An Ecclesiology of Disenchantment: Hearing the Bad Christian Podcast Critique of the Church
Towards the end of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s life, he became disenchanted by all the hypocrisy he saw in the Danish state church. Apparently it got to the point where, instead of attending Mass on Sundays, he would sit outside at a cafe across the street from his parish and read the newspaper so that everyone walking to church could see him. This story, whether apocryphal or real, resonates with many of us who were raised in the world of American Evangelicalism: many of us can probably relate to how Kierkegaard felt. From high school until the first half of my undergraduate career, I found myself frequently frustrated with Christian institutions. It was only because of voices like Don Miller and Rob Bell that I even continued taking faith seriously. As a result, I probably would have identified as an “emerging” Christian. Since then, my faith has evolved quite a bit. I am now an Anglo-Catholic priest who teaches at a classical Christian school. Yet my current position is only possible because I went through a period of serious deconstructionism where everything was up for question.
I began listening to the Bad Christian Podcast when it was first released. The show is hosted by Matt Carter and Toby Morrell of the band Emery and their friend, pastor Joey Svendsen. I have listened to the show fairly regularly since its inception and have even been on Joey’s podcast, Pastor With No Answers. Their goal is to “discuss funny, controversial, and personal stuff with guests from the music business, leaders in the Christian world, and interesting folks from well outside of the Christian world. In other words… REAL TALK.” I think they’re important voices in the Christian world because they represent a growing constituency: those disenchanted with the Church Industrial Complex and the eccentricities of Evangelicalism. As a result of this disenchantment, it has been interesting to track their theological progression from fairly moderate Evangelicals to post-modern deconstructionists.
On their most recent episode, titled “Matt’s Not Taking His Kids to Church Anymore,” the discussion clearly revealed Matt and Toby’s cynical view of the Church. This is an important episode because it contains some valid critiques of American church life. However, there are some places where further nuances may allow the conversation to become more productive. My goal is to accurately summarize the Bad Christian critique, explain what is good about it, and suggest some areas where it could be improved.
Toby’s admittedly hyperbolic thesis is, “I don’t think churches care about sharing the gospel.” Effectively, he speculates that the church’s thin veneer of gospel language is only a marketing ploy to mask their quest for brand-building and control. The concern is with money and system-building more than the salvation of souls. When churches speak about “reaching lost people,” they are really just stoking their base in order to elicit tithes and affirm their tribal identity.
The conversation shifts from a discussion of motives to that of the effects of church on children. Toby points out that the message of the average church he has attended is shallow, echoing a shallow mantra of “life will be better with Jesus.” Matt, while including the caveat that doing the gospel is what’s most important, claims he does not want his children to attend church no matter what because he cares about their mental health. He does not want someone in a position of self-proclaimed authority indoctrinating them with information they will have to unlearn later. Authority, he says, is a necessary evil and should only be submitted to when absolutely necessary. Toby affirms Matt’s impulse, saying his daughter is asking great questions about theology and he is afraid of the pat answers she will be fed at church. Both are afraid that the church is essentially a moralizing agent and Toby seems to largely agree, making the observation that churches seem to intentionally keep people spiritual babies.
It would be easy for “traditional” or “conservative” Evangelical Christians to dismiss this critique. The Bad Christian hosts are somewhat notorious for their use of bad language and vulgar humor. As Matt alludes to in the episode, many conservative Christians openly question whether the Bad Christian guys are really Christian at all. Yet to me, it seems as though many may dislike these critiques of modern American churches because Bad Christian is forcing people to think about their church situation. For many, church is part of their identity and hearing attacks against it can cause some degree of psychological injury. Instead of shooting the messengers, perhaps it would be wise to wade through some of the hyperbole and actually listen to their critique.
American Christianity is too often about brand-building. It really is hard to take mega-chain, big-box churches like Elevation, Hillsong, Bethel, etc. seriously. While not intending to be reductionistic, too often the church service has been a concert featuring vaguely “spiritual” lyrics and a sermon that is functionally a stand-up comedy routine mixed with a TED talk. Even the architectural design of these churches is problematic, calculated to treat the average attender as a consumer. The problem with all this is that the medium and the message are inseparably intertwined. When a church jettisons the historic forms of worship embraced by the Church catholic for nearly 2,000 years in favor of stylish fads in an attempt to be “relevant” to the dominant culture, the message of that church will ultimately diverge from the Church’s proclamation of the gospel. You cannot reduce the Christian religion to a series of hollow “worship services” and empty platitudes and then blame millenials for leaving the Church, or blame Matt, Toby, and Joey for going on a journey of deconstruction.
All that said, it is also important for critics to not be reactionary. Over the course of the conversation, Matt and Toby nuanced their position in a way that made it more palatable. However, when looking at the excesses and absurdities of American Evangelicalism, particularly in its least reflexive expressions, it is easy to jump into an infinite regress of deconstruction that only ever leads to further cynicism and disenchantment. Perhaps in this regard, the Bad Christian folks do not go far enough in their critique. While they never clearly define what they think the Church is, their conversation seems to imply it is little more than a social construct. At one point, Toby even seems to implicitly agree with the definition of the Great Commission cemented by the Church Growth Movement which is behind so much of what they are critiquing. This idea is explained and rebutted by LCMS Pastor Kevin Martin in his First Things article, “CoWo, NoGrow”:
The idea behind the church growth movement was that the mission of the Church was to “reach the lost” and to evangelize the world by following the Great Commission to go out and make disciples of all nations. Luther and the old fathers saw it not as a command to do Christ’s work for him, but rather as a promise of Christ: that he himself will always accompany the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of holy baptism to make the faithful hearers full members of the Body of Christ. This was the mission of the Church as evangelical catholics had always seen it. The goal is not to grow the Church, but simply to be the Church by God’s grace through the faith he alone bestows through Word and sacraments.
Having spent time attending and working in modern megachurches of the kind they are critiquing, Matt, Toby, and Joey seem unable to escape some of the misunderstandings they picked up there.
The solution to the malaise of the American church is not an endless cycle of deconstruction and—pardon the oxymoron—reactionary progressivism. All that will get us is a growing appetite for cynicism and despair. To become healthy again, modern Christianity needs to be re-enchanted. This can only happen when we stop viewing the Church as a nominalist social construct and instead embrace it as the mystical and cosmic Body of Christ. While it is made up of flawed humans, it is an institution with divine origins in the work of Christ. It is the locus sacramentorum (“the place of the sacraments”), the instrument whereby God’s grace is imparted in a tangible way to his people through Holy Baptism and Eucharist. It is not a place for entertainment or even merely “worldview” training. It is a place where desires are shaped through the reading of Scripture, preaching of the Gospel, and administration of the sacraments. This, more than the deconstructionism so prevalent in our larger society, is the most counter-cultural ecclesiology you can have. Maybe I am doing exactly what Matt, Toby, and Joey have a problem with, but the Church is far more than a brand to me. It is about the gospel itself: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). His Church is that ark where salvation may be found.