Friday, January 2, 2009

The Denominational Marketplace

This month's Christianity Today contains a provocative article entitled Jesus Is Not A Brand (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, p.20, Jan. 2009).  In it, the author analyzes the conflation of evangelism with sales marketing.  He states:
The de-churched nature of our theology makes evangelism hard to do without seeming salesy, because churchless evangelism unavoidably promotes a consumerist soteriology.  When it's just you and Jesus, you (the consumer) "invite him" (the product) "into your heart" (brand adoption) and "get saved" (consumer gratification).
Id. at p.22.

While distinct from the main focus of Wigg-Stevenson's discussion, his painting of religious decisions in the light of the American consumerist mentality provides insight into the denominational marketplace as well. The reactions I have received from fellow Reformed Christians to Catholicism's arguments are understandable when viewed through the consumerist lens: "I would agree with them if it weren't for their adoption of doctrine X," or "I just can't stomach the Catholic culture."

The presumption in these conversations seems to be that I was dissatisfied with my present ecclesial selection, so I returned to the denominational marketplace to see if I could find a better fit.  We happen to live in an era where many can be 'choosers.'  As choosers, we approach the ecclesial buffet and ponder what is the best fit for our meal tastes.  And being used to making choices catered to our particular predilections, we are (no doubt) hesitant to set our tastes to one side when choosing or re-choosing church.  

To use another analogy to describe the reactions I get when discussing Catholicism's claims, it is as if my brethren respect the reasons a minivan might meet my needs, but see that such an automobile would clearly fail to meet their own.  A van's fundamentals would be inadequate for the task at hand; it would be the wrong choice for them.  Many may even think it is the wrong choice for me (or anyone at all); my point is that they are prepared to respect some positive aspects of the minivan, even if they believe its purchase is the wrong choice from the market.

But those who have presumed that my momentum toward the Catholic Church began its course because I desired high-church over low-, unity over adherence to truth, holiness over anti-Pelagianism, or whatever other motive is attributed to my market selection, are badly mistaken.

The fallacy, I believe, is in conceptualizing the sects of Christianity as market choices of varying merit (or worse, as fungible commodities), instead of fragmented pieces of one body, badly in need of organic unity.  I am not close to leaving my present denominational market choice because of deficiencies in the choice qua choice.  The terms of that analysis are entirely wrong.  I encountered truth-claims that conflicted with my denomination's truth-claims, and which my denomination's teachings could not resolve (viz., the post hoc answering of the Canon Question, and the absence of authority to be a schismatic church).

There is no market choice to make.  Minivans and station wagons are both types of automobiles. They both get passengers and cargo to a destination.  Corn and rice are both types of side dishes that can nourish the body.  One of those could be a less desirable choice, a bad choice, or even a wrong choice for one, many or all people.  But if the Catholic ecclesiological view is entertained, we could view the buffet as containing one dish of real food, and other dishes that are not food at all (a few options may even be poisonous). 

My challenge in explaining the claims of Catholicism and its critiques of the Protestant Reformation is in avoiding the impression that I simply find Catholicism preferable to competing choices such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  (A conclusion with which they can simply and readily disagree.)  Rather, the discussion must demonstrate that Catholicism claims itself to be without competitor, the one Church to which we are all called to be in communion.  

Like all bold assertions, this is a difficult one to make. Discussing the merits of our respective sects, and then explain away our conflicting conclusions as being the result of weighing various qualities in different ways, would make for a much more comfortable conversation.  But the language of market choosing misconstrues our burden to seek unity.


Principium Unitatis said...

Hello Tom,

I think you have hit the nail right on the head. What you are describing is precisely what my wife and I experienced when we told our friends and relatives that we were becoming Catholic. Almost everyone we told treated our decision as one that was made for consumeristic reasons. They assumed that we were operating in the consumeristic paradigm that we were leaving; it seemed to be the only paradigm they knew. The very concept of "the true Church that Christ founded" is not to be found in that paradigm. They assumed that we must have been "dissatisfied" (either with the preaching, or the doctrine or the fellowship, etc.) in the tradition/community that we were leaving. So we received comments like, "I'm glad you found something you like", or "I'm glad you found something that suits you". I found myself thinking and [sometimes] saying in reply, "You don't understand; it isn't about us this time. This is different. This time, it is about finding and joining the Church that Christ founded, regardless of how satisfying and pleasing it is to us."

I think the quotation you cite at the beginning of your post (from the CT article) is exactly right insofar as it ties such consumerism to ecclesiology: denominational consumerism is incompatible with the notion that Christ founded a visible Church. But such consumerism (which is intrinsically narcissistic and individualistic, as I have discussed here and here), is intrinsic to a conception of the Church per se as invisible.

By the way, I'm glad to be reading your posts again!

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Gil Garza said...

"I have another far more solid and central ground for submitting to it [ie, Christianity], instead of merely picking up hints from it as a scheme. And that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one. It not only certainly taught me yesterday, but will almost certainly teach me to-morrow. [...] Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more."

Gilbert K. Chesterton, "Orthodoxy," Ch 9, pg 154.

"This is the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Savior, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter's pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it, and which he raised up for all ages as the "pillar and mainstay of the truth." This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity." Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, "Lumen Gentium," Vatican II, #8.

As Jesus made exclusive and universal claims about himself that must either be accepted or he must be rejected in toto, the Catholic Church makes exclusive and universal claims about herself that also must either be accepted or she must be rejected in toto.

Thos said...

Dear Bryan,

It is good to hear from you here, and reassuring to learn that you have had similar experiences. I'm not way off-base, or approaching these conversations in a way that front-loads the problem.

I had written a paragraph that didn't fit (so I removed it) in which I discussed my view that consumerism is not unique to modern American capitalism. Rather (I opine) it is part of human nature, and appears in society that allows citizens to be choosers. That was something I thought the C.T. article left out.

In that light, I think an upper-class 16th century Dutch Reformed man might be similarly puzzled if a friend or relative converted.

It must have been hard for you, having switched denominations several times. You would have gotten the 'I hope this time you find happiness' routine. I've only made the acceptable CRC to PCA move, so have not had that.

I look forward to the day when you are able to return to you ministry at Principium Unitatis. (But understand that you are setting your priorities straight.) It has had a profound impact on me.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


I agree, and thank you for the G.K. quote -- he always makes for good reading. But how do you get that (i.e., that the Catholic Church must be accepted or rejected in toto) across in a conversation with Protestants without appearing...bombastic?

Peace in Christ,

Gil Garza said...

The claims of the Catholic Church are extraordinary and extravagant. They demand serious attention because they are so singular and out of the ordinary.

That someone would be amazed at the audacity of these claims means that he understands, which is a good thing.

Any institution that makes claims such as these is either mad, demonic or true.

An ordinary church, as an ordinary man, may be taken for granted or not taken at all without a thought. This should never be the case either for Jesus or the Church He founded.

Jason Stellman said...

Hi Tom,

Glad to see you blogging again, we miss you over at DRD.

From the perspective of this PCA pastor, the claims of the CC are indeed remarkable. Until six months ago I had always just assumed that Catholics were Catholics because they found the arguments more convincing, it had never entered my mind that they thought their church was in fact the one founded by Jesus.

When you think about it, it is very much like Lewis's liar/lunatic/lord argument. You have to deal with the claims being made, you can't just ignore them.

Gil Garza said...

Israel Zolli, former Chief Rabbi of Rome during the Shoah, wrote of his conversion in 1945: "The Catholic Church loves all souls. She suffers with all and for all; her children are all men. Wisdom in the Proverbs of Solomon, invites all to her table. The Church, through her visible Head, offers her love and truth and freedom to all. 'You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free' (Jn 8:32). Jesus Christ spoke of Himself as the 'door'; and, again He said: 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock' (Rev 2:20). The Vicar of Christ wants all men to be within the sphere of human and divine charity" Before the Dawn, pg 193-4.

Canadian said...

I am sold on there being only one church, as Tom and others may already know, I have left Protestantism and am investigating both Rome and Orthodoxy. I have a sincere question about the Catholic position in her Catechism 841-848. Muslims and those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who seek God with a sincere heart moved by grace try to do God's will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience may achieve eternal salvation.
This, to continue Tom's metaphor, seems like Rome putting other plates back onto the buffet. Rome does not deny her unique identity in the world as church, but in her generosity she casts a shadow on the seriousness and validity of her exclusive claims. The only thing I can see is that those who are sincere are not deliberately rejecting Rome once she has been revealed to them (846). Many believe all infants (from any faith) who die will be saved by Christ's mercy, but it still seems tenuous to me to allow salvation through the sincerity of sinful persons. Could someone shed some light here?
Pax Christi,

Gil Garza said...


I think the principle here is simple. God won't send you to hell for not having something that you had no possibility of getting. He doesn't create souls whose only end is hell. This, to me, squares with 2 Tim 2:4, "He wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth."

What is God's instrument for salvation? Jesus Christ and His Church, "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body (846)."

Then, can God save the Pygmies who've never heard of Jesus? Yes. He is God (cf 847).

How does God save Pygmies who've never heard of Jesus? Only God knows (cf 848).

So, we can just sit back and relax because God will try to save everybody and doesn't need us to do it, right? No, that would make us lazy. "The Church has the obligation and the 'sacred right' to evangelize all men (848)."

I'm fond of this: "To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son's Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation (845)."

Canadian said...

Thanks for that. I understand God's freedom and mercy as principles, and appreciate that here. However, the catechism seems to imply that if, for example, I decided to knowingly reject Rome and flee back to anti-Catholic Protestantism (though devout and sincere) I may not receive the salvation that a sincere Muslim with anti-Christian but "Abrahamic faith" may receive. It seems that this makes the church to be nearly as invisible as it is in Protestantism, when push comes to shove. I am not trying to ask anyone to tell me what God can or cannot do, just sharing some confusing musings.
Pax Christi,

Gil Garza said...

The Catechism in the paragraph 846 references the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 14. I find that reading through the referenced sections of the Catechism helps to shed more light on the necessary brevity of the CCC.

"Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but "in body" not "in heart." All children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged. See Lk 12:48; Mt 5:19-20; 7:21-22; 25:41-46; James 2:14.

Thos said...


You are touching on a point that has long been of concern to me -- the seeming semi-Universalism of the Catholic Church. A recent RCIA instructor, while covering the sacrament of baptism, described how those who do not know about the Church can be saved sans baptism so long as they 'live good lives.' This grates in my ears, and seems contrary to the language of the Church Fathers.

But Gil reminds us from L.G.: "Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved."

The pigmy must live in charity. I have heard tale (hearsay) of tribal people who encounter missionaries and say 'we always knew we needed this forgiveness, but did not know where to find it.' If true, it is easy to see how God might choose to save them -- they could be penitent and attempt to abide by the commandments which are written on their hearts.

This puts me in familiar territory -- the formal teaching of the Church seems like something I can cling to, while the lived expression by [some] faithful seems to be frustrating and disappointing.

Peace in Christ,

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's the problem with any church, too full of imperfect human beings.

Rene'e said...

“the formal teaching of the Church seems like something I can cling to, while the lived expression by [some] faithful seems to be frustrating and disappointing”


This is human nature to make judgments of one based upon the actions of individuals.
Parents are judged as being “good” or “bad” based upon their children’s behavior.
Nations are judged as being “good” or “bad” based upon their cultures or government leaders, and decisions.
Christianity as a whole is judged by non-Christians by the behavior and actions of Christians.

It does not matter if one out of their three children is who would be considered the “perfect” child, it is the other two who are less than “perfect” that the parents will be judged for.

It does not matter that individuals in a nation might not agree with all the cultural or government polices and leaders. They are judged as a whole and the assumption of the Nation is made accordingly.

The message and purpose of Christianity is so much bigger than the individual members, but will non-Christians ever know this? Especially if their judgments are based on the individuals who profess to be Christians ? Sadly, probably not.

Thos said...


Right, and the clever thing about the Catholic claim of perfection or spotlessness is that she is not to be measured by an external examination of the Joe Pewsitter, of average Catholics (whether they're being truly Catholic or not), but by her teachings on the faith and morals. Does she give us something completely trustworthy as being true toward which we aspire?

I'm glad she does not tell us to seek to be like everyone else. I'm glad the PCA does not do that either. But the aspiration is much more reliable than what the PCA can provide.

Peace in Christ,

Rene'e said...

For the longest time I thought I had to be the “perfect” Catholic at all times. I always thought people were judging the Church based upon my example. The truth is I am a work in progress. I have only returned to the Church in the last 8 years, after leaving it for 20 or so. I have made much progress in my journey, but it is not complete. I am not the “perfect” Catholic yet. But every day I ask God to give me the grace to one day be who he wants me to be. That is all I am able to do, because there are many imperfections that I have, that I myself am not aware of, though others may be aware of them in me.

When I partake in the Eucharist. I do not ask for this grace or that grace. I do not know sometimes what I need, I ask Jesus to give me the graces that He knows I need at that moment . I am always surprised by what I receive.

I have turned my life over to God 8 years ago, and placed myself in his hands. I trust He will keep leading me towards Him.
The day that I do meet Him in person, I will know that I embraced Him in my life with not my head, but with my heart entirely. I am not the person today that I was yesterday, and tomorrow I will not be the person I am today. Everyday is a struggle to overcome my will and do God’s will. I have also realized that the Catholic Church will stand with or without me, so I have stopped worrying about how others see me and view the Church based upon just little me and my personal journey, and focused my thoughts on how God sees me. The ironic thing about it all, is that it is the Church who helps me to come closer to God and focus on my eternal salvation, not how to be a “good” Catholic.

I like that. I am a work in progress…..and the Church is my guide and gate to God.