For those of you who are part of the migration of believers out of the institutional church, you are likely seeing a tremendous shift in the operation of your personal relationships. Friends who were at your side every Sunday drop off your scope. What you thought were strong long-term relationships seem to evaporate. The Spirit gave me a picture recently of what is happening to us.
I was reminded of shopping for vegetables in the supermarket. There, I simply rolled my cart down the aisle and selected whatever cans suited my taste. They were all labeled and displayed for my convenience. I did not concern myself with where the food came from, who grew it, who picked it, or what chemicals and processes were involved. It was easy for me to get food in this way, as I did not have to do much except bring my checkbook. Others in the background assembled the cans on the shelves, kept the lights on, and kept store hours that fit my schedule.
The only problem was the quality of the food in the cans. The nutritional value was almost nil. I sometimes found a can which declared that it had been “fortified” with vitamins, but that only underscored the reality of the empty calories to which I had grown accustomed. I could not judge this by the cans, however. I could only look at the labels and make my selections based on the external appearance.
When asked where I got my groceries, I would say things like, “I go to Albertson’s”, or “ I normally go to Kroger, but I go to Safeway when they have specials.” Nobody asked me what I bought, because the products are essentially similar no matter where you go. I just used the store I liked best, or the most convenient place to pick up what I needed.
Thus it has been with our church relationships. We regularly go to a building built for our shopping pleasure. Organizations build and remodel and design their operations to get me to shop with them. Everyone in the neighborhood tries out the new outfit with the fancy brickwork and the espresso bar and the attractive circular in the newspaper. These organizations pique our interest with massive advertising, and spend much of their effort trying to woo customers who normally frequent other establishments. The goal is simple: to bring in as many consumers and as much revenue as possible.
It is so convenient for us. We drop off our children at their managed department, getting a receipt so we can pick them up later. We cruise that building, picking out people we want to connect with, generally based on our personal preferences and outward appearances. We get with the “youth group” or the “ladies group” or the “people-too-old-to-be-in-college-but-not-yet-married-with-children group”. We sign up to rub elbows with folks who have things in common with us: the “Single Again” folks, or the weekly “Lose Weight for Jesus” support group.
We have become religious consumers. And as such, we are prey to every marketing ploy, every free offer, and every bait-and-switch tactic known to those who are selling what we buy. But it is only the darkness of our own hearts that makes such schemes effective. After all, we have proven that we are eager for the convenience of one-stop God-shopping, easily conditioned to the weekly shopping trip, satisfied with the quality of what we are sold. To criticize those who give us what we want is to ignore the beam in our own eye.
But what of those who have become disenchanted and have abandoned the spiritual supermarket? While I applaud their action, my experience tells me that they often begin to get hungry. And the reasons are not hard to see.
First, one cannot eat the fact that he no longer has religious canned goods in his pantry. Even if those canned goods had limited nutrition, simple abstention does not replace those nutrients. We must cultivate our own garden. We must find those individuals with whom God would joint us, and we must nurture and develop those relationships ourselves, without the artificial stimulus of required group meetings. We cannot leave the supermarket and expect to find canned goods along the side of the road to sustain us.
The first hard reality of this new, organic Christian lifestyle is that it requires work. Instead of dropping the can in the cart, we find ourselves on the end of a hoe in the summer sun, weeding and cultivating our relationships. This does not fit into our “busy schedules”, and it cannot be left to others when the weather gets too hot. In point of fact, any gardener can tell you that before the harvest, comes the hard work. Many believers simply do not want to do this. It is a discipline they have not yet learned. The time and effort required is much more than the hour-and-a-half-every-Sunday to which they are accustomed. As they look over their patch of struggling green beans, the enemy whispers, “Those are three cans for a dollar at the supermarket. What are you doing?” There is a powerful temptation to trade in the hoe for that familiar shopping cart.
Unfortunately, some believers who refuse to go back to the supermarket will also not accept the responsibility to cultivate their personal gardens. These become worse off than they were before, returning to consumerism (this time through books, tapes, and television) but getting even less nutrition than before. They become emaciated, having a few scattered conferences and seminars to talk about, but lacking that strong net of local personal joints through which the life of the Spirit primarily flows.
Sometimes, we trade the religious supermarket for the corner store. That is, we move from the religious institution into homes or offices, but never relinquish our consumerism. We are still consumers, but we now get our sermons delivered from a living room sofa. We still operate scheduled store hours, only they are on a weeknight instead of Sunday. We still want our “cell pastor” or “home group leader” to fill our shopping cart, generally at a discount in required time and money. We replace the ordinances of the supermarket with our own localized practices. We become “bigger fish in a smaller pond”, gaining more control over what goods the store offers us. This is “getting out of the box”, only to climb into a smaller box.
We are called to the backyard garden of personal relationships in Christ. God gives the grace to build these relationships, and provides the people for that purpose. As we learn to do this, we will focus more on meeting than meetings. More on service than services. Less on scheduled events and more on Christ-life itself. If you are standing in the hot sun in your garden, do not be weary in well-doing. You will have a harvest if you don’t get tired and quit. Keep watering and weeding.
There is a world of difference between corn-on-the-cob fresh from the garden and those aluminum cans with the green giant on the label. Anyone who has tasted the difference can tell you it is well worth the trouble to grow your own. Happy gardening!