Why do we give ourselves permission to condemn those with whom we disagree?
Why do we take so much glee in putting down those who are in another camp?
Why do we so relish being judgmental?
Growing up in and eventually leaving fundamentalist churches that were known for being judgmental has left me asking these kinds of questions. But it's not just common in fundamentalist churches. It's common everywhere.
And I've begun to think that part of the problem is the ethos of American Christianity. There is something about the way we do church that helps to foster a culture of condemnation. I think part of it is the fierce independence that is ingrained in us as Americans. I also think that part of it is American consumerism.
Consumerism in the American Church
The American church is plagued by consumerism. The myriad options before us and the messages told to us by commercials and advertisements have convinced us that we can have anything we want, any way we want, any time we want. We are not just consumers of cola and clothes and cars, but also of church.
I am fairly brand loyal in some of my shopping. I will always choose Coke over Pepsi, a pair of Nikes over a pair of Reeboks, and a Mac over a PC. If asked, I’d probably disparage Pepsi as tasting nasty, Reeboks as being cheaply made, and PCs as being unstable and unreliable. Ultimately, these are just my opinions about these products and no one is really harmed when I express my sentiments. Likewise, I tend to have lots of opinions about music, movies, and television shows. I love U2, Hugh Grant, and Mad Men. But does that make other musicians or actors any less talented or interesting? Not really. I am simply a consumer in the marketplace, making decisions about the products of these companies and the works produced by these artists. In the marketplace, I have every right to spend my money, time, and energy in the way I see fit. In the marketplace, the consumer is king.
But theology is not a product, and church is not a marketplace. Pastors and theologians are not celebrities. Sadly, the Christian media industry has changed this. I can compare and rank the books of Max Lucado and Rob Bell like I would the movies of Brad Pitt and George Clooney. It feels natural to criticize a church service like I would a TV show. And most dangerously, when there is an author with whom I disagree, I can discount, not just her writings, but also her character, ministry, and even her standing before God. Consumerism makes me the final arbiter of what is good and acceptable. And it fosters within me a critical and contentious spirit of those with whom I may disagree.
Independence and consumerism might produce big ratings, big book sales, and big congregations. But they also can produce a big problem – church cultures in which people believe that they can act and think and speak like independent consumers. The customer is always right, and if the customer wants to think and say something critical and condemning of someone else, who is going to stop him?
What do you think contributes most to church cultures of condemnation?