Thieves in the Temple

Have today's churches lost their way?

Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul By G. Jeffrey MacDonald Basic Books 238 pp., $25.95

Jeffrey MacDonald writes about religion from a unique, dual perspective as both a veteran journalist (he’s a correspondent for the Monitor) and an ordained minister (in the United Church of Christ). In Thieves in the Temple, he adeptly diagnoses a growing and largely unpublicized problem confronting Christianity today: “Faith has become a consumer commodity in America. People shop for congregations that make them feel comfortable.”

In 2008, MacDonald notes, “a whopping 44 percent” of Americans had switched religious
affiliations in their lifetimes, compared with only 4 percent in 1955. Churches have fed this “shopping around” trend, MacDonald contends, by seeking to
attract “customers” by watering down their core values and offering convenience, comfort, and guilt-free affirmation.

MacDonald provocatively and convincingly argues that too many churches, especially the growing legions of megachurches, have chosen to boost their numbers by diluting their core mission, and that quantitative measures of success have trumped qualitative measures of moral improvement.

“Churchgoers no longer have to put up with components of religious life that they find distasteful, difficult, or less than gratifying in the short term,” bemoans MacDonald, who argues that these consumer-driven churches offer parishioners “the spiritual equivalent of spending all day on the couch, eating cupcakes for dinner[.]”

MacDonald supports his provocative thesis with voluminous evidence garnered from years of research, including countless interviews, multiple visits to churches all across the nation, and his own experiences as a minister. He visits burgeoning megachurches that “feel like malls. Many of these churches come with Starbucks cafes, Subway restaurants, or bookstores.”

At Max Lucado’s megachurch in San Antonio, MacDonald is offered a no-questions-asked baptism and later hears Mr. Lucado tell the thousands assembled that honoring God “could be as easy as volunteering to take out the garbage or letting another driver claim a parking spot in a crowded lot.” MacDonald comments that “[a] lower standard for the Christian life would be difficult to imagine.”

MacDonald does outstanding work in describing how sacraments like baptism, communion, and marriage have been watered down to satisfy customer demands. MacDonald relates his own efforts as a minister to raise the standards for receiving communion. His parishioners responded with anger, demanding that no preconditions be placed on receiving: “I faced resentment for as long as I was at the church,” MacDonald notes ruefully.

Moreover, MacDonald points to a growing trend that treats missions like fun vacations: an entire industry “has emerged to make sure American Christians get the exact adventures they want for themselves and their children.” MacDonald also points to increasingly guilt-free, Bible-free, pastoral counseling borrowed from psychology.

Consumer-driven churches, MacDonald argues, have chosen to downplay biblical teachings about self-control, the need for sacrifice, and delayed gratification: “A strong correlation has emerged between the consumer-driven religious marketplace and the decay of Christian moral character.”

MacDonald describes a growing loss of self-control that has led to a national boom in obesity, materialism, financial overextension, and marital infidelity. “Pastors may still have a strong sense of what’s right and wrong,” MacDonald notes, “but they’ve learned to keep it to themselves.”

MacDonald continually calls upon churches to renew their commitment to moral purpose, to stress that “the life of faith is actually a sacrificial one.” MacDonald concludes by describing a few examples of successful churches that “reinforce the notion that spiritual growth is supposed to be difficult and uncomfortable at times.”

Whether he’s diagnosing the problem of religious consumerism or suggesting solutions, MacDonald’s passion is evident on every page. As a journalist and minister, he’s uniquely able to understand the problem from the inside out, and he supports his thesis well, if at times repetitiously. He sees danger in the status quo, as churches continue to drift from their core mission of building moral character. “To regard market-driven religion as necessarily innocuous,” he warns, “is to help prepare the way for disaster.”

Chuck Leddy, a Boston-based book critic, frequently reviews for the Monitor.

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