Why is it you think up your best lines too late!? I spent some time with the good crew of Issues, Etc. yesterday talking about the Americanization of Lutheranism (say that five times fast) and we covered many good points but my best one was a late thought hours after the interview.
America is the place where the entrepreneurial spirit is the zen of our culture and life. When it comes to religion, the Church has become a marketer, the Pastor the CEO and chief spokesman, and the product, well, here is where its gets interesting. Unlike Luther's day when the Church was actively marketing forgiveness as a product that resulted in eternal life and salvation, that seems not to be the product people are interested in today. So I would suggest that today the product marketed by the Church through the entrepreneurial skills of the Pastor is spirituality. That is why sin and forgiveness, death and life, condemnation and salvation are no longer in the vocabulary of so many churches and preachers. That is why non-churchly people and places have become the sources of this spirituality (Oprah, for example). It seems to fit when you see that the commodity offered by the churches is not salvation and reconciliation with God but spirituality to complement the rich materiality of life. And it explains why you can mix Christianity, Islam, Eastern religion, meditation, etc. together to fit the taste and perspective of the person.
I wish I would have thought of how to say this about 2 pm on Monday. Revivalism (and before that Pietism) have pushed the churches into the position of marketers of a product. Revivalism retained the language and goals of sin and forgiveness, death and life, redemption and salvation -- even if the emphasis was shifted from the concrete of the cross and empty tomb to the less secure footing of feelings, repentance, behavior and works (evidence of repentance). Pietism was certainly concerned about these but the focus on the personal relationship and spiritual experience provided the impetus for much of what we experience today in America's religious marketplace.
Clearly the product is no longer salvation but spirituality. The Church may have been seen as the pretty much exclusive source of salvation but not so of spirituality. Here the Church competes with other religions, with pop psychology, with self-help gurus, and with a goal somewhat fuzzier than the more black and white language of sin and redemption. That is why so many within Protestantism have abandoned their roots to embrace this modern quest for a rich spirituality. To their credit, they know that spirituality is nothing without God. But they have given up too much in the attempt to be credible in this religious marketplace. The specifics and distinctives of the Christian Gospel have been sacrificed for a more personally defined spirituality that is definitely focused on enriching this mortal and material life (a kind of sacred balance with self, spirit, world, nature, etc.).
That is why funerals have become a celebration of the person's life instead of the confrontation of death. Solace comes not from the redemption of Christ that bestows forgiveness to the sinner and life to the one claimed by death. No, it comes from the quality and richness of the person's life. Even if that life is short, it is consoling to note that they packed a whole lot of living into a short life. And if long, it is comforting to know that throughout their many years they lived fully, independently, and on the edge (for as long as they were able). Death comes mercifully to those whose life was so full until age and fragility stole from them the life they knew.
That is why what happens on Sunday morning is about me, about me getting in touch with the spiritual me, capitalizing on the resources of my spirit to improve my material and mortal life, and achieve the spiritual nirvana of a life equally filled with material goods, earthly success, family enjoyment, personal accomplishment, heath and good looks, and rich and broad experiences. This is the stuff at which Joel Osteen is so very, very good. The Bible works as a resource manual and guide book to help me achieve my goals with wisdom and encouragement for the process.
As long as the focus is on spirituality and not on salvation, it may seem that the Church true to the Scriptures and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is irrelevant. But this is only short term. Life in this sinful world soon shows its ugly and painful side. Then, when the house comes crashing down, the Church must be there with the one healing balm that heals, forgives, and restores. Eventually the shine wears off this spirituality thing and people begin searching for substance and truth. Then, when the mile wide and inch deep spirituality wears as thin as it is, the Church must be there with the truth that is forever the same, the changeless Christ for a changing world, to build substance and security for those left high and dry by their mass produced spirituality. When responsibility makes it clear that not all the answers are the same and you bear the burden of a spouse or a child, when reality breaks through this spiritual house of cards and you realize that desire and good are not the same, then the Church must be there to offer the real power of the Gospel to do what the image of spirituality cannot. When materialism and mortality confess their limits to bring happiness, meaning, and purpose to a life that had been content with momentary pleasures, the Church must be there with the Mystery of the Presence, with the Word that does what it says, and with the intersection of time and eternity in the Mass.
These are some of the things I wish I would have thought to say yesterday... ah, maybe another time...