Thieves in the Temple
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When true to its mission of saving souls, the Church helps new desires take root and give rise to new determination – that is, to a changed will or “heart.” Whatever else churches do, from running soup kitchens to lobbying for public policies, the source must be the soul-saving process of coming to love God and neighbor more than self. When internal dynamics for transforming desires get undermined, asis happening in the new religious marketplace, the Church abdicates its mission and becomes no different from any other customer-pleasing business.

If the Church fails to instill lofty values in Christians, there is no other institution on the American cultural landscape to fill the gap. Public schools, along with many of the country’s most prestigious private ones, have nothing to say about what students ought to want for themselves, their families or their communities. These schools try to equip students to reach their goals, but most dare not suggest what those goals should be. By a similar token, the mainstream media don’t strive to foster virtue among their audiences. Local news shows are too busy generating fear of strangers and whipping up consumer appetites for new gadgets to worry about how they’re impacting moral character for the worse.Cultural institutions such as museums hope to edify their clientele with stimulating exhibits, but they don’t actively engage people in bids to make them, say, less materialistic or more patient. In the most important project of all – that is, stretching individuals to care deeply about highest things – the Church is on its own. If the Church becomes unable to do that job, then America’s landscape will lose the influence most responsible for shaping good people from one generation to the next.

The Church’s present crisis reflects the sole circumstance in scripture where Jesus shows anger. He’s just arrived in Jerusalem,where crowds hail Him as a prophet, and finds the holy city’s temple area has literally become a marketplace. Money changers have set up shop. Customers come to trade. Each group uses the temple as a place to satisfy their earthly desires, rather than a place to surrender one’s heart to God for reformation.

Aghast to see sacred space co-opted for personal gain, Jesus explodes. He flips seats and overturns the moneychangers’ tables. One can imagine the traders’ rage at having their coins thrown asunder and mixed in with their competitors’. Chief priests and scribes, who’d permitted the marketplace to flourish, would become indignant at His nerve. But Jesus stands his ground. He invokes the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah, prophets who had little patience for those who willfully violated the commandments and then sought refuge in the temple: “It is written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13).

As in Jesus’ time,buyers and sellers in today’s religious marketplace bear mutual culpability for betraying the Church’s mission—any business transaction needs at least two parties. Both pastors and congregants have earned the moniker of “thieves”,since they effectively steal from God by leading His institution and His people astray. Still, it’s worth remembering that even Jesus’ angriest moment leads not to destruction but to restoration. As soon as he’s said his piece, the blind and lame come to him in the temple and are healed. My hope is for a similar type of restoration to flow from this examination of mission drift in today’s Church.

Although critiques levied in this book might apply to more than one religious tradition, I’ve focused primarily on American Protestantism for practical reasons. The probe would be too diffuse if I were to attempt an analysis of the entire religious landscape. I also know Protestantism from the inside, and this gives me insight that I wouldn’t have in a more broadly framed inquiry. On its own merits,Protestantism is arguably the best laboratory in which to consider the effects of market-driven religion. Protestant churches are especially sensitive to market forces as a function of their relatively decentralized structures,empowered laity and traditions of trying to adapt to the cultures around them. The Protestant panorama also merits a close look because it’s still America’s largest religious tradition with more than 100 million adherents.If American Protestantism loses its power to elevate souls, then a primary source of moral leadership in the nation and the world will be lost as well.The sheer size of American Protestantism makes a sea change in its character-shaping dynamics important for Americans of all religious and non-religious backgrounds to understand.

Also for practical reasons, I use the term “the Church” to refer to the established institution in its many forms. I’m not talking about a building. In referring to the institution, the term points to the repository of resources that exists in many forms (professional staff, gathered volunteers, programs and so on) to advance God’s soul-saving mission. I realize this use of the term could potentially generate confusion among some readers who might insist “the Church” be understood in its pure sense - not as an institution or a building but as a reference to the community of believers. I only ask that purists bear with meas I use “the Church” in this less-than-pure sense in order to distinguish the institution from its clientele.

At stake in the new religious marketplace is whether Americans find in the Church a Way to highest things or a fruitless exercise in self-indulgence. For me, no issue is more important than this one. I savor the idea of the Church community as a distinct people, called by the Holy Spirit to be followers of Jesus, to live counter-culturally, to bear witness, make sacrifices and change the world for the better as agents of God’s love. I can’t stand to see the Church reduced to an instrument for stroking worshipers’ egos and reinforcing destructive habits of the heart.

When I think about the future of the Church, II think of my young nieces and the two young boys I plan to adopt. They need the Church, every bit as much as I did, to help them see the purpose of life beyond accumulating possessions, collecting accolades from admirers and having a good time. Their lives can be rich in meaning, purpose and satisfaction if the Church teaches them to care more about the well-being of their neighbor than they do about their own natural impulses to feel dominant, maximally safe and evermore comfortable. They along with the rest of us need a wisdom that’s not learned by simply observing nature, where strong species devour weak ones,or by reading inspirational literature or even scripture, since we’re all prone to hear only what we want to hear. America needs the Church to be the elevating influence that God intended for it to be. Our job, however tough, is to make that happen, even in the age of the new religious marketplace.

Copyright © 2010 by Basic Books