By David Ney
You did not choose me, but I chose you. —John 15:16
Anglicans and Episcopalians are seemingly well positioned to overcome the Reformation legacy of oppositional self-definition. Instead of wearing the labels not Roman or not Reformed, we can regard ourselves as Roman and Reformed, Catholic and Evangelical, Liturgical and Logocentric, Traditional and Scriptural, and so on. Or, as has often been the case since the 19th century, we can be champions of the via media.
The problem with this favored term isn’t just that it is something of a wax nose (to use the Reformation lingo), capable of absorbing a wide variety of distinctives and preferences. The problem is that it too quickly becomes something to celebrate vis-à-vis other evidently inferior traditions. Via media in opposition to all!
Yet the contemporary ecclesial landscape is littered with churches that confidently claim the virtues Anglicans and Episcopalians thought they had monopolized as the via media. This has become a problem for many Anglicans and Episcopalians, for whom an oppositional self-definition has become something of a modus operandi, leaving them with what might be described as a feeling of nakedness or at least insecurity. And thus the search has begun for a better, more rhetorically forceful candidate. Now the most popular solution is not to look back to the historic churches but to turn and face the new kid on the block — the Big-Box Church.
Big-Box Church: the words tell us everything we need to know about who they are, and who we are not.
The Big-Box Church is glitzy, fluffy, rambunctious, aggressive, seeker-sensitive, proselytizing, and driven by results. It is led by someone who was once a used-car salesman; he’s a next-generation televangelist, and he’s probably getting kickbacks or worse. The Big-Box Church packs out an old big-box store. Or rather, it did, until it built a new multimillion-dollar campus on the outskirts of town.
We, on the other hand, are the opposite: refined, substantive, contemplative, restrained, authentic, relational, and driven by love (certainly not results). Our priest is everything their pastor is not, being made in our image. Our church building is small, but it is historic and beautiful — albeit in desperate need of repair.
The attributes we claim are not obviously virtues. But we’ve learned that the words Big-Box Church do not merely go a long way in helping us with self-definition. They are virtue signals, which give us all we need for self-affirmation. We were initially quietly jealous that all of the people are going over to them; but this too, we have learned, can be spun as a virtue. They are big; they are bad; big is bad.
I won’t deny that there are serious problems with the so-called Big-Box Church. But I am not sure that those of us on the outside have been either informed or accurate in our assessment. Let’s assume though, for a moment, that the instinct that leads us to use Big-Box is sound: a capitalistic, consumeristic, and individualistic culture has created a brand of Christianity in its image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). According to this interpretation, the things we see — and hate — from afar are merely temporal expressions of an underlying ethos. This at least helps us to avoid the nonsense of directing our hostility toward things such as numerical growth.
But that is not all. It forces us to examine our perceived sense of opposition. If the source of the Big-Box Church is the culture, then taking shots at Big-Box Churches is like gardening as a three-year-old: Mine gets such enjoyment from popping the heads off of weeds that pulling out the roots becomes a missed opportunity for more fun.
If we concede that the problem is the capitalistic, consumeristic, and individualistic culture, then our relationship to the Big-Box phenomenon grows interesting. We too carry mortgages and credit-card debt. We too shop at Amazon. We too inhabit disembodied social media worlds. Suddenly we find that our problem with the Big-Box Church is our problem.
But what about our churches? Do they not provide something of a counterculture to this prevailing ethos? Does not our embrace of liturgy and tradition and sacred space provide us with a moment’s respite and reorientation? It certainly has the potential to do so. Yet as soon as these practices are set in opposition to the other choices, they too become infused with the consumer spirit, for our churches are set not merely within a capitalistic, consumeristic, and individualistic culture. They are located within a fractured Christianity. Like Big-Box Christians we too go to Church each morning as consumers beset by choice. My choice to attend this church is equally my choice not to attend that one. Economic Armageddon could not bring Church shopping to an end.
I have now been in the United States for about a year and a half. My family and I are attending a local church religiously. Yet I can’t say that we have a church home. That is saying something. You see, I’m a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5). I’m a priest. I have an amazing family, the kind of family people just love to be around. Our commitment to the Church has always been the defining feature of our lives together.
I’ve understood, as we’ve gone to this church or that church, that we’ve done so as shoppers. And I’ve hated it. Sometimes I’ve hated the choices on offer, but more often than not I’ve just hated the choice. I’ve mustered up the courage to make a choice on more than one occasion. But for this or that reason the choice has been more or less taken from me. At one point someone at one local church asked me if I had yet chosen to make his congregation my own.
“I’m here,” I replied. “I’m here now.” That’s all I could say. What else can you say, when you’re an alien and a stranger?
At one church I introduced myself to the priest on three separate occasions. Those that have stood opposite me each Sunday as they’ve greeted me at the door have always “given me space.” I have come to call these encounters “50 first dates.” The greeters have all wanted to avoid pushiness — presumably like those “Big-Box Christians.” Yet the space they have created has become too large for my individual choice to fill.
I have come to believe that though the complicity of Anglican and Episcopal churches in the prevailing cultural ethos may be less subtle than that of the so-called Big-Box churches, it is equally profound. It takes the form of an affirmation of personal choice that inoculates against the need to exercise Christian love. Love is the antidote to consumerism because it swallows up the space consumerism tries to claim for itself.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). So we already know what we must do to be the Church. And the good news is that it doesn’t take a multi-million dollar budget or facility. As Christians we follow in the footsteps of the one who comes to us outsiders and says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). Indeed, throughout the course of the last year and a half I’ve really only needed one thing from a church. I’ve needed to be chosen.