Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tough take on state of Protestant church

Sure, the book hasn’t been on the shelves long enough to collect dust, and the supporting tour has barely begun, but G. Jeffrey MacDonald has already heard the zinger — that he’s a party-pooper, trying to drag our evolved and comfortable, if not especially challenging, modern-day spirituality back to the bad old days of, if not fire and brimstone, than at least a little sacrifice and challenge, making the whole soul-saving business feel a little like, well, work. Which nobody wants in a service economy. Which, by definition, should be serving us, not making our lives difficult, but which the author, in true party-pooper fashion, says we probably secretly crave. Or should. MacDonald, former pastor of Union Congregational Church in Amesbury and national religion writer, laughs at the characterization and fesses up to the party-pooper charge, sort of. “I can see how some people might say that,” he says.

MacDonald, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Religion News Service, is not especially surprised by the reaction. He says he expected there would be some “blowback” from “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul,” a tough tract that argues that the Protestant church is falling down on the job, that, by caving in to pressure to fill the pews, it is responsible for an easy-going, feel-good orthodoxy — or, as the author would have it, a “warm, welcoming, happy-clappy spirituality” dictated by market forces, not religious theory or necessity.
So what’s all the fuss about, then? Not what you might expect. You’ve got the usual suspects and vices: Sex and drugs and rock and roll. Divorce, cheating, porn are thriving not only among the heathens who desperately need to be saved, but also in the Christian community. A bad thing, but not the focal point of “Thieves.” MacDonald, who will speak this April 9 at Jabberwocky and a couple of weeks later in a moderated discussion during the Newburyport Literary Festival, says the church, in an attempt keep the pews filled, has all but abandoned what is the backbone of the religion; that churches are pandering to the flock, no longer challenging people to be better, that church leaders are no longer beacons of the faith, but companions for the journey, that important church rituals — like baptism and Lent — have been watered down to the point that they are, if not exactly meaningless, then at least not challenging, not edifying — like the old joke about the Unitarians, who usually have enough of a sense of humor to take it, being the “Church of the 10 Suggestions.” The backbone of the church, he writes, the ability to shape people, is being jettisoned as pressures grow to deliver ever “more pleasing religious experiences,” abandoning the “unique authority” it has long enjoyed, an authority that once allowed the church “to push back against the tide, to challenge the conventional wisdom.”

No, he’s not a party-pooper, not advocating a “dour, humorless spirituality,” he says, “but ....” But what? “But if everyone panders,” he asks, “who will elevate?”

Effortless salvation
MacDonald argues that churches, in their competition for souls to save and, to get that job done, are essentially handing out deck chairs and passing out pitchers of pina coladas — if not exactly dumbing down the faith, then doing their best to make spiritual demands seem, well, not so demanding. Problem is that we’ve gotten kind of soft over the past couple of decades of pandering — and that it’s going to take a lot more than rearranging the deck chairs. Worse, buyers rule in the religious marketplace. Make too many demands, they’ll tune you out or, worse, move on. And, increasingly, that’s what they’re doing. The number of people switching religious affiliations is a staggering 44 percent — and they’re apparently shopping around, not just for hot-button religious reasons, like abortion and gay marriage, but because it scratches some other societal itch, for an increasingly self-absorbed laity and church hierarchy desperate for love, and willing to provide a “pleasant religious experience.” And woe to those who do not heed the demands of the busy modern-day religion consumer, because he’ll just pack it up and go elsewhere.

The book focuses on so-called mega-churches with congregations in the thousands, churches that feel like malls, with Starbucks, Subways, cafes, bookstores. more prevalent in the Midwest and South than here, churches that combine old-time religion, old-school hucksterism and modern advertising. But the pretty-as-a picture white churches with picket fences on New England village greens are not exempt.

All this comes at a time when, according to polls, a super-majority of sinners believe the church’s authority is waning and even more say — or tell pollsters, anyhow — they want it to have a bigger role in their lives. So the good news, so to speak, in this is that since religion has taking a pro-consumer stand, all it would take to get the flock back on track is if people demand something better, something more meaningful and fulfilling. Do they mean it, or are people just telling pollsters what they think they’re supposed to say? Are both the spirit and the flesh willing to do what needs to be done? Is the will really there? ”I hope it’s in there, I think it’s there,” he says. “ We need the church to do its job ... If they demand it, they’ll get it.”

The view from here
MacDonald grew up in Marblehead. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Yale University and Bachelor of Arts in American history from Brown University. He’s an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He landed in Newburyport about a decade ago, just about the same time as he began writing about religion, after taking a post with Union Congregational Church. He continued to do journalism by day and religion on nights and weekends over the next four years. The freelance work kept growing, the demands of his ministry did not lessen, and “something had to give,” he says. He still keeps the collar, filling in for vacationing ministers, officiating at weddings, funerals — even stepping up to the pulpit from time to time. (He’ll be leading services at 10 a.m. April 11 at First Parish Congregational Church in Manchester-by-the-Sea). While at Union Congregational, he received religion journalism’s top award, the Templeton Reporter of the Year prize from the Religion Newswriters Association. He’s also been honored by the American Academy of Religion for in-depth reporting on religion. The journalism/religion career convergence represented “the big picture idea of what I wanted to do,” says MacDonald. “The ministry informs my writing. I’m still balancing the two. I still do both, not at the same time. It’s two sides of the same coin. In both, you’re seeking truth. In journalism, listen carefully and verify what you’ve learned. In religion, the questions are bigger — who we are, why we’re here, who created us. But it’s still about speaking the truth.” He started thinking about writing this book six or seven years ago, as the trends began to emerge in his work as a journalist — 800 to 1,000 words at a time.

His years at Union Congregational are instructive. MacDonald, who served from 2000 to 2004, was, essentially, grabbed up by a former corporate headhunter who was living in the area and used “all of his corporate tricks” to make a big impression, to seduce him, distracting him from the fact that the modest building with the peeling paint, without an office for the minister, would be his home — and that few if any from his congregation ever lived in the happy-shiny glitz of riverfront Amesbury. After taking the job, he discovered that his flock wasn’t especially eager to do the kind of heavy spiritual lifting that MacDonald sought for them. (“There was some resistance there,” he says, “it’s true.”) But, on the other hand, the church did have a feedback committee to let him know what they were looking for: shorter sermons, anecdotes and lots of humor, so folks could get out of there at a decent hour — and, he writes, “leave with the glow that comes from knowing God loves them just the way they are.” The interview was to see if MacDonald was a “fit” with the unique culture of the church. He says he felt like he was trying out for poster boy for the congregation.

A way home
In the end, “the message is still about grace,” he says. “We are saved by the grace of God, not by the work we’ve done along the way.” But there’s so much more that could be done if people could get past the happy-clappy, religiously flavored experience. There’s a real hunger for deeper spirituality, he says. There are tons of books exploring spirituality, and people are eating them up.

Give them a chance, he believes, and people will come around. He points out so-called “green” cars, whether it’s so owners can look down their noses at people who can’t afford to “save the planet,” or because they actually think this will save the planet. It’s one of the fastest-growing niches in business. Same goes for “socially responsible investing,” once thought fringie and a model that was once considered a joke. “In religion, it’s actually a better fit. People always want to lead the good life, they want to live in a way they feel proud of ... it’s right there for the taking,” MacDonald says. But nothing’s going to change until there’s “a bit of a shift” in the current mindset, until someone raises the issues and risks being called a party-pooper.

“People would like to believe things are rosier than they are,” he says. “It’s an important topic, the state of the church today.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: G. Jeffrey MacDonald will read from “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul,” at 7 p.m. April 9 at Jabberwocky Bookshop, 50 Water St., in the Tannery. The Port author will also discuss the issues raised in the book during a talk, in dialogue format, at 2:30 p.m. April 24 at First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist, 26 Pleasant St., as part of this year’s Newburyport Literary Festival. For more information about the Jabberwocky date, call 978-465-9359. For information about the lit-fest, log onto

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