Theology & Spirituality

The Church is Not a Mall

A few weeks back I received a postcard in the mail from a local non-denominational church inviting me to attend. The invitation also instructed me to bring the postcard with me to church in order to receive a free cup of coffee from their coffee shop. This was their gimmick, their way to get me in the door. Not the chance to meet my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, not the opportunity to worship with a community of like-minded believers, just a cup of coffee.

Another non-denominational church right down the road from my home houses its own full service fitness center to which you can join and workout independent of ever attending the church. Other megachurches attract attendants by scheduling concerts with well-known Christian musicians or sermons by popular televangelists. Yet another gimmick used by contemporary American churches involves using old bank buildings to create drive-thru prayer services and overnight deposit boxes for prayer requests.

Perhaps the most disturbing example involves a push to build McDonald’s franchises inside churches to attract new attendees. Should we really be surprised by any of this given the rampant consumerism of American culture? After all, in America everything is a marketable commodity, including our own health and wellness, now commercialized by the medical insurance and pharmaceutical industries. When something as important as healthcare becomes just another consumer good, should we really be surprised when salvation becomes commercialized as the logical next step?

We might call this the “Wal-Mart” effect on American Christianity. The “Wal-Mart” effect on the American landscape is undeniable. The quaint and cozy family-owned shops of America’s main streets have been virtually wiped out and replaced by the ugly and uninviting big box stores with their cold and massive warehouse designs and huge black hole-like parking lots. Even the beautiful tree-lined avenues where Americans once lived in mass have now been replaced by the bland, uniform subdivisions that now house our McMansions.

In the same way, the “Wal-Mart” effect has transformed the American church. The many immaculate and stunning Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches that once filled America’s cities and towns have been largely replaced by massive warehouse-looking structures that are often indistinguishable from other commercial or industrial buildings in the area. These “New Age” churches often adopt cheesy corporate-style logos. I have always been enamored by the beauty of religious architecture. Throughout human history, belief in a higher power has led Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others to build some of the most brilliant structures ever designed. So it saddens me deeply to see such mundane edifices being dedicated to God Almighty, who has given us such a beautiful world in which to live.

I am overcome with a sense of joy and calm every week as my family enters the Greek Orthodox Church we currently attend. As soon as we walk into the door, we are greeted by the smell of incense and the sight of candles burning. As we enter the nave of the church, we are greeted by beautiful icons which portray the saints, apostles, and many of the most familiar gospel stories. Worshipping in such a beautiful fashion is one of the ways that Orthodox Christians give thanks to God for all of the beauty He has given us. “Four walls and a sermon” is a phrase you will never hear used to describe an Orthodox service.

The Church is not a mall. The Church is not a Wal-Mart. The Church is not a business. Allowing the consumerist culture of the outside world to enter the church only serves to cheapen or trivialize the work being done inside the church. When the Church becomes just another consumer choice, the Church has truly lost its soul.

(Photo taken from the McMass Project’s Indiegogo fundraising profile)


Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.

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