is go to the mall and see how many different companies are selling the same thing to realize that we have a society built on the desire of individuals. Consumerism is the national religion of America.
Unfortunately, it is the religion of many of us as we look at Church, not primarily through the lens of Christ, but through the lens of a consumer. We want what will make us satisfied.
It goes deeper than this. While there are plenty of different viable brands of clothing, and plenty of ways to make pizza (side note: pineapple DOES belong on pizza!), there is only one “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
I commented on this idea in my previous article (The Subversive Church) when I referred to our idolatry to the Baals of our time. Consumerism is the Baal that created salad-bar Christianity. Rather than the faith once delivered, we offer doctrine, songs, and prayers to fit the tastes of everybody. We have conformed to the patterns of this world rather than having our minds renewed in Christ (Romans 12:2).
The solution? Common formation. Common prayer. A Christian ought to visit a parish expecting to continue to be formed in the faith.
If worship has been tailored to be just like us, we only ever get formed in our own image. If, however, we submit ourselves to a common formation, we share a common identity as the baptized society of Christ.
Common formation is catholic.
Church as Family: Rediscovering the Parochial Model
Even if we solve the matter of what worship is and why we do it, one might still see parishioners leave one congregation for another. Ultimately, seeing the worship style and sermon length as goods to sample in our “church-shopping” plight are symptoms that point, as I mentioned earlier, to our shared disease of consumerism.
Go back to the mall example for a moment. If I decide I don’t like one brand, I shop for another one. If I don’t like one pizza shop, I will buy my pineapple-topped pizza elsewhere. In these examples, I am operating in the free market out of self-interest. They don’t have what I want. So, I leave.
We have taken this self-obsessed ideology and transplanted it into our ecclesiology—our understanding of the church.
If more of us saw the local parish as our family rather than a vendor of goods and services, perhaps fewer of us would leave when she isn’t everything that we want her to be.
The church is not about you, or me. It is about Christ. She is, after all, the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9) and the Body of Christ. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
After you read this, go and read the whole 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Suffice it to say, Paul agrees with me.
The Body belongs to Christ. No one member can dislocate or amputate itself because it no longer wishes to take part.
Now, think about your own family. How many times has a sibling, parent, or cousin let you down? How often has your response been “What can you do? It’s family” or “I can’t pick my family.” Well, apply that same thought to your church membership.
This is not a country club, a gym, or a franchise store—this is the baptized society of God. If the only reason you have left to stay in your church is that she is the local outpost of the Body of Christ, that is still a good reason.
In practice, this looks like the parochial model of church.
The parochial model is an old understanding of the local church as the community center. The local church is the church in the community, it is where neighbors worship together. Fundamentally, the implication is that we worship here because it is the church in our community. These are our people, our family. Even if there was a more “relevant” or vibrant church the next town over, we would never leave. Because this is the church.
Frankly, this model of church is Anglicanism’s birthright. It is sad when a tradition that offers such a grace-filled, unifying model of church gives in to the consumerist bent of American culture.
Stay when it’s hard. Be a part of the Body in your community with your neighbors. That’s being catholic.
What Happens Next
When I think about the possibilities of this outlook spreading across America, even the world, I get goosebumps.
What would it be like if Christianity, and how we worshipped, were about the faith once delivered to the saints, rather than my personal preferences? We would start to be a lot more like one another. Visible and invisible unity.
What if, when the local church got messy or disappointed, we stayed and loved her as Christ loves her? Visible and invisible unity.
The reason I say, “visible and invisible unity” is because that is true catholicity. Jesus didn’t simply come spiritually. Christians are not just saved spiritually. Christ is not just King spiritually. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). Matter matters. The visible and the invisible matter and are intertwined.
I want to encourage us to consider what it would look like if the church were truly catholic. Just like the growth of the church, it starts at home. Let’s commit to be grassroots catholic and watch the Holy Spirit work.
Zachary Jones is married to his best friend, Bethany. He serves as assistant rector of Christ Church Westshore and is a chaplain candidate canonically resident in the Special Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy. Zach is currently finishing his Master of Sacred Theology at Trinity School for Ministry. You can follow him on Twitter at @thelittlevicar.