Friday, October 31, 2008

Economics and Faith?

So, in response to my own comment on the about the light-duty articles about churches in the WSJ (see comment on Mystery church visitors entry below), I thought I would see if there might be a heavy-duty article about economics in The Christian Century, one of my sources for thoughtful theological insight. I found James Halteman's 10/21/08 article which is a clear description of the economic forces behind the current melt-down situation. However, given that this journal would be an appropriate outlet for theological reflection, repentance, and even possibly jeremiads, I was expecting a different ending.

Instead, his answer to his own question about where the responsibility lies for this mess was the same old finger-pointing to Wall Street greedsters, with only a teeny-tiny toss of responsibility to us, the over-consumers:

The culprits? Certainly some responsibility is borne by the eager brokers who sought easy commissions, enticing financially ill-prepared people to take on mortgage debt. Responsibility also falls on the people who took out the mortgages without working out a viable budget.

But the most disturbing element in the sequence of events behind the crisis is the behavior of the Wall Street investment banks...

I say, opportunity lost. There is a heap of responsibility for this mess on this entire country's addiction to living on credit, and especially funding it through home equity.

I would want to have ended an article about economics and housing that was going to be read by a huge section of the Christian community not by blaming wallstreeters, as usual, but to point out the mantle we wear too of greed and suggest that we might need to re-gain the will to sacrifice, and advocate sounder policy and action toward those who are not able to sup at the wealth-accumulation table. Does this financial crisis hold up a mirror so that we can re-examine the true nature of wealth disparity? What are the true questions we should ask ourselves as a Christian community? What are the true economic goals we should be seeking?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mystery Worshipper & Market Driven Churches

In a recent Wall Street Journal article Alexandra Alter documents the practice of bringing in profession "mystery worshippers" to critique a church's ministry. Here is a brief excerpt:

Mr. Harrison – a meticulous inspector who often uses the phrase "I was horrified" to register his disapproval of dust bunnies and rude congregants -- poses as a first-time churchgoer and covertly evaluates everything from the cleanliness of the bathrooms to the strength of the sermon. This summer, Mr. Harrison scoured a megachurch in Cedar Hill, Texas, and jotted down a laundry list of imperfections: a water stain on the ceiling, a "stuffy odor" in the children's area, a stray plastic bucket under the bathroom sink and a sullen greeter who failed to say good morning before the worship service. "I am a stickler for light bulbs and bathrooms," he says.

Mr. Harrison belongs to a new breed of church consultants aiming to equip pastors with modern marketing practices. Pastors say mystery worshippers like Mr. Harrison offer insight into how newcomers judge churches -- a critical measure at a time when mainline denominations continue to shed members and nearly half of American adults switch religious affiliations. In an increasingly diverse and fluid religious landscape, churches competing for souls are turning to corporate marketing strategies such as focus groups, customer-satisfaction surveys and product giveaways.

I cannot shake the belief that type of behavior is a symptom of a church body that has mixed up priorities. Still, let me try to put this in the best possible light.

We know that individual congregations can become blind to their own faults, just as individuals can. A congregation may be failing to minister to the community around them because they are the only ones to don't see these faults. In this case, it is the job of the wider church (iron sharpening iron and all that) to help these congregations come to terms with the problems that are hindering their ministry.

If we buy this, then the real complaint with this mystery worshiper phenomenon is probably one of the following:

  • These consultants focus on things that are very low priority (i.e. sidewalk cracks), in which case we should ignore their advice and find better consultants.
  • This job should not happen via the market, we should not be paying people to do this. Constructive criticism should come to the church from some other means. The way I would recommend that churches do self examination is through internal prayer and study, as well as external consultation with other churches within the same denomination/tradition (preferably one with long roots and a grounded theology).

The article includes some theological doubt:

Some theologians warn that mystery-worshipper services will drive "spiritual consumerism." Evaluating churches as if they were restaurants or hotels might encourage people to choose their church not according to its theology, but based on which one has the best lattes or day care, says Paul Metzger, professor of theology at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore. "We tend to look for religion or spirituality that will give us what we want, when we want it," Prof. Metzger says. "There's a pressure for the church to be something that the church is not."
This is something to think about.