Level 2. Row S. Seat 223.
I set my coffee safely in the attached cupholder and sink softly into the inviting chair. Here I can escape the realities of life, the stress of deadlines and the weight of responsibilities. Congenial chatter fills the auditorium, subsiding only slightly as the lights dim and the stage illuminates. Relax, sit back and enjoy the show.
This is not a movie theatre, though one may be shown on the wide screen HDTV. This is not a rock concert, though one will likely be performed. This is church.
What a sobering physical manifestation of how modern values have permeated modern churches. Maximizing one’s happiness through comfort and entertainment is the utmost goal. What was once the church of I AM has become the church of ME. How did it get to this?
One would think that when one is most spiritual is when one is least selfish. This, however, depends on how “spiritual” is understood. From a dualistic standpoint, a focus on the spiritual is non-physical, unconcerned
with selfish things of the body such as comfort, food and appearance.
Alternatively, spirituality can also be conceived of as having the highest potential for selfishness. Spirituality is intimately connected to the self; it is understood as the deepest, innermost part of the self. Just as the spiritual self has the capacity to commune with God, so also it has the capacity to seek its own gratification.
Amid today’s narcissistic, me-obsessed culture, the church soaks up this self-gratifying rhetoric. In this culture, it’s all about my needs, my rights, my appearance, my goals and my success. Inside the church walls, nothing changes but the semantics. It’s all about my spiritual needs, my purpose, if the sermon “does it for me,” if I “got anything out of” the worship.
Church has become a self-help session. There are sermons on time management and financial goal setting, on dealing with people you don’t like and the power of positive thinking.
Armed with facts from pop-psychology, lighthearted anecdotes, and the odd Bible verse or two, pastors enlighten their audience on how to be spiritually fulfilled.
Perhaps this constant diet of feelgood, milk and honey teachings may be all some people need to foster an authentic spiritual life. But for others this dangerously anemic diet, devoid of the solid meat needed for sustenance and growth, is a source of despair.
Some are driven from church entirely, some learn to survive on the starvation diet, and still others look to unfamiliar settings for new, or even old and deserted, sources of spiritual substance.
After the rush to break free of the bonds of tradition, some are now turning back to it or discovering it anew. Trickles of young people are turning towards more traditional churches, such as Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism, seeking solid food. Ironically enough, these places have become a haven for wandering, malnourished, “denominationally-challenged” souls.
This isn’t about the theatre seats. Who knows, maybe at the pearly gates Peter will hand me a ticket guiding me to my place on level 2, row S, seat 223. But here on Earth I am considering, along with many others in a similar frame of mind, a newly coined proverb:
Better a hard wooden bench with sustenance than a comfortable theatre seat with starvation.
Originally published in Mars’ Hill Newspaper, January 2009.