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Church As Clubhouse

I should have known Alan Jacobs would get to this NYT piece about the next wave of alt-Protestant churches before I did. He’s got some good, skeptical questions. Here’s a passage from the Times piece that jumped out at me:

The “spiritual but not religious” category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call “post-Christian.”

So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words “church” and “church service” in favor of terms like “spiritual communities” and “gatherings,” with services that do not stick to any script.

One Sunday before Easter, the pastor at the Relevant Church in Tampa, Fla., wearing a rabbit suit, whisked the unsuspecting congregation away on chartered buses to a nearby park to build enthusiasm for the coming service.

“For us, it’s all about being interactive,” said Paul Wirth, Relevant’s founder and lead pastor.

I don’t know if there’s anything that would make me take my pastor as a spiritual leader less seriously than having him dress like an Easter bunny and do a surprise roadtrip. Oh, wait.

The article talks about things certain seeker-friendly churches are doing to reach out to young people. More:

For new leaders coming out of seminary, “the cool thing is church planting,” Mr. Bird said. “The uncool thing is to go into the established church. Why that has taken over may speak to the entrepreneurialism and innovation that today’s generation represents.”

He sees spiritual entrepreneurialism and innovation, I see chronic restlessness and a generation that believes church (and life?) should be entertainment. I could be wrong about this, but it seems that pastors like this, and the people they attract, are going to spend the rest of their lives moving to the Next Big Thing that will give them an emotional jolt. Whatever churchy trend seems relevant to them today will be a dated embarrassment to their children.

The great thing about being bound by a liturgy that’s extremely resistant to change, as we Orthodox are, is you don’t feel compelled to change it to suit you; rather, it changes you, at least if you’re properly disposed.

On the other hand, I think these nouveau Protestant guys are onto something with their ideas of church coffee shops and other community-center activities. In medieval times, the church was not only the place for liturgy, but was also a community center of sorts. In Chartres, for example, the great cathedral was in those days a community gathering place; merchants even sold goods inside the church when liturgies weren’t going on. That may have been pushing it too far, but as a general matter, I think it’s not a bad thing at all when a community makes the church a center of its common life, and not just during worship.

I’m curious to hear from readers who attend the sorts of churches mentioned in the Times article. Help me see the good here. The story holds up the National Community Church in Washington, DC, as a success story — but notes that it loses 40 percent of its congregation each year. How can a congregation with a churn rate like that possibly be considered a spiritual success? I don’t get it. Seriously, I’m not asking this in a snarky way. I really don’t understand.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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