Recently I read yet another lament of evangelicalism's "consumerist" approach to spiritual matters. Such critiques usually say that evangelicals encourage people to shop around to find the kind of church that meets their spiritual "needs." This needs-centered understanding of the Christian life has fostered a widespread breakdown of denominational and congregational loyalty, critics say. Faithfulness to a specific theological or ecclesiastical tradition has been replaced by "church shopping."

I must confess that I am more vulnerable than most in light of this charge. I am presently co-chairing, on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the officially sponsored dialogue between representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and four denominations in the Reformed tradition. In a sense, I am the most ecumenical member of the dialogue, having belonged at one time in my life to three of the four sponsoring Reformed denominations: I was raised in a parsonage of the Reformed Church in America, then belonged for 17 years—during my time on the Calvin College faculty—to the Christian Reformed Church, and am now a member of a PC(USA) congregation. Furthermore, my wife and I often attend services in a local Episcopal parish. So when I hear people refer disparagingly to "church shoppers," I feel that I need to defend my own shopping.

I have never thought of myself as "separating" or "seceding" from anything. If someone wanted to characterize my moves as being guided by spiritual tastes, I would have to admit to the appropriateness of that depiction. To the degree, then, that there is anything to this charge of consumerism, I would guess that I am the sort of Christian who participates with a fairly clear conscience in a part of the Christian world where that kind of thing is regularly on display. In fact, I view the pattern that the anti-consumerists criticize as manifesting important strengths.

Anti-consumerist elitism?

I once heard an economist rail against the consumerist patterns of our society, illustrating his point by speaking disdainfully of people who think "that economic freedom means having the right to choose between McDonald's and Burger King." I must confess that on occasion I take a few minutes to think about whether to buy a Quarter Pounder or a Whopper. But what irked me about the economist who put down the kind of culinary choice that some of us consider non-trivial is that he is a wine connoisseur. I recently heard him go into great detail about the relative virtues of two kinds of Cabernet Sauvignon.

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The question I wanted to pose to him is not unlike the one I would ask folks who speak disparagingly about a family that switches from a local Methodist parish to a new megachurch charismatic congregation that they find more spiritually fulfilling. Why is that decision a manifestation of consumerism while, say, the moves of Lutheran theologians—I have in mind Father Richard John Neuhaus and Jaroslav Pelikan—to enter into Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are not? At the very least, we need to be careful that we are not betraying an elitist bias with the way we toss around the "consumerism" label. The consumption of sermons and worship styles by an ordinary Christian family looking for an enriching spiritual life may not be all that different from the scholars' consumption of theologies and liturgies.

But I want to push this topic a little further. Consider the case of a Fuller Seminary student with whom I recently spoke. Here is a summary of her Christian experience: "I was raised pretty much as a pagan," she reported—until her junior year of university, when she experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ through Campus Crusade. For a while that group's regular meetings and Bible studies were her only context for Christian formation. In her senior year, however, she worshiped regularly at a local Presbyterian church, where several members of the staff were Fuller graduates, and they urged her to study at Fuller Seminary.

Now she is attending an independent charismatic congregation; "I am attracted to that sort of thing," she said. At the same time, though, her theological perspective is increasingly being shaped by Reformed theology. "I know that one of these days soon I have to make a decision," she said with a hint of tension in her voice. "I have to decide whether I go under the care of a presbytery and work toward ordination in the PC(USA), or whether I am going to move in the direction of something like a Vineyard-type ministry." Then she added, "Or maybe even something else. Who knows what the Lord has in store for me?"

That is the kind of story that has led me to remark on occasion—and only half jokingly—that more and more of our theological schools have become "seeker seminaries." I do not consider that to be a regrettable development. I do not want to disparage the ministries of those who have followed a more traditional path. I have been blessed by pastors who have never had a question as to what denomination they might serve. But we can no longer take that kind of path for granted. Increasingly, the question of denominational affiliation is a matter of choice, even for those who are preparing for significant church leadership.

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Healthy spiritual consumerism

In the case of the young Fuller student, I sense genuine excitement. Her Christian journey begins in a rather unencumbered encounter with the living Christ. Soon she is introduced to the life of a local congregation and then encouraged to pursue theological studies. At seminary, she is confronted with a rich variety of theological options and styles of being the church. And all she can say for sure about the present stage in her journey is that the God who has surprised her several times very likely has more surprises in store. Is that "consumerism"? Perhaps. But it is also an exciting spiritual and theological quest.

In an important sense, her pattern is not all that different from what has long been experienced by people in the Roman Catholic tradition. Consider a young man raised in a Catholic parish, serving as an altar boy and attending Catholic schools in his youth. As a university student, he is actively involved in the campus Newman Club, and in that context experiences a profound personal renewal in his relationship with Christ, so much so that he begins to experience a call to the priesthood. Back home he talks with his parish priest, who in turn sends him for a conversation with the local bishop. But the young man feels uneasy about diocesan priesthood, so he begins a personal exploration. He looks into the Franciscan order and checks out the Dominicans and the Jesuits. Ultimately, he senses God's call to a Benedictine monastic vocation.

The Roman church, perhaps more than any other, has encouraged many different spiritual flowers to flourish in its ecclesial garden—indeed, it has even been willing to live with considerable structural (and ecclesiological) messiness, as anyone knows who is familiar with the many stories of tensions between, for example, abbots and local diocesan bishops.

A significant feature of the Roman Catholic pattern of spiritual shopping-around is the concept of "special vocation," which looms large in Catholic environs. A person has a special vocation to join the Jesuits or the Sisters of Charity, and this notion of an individual vocation is regularly linked to a collective vocation. In joining the Benedictines, for example, one joins a communal enterprise of living out a way of life characterized by such things as celibacy, stability, contemplation, and poverty. Other vocational communities have different callings to cultivate their own unique blends of disciplines and virtues.

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This strikes me as a way of thinking in positive terms about the exploration of spiritual and theological options. When the Fuller student with whom I talked, for example, struggles with whether to embark upon a path to Presbyterian ordination or to prepare for leadership in one of the newer charismatic fellowships, we can think of her struggle as similar to that of the young Catholic man who is exploring where to live out his priestly ministry. Each can be seen as exploring the question of special vocation. In deciding where they will serve, they are attempting to discern what talents and disciplines and special theological emphases God is asking them to nurture. And I would portray the choice of a family to move from the local Methodist congregation to a new-style congregation that features contemporary worship in similar terms. What may appear to some as a consumerist decision may in fact be a serious exploration of their family's special vocation.

I see these vocational explorations as an exciting feature of contemporary religious life. We should celebrate the diversity of our Christian landscape, manifested, for example, in the existence of Lutheranism, Vineyard Fellowships, and Stone-Campbell congregations. If such diversity encourages a consumerist approach to the spiritual quest, so be it.

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary and professor of Christian philosophy.

Related Elsewhere:

Rodney Clapp wrote about spiritual consumerism in "Why the Devil Takes Visa."

Mouw wrote "Shoot-First Apologetics" about inter-faith dialogue.

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