I spent an hour in a Christian bookstore yesterday. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, and it was an eye-opening experience. Not only has it been a long time since I’ve been in a Christian bookstore, it’s the first time my reason for being in one was to check out potential “resources” for people in a church where I am a pastor (still feels a little odd to say that…).
What I discovered during my brief visit to the Christian bookstore is that there are a lot of people who have discovered a lot of ground-breaking, revolutionary, life-changing techniques which will help the people I am called to serve have a lot of wonderful experiences with Jesus in the ongoing project of removing obstacles on the path to self-discovery and unleashing their inner potential. After about forty-five minutes of this—with an apparently angry young man snarling over a din of electric guitars about how he was “addicted to Jesus” ringing in one ear and the soothing sounds of Veggie Tales in the other—I returned to my office with much to think about.
My time at the Christian bookstore combined with a week spent combing through boxes of small-group resources that were waiting in my office when I arrived, got me thinking about such things as discipleship, pastoral care, and community-building and what relationship (if any) these things might have to the mighty machine that is the Christian publishing industry. I’m about as far from a pastoral “expert” as you might hope to find, but the idea of some marketing expert in Grand Rapids having some peculiar insight into how mature, stable, committed disciples of Christ can be encouraged and nurtured in this or that specific context seems a suspicious one to me.
I don’t doubt that the resources churned out by the mega-churches and the publishing houses can and do genuinely have some positive impact on real people’s lives in real church contexts. I don’t doubt that they do some good. One of the most valuable things I learned from one of my professors at Regent was delivered via, of all things, an exam format. We were given some statement or other that we might come across in a Christian context—”Jesus only cares about souls, not the physical world,” for example—and told to respond based on what we had learned in class. The catch was, we weren’t allowed to criticize without first affirming what could be affirmed, even if it wasn’t much. I think this is a good strategy to take in most areas of life—you try to find what is good in all things, and only then do you move on to critique. Returning to the Christian bookstore, I suppose that a desire can be discerned, amidst all of the noise, techniques, strategies, programs, and slick packaging, to help people learn to love and follow Jesus more closely, to become better human beings.
But there is much, I think, that cannot be affirmed—or at the very least, is worth a second thought. Leaving aside (for now) the rather large ethical issue of how the logic of capitalism seems to be uncritically embraced by the Christian sub-culture, there is a kind of historical arrogance in claiming that here, in the twenty-first century, we have “discovered” the latest strategy for explosive church growth, “radical” discipleship, or “Christian” self-esteem. Jesus himself was offered no shortage of techniques and programs by which to hasten the arrival of the kingdom of God; what he chose, and the example he left for us, was a life of humble service and love of God and neighbour. The pattern we see in Scripture is that disciples are produced via shared life together, walking with God and others through the peaks and valleys of life, all the while being guided and nourished by a steadfast hope in the promise and faithfulness of God.
All of this is not to say that that what is symbolized by “the Christian bookstore” and Christian discipleship stand always and only in opposition to one another, or that the resources produced by the Christian sub-culture cannot play a positive role in people’s lives. It’s just a plea for a healthy dose of skepticism. “The Christian life you’ve always wanted” is not just another book, DVD, CD away, nor is it necessarily the right thing to be after in the first place. A bit of perspective and critical distance from the religious machine, not to mention greater attention to the pattern of discipleship found in Scripture are, I think, some of the most valuable resources at our disposal (and they don’t cost a thing).