I suppose that engaging with one’s professor’s published material ought to be nerve-racking. It is one thing to read, review, and critique the work of authors who, you are rather sure, do not know you exist nor would they likely stumble across your comments and, even if they did, likely wouldn’t deign to respond. This post, however, cannot hide under the cloak of my obscurity. The author, Jason Clark, is the lead mentor of my DMin program and the person who will be giving me marks at the end of the term on the nature of the posts that appear in this space. Yet with all that, I neither fear nor tremble. He is, and I say this in a way that he will hear as loving and kind, just another bloke.
His writing, however, is anything but ordinary. In the two chapters he contributed to the just-released Church in the Present Tense (which is co-authored by Scot McKnight, Pete Rollins, and Kevin Corcoran), Clark lays the foundation for a strong case of seeing consumerism as a religion–one that is doing more to form the lives and worldviews of Westerners than the Christianity that many of them claim to profess. His solution? Fight fire with fire, so to speak. No, not in the anti-consumer, culture-jamming way that is so masterfully picked apart in Heath and Potter’s The Rebel Sell. Instead, Clark proposes that the best thing to fight a liturgy of consumption is a liturgy of crucicentrism.In his first chapter, “Consumer Liturgies and Their Corrosive Effects on Christian Identity,” Clark lays out why he thinks Christians are being held hostage by the cult of consumerism. Key in the discussion is the role of the church. Clark understands Christology and ecclesiology as necessarily linked. To separate one from the other is to do violence to both. In a related paper, he writes, “it is this uncoupling of the church from Christology (which) has been the root cause of the Evangelical churches’ inability to be authentically missional” (“SVS Not Another Mapping of the Missional Church” p. 8). Instead, Clark argues that what results from such an uncoupling is a type of Christianity that is too anemic to combat individualism and consumerism. Here, it is worth quoting Clark at length:
Perhaps the most audacious claim of Christianity in the modern world might be to suggest that human nature and the purpose of life are not self-creating and self-authenticating but find their rule, organization, and fulfillment in the humanity of Jesus Christ with others. We are not free to be whatever we want to be. Who we are is found in Jesus with others, the depths of which exceed anything we can be on our own. (45)
What the world needs is not more books, blogs, or blueprints for how to do church, missionally or otherwise. Rather, the world needs reflective practitioners who are actually calling people to the cross in community, earnestly seeking to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ.What that might look like can, and ought, to vary from place to place. His own attempts at embodying an alternative to the consumer liturgy in his community of faith make up the bulk of his second contribution to the book, aptly titled, “The Renewal of Liturgy in the Emerging Church.” Few churches can escape having some sort of liturgy–even if they formally shun the idea. Regular, predictable patterns emerge. Songs, announcments, offering, sermon, prayer, dismissal. We are creatures that take comfort in patterns. We live patterned, liturgical lives. How many of us start the day with a morning cup of coffee, drive to work via the same route whilst listening to the same radio station? It would require an extraordinary amount of time and energy to live a life (individually or communally) in which we never, ever, did the same thing in the same order twice. What we rarely consider is that our liturgies form us. They are not just a stagnant set of activities which are neutral reflections of our preferences and our convictions. They shape us and condition us. In particular, the more we engage in liturgical elements which focus upon our ability to choose and consume things without respect to their origin or their future, we reinforce the notion that, fundamentally, life is about the satisfaction of the self above all. With respect to our religious beliefs, we find that commodification takes hold as we create a world in which believers hold beliefs instead of beliefs holding believers. We are free to pick and choose from the great moral buffet and follow whichever beliefs that “resonate” most strongly with us. If there are things that make us uncomfortable or diminish our religious satisfaction, we simply discard them and replace them with other beliefs that are more amenable. “In such a culture, involvement in a church community becomes largely a matter of whether I am bored, offended, or interested, whether my perceived needs are met the few times I show up” (80). If it is not a good “fit,” the believer moves on. They’ve even coined a term for their search: “church shopping.” The remedy for such commodification is, surprisingly, to restrict choice through the predictability of liturgy. By engaging in “sameness” week in and week out, worshipers may begin to experience a God who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” A God who refuses to be made into our image. Upon this idea many traditionally “low” churches are refashioning their services with a Eucharistic bent and following a liturgical calendar. These are things that Clark’s own community has done, and he has seen positive results. Much of the liturgical calendar covers that time between Pentecost and Advent, simply known as “ordinary time.” It is during this time, Clark offers, when we recapture the gravity of fasting and the joy of feasting. Similarly, Robert Capon, in his masterful The Supper of the Lamb, talks of the necessity of both festal and ferial cooking. While the goal of any cook is to be able to prepare lavish feasts, it is in the ferial, or ordinary, cooking in which s/he must really shine. Without the ordinary, nothing can be extraordinary. Clark’s contribution encourages us to create communities in which we are raising up followers of Christ who lean into the mundane, the ordinary, even as the anticipation of the feast builds. In doing so, “[w]e accept the call to reorder the very fabric of our lives around the reality of Jesus rather than accommodating to and fitting our ways of doing church around the religion of consumerism” (86). Ultimately, becoming missional as Clark perceives missional means that we must begin doing those things which we are so quick to write about, talk about, conference about, and brand as edgy new ways of “imagining church.” And, guess what? The “doing” part is probably going to be boring and mundane much of the time. The great adventure of “being missional” will settle into a pattern or, if we’ve got our wits about us, a liturgy. And that is exactly what we need.