Seekers or Tourists?: Or the Difference Between Pilgrimage and Vacation

Michael S. Horton
Monday, July 2nd 2001
Jul/Aug 2001

A good deal has been reported in recent years about the remarkable rise in tourism. Every summer, Europeans experience mixed emotions as both the American and Japanese tourists arrive, cameras hanging from necks like pendants. “See Europe in ten days” is actually taken seriously by us because we don’t really intend to get to know the culture-we just want to take pictures and experience the experience. And if the tour group has three hours in San Marco Piazza, shopping for souvenirs will probably consume two-and-a-half of those hours, leaving twenty minutes for a quick survey of the actual Piazza. What really matters is not that we got to know Europe (which is good, since we didn’t), but that we have evidence to prove we were there. That’s why people speak of “doing Europe”: it’s a commodity, something to add to our repertoire of experiences that advertises something about us to other people.

If this is a bit cynical, it is nevertheless worth asking whether the blending of consumerism and tourism might be evident in the way contemporary Americans approach religion and spirituality. We call them seekers, but “tourists” might be more apt. The term “seeker” conjures notions of destination. One has to be looking for something in particular in order to qualify as a seeker, but we are all used to being consumers and voyeurs of other people’s experiences. Unlike seekers, tourists have no intention of committing themselves once they find that for which they are looking. They are fascinated by nearly everything, just as “doing Asia” is fascinating, even if it is seen through the tinted glass of trains and posh buses.

We see this same phenomenon in the Church. We have a lot of churches these days that instead of reaching the unchurched are unchurching the churched. What do I mean by that? Modernity has already virtually torn apart the generational fabric and rootedness that comes with long-term commitments. According to some of the statistics I’ve seen, the average candidate for a seeker church is not an unbeliever but a lapsed churchgoer or a churchgoer who has been so uprooted and transplanted in his or her life that belonging to a seeker church-with its more transient feel-is more desirable. A spiritual tourism, if you will.

No real growth in the number of conversions to Christianity has occurred during this period of the megachurch, so we may be justified in concluding that the growth is the result of smaller, more rooted churches gradually losing their membership to megachurches. These folks are not necessarily unbelievers who need to be reached but professing Christians who do not want to commit to anything beyond themselves and who insist on not limiting their options. With this in mind, these questions arise:

  • Will those who care the least about the kingdom of God have the most to say about what things look like for the next generation?
  • Are we entrusting our covenant children to churches governed by the values of those who are the least committed to the Christian faith?
  • How can we reach the lost without losing the reached?

This does not spell defeat, however, because we believe that the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation.” It can arrest people in their tracks and end their spiritual tourism. But if that arresting truth is lacking in the churches on their itinerary, they will remain tourists and voyeurs-connoisseurs of religious experience along with everything else. Former labor secretary Robert Reich notes in an article in Civilization, “Instead of liberating us, the new world of choice is making us more dependent on people who specialize in persuading us to choose this or that.” In relation to the Church, I would argue, that makes pastors travel agents. Reich is correct on this point: we are so burdened with small choices that we have little time to invest in long-term community, instruction, relationships, and obligation. For us as Christians, any notion of a covenant community gets lost in the deal. As writer Deborah Stone explains, “true freedom is something more than no one interfering with her personal will…” She adds,

Lately, freedom has taken on a new consumerist cast: being able to choose from an array of goods in every aspect of our lives…. There’s only one problem with this vision of the good life as being set loose in a superstore: Most of us, as we begin to fashion our life plans, want some things that can’t be had off the shelves…. We want connectedness as well as autonomy. We want to love and be loved. We want understanding, loyalty, and compassion. We want the pleasures of working with others on some larger project. No one-least of all the market or anyone in it-can produce and package any of these things for us. These aren’t things we can choose. We have to make them, and we can’t make them alone. Why can’t we make these things in markets? Because markets are designed to disconnect people at the first sign of trouble. When we’re disappointed with something we purchase in the market, we don’t go back. We don’t bother to tell anyone why we’re unhappy. We find another supplier. Like a child with her toys, when we get tired of something or it fails to please us, we up and leave.

Market-driven church growth principles cannot help but loosen and then disrupt entirely the interconnectedness of Christian communities. Not only does such an approach lead churches to promise what they cannot deliver; it is intrinsically resistant to the values that preserve a community over the long haul, during trials as well as triumphs. Just substitute “church” for “supplies” and what Deborah Stone says of markets is true of most churches in America today. If we’re not happy, we simply try another church. Although market principles, including the greatest possible freedom of choice, may be valuable economic goals, they become utterly corrosive when allowed to establish the criteria for the things that matter most in our human existence: relationships, civic institutions, education and the arts, and churches.

David Brooks explores this cultural phenomenon of unlimited choice in his acclaimed Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Having realized that New Age spirituality and smorgasbord religion “can lead to lazy spirituality,” the new upper class (“Bobos”) has realized that “the toppling of old authorities has not led to a glorious new dawn but instead to an alarming loss of faith in institutions and to spiritual confusion and social breakdown. So if you look around the Bobo world, you see people trying to rebuild connections.” At the same time, they still value their own personal freedom of choice as the nonnegotiable commitment. Although he is a nonpracticing Jew, Brooks observes, “The life of perpetual choice is a life of perpetual longing as you are prodded by the inextinguishable desire to try the next new thing. But maybe what the soul hungers for is ultimately not a variety of interesting and moving insights but a single universal truth…. Maybe now it is time, the Bobo says, to rediscover old values, to reconnect with the patient, rooted, and uncluttered realms.” Brooks cites a New York Times Magazine issue on religion with the headline “Religion Makes a Comeback (Belief to Follow).” But one cannot live on hype and personal taste forever:

Their souls being colored with shades of gray, they find nothing heroic, nothing inspiring, nothing that brings their lives to a point. Some days I look around and I think we have been able to achieve these reconciliations [between choice and meaningfulness] only by making ourselves more superficial, by simply ignoring the deeper thoughts and highest ideals that would torture us if we actually stopped to measure ourselves according to them. Sometimes I think we are too easy on ourselves.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Whereas the enormous size of the baby-boom generation has elicited a lot of attention, and the seeker spirituality especially associated with that generation has received a lot of press, this is hardly the whole story. We have already seen such signs of change among advocates of contemporary Christian music (CCM) worship who have now called for greater theological reflection. In Soul Tsunami, cultural historian Leonard Sweet says that the so-called busters (born 1961 to 1981) “will keep the past and the future in perpetual conversation.”

Lynn Smith cites Karen Neudorf, publisher of Beyond magazine, targeting generation Xers and busters. “‘A concern I have is that the busters are biblically illiterate,’ says Neudorf. ‘While people are hungry for experiential faith, where will our doctrines come from? Who will teach us our doctrinal roots? Young adults need to be mentored.’ A hunger for roots will characterize the ‘ancientfuture’ churches, and this will have an enormous effect on worship. To be ‘radical’ in the postmodern era means not to tear up the roots, in the root canal fashion of the ’60s,” says Sweet, “but to ‘go to the roots’ and there find the direction, energy and nutrients necessary for growth and development.” (It’s worth noting that the Reformation fed off of the Renaissance call, Ad fontes!-“Back to the sources!”) The so-called millennials (born since 1981) get even more interesting. Theologian Robert Webber tells us, “Millennials are looking to the past to find old ways to cope with the world situation. For them, old is better. They have a newfound love for the classics and a deep interest in things medieval. In worship, this is evident in the millennial disdain for contemporary worship for its lack of form and beauty.”

Growing numbers of younger people are dumping these lowest-common-denominator approaches, either for no church or for churches that have some substance. A recent letter to the editor along these lines in The New Yorker caught my attention recently:

I was once drawn to the faith of my father, a devout Lutheran, out of a sense of comfort in the familiar. But I didn’t find spiritual fulfillment until, after years of trying on other religious identities, I turned to Eastern Orthodoxy. I agree with John Updike that Christianity, seen strictly as a religion and not as a political movement, seems to be fading. Could that be because many denominations have diluted sacredness out of the faith? Church services have become hug-thy-neighbor group-therapy sessions, confirmation classes bear the moniker “Deviating for Christ” in an effort to attract teenagers with “cool” language, and important religious services, like those at Easter and Christmas, include bunnies and Santas. Where is the sense of awe-even a touch of fear-of the Divine that I felt in the cathedrals of Europe or the church of my youth? God seems to have become a benign friend on whom one can call when needed, and Christianity merely a long-distance carrier to make that call. No wonder so many of us search for more.

This person is not alone. In fact, scores of younger evangelicals, many of them prominent, have left for Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism in an effort to find something that transcends the shallow narcissism of cultural Christianity. Both high Church mystery and contemporary familiarity easily pave the way for idols, as we try to force God to put in an appearance and allow us to experience his majesty on our terms. We are discovering in our own circles of confessing Reformation churches a remarkable growth of interest among young people who are fed up with fast-food religion. Traditionalists will risk squandering this moment with a “See, we were right all along” smugness, but if we really understand what is going on here, it will not only be a chance for numerical growth but for a rediscovery of what we believe, why we believe it, and what and why we do it in our worship. Conservatives, I’m convinced, have as much to learn about what really animates our tradition as those eager folks who come in our doors.

Sarah E. Hinlicky, writing in First Things (February 1999), speaks for this growing trend when she writes the following suggestions about how to reach her own overstereotyped generation X:

We know you’ve tried to get us to church. That’s part of the problem. Many of your appeals have been carefully calculated for success, and that turns our collective stomach. Take worship, for instance. You may think that fashionably cutting-edge liturgies relate to us on our level, but the fact is, we can find better entertainment elsewhere. The same goes for anything else you term “contemporary.” We see right through it: it’s up-to-date for the sake of being up-to-date, and we’re not impressed by the results…. We know intuitively that, in the cosmic scheme of things, the stakes are too high for that…. On the other hand, you shouldn’t be excessively medieval and mysterious, either. Mystery works up to a point, but it’s addictive, and once we get hooked on it, the Church won’t be able to provide enough to support our habit. We’ll turn instead (many of us already have) to Eastern gurus and ancient pagan spiritualities…. The Church has fought against that Gnostic impulse from the start: Christianity is explosively non-secretive, God en-fleshed for everyone to see, the light shining in the darkness. We’re much too comfortable alone in the dark; we need the light to shake us up.

Hinlicky and her cohorts are weary of platitudes and ideological fads. “We see complicity in the Church where you want us to see stability, moralism where you want us to see righteousness. The ultimate difference is that where you see the City of God we see only the City of Man.” She also rejects the spiritual marketing that makes Jesus the answer to everything. “Our stumbling block is Christianity presented as a panacea.”

Not long ago, the Wall Street Journal published a report by Eric Felten on the use of demographic marketing for churches. According to recent studies, those who identified themselves as “‘Educated Working Families’ want ‘Adult Theological Discussion Groups.'” Furthermore, they prefer “‘Traditional/Formal Worship’ held in churches with ‘Somber/Serious Architecture.'” Whereas plenty of surveys indicate that there are a lot of people out there who want or even demand seeker-driven worship, a growing number of studies are showing quite different trends. But it just doesn’t matter what the trends are or what they indicate. They may be helpful and even interesting, but they cannot be normative. Comparing churches to White House policy-by-polling, Felten writes, “It is somehow hard to imagine a firm religious conviction, or reliable moral compass, issuing from marketing tactics…. A church confident of its message doesn’t need to massage it with marketing studies. God help the prophet who polls.”

Having established that such market surveys should not chart our course, it is interesting to see that the tide is beginning to turn against the tactics of the Church Growth Movement that has targeted the boomers. A recent Christianity Today survey (January/February 2001) found that “Pastors were more likely than listeners to think their sermons should be shorter…. About 75 percent of pastors said it’s important to tailor sermon length to congregational expectations, while only half (53%) of listeners felt the same. The Builder generation, those 55 and over, wanted preachers to cater to their sermon-length ideals more than did Boomers or Gen-Xers.” And then here is a real surprise:

Interestingly, in our survey, Gen-Xers seemed to have longer sermon attention spans than Boomers. Perhaps the effects of our fast-paced, media-oriented culture are not as severe as supposed. Sermons just may get a little longer in the future to satisfy the younger generation’s desires. Few listeners thought multimedia presentations or drama would make their pastor’s preaching more effective. Only 20 percent of listeners said that their pastor’s sermons would be improved by using multimedia, while 63 percent of pastors said this would help. Other techniques that pastors were two or three times more likely than listeners to believe would help their preaching included story-telling, narrative, or dramatic techniques (60% vs. 17%); illustrations (46% vs. 14%); movement outside the pulpit (37% vs. 14%); personal stories (25% vs. 12%); references to popular culture (22% vs. 11%); and gestures (32% vs. 9%).

While we must risk falling into the marketing trap ourselves simply because some of the data seem to put wind in our sails, marketing and demographic studies are yielding some interesting information. Michael Sack, marketing consultant to Fortune 500 companies, says, “Today’s young people see almost 1,000 percent more images than 55-year-olds saw in their youth. Surprisingly, though, they don’t have a corresponding understanding of the images they see. The ability to find meaning in print or video is much greater in people over 50.” At this point, many evangelical church marketers would be expected to conclude that we, therefore, need more video, more sound, more lights, more action. But Sack takes it in a different direction: “For Xers, those ages 16 to 25, the images have no symbolism, no moral value. They choose images for color or movement or entertainment. Inanimate messages-anything other than person-to-person speech-lose value as you get younger in this culture.” His interviewer asks, “Many would assume it’s the other way around. Isn’t it the MTV generation that deals in images?” Sack replies:

For Xers, the media are flashing two thousand images a day. They can’t deal with that, so they ignore the images. As a result, young people are a hundred times more sophisticated in handling images, but not in attributing significance to them. The young eat images like popcorn; older adults eat them like a meal…. When pastors…ask people to watch a video, they need to know it will be less effective for those who are young. The impact of anything that hasn’t been personally delivered is going to go down by about 25 percent for each ten years an audience is below 50.

As for the boomers, “the god they don’t believe in revolves around discomfort rather than truth and evil. Their idea of evil is irritation…. The inability to look into the eyes of suffering, into the negative side of things, limits Boomers’ ability to appreciate the positive side of things. In that regard, research indicates Christians are no different than the rest of the culture.” Sack says that generation X “has almost no concept of evil,” but is looking for something to make sense of it. “I’ve never seen a group of people anywhere,” he says, “including people in absolute poverty in the Philippines, who have a greater urgency to hear good news than the under-25 generation in this country. They long to hear that there is hope.” Generation X needs “written reinforcement of key concepts.” Theirs is the “feed me” generation, according to Sack, whereas the boomers are the “entertain me and earn me generation”-“faddish, intellectually lazy.”

All that Sack mentions here concerning generation X identity indicates that there may well be more interest among this coming generation in embracing the discipline of Christian faith and practice. Bored by superficiality, their “feed me” attitude and their need for “written reinforcement of key concepts” suggest that they may find serious biblical preaching, teaching, worship, and community more attractive than the more self-obsessed and anti-intellectual generations.

Whereas the have-it-all boomer generation has imbibed the theology of glory, a new generation is arising that is more attuned to the theology of the cross. This generation cannot help but recognize the divine judgment standing over us all-over our self-righteousness, our pretentious plans of ushering in God’s kingdom by our grand efforts, our preference for our methods over God’s. And it is a judgment that not only stands over others, but over us-crucifying us with Christ, the one who at the cross bore the curse for our delusions of grandeur. Gerhard Fourde reminds us,

Anyone who gets some glimpse of what it means to be a theologian of the cross immediately realizes that the bane of a theology of glory never vanishes. It is the perennial theology of the fallen race. We have to persist in a theology of the cross in order precisely to expose that fact. I have come to wonder if the very theology of glory is not in a state of severe crisis. If it is true that no one is trying anymore [to save himself], what does that portend? … Have we lost the thread of the story? Is the “official optimism of North America,” as theologian Douglas John Hall spoke of it, finally running off into sand? Could that be one of the reasons for the despair and chaos in our homes and in our streets? Has the thirst for glory finally issued in the despair that Luther foresaw? My suspicion is that the malaise of the theology of glory is the ultimate source of contemporary despair. My assumption is that a theology of the cross brings hope-indeed, the only hope.

A theology that starts from the premise that we are sinful and weak rather than basically good and strong is in the best position, ironically, to provide a realistic basis for hope. We know that the latter is rubbish. We’ve seen too much selfishness, greed, ambition, anger, pride. Our homes have been living witnesses to total depravity. Victorian moralists who sentimentalize “home life” and “virtues” can’t survive in these times for very long. Their cheery optimism toward human ability rings hollow. The theology of the cross, however, does not leave us with a dark pessimism. “Now we see,” Calvin says, “how many good things, interwoven, spring from the cross. For, overturning that good opinion which we falsely entertain concerning our own strength, and unmasking our hypocrisy, which affords us delight, the cross strikes at our perilous confidence in the flesh.” Deep down we know that the Song of Myself must give way to the Song of Moses:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Ex. 15:1-2).

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, July 2nd 2001

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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