By George Mekhail
(Read Is Clarity Unreasonable? Part I here.)
Our consumer-centric culture has produced a term you may be familiar with: "Church shopping." Perhaps, like me, you have participated in the practice at some point or another.
Similar to actual shopping, where you might compare the price or quality of a product from one vendor to the next, church shopping is concerned with questions like, “How inspiring are the sermons?” or “How much fun will my kids have?” and even “How large is the congregation?” This development within American Christianity has been widely examined in various blogs and books. For our purposes here, I want to explore how this fuels ambiguity.
In response to the "church shopping" phenomenon, church leaders often adjust to the desires of the church consumer. If they don't, they risk losing "market share," which ultimately sustains their community and their employment. This development in the church world has largely gone unchecked. Rather than church direction and policy being discerned through godly conviction, we've drifted into a sleepy appeasement of the masses, sometimes at the expense of Truth.
In the actual marketplace, there are laws which protect consumers from misleading business practices. For instance, a store cannot advertise a pair of jeans for $50 in the newspaper, while the price in the store is $100. They would be reprimanded, fined and in some cases maybe even sued for false advertising. For a business, so-called “bait and switch” tactics are justifiably against the law.
Churches are unique organizations in America. They are recognized by the IRS under the distinct status of "Tax-Exempt 501(c)(3) Religious Organizations" and enjoy tremendous benefits as a result. In exchange for these tax exemptions, churches are expected to play a vital role of serving their communities. From the Catholic Church all the way down to the church plant that meets at your local middle school, churches have received these public subsidies without much scrutiny or question. There is really no accountability that they are earning that subsidy, let alone following basic practices we expect from most other organizations. This is simply the way its always been since the creation of the IRS tax code itself. With these enormous benefits, the average citizen, and even more so those who invest time and resources into these churches, are entitled to a certain level of accountability and clarity. At the very least, the standard of “truthful advertisement” should be as basic of an expectation for churches as it is for businesses.
Beyond the assumed responsibility that comes with tax breaks, churches also have a simple obligation to the God they profess to worship, and the people who belong to the communities they inhabit. As we explored in Part 1, I believe that among the most important of these responsibilities is to clearly communicate the policies they are actively enforcing.
There are over 191,000 Evangelical congregations in America. Many of them are considered "sovereign," "independent" or "non-denominational." The creation of these types of churches has been a mostly positive development for the church world and our constitutional right to freedom of religion. It is critical, therefore, to preserve the rights of these churches and not to limit the creation of new expressions of faith to an institutional process. For instance, it would impede on our freedom of religion if a church could only be started with the blessing of the Pope, or through the charter of a denomination. However, this level of autonomy has also created an environment which is ripe for ambiguous policy and misleading practices. In capitalistic terms, churches lack much needed regulation. Consider the clarity that is inherent in your local Catholic parish. For better or worse, they are governed by one body which is easily discernible and consistent across the entire Catholic world. Case in point, in 2016, Pope Francis declared that divorced Catholics were now allowed to partake in Holy Communion. This policy change was enacted and enforced immediately at every parish around the world as the consistent Catholic policy.
cThis is not the case with independent Evangelical Churches. Policy can vary from local church to local church. More critically, communication of policy can be designed in such a way that would violate the most basic "false advertising" laws in the for-profit world. Why do we allow this to take place in our churches, yet cry foul when such violations occur in the marketplace? Are the stakes not much higher when it comes to spiritual matters? Is a clearly communicated policy an unreasonable expectation?
George is the Director of Strategic Partnerships & Innovation at The Riverside Church in The City of New York.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, George's family immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. Growing up as a Coptic Christian before landing at various Evangelical Churches, has helped cultivate a desire for broader inclusivity in the church. His goal is to see the work of Together In This reach a broad audience in Evangelicalism through storytelling, resourcing and advocating for Clarity.