Is the American Church Selling Out?

By: Diane Chandler
Friday, September 17th, 2010

In a recent book entitled Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010), author G. Jeffrey MacDonald levels a caustic critique of the American church. 

As a former pastor and journalist, MacDonald offers a basic premise that the contemporary American church has lost its impact on contemporary society because it has sold out to consumerism. As a result, the church’s effectiveness has not only been diluted but it has lost its primary mission of providing a conduit of authentic spiritual growth for the church body and being a powerful witness in the world of moral formation.

MacDonald starts with three stark observations aimed at church leaders.  First, he notes the entertainment-orientation within the American church-at-large by citing the prevalence of hefty operating entertainment budgets, large projection screens, worship styles that are more worldly than God-honoring, and an emphasis on the cash collection devoid of a worshipful expression.  He comments, “Unfortunately, a church that functions like a fun house cannot fulfill religion’s central mission.  The Church can’t transform the desires of people it’s trying to titillate” (p. 36).

Second, MacDonald accuses the church of offering comfort to the exclusion of healthy confession, which has led to making church members happy at the exclusion of deep inner transformational change. He writes, “Small groups, organized around shared interests, offer indiscriminate affirmation rather than the rebuke or admonition that participants sometimes need” (p. 62).

Third, MacDonald identifies the weak moral character of the church, noting the financial indebtedness and mismanagement, evidence of rampant personal addictions, and unresolved relational conflicts that provide anything but a positive witness.

In summary, MacDonald attacks the religious consumerism that he observes running rampant in the American church as indicative of the consumerism in the American culture, which caters to a “feel-good” mentality in order to appease church-goers. He cites as an example of consumerism the practice of mega-churches opening their doors to corporate sponsors. Anyone seen Starbucks coffee available in church lobbies? 

MacDonald’s admonishes, “The Church must overcome both its baggage and its present tendency to pander in order to become a character-shaping force in the twenty-first century” (p. 87).  So I pose these questions ~

  • Is MacDonald’s critique of the contemporary American church valid?  Why or why not?
  • What specific counter arguments might you offer in response to MacDonald’s criticism? 
  • How can the American church remain culturally sensitive without losing her soul and central mission?

Tags: , , ,

Diane Chandler
This entry was posted by on Friday, September 17th, 2010 at 5:00 am and is filed under Christian Leadership, Church Ministry, Faith & Culture, Spiritual Formation, Worldview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Responses to “Is the American Church Selling Out?”

  1. I am not sure if I completely agree with MacDonald’s assessment of the current contemporary American church, but I will say, regretfully, that he has made some valid points. I believe it is correct to say that we as a society are overly consumed with consumerism, but honestly, who is NOT guilty of this? I personally have to admit to it, and if someone within American society completely denies it, I might have to question their integrity.
    Unfortunately this is how our society functions and as a church we have had to conform in order to get people within our church doors. As a nation we have not seen true poverty and are not desperate enough for God. So in desperate measures we as a church have used consumerism to make God attractive. Do I think this is completely wrong? Not necessarily. We do what we need too, in order to get the Gospel out. I do sometimes wonder though if we put too much emphasis on making our “churches” prettier versus hitting the streets with the Love of God. Sadly enough, we American Christians like our Starbucks coffee and VideoCafe’s, but I do not believe we have to sacrifice true transformation with their usage. These churches tend to be few, but there are many who use, as MacDonald would say, consumerism, but still have a congregation growing by leaps in bound in the Lord. Ultimately it boils down to the condition of the heart. If our hearts desire is to know the Lord and please Him, then no video screen or Latte will interfere with that.

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Amber, I appeciate your input and insights. And I would agree with you that MacDonald’s assessment, which is highly critical and quite negative, does contain elements of truth. We do live in an extremely consumer-driven Western culture. MacDonald’s point is that the American church has diluted the gospel and become more like the world than standing for biblical integrity. To this, I agree.

      However, I do believe that the Church needs to be relevant in every culture and generation. And this will mean understanding the culture and learning how to touch the lives of those who are part of the culture while remaining committed to the truth and practices of Scripture, with love being the primary motivation to impact a broken world.

  2. Ashlee O'Dell says:

    Diane, thanks for posting this book review. I’ve heard a lot of similar criticisms and at the same time a lot of arguments in support of becoming “relevant” so that we can reach people who wouldn’t normally attend church. It’s a tricky business in my mind, one which I don’t fully understand. To me the hard part comes when we try to figure out how to offer someone mercy while at the same time showing them that they must die to enter the family of God. It seems that unless God has already prepared their hearts for this sort of revelation, no amount of pandering or anything else will truly be able to reach someone.

    I do think that MacDonald’s critique of the American church is valid. However, I would like to hear him, in the same breath, offer a critique of the ultra-conversatives who equally embarrass the American church. I would like to know the suggestions he has for finding the middle ground.

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Ashlee, appreciate your comments and also wanting to hear about MacDonald’s middle ground. He cites examples of churches that are purposefully resisting the spirit of the age of consumerism. For example, MacDonald cites Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona, which had 12,000 members, all kinds of programs for its members. However the pastor of the church, Walt Kallestad became increasingly aware of the issues that the city of Phoenix was experiencing that the church was not concerned with (i.e., high rates of crime, alcholoism, divorce, unwanted pregancies). Whereas the church was spending a significant amount of money on itself ~ including the hiring of professional musicians for its worship services.

      No one seemed to mind that the church was lavishing much of its budget on itself. Until one day the pastor became so disturbed as to the direction that the church was heading. He could no longer tolerate how the church was not responding to the social problems of the city. So this pastor purged several of these programs (i.e., square-dancing classes and care-playing evenings). As a result, one-third of the church left and one-half of his staff left. But he became a pastor who could sleep at night.

      I think what MacDonald is pointing out is the extreme self-absorption of many churches that results in ignoring the problems of the communities in which they serve.

      Valid points. Churches that respond to the needs of their congregants and reach out to the community are not always easy to find, and there is a tender balance.

      Thanks for your response, Ashlee~

  3. Frankie says:

    Diane,
    I hear McDonald’s heart; yet, it is often in this “feel good” environment that the church appears to be growing the fastest. At least more young folk are beginning to inquire about what goes on within a Christian community. It appears to me that the responsibility for all churches, no matter the style, is to be true to the Word of God and to explore its teaching truthfully. We are a people in need of being “broken” in order to be “made anew.” However, no revisionist teaching can slip in. Jesus said, “Come unto me all that are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Mt 11:28).” That includes all of us. Weary is not only the state of our culture today, but that of the world as well. If it takes a latte to satisfy the flesh so that it will allow his/her God shaped void to begin to be filled as God desires then I say, “Go for it.” Just hold fast to Truth: the Eucharist and the Word!!

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Frankie,

      Your point about young people cannot be overstated. We are losing an entire generation of young adults. Research shows that young people who are in church now will most likely not be in church as adults. The are dropping out of church because they do not feel that they fit in. Ken Ham has written a book entitled Already Gone: Why Your Kids will Quit Church and What You Can Do to Stop It. With the profound cultural changes taking place in our Western world and as the Scripture are rejected, Ham contends that young people are not getting real answers to their questions. We need to engage culture, not escape from it. And we need to teach our young people how to stand in a godless age.

      Young people especially are seaching for answers and the void in their hearts will be filled by something (i.e., drugs, alchohol, sex, other addictions). We really do need to have answers that are relevant and prepare young people for the future and, as you stated so well, hold fast to the Truth.

  4. I think that McDonald is on to some good stuff here, though he might be going to far on some points. I’m not really sure what he means when he accuses modern worship styles as being “more wordly than God honoring.” I guess I would probably have to read the book for more clarification. That accusation in particular seems to be alittle over simplistic. His other points are more substantial in my opinion.

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Phil, it is difficult to assess something fully until you have read the entire work. Yet MacDonald has pointed out some legitimate concerns related to the contemporary American church. And I think the critique is so generalized as to overlook contextualizing the gospel for relevancy. For young people, this is especially important since hundreds of young people are quitting church in unprecedented ways. Finding ways to minister to youth and give perspective to their issues and problems is essential for reaching them ~ including worship styles that appeal to youth. Of course, worship tastes vary, particularly as it relates to differing generations. Overall however, the gospel must be uncompromised but the presentation of it must be contextual.

      Thanks for your comments and for joining this blog,

      Diane

  5. Good morning Diane. I met with local worship pastors yesterday at our monthly gathering and presented your summary of Jeffrey McDonald’s book. The overwhelming opinion was that McDonald’s critique was not helpful or even relevant.

    Granted that worship pastors/leaders are quit passionate about the mission of the Kingdom, none of McDonald’s comments seemed to fit our demographic. We represent several churches in Albuquerque. Our church sizes range from a few hundred to several thousand, and our ages range from 20 to 50 years.

    Our group took exception to McDonald’s first observation especially the young guys. They wanted to know what warranted an “acceptable worship style.” These kids wear assorted piercings and like their skin multi-colored. They are passionate for their Lord Jesus and never grew up in a church community. They know nothing of hymns and don’t care much for country music. They lead with electric guitars and utilize cutting edge sound systems. They utilize large screens and high speed lighting systems because they minister before several hundred people.

    They asked a wonderful question: does God want us to ghetto around some “sacred” meeting place and attend to HIm sequestered from a scary culture, or would the Father have us call to the unchurched and invite them in? These guys are passionate about evangelism and use Sunday morning service as an evangelistic tool. And all of us were perplexed by what McDonald meant by “religion’s central mission.” (there were many quips about which religion he was after, and it was also mentioned that we walk in a living relationship with Jesus, Lord of all – he can keep his religion etc.) Which leads to McDonald’s second observation, and we didn’t like it either.

    Smalls groups are partly about affirmation (as is the gospel – and the imago dei for that matter), but shared life is the goal. We must be in a dynamic relationship with one another. We cannot hold one another to account if there is no mutual trust. Personally, I find that holiness is very much tied up in the idea of faithfulness, and faithfulness is most fully realized when we have to live through the hard stuff together. Tragedy, fear, and ambiguities surround the culture. We gather to exhort one another to love and good works. If McDonald is concerned about rebuke, he should come and hang out with our group. He might get an ear full ;-)

    And finally, we couldn’t even fathom MacDonald’s weak moral character argument. We we pounded our fist on the table and said, “yes, we must return to the purity of first century giving,” and then someone brought up Ananias and Sapphira – oh well so much for the age of pure giving (and we were all thankful that Holy Spirit doesn’t regularly take us out when we lie). The implications of his gripe could lead to a legalism that could put a weight on the shoulders of our brethren that even our forefathers could not bear. There was much snickering about who would head up the moral character police. Some suggested MacDonald could get some help from the religious police in Saudi.

    We are a body. We must live in dynamic, interrelational, transactional communities willing to encourage, support and challenge for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Complaining about how the body goes on about this process is not helpful. We agreed that we live in a culture driven by consumerism. However, we also agreed that slapping the family upside the head because of inaccurate, perceived notions is probably not the way to effect change for the advancement of the Kingdom.

    blessings to you . . .

    • Diane Chandler Diane Chandler says:

      Gary, thank you for your comments, which are completely valid. I find MacDonald’s critique is overly generalized and most certainly does not apply to all churches. Churches need to be contextualized and must exegete culture along with exegeting the Scriptures to make relevant and cultural connections for the gospel. MacDonald’s premise that the American Church’s influence is diminishing in our country is something to assess. For this, I tend to agree with him. We increasingly see the attack on national morality and the undermining of any Christian message, including the Church’s mission. And the avalanche of situational ethics and weak moral standards supports this notion of common decency and right and wrong.

      Music style is not an accurate judge of Christian spirituality. And to reach this culture we best be uncompromising in the tenets of our faith, the development of Christ-like character, and rise up to the character shaping influence that is part of our calling.

      Thank you for engaging in this discussion.

      Diane