Time for a Commercialism Break

Michael S. Horton
Monday, September 1st 1997
Sep/Oct 1997

In 1990 a gathering of evangelical theologians assembled chiefly for the purpose of defining “evangelical” concluded that such definition was practically impossible to accomplish in the movement’s current condition. In 1992 Christianity Today ran a cover story with the headline, “evangelical Megashift,” announcing the growing popularity of relational and therapeutic categories over the traditional theological themes of judgment and justification. Representatives of both orthodox and “new model” Evangelicalism engaged in a lively debate, and ever since, Christianity Today, InterVarsity Press, and other important evangelical voices have vigorously encouraged debate with respect to classical theism and other traditional beliefs. (By the way, I am not intending here to raise the question of whether such debates are appropriate for evangelical publishers, but simply claiming that their treatment of the denials of these doctrines as an evangelical option is a barometer of wider trends.) This says nothing of the periodicals, publishing houses and media organizations of the vast, amorphous world that goes by the label “evangelical,” in which “being tossed back and forth with every wind of doctrine” has been raised to an art form.

For that reason, periodicals like Christianity Today become important windows through which to view the evangelical landscape. We have included many references to the magazine in this issue not in an effort to simply vent our frustrations at a visible target, but to try to get a better handle on our challenges. Only then can we match these challenges with (it is to be hoped) adequate and constructive responses.

When I first began reading Christianity Today, Harold Lindsell was still editor-in-chief and over the last two decades I have watched the magazine (like the movement it represents) change dramatically. Recently, I sat down at our office and read some back issues of the magazine during its early (Carl Henry) years. Reformed theologians such as Louis Berkhof and Lutheran theologians such as Herman Sasse contributed alongside respected evangelical scholars, interacting with the best and worst of modern theology with a clear and well-informed critical edge. In those days, the magazine had courage and theological interest. It was a magazine with a mission.

But in recent decades, things have changed. I’m sure it’s not just Christianity Today, but the movement that it represents. But that is why the magazine is so important for tracking the movement. Some extraneous factors are surely to be figured in here, especially the fact that in 1977 the magazine had financial difficulties, relocated to the midwest, underwent a major organizational restructuring, and began to purchase a group of periodicals which served a lay and youth constituency. Thus, the magazine’s earlier mandate to serve pastors and chiefly church-workers by offering thoughtful evangelical responses to current theological trends shifted considerably in order to make the magazine more commercially viable. I am told that the magazine is still looking for its identity, and this partially explains the changes. Nevertheless, it does not explain everything.

Not all of the magazine’s editorial decisions can be accounted for simply in terms of commercial viability. In recent years, decidedly non-evangelical views have been represented as part of the ever-expanding spectrum. There has been some limited theological engagement, but rather than offering a unified evangelical voice, these exercises have often thrown into question classical theism, Chalcedonian Christology, and traditional views of the atonement and justification. As Millard Erickson has recently observed in his new book, a “new guard” of theologians is emerging that is decidedly critical of traditional Reformational convictions. Stanley Grenz and others have rallied under the banner of Clark Pinnock and his “megashift” from Augustinian views of sin and grace to more seeker-friendly conceptions.

Meanwhile, there are comparatively few Reformed and Lutheran scholars who are interacting with these writers, partly due to conservative lethargy but also to increasing marginalization by the “new guard” proponents in editorial leadership. To their credit, these younger theologians are actually engaging in contemporary debates, concerning which conservatives seem to be largely unaware. In that respect, the intellectual vigor of the new guard is reminiscent of the magazine’s early years. But that is where the comparisons end.

My purpose here, however, is to concentrate on the commercial captivity of the entire evangelical movement, typified by but by no means limited to Christianity Today. In fact, the points I will be making here apply to all of us, including Modern Reformation and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. We’re all in this together and we can only get out of it with each other’s help. It is an economic captivity that does not discriminate on the basis of creed.

Now is the time for construction, rebuilding the walls, so to speak. I would like to use the rest of this article to defend the thesis that a reformation in our day requires much more than a simple return to forgotten doctrines; that this essential goal of theological recovery requires a fresh vision of the nature and function of the Church. Her reclamation from commercial captivity is impossible apart from a constructive, bold, and costly reevaluation of our understanding of the Church.

Where Is the “Visible” Church?

First, we need to come to terms with the fact that Evangelicalism is a movement and not a church. Confusion on this point has resulted in a host of misunderstandings. Resting on sound exegesis, St. Augustine emphasized that “Church” in Scripture refers to both an invisible and a visible Church. While there are some sheep outside of the visible Church and some wolves within it, this is the earthly locus of Christ’s presence and the ordinary sphere of his saving activity. Gradually, medieval Rome came to treat the Church as only visible, so that only those who were in communion with the Church of Rome could be identified as true Christians. Meanwhile, the Anabaptists and other radical groups tended to see the Church as only invisible. The Reformers repeated Augustine’s familiar exegesis. After all, in Scripture “the Church” could identify all the elect throughout all ages or, more frequently, it could refer to “the Church at Jerusalem,” “Colossae,” “Galatia,” “Rome,” “Sardis,” and so forth.

In our day, there is almost no trace of a doctrine of the visible Church within Evangelicalism (for whom “the church” means “all born-again folks” and not an official institution). And should we be surprised? Despite his clear Reformed convictions concerning the Gospel message, George Whitefield and many leaders of the Great Awakening quite unintentionally subverted the ordained ministry and the ordinary means of grace for extraordinary parachurch events. Gradually, the revivalistic emphasis on the New Birth replaced the classic Reformed (as well as catholic and evangelical) concern with the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

An important shift occurred in Whitefield’s ministry: the institutional Church, while not directly attacked, was no longer to be regarded by the masses as the bearer of the kingdom’s keys. If the established churches would not accept the revivals, one no longer had to be “sent” by them, but simply had to create an alternative authority: that of the marketplace. The people would vote with their feet. So when the Southern Baptist Convention recently decided to boycott Disney for moral reasons, convention spokespersons were emphasizing the size and power of the denomination as a significant consumer block the way evangelicals often use their size and power as a voting block. The Church trades its unique mandate for secular power and, by using “hot button” issues, shows that beneath the particular moral concerns with Disney is a deeper moral problem within the Church itself: why are we this committed to “saving” Disney? It is part of our debt to popular culture. As a spokesman for the convention put it in an interview with David Brown on National Public Radio, June 18, “We long to embrace Mickey Mouse again.”

But this marriage requires a commitment on both sides. As the Church trades its spiritual capital for secular authority, it unhinges itself from the normal checks and balances of a historic doctrine of the Church. That’s why our annual denominational assemblies and synods are far less influential than the deals made in the Christian music hub of Nashville or at the Christian Booksellers’ Convention. In our increasingly homogeneous consumer society, a Reformed believer is more likely to be shaped by the icons of mainstream Evangelicalism than by the confessions, liturgy, theology, and piety of the Reformed tradition. The tie that binds is actually capitalism and popular culture, although it masquerades as a new unity in the Spirit.

To be sure, revivals began as occasional meetings outside church auspices but not hostile to them. Eventually, however, the churches began to adopt the revivalist’s techniques, including the appeal to popular culture (especially the press). The itinerant’s stage, constructed for the “big event,” at once religion and entertainment in an age before television, could hardly be kept out of the churches themselves by popular will. From these early revivals to the Promise Keepers meetings, mass movements relying on commercial success, public relations, and “news,” tended to replace the authority of the Church. For the first time, even in Protestantism, churches had to compete in the marketplace and defend their right to insist upon creeds, confessions, and liturgies. The values of the marketplace were already threatening the values of the Church.

Declaring the world to be his parish, John Wesley paved the way for the revivalism that pit the entrepreneurial and self-appointed enthusiast against the called and sent officers of the Church. Although there is not sufficient space to pursue the history here, the nineteenth century saw the notion of the visible Church collapse into the idea of an American voluntary association (like the Temperance Union or YMCA), leaving the notion of the invisible church as the only measure of the church’s distinction from the world. “Church” now meant “all who had experienced the New Birth,” not this church here and there. Stripped of its visible status, evangelical ecclesiology ever since has suffered from a Gnostic docetism. Where the early Church struggled repeatedly with those who denied the reality of Christ’s visible, physical body, today the Church must also contend for its own visible, institutional existence.

Without the banks of the visible Church, the river of a rising capitalist economy could easily swell to flood-stage, leaving the ministry Christ founded to climb higher and higher to dry ground, or to accept its fate and become part of the parachurch tide. As Wheaton professor Roger Lundin described the situation in The Culture of Interpretation, “By the time of the American Revolution, the transformation of the original Puritan vision was all but complete. At the center of the ‘city upon a hill’ was no longer a church but a marketplace, where preference was on its way to becoming the only principle.” (1)

Heir to both Whitefield’s low view of the visible Church and his emphasis on the experience of the New Birth, Billy Graham’s career was launched in earnest in his 1949 Los Angeles crusade, when newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst gave instructions to “puff Graham.” While generations of Lutherans, Reformed, and Baptists had accepted an identity shaped by their distinctive Church-life, a new coalition emerged around Graham and the neo-evangelical empire that replaced the authority of the Church. Even the Roman Church, the most institutionalized form of Christianity, was not able to withstand Americanization. (The romantic myth of untouched splendor, however, may account in part for the attraction of Wal-Mart-wary evangelicals to Rome.)

While the Protestant Reformers criticized the magisterial use of churchly authority, they insisted upon its ministerial use in guiding the communion of saints. But it was increasingly the case in America that this was becoming a communion of consumers: religion, like everything else, was a commodity to be bought and sold and Churches (including their publishing houses, schools, social agencies, etc.) were increasingly lacking a sense of purpose.

Nobody had to actually challenge the creeds and confessions; these norms simply became increasingly irrelevant compared to the massive influence of trends in the popular religious marketplace. Immigrant churches such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) even resisted the use of English in worship and the education of their children and clergy in order to preserve their communions from the “lowest common denominator” homogeneity of revivalistic Evangelicalism. Eventually, the pressures of the marketplace were too great.

What this means is that “the church” for evangelicals, as for the enthusiasts, is nothing more than the set “all Christians.” This is why we can speak about “the evangelical church,” or “the American church,” as if there actually were such a thing. In fact, evangelicals are eager to insist that the church isn’t this Church or that Church (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Anglican, etc.), but the church (i.e., all “born again” believers). My purpose here is not to critique this position, but simply to suggest that this loss of any real sense of the visible Church is partly responsible for our predicament. It is not enough to reform doctrinal content. We have to question the very institutional media or forms in which our doctrine, liturgy, and life come to us and incorporate us.

Once a low view of the visible Church is linked to a free-market economy, it becomes institutionally impossible to avoid consumerism and the lowest-common-denominator instincts. In other words, theological and liturgical drift is inevitable, for conservatives and liberals alike, unless we can reconstruct a theological and practical model of the visible Church.

The Church as Popular Culture

Ernst Troeltsch coined a useful distinction between the “church-consciousness” and the “sect-consciousness,” the former characteristic of those groups that see themselves in continuity with a tradition and accountability within that tradition. The “sect-consciousness,” on the other hand, dominates those groups that see themselves as restoring a lost innocence. In modern America, there is a third type which has grown out of this second type: the “consumer consciousness.”

When “the church” is not a Church at all, but a movement, and at that, a movement dependent on popular culture, the leaders are no longer institutional authorities who receive their apostolic calling by a historical succession of called, qualified, and sent ministers, but those whose success in the world as celebrities or entrepreneurs earns the respect of a significant share of the marketplace.

For instance, the widely publicized “evangelicals and Catholics Together” involved a collection of Protestant “heavy weights” who repre-sented a niche market, while the Roman Catholic side was represented by theologians and churchmen who were institutionally bound to speak on behalf of what they regard as the true visible Church. Those who wish to speak on behalf of Rome must receive the ecclesial imprimatur, while those who wish to speak on behalf of Evangelicalism must receive the approval of the marketplace. Best-selling authors who are also entertaining speakers are far more influential in shaping the average layperson (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, et. al.) than are those entrusted with the Ministry of the Word.

Similarly, while no hymn was allowed to be sung in Presbyterian churches before the turn of the century unless it bore the note at the bottom: “Permitted to be sung by the General Assembly,” conservative Presbyterian and Reformed congregations today regularly teach views diametrically opposed to their confessional standards. Eventually, Wesleyan, Keswick, and Pentecostal theology made it into our hymnals and then, finally, we now have “praise music,” produced by music companies which are often owned by secular conglomerates whose mission statement is to enhance shareholder value (read: “make a lot of money”).

Shorn of a biblical doctrine of the visible Church, the evangelical movement has had to depend on secular models of authority and institutional identity. Its bourgeois sympathies find such ready-made models in the world of consumerism, marketing, therapy, and entertainment.

Our church culture mimics our mass culture. In a consumer-oriented society, the town square is left desolate in favor of the mall on the outskirts of town; freeways link one city’s service-oriented industries (hotel and restaurant chains) to another. In fact, a regular traveler could wake up in L.A., Dallas, Sao Paulo, Cape Town, or Seoul, and not recall where he or she is until the second cup of coffee. We have even built our cities and towns around our consumer-identity. Where one could say (and in many cases can still say) of quaint villages and city squares that have not lost their charm, “Now this is Bavaria!” or “What an interesting Victorian garden!”, most of the time we all live in Disneyland: a clean, safe, happy world made of facades. Contemporary Christian music, following popular music, eradicates all of the distinctiveness not only of doctrine but of local or regional cultures, and becomes the musical equivalent of the mall and restaurant chain.

What does this depressing line of thought have to do with the Church? Unfortunately, quite a lot. Distinctions are out; eclectic choices are in. Churches increasingly follow the pattern of the suburban shopping mall rather than the town square. Painters across America are busy excising “Baptist,” “Lutheran,” “Presbyterian,” “Reformed,” and whatever else, from church signs that might turn people off. It is not even that a Baptist might be suspicious of a Presbyterian church just down the street. In all likelihood, he or she would not even know what Presbyterians believed anyway. The real problem in having the denomination in the name is simply that it establishes a specific identity and this is dangerous in a consumer society. Niche markets might have worked four decades ago, when people knew what they believed and had convictions, but today we need to appeal to “seekers”; that is, to those who have spent most of their lives in our churches but never actually encountered Christianity. All that “breaking down the walls” has accomplished is the triumph of modernity’s crass consumerism in the Church as well as the culture. In other words, now there is no real Bavaria or Victorian village, and no real Reformed or Lutheran church, but simply different “rides” in the evangelical theme park. It should hardly surprise us when we see charismatic churches suddenly becoming Eastern Orthodox and Presbyterian churches becoming Pentecostal. We have become consumers of religious experience.

As with many corrosive sociological trends in American culture, the Church often finds a way of inventing a new “move of the Spirit” to both sanction and benefit from the trends. Those who are proponents of minimizing church distinctives (viz., doctrinal, liturgical, ethical) are hailed as pioneers of ecumenism and Christian charity, when it is at least worth considering whether they are merely cashing in on that aspect of our consumer culture that demands generic, user-friendly products of consumption. Announcing a new age of the Spirit, it ends up being the spirit of the age. Consuming a religious experience (like the New Birth, the Second Blessing, or the Toronto Blessing) is more attractive to us than dying to self and “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Popular movements, not churches, are built for consumers.

The Economic Captivity of the Church

Consumerism is an outlook that cannot be dispelled without a serious reevaluation of even our institutions. I am neither an economist nor the son of an economist, but bear with me here for a moment. I’m all for free-market economics, but as with every fallen system it is not without its destructive elements and those elements seem to show up where it counts the most: in education, culture, community, and the Church.

In “high culture,” institutional protection against a market-mentality is established: PBS programming, museums, foundations and programs for education, scientific research, and the arts and humanities, all receive private funding so that they do not have to rely on the ever-changing whims of the marketplace. Few community theaters or city symphonies could survive one season without their many generous patrons, while movie chains hardly have to solicit sponsors. A well-endowed college does not need to make its decisions about course offerings on the basis of income. A privately funded artist or writer does not have to pander to mass consumer appetites. University publishing houses are funded by their sponsoring institutions, so they do not need to publish books that “sell,” but can make their editorial decisions strictly on the basis of what they think will contribute to knowledge in particular fields. Recognizing that the corrosive effects of a market-oriented culture are discerned in things that matter most, these groups find institutional ways of saving a space for these pursuits.

God knew what he was doing when he founded a Church as an institutional way of preserving his self-revelation in Christ. How is something constituted by Scripture as “the pillar and ground of the truth,” if it is merely an invisible collection of born-again Christians? Sadly, it seems that the world takes it significant things (education, research, the arts, etc.) more seriously than the Church takes even the Gospel these days.

When we come to the evangelical movement, we find that its publishing houses, music distributors, artists, colleges and seminaries are largely dependent on the giving (and therefore the consumer trends) of the masses. Even seminaries place ads in Christian periodicals “selling” their marketable features often to the exclusion of their program content distinctives. Here are just a few: “Earn your seminary degree without relocating”; “Psychology knows all the problems-Jesus Christ knows all the answers”; “Our psychology doctorate meets life’s hurts with tools that heal”; “Earn your M.A. in the field… Convenient and sensitive to your place in ministry”; “Earn your degree without relocating. Study off campus or on-line with your computer,” and on we could go. Academic and ecclesiastical priorities are pushed aside in the pursuit of practical and consumer-oriented goals. Is it any wonder, then, that those who come to a seminary as consumers would go out and build churches on the same model?

New “study” Bibles, many of them bizarre beyond description, roll off of evangelical presses. And why? Because the ones we have available to us are really insufficient? Not quite. As one publisher admitted to me, it is because even a poorly received Bible sells more copies than a best-selling trade book. Actually, books are a diminishing commodity in Christian retailing. Doug Ross, president of the evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) says it all: “Our industry is the ideal niche market.” (2) According to one source, “We’re all fighting for the same disposable income along with Wal-Mart and Macy’s.” (3) “Breaking down the walls”? Hardly. It’s just that instead of Baptists and Presbyterians fighting over Sacraments and competing for members, parachurch ministries and evangelical music, publishing, and church marketing companies compete for market share. Money talks.

Like popular music, which depends on the favor of a mass audience, contemporary Christianity is institutionally incapable of disappointing the crowds. Its entire network of churches, ministries and institutions requires it to be answerable to a wide audience of consumers. To refuse to be answerable to the world of public taste, the evangelical movement would risk its very existence. As long as we accept the regnant paradigm of the Church, we will not see long-term and deeply rooted reformation. In fact, a reformation that champions the Gospel in the clearest of terms will be short-lived unless there is an institutional way of preserving and faithfully mediating that Gospel in Word and Sacrament.

The consumer paradigm is not capable of being reformed. Just look at the example of Christianity Today. Insiders tell us that its current priorities do not reflect a theological shift but are the result of growing dependence on a broad evangelical market. But doesn’t this simply illustrate the point we are making here? In the beginning, the Pew Charitable Trusts funded the magazine, giving Carl Henry and his associates free reign to provide a thoughtful and faithful alternative to modernism. But now the magazine must appeal to the broad evangelical market in order to be commercially viable. This is not a neutral shift by any means, and it is one more example of the fact that there can be no institutional integrity as long as one is dependent on commercial success. It is not a war between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Modern Reformation will fare no better under the same conditions.

Some months back, I recall the Christianity Today cover story on the dangers of consumerism, with about half of the pages committed to advertising. Furthermore, the consumerism it pictured was the typical, narrowly defined moral variety (over-charging one’s Visa, for instance). It would perhaps have been too much to have hoped for a thoughtful soul-searching with respect to the commercialization of Christianity in terms of retailing, church growth, and publishing. What is required is a completely different structure of accountability, and this will not only demand soul-searching on the part of others, but for all of us.

The Church will have to replace the marketplace and her officers will have to replace the entrepreneurs, as God’s Word transforms us from consumers to believers. But before we all nod, let us seriously count the cost that putting such ideas into practice will require. In the abstract, it is hardly radical, but its institutional implications would be. At least one reason why there is “no place for truth” is that there is no space for truth in our market-driven religious atmosphere. We will have to recover a sound doctrine of the Church, no matter where it leads and no matter how painful it may be, even for us who claim to be on the right side of things. Then, if we are able to go beyond this, we should look for resources that we consider significant enough to protect from the economic forces of the marketplace. We can give lip-service to this response, but we cannot mean it in the same way Jesus meant it unless we divorce ourselves from the institutional polygamy that forces the churches to serve both God and Mammon.

These suggestions are admittedly sketchy. I’m not even sure of how to fill in the details myself but would encourage a wider and deeper discussion than has been provided here. At some point, we will have to come to the cross as sinners in need of salvation from God’s wrath rather than coming to the spiritual mall as consumers in need of having our “felt needs” met. And if we’re going to get beyond abstract truisms, this will have to take practical forms. A whole generation of Israelites was barred from the Promised Land because they “demanded the food they craved” instead of believing the promise. The real question of our time, as of every time, is whether, in the face of Jesus’ “hard sayings,” we will turn away too or, with Peter, say-however nervously-“Where else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

1 [ Back ] Roger Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 160 (italics added).
2 [ Back ] Reported in Christianity Today, January 8, 1996, 58.
3 [ Back ] Ibid., 59.

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, September 1st 1997

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

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