Consumerism and Ecclesial Relativism

March, 2007


In Evangelical culture it is now entirely normal and even expected to engage in what has come to be called church-shopping. One visits various churches and determines which best suits what one is looking for. One might consider the kind of community they offer, the child care, the quality of the preaching and music, the driving distance, the opportunities for one to contribute with one's own talents, whether they have home groups, etc. One weighs all the various factors and tries to decide which church best matches what one (and one's family) are looking for.


I want to point out an unconscious assumption that underlies this practice. This practice presumes that none of the churches is the true Church. If one of the churches is the true Church, and the others are mere imitations (to some degree or other), then none of those other features (e.g. quality of preaching, music, child care, etc.) is relevant in determining where to be on Sunday morning. Only if there is no true Church do the other features become criteria. In short, only if there is no true Church does "church-shopping" become an option. Even the quest to find the true Church is entirely distinct from "church-shopping", because the criteria identifying the true Church are not the criteria examined when one engages in "church-shopping". The former are historical, substantial, theological, objective, and ecclesiological; the latter are practical, unsubstantial, experiential, individualistic, and subjective.


So the person engaged in "church-shopping" has adopted the relativistic assumption that there is no true Church, and therefore that one should simply find the church that best fits his own personal needs and tastes. In the proper order of inquiry, however, one can engage in church-shopping only after one has *established* that there is no true Church. But the relativism underlying the practice of church-shopping is simply assumed, never established. So the proper response to the church-shopper is to ask him why he believes that there is no true Church, or whether he has shown definitively that there is no true Church.


Church-shoppers treat Catholics as if Catholics are church-shoppers, as if the Catholic is a Catholic only because the Catholic finds the Catholic Church most satisfying to his personal needs and tastes, and not because the Catholic believes the Catholic Church to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ. The church-shopper is not trying to be rude or offensive; he simply has no concept of "the true Church". When the church-shopper discovers in dialogue that the Catholic is a Catholic, the church-shopper typically responds with sentences filled with the words 'you' and 'I'. "Oh, that's great for you. I'm glad you found a place that you like. I went to a Catholic service once, and it just wasn't my style." At that point in the conversation the Catholic is thinking, "Place that I like? Huh? That has nothing to do with why I am a Catholic. Wasn't your style? Huh? That has nothing to do with whether the Catholic Church is the one true Church that Christ founded." The two persons are in entirely different conceptual worlds.


At that point in the conversation, the Catholic can either point out the conceptual chasm between the church-shopper and himself, or he can just nod and go on. The latter option is so much easier, because showing the church-shopper the conceptual chasm usually takes much more than a casual conversation; it requires a paradigm shift. And a simple comment like "No, I am a Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church is the one true Church that Christ founded" will come across as arrogant to the church-shopper, as truth claims in general come across to relativists. But we have an obligation for the sake of the Truth to help the relativists out of their error. The Church is not a commodity, nor a man-made artifact suited to the various tastes of men, nor made to order for us. The Church is a divine institution given to us by Christ; it is the mystical Body of Christ Himself. The Church calls us to conform to it, not the other way around. As I wrote elsewhere:


"One final thought. One comes to the Church just as one comes to the Apostles, and just as one comes to Christ. Not with lists of requirements and demands that must be met before one will enter and submit. That approach reminds us of some of the 'ghosts' in Lewis's The Great Divorce. Whatever it is that must conform to one's own judgments before one will submit to it, is something man-made, something beneath and below us. The Church is not only made by God, but more importantly, she is joined to God as His mystical body. She is divine. And for that reason one should expect to find that some of her teachings and practices do not align with one's own opinions regarding what the Church should be like. One should expect to have to conform oneself to her, not the other way around."