The idea of “winning” and “losing” prevails in our culture. No one likes to come in second thus we are all conditioned to win. In fact, we now have a culture that seeks to promote winning while at the same time we are seeking to compensate for all those who are not first so they will not be damaged psychologically. Ask any teacher about grades and students and you will understand what I mean.
But my point today is rather simple and obvious. We live in a culture that is marked by patterns of belonging that are shaped by the spirit of voluntary association. Because of this freedom we can belong to and leave groups, organizations, associations and communities any time we desire. We can even opt out of families if we desire. (Some will legally change their name, as NBA player Ron Artest, whose new name come August will be Metta World Peace!)
These cultural patterns of belonging are reinforced by a prevailing individualism and complemented by a consumerist orientation. One could say that consumerism and competition are two of the most important values in our society.
When belonging is based on individual free choice, in a context such as our own, groups find themselves competing for allegiance, loyalty and potential members. This is why fraternities and sororities have a “rush” week. And this is why the military must “recruit” future servicemen and women.
For better and/or worse the church has been deeply affected by all of this. Church life is even shaped by this as much as by anything else in our lives. In Western Europe the state church is markedly different. (I prefer our system for a number of reasons!) In Greece and Russia Orthodoxy is wrapped up in nationalism and culture in a very significant way. In Africa, Asia and the Pacific family, tribe and community all have a significant say in one’s religious expression.
We need to be honest about this. Personal choice and freedom is a great strength to American religion. Vitality is required or people will fall away. This is precisely what is happening right now as perhaps never before in American life.
But this way of doing things has some negatives that are readily apparent if you consider them. Serious misunderstanding and distortion of the faith have resulted from the American context. I think the most important loss is the unity of the church. Most American leaders have not thought deeply about this issue because it doesn’t fit well with recruiting new members for their church. Church shopping is a prominent feature of American Christianity and pastors and churches promote this response in a myriad of ways. Some of these are subtle. Others are more obvious.
If personal choice is the primary factor in church membership then it is not hard to see why American churches — particularly Protestant churches, though not exclusively so – are so rigidly divided along lines of race, class and ethnicity, not to mention denominational differences.
The rather crude analogy of the marketplace is not commonly applied to how we think about what our church does but it hangs there 24/7. This makes it terribly difficult for Americans to see the need for missional-ecumenism. The problem, in this context, is not theology but culture and emotion rooted in culture.