The me-focused church


Udo Middelmann writes in The Market-Driven Church about the fragmentation of modern Western life, and makes many Christians complicit:

"Christian schools, sports teams, companies, and publishing houses create their own market for their community. They function almost like a separate country with citizenship in the church. They are like a package of yeast that has no contact with the flour and will never make the whole loaf rise."

This is a familiar critique of the Christianesque sub-culture, but Middelmann taps into two themes that might be troubling even to Christians who rankle at the foregoing accusation. First, he articulates a problem that perturbs communitarians and crunchy conservatives alike, which is the disposability with which many of us have come to view community. Frequent job changes and accompanying moves, changes in schools, changes in churches -- all undermine the development of committed community, or what some think of as covenant community. "Christianity with its universal truth," Middelmann writes, "is not the same as a church with its tribal truth."

We've certainly seen this trend, and Christians by no means lead the way, though perhaps too many of us fail to distinguish ourselves. Aside from less commitment to community, there are the multiple televisions in each home, cell phones for each member of the family, fewer and fewer meals eaten together, stringent stratification by age (my wife and I chuckle when critics of home-schooling make the socialization argument, as if it's normal for a child to spend most of his waking hours surrounded by people exactly his age), a dramatic rise in Internet usage -- all forces lending themselves to the fragmentation of community.

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What I had not considered before is a second theme I took from Middelmann, which is that many churches contribute to this fragmentation not just by marketing themselves to the point that they favor acceptance over truth, but in the way they splinter families with a variety of targeted programs. Many churches offer programs based on age or life status (married, single, divorced, handicapped, adopted), and they all but remove children from the worship service. "Where church used to bring us together from different situations under the teaching and blessing of one God," writes Middelmann, "church now meets the perceived needs of fragmented people."

At first I was taken aback. What's wrong, after all, with tailoring programs to people to meet them where they are? What if some of us prefer to read in a small group, instead of these ubiquitous how-to-make-your-marriage-better books, something by Kierkegaard? Or what about those who have been abused and find strength in sharing their stories with others? And why should children have to sit through a sermon on works versus grace? Isn't the church, after all, the people of God?

Middelmann has a compelling answer, however, which is that as a culture we have become obsessed with our individual stories as it is:

"We may be focused on our own painful story; yet the Bible places it in the context of history (his story), so that we understand what is the problem of mankind, not just my personal and immediate sensation. Healing comes from God's work for us, not from feeling better about ourselves."

Church, in other words, may not be as much about us as we think. I for one need to hear that quite often.


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