Sunday, February 03, 2008

Does Church Shopping have an Upside?

Last week, Richard Mouw, President of the Fuller Theological Seminary in CA, wrote a piece in Christianity Today called "Spiritual Consumerism's Upside: Why church shopping may not be all bad." His idea is that 'church shopping' has an upside: that if we 'shop around', we might find our vocation -- a place God wants us to be -- not unlike the Catholics finding their calling within the RC Church. Read the article HERE.

The article bothered me for one simple reason: He seems to fail to realize how a metaphor works! I posted the following response on CT. But there isn't really space for dialogue over there. So we could have it here. Here is what I posted:
Help me to understand. With great respect (writing to Dr Mouw), it appears that you misunderstood the nature of a metaphor.

'Shopping' is almost always about me and what I want right now: I need a TV, I choose the one for me, and pay the lowest price. I need shoes, I shop around. I need a car, I haggle for the price. Precisely because its about me. That's why the metaphor 'church shopping' has been used so negatively for so long. That's why the word 'shop' and the word 'church' ought never be placed together!

What you are describing here is (in your own words) vocation. Vocation is not shopping. It's about finding God's plan and place so that a person may serve him and his world. What you are describing here as vocation is exactly right. We need to pray and seek to find the right place to promote the Kingdom. We need discernment in churches and discernment in theologies. Yes!

But surely a metaphor (like shopping) has to actually *mean* what it implies. That's how English works, does it?
(And this is worth a read too: Anthony Sacramone wrote a post on 'First Things' HERE. Anthony is an acquaintance of mine, and begins his critique: "With all due respect to Dr. Mouw, his thesis is just daft." and concludes: "But a day at the mall it [Church] ain’t." I might say that everything else in between is pure gold.)

  • Have you ever gone looking for a church? (That is, you weren't called out to serve in another church. For whatever reason, you were in a position where you had to go looking.)
  • If you were honest with yourself, would you have liken it to 'shopping'? In what way?
  • How would you spot consumerist tendencies in yourself (if you had them) and what can you do about it?


byron smith said...

Great questions, Justin. How can we learn to see our own consumeristic tendencies? It's difficult, because they feel so 'natural' (the successful result of being personally and collectively the product of billions of dollars of advertising designed to make it so). Here are a few guesses: am I buying this product (or going to this church) primarily in order to feel good? When I convince myself I need this product (or church swap), am I really talking about a want? Why do I feel dissatisfied? Am I just comparing myself to others? I'd love to think more about this topic and look forward to other answers.

Re: metaphors and Mouw - I haven't read the article (and don't really intend to), but wonder whether it couldn't be 'rescued' by suggesting that perhaps we might try replacing one metaphor with another, rather than add a new meaning on top of the old. That is, instead of speaking of the experience of visiting different churches in your local area over a series of weeks before committing to one as 'shopping', might we not more profitable speak of it (and so start to think of it) as searching for a vocation to service? Perhaps this involves acknowledging that this behaviour will happen, and instead of trying to stamp it out, we offer Christians a new paradigm for conceptualising it, which may ameliorate some of the negative connotations of the old metaphor (selfish and often petty individualism, etc).

Finite Rex said...

The other thing church shopping does is place you in a group of people similar to you. People share the same ideas; no challenge to your beliefs. I think there is something to be said for the days when we had community churches (before cars) and people were forced to deal with "issues." The true work of the Spirit would show through. Today, when things get hard, we change churches rather than work through the problems. While I appreciate my car, I realize the impact mobility has made on the church.

Thanks for the posting...

byron smith said...

Finite Rex - good point. Of course, I have to ask: do you drive to church? :-)

Megs said...

good discussion. i think consumerism is very harmful, because it views people as potential money, rather than made-in-God's-image, unique, valuable, vulnerable people. This manifests in the way our society and culture doesn't nurture and value mothers, but rather sees them as a potential market for childcare products galore. and your dissection of its effects on church - goddish communities of people - is insightful. church for me is getting together with friends in our local pub for a drink - the sunday morning thing now Bens has bowed out is just too labour intensive with my very energetic little ones...

Justin, we'd love to see you whilst you're in Portland! You're welcome to come up for a meal/overnight stay if you like. It's 3 hours drive - we are driving an old bomb which only extends to local excursions, so we can't pick you up in Portland regrettably. Is it going to be all four of you? I hope so! THough seeing any of you shall be fabulous! What are you in Portland doing?


Dave Miers said...

unrelated comment:

1) nice new profile pic

2) we're going to church at ccsi for the year

3) got a new blog - so you won't have to see the little nude david pop up on your blog any more!!

Finite Rex said...


Guilty. I did say I appreciate my car. :-)


Peter said...

Sorry, but I'll have to disagree with you. I don't agree with your definition of shopping.

I know you read my blog post entitled "Conversions" so you know that I'm a consumer products junkie. I love trying different products all the time. I am not content with just being satisfied with what I have. I believe there is usually something better. I believe in the power of creativity.

When I shop, it is not a purely individualistic, self-centered quest for material fulfillment. I am trying to find the most value for my money. If I have $10 to spend on a razor blade, is it really to my benefit to just buy the first one I see and never try any others again? If everyone chose razors completely arbitrarily, would there ever be any incentive for razor manufacturers to improve their products? Just look at the economies of communist countries in the old Soviet bloc and you see what results when people aren't given the ability to "shop".

When people are encouraged to "shop", they encourage creativity and competition, which in turn, improves quality.

I am not ashamed to admit that when we moved to New York City this past summer, we vigorously "shopped" for a church. We visited about twelve churches in New York City, even making repeat visits at some churches. Why did we "shop" for a church? Because church is that important to us. It is so important to us that we felt it was worth spending three months making sure that we found a church where we could serve and be served to the fullest. In many ways, it wasn't that much different from shopping for a new car. No reasonable person would plop down $30,000 on a vehicle that will be so central to one's life for the next 5-10 years without doing some preliminary research. In the same way with church, I am not going to choose a church to give my life to while I'm living in New York City without doing my due diligence.

Just to be clear, this is very different from those people who visit a number of different churches for a period of years without committing. That is NOT church shopping. That is a fear of commitment.

When I started church shopping, I had very clear goals and a very defined time frame by which I wanted to make a final decision.

I believe anyone who REALLY cares about church SHOULD church shop, because the importance of church demands it. I would actually question the degree to which church really mattered to someone if they just committed to the first one they attended.

Peter said...

Oh, and I did read the article. :) I actually fully agree with Dr. Mouw. I've attended and visited a lot of different churches in my life. I attended Korean Presbyterian and Korean Baptist churches when I was a child. I spent my high school years attending a Vineyard church. In college, I attended a Chinese non-denominational church and a very white Presbyterian church. After college, I was a member of a multi-ethnic Evangelical Covenant church and helped plant a Mosaic church. During a two month stay in London, I attended a charismatic Anglican church. And now, I'm attending a liturgical Anglican church. :)

From all my church experiences, I've come to appreciate all these different expressions of faith. I believe these experiences have made me a better Christian because I've seen a more accurate picture of what heaven will be like than other Christians who haven't had exposure to a lot of different faith expressions. I hope more Christians would be able to experience what I have.

Justin said...

Peter! Why did I know that you'd have some valuable things to say! :)

When I shop, it is not a purely individualistic, self-centered quest for material fulfillment. I am trying to find the most value for my money.

First, you have a principle that you think and process whenever you shop, Peter. I'm not sure many other people think that way. In any case, you still are thinking about value for my money!

Just to be clear, this is very different from those people who visit a number of different churches for a period of years without committing. That is NOT church shopping. That is a fear of commitment.

Very insightful. I can see that.

I believe anyone who REALLY cares about church SHOULD church shop, because the importance of church demands it.

Absolutely. I'm not disagreeing with this at all. My post is clear about that. Very clear. What am I doing is calling for a different word: vocation. Calling. A place to serve. It is closer to finding a job, rather than buying a product.

Justin said...

I guess my critique of Dr Mouw was about language. Why mix 'vocation' with 'shopping'? That's a bad case of mixing metaphors.

What you have done in your experience of churches, Peter, is that you have gone looking for, as you say, the place to serve and to give you life.

Thats vocation. And it takes time and energy and discernment.

Any appearance of shopping is purely coincidental!


Peter said...

Hmm. I guess I don't have the same impression of shopping as you do. I think people are a lot more intentional with their shopping behavior than you might think. I see the popularity of sites like (of which I'm an active member of) and other user-review driven sites like which are full of connoisseurs of everything from restaurants to medical professionals (I found my dentist through!) and see shoppers who care very much about what they consume.

Peter said...

But I guess from reading some of the other comments to this post, a lot of people have what is, in my opinion, an irrational distaste of consumerism and shopping, which maybe you are trying to appease by encouraging the use of the word "vocation" instead of "shop".

Justin said...

Oh. I have misunderstood you as I've read. When I say that you, Peter, think about shopping (and others don't), I was thinking about how you think it's our civic duty to shop: It's our contribution to the economy. It's an idea that we are actually serving each other when we shop. That, in shopping, we are caught up into a larger (economic) story in which we humbly participate.

And I was comparing that with: "I get my shoes here, and my toothpaste there. I liked this dealer for one thing, and that vendor for another."

My point is that you can't do that latter for church. Church is family, not department stores. And its not vocation, not Malls.

And I know that you think that way because you said of Christ Church NYC that you liked how we weren't trying to sell something. I thought that was a great observation. And a true one.

You can be a great 'shopper' of churches, and never serve or lift a finger to promote God's Kingdom, if you understand what I mean.

That's why Dr Mouw's parallel to vocation is good, and I don't understand his connection to shopping.

Justin said...

You are typing too quickly, Peter! I can't keep up.


Peter said...

I'm going to take a stab at where our disconnect might stem from. I don't know if you're aware of this, but this term "church shopping" was not made up by Dr. Mouw. Maybe it is a practice unique to the United States... American Christians commonly use the term "church shopping" when they are looking for a new church to attend.

For example, we told a Mormon friend of ours that we were looking for a church to attend. So she asked "Are you church shopping?" in a semi-playful sorta way. I think she finds the uniquely Protestant phenomenon interesting because Mormonism has the concept of wards, similar to parishes in Catholicism, where you are expected to attend the church that within that ward or parish's jurisdiction.

So I wonder if you were turned off by the use of the term "shopping" in regards to church, not knowing that "church shopping" is a commonly used American phrase to describe the process of looking for a church.

Ali said...
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