Thieves in the Temple

The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul


By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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Though waves of cynics and atheists claim that America is too religious, G. Jeffrey MacDonald disagrees. America’s churches, he argues, have abandoned their sacred role as dispensers of community values, and instead are increasingly serving up entertainment, aerobics, yoga classes, and other services that have nothing to do with religious faith. As religion becomes more consumer-oriented, congregants are able to avoid the moral, intellectual, and theological commitments Christianity requires by simply joining a different — and less rigorous — church. Grounded in journalism, personal experience, and Christian theology, Thieves in the Temple is an impassioned and provocative cri de coeur for a new religious reformation. Incisively critiquing today’s dangerous movement away from true religion, MacDonald demonstrates just how much Americans stand to lose when churches sell their souls to recruit parishioners.


To My Mother and Father

In 2002, the Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona, was rapidly expanding. Construction crews were developing roads, a school, and other new buildings on the church’s vast 187-acre campus. Administrators counted 12,000 names on the membership rolls and saw about half of them in worship on an average weekend. Professional musicians played through a top-notch sound system every Sunday, helping earn the church a reputation across the greater Phoenix area as a place for fun, upbeat relief from the daily grind. The congregation was lively, worshippers were happy, and Glendale’s Church of Joy was the envy of its fellow southwestern churches.
Even while the church exhibited signs of success, senior pastor Walt Kallestad was having difficulty sleeping. The Phoenix metropolitan area displayed signs of trouble. Rates of crime, alcoholism, divorce, and unwanted pregnancies were steadily climbing. Yet attendees at the Community Church of Joy seemed oblivious to the city’s social problems, as if they were happily separate from the rest of the population. Recalling Jesus’ summons to care for society’s most vulnerable, Kallestad asked himself disturbing questions such as, if our congregation disappeared, would the larger community even miss us or know we were gone? He knew his congregants weren’t taking up their crosses and following a hard road of discipleship in their private lives. Reflecting on their behavior in church, he said, “They didn’t really want to engage with God. They wanted relief and inspiration.” His church had become a formidable institution, yet it had failed to address its neighbors’ trials, or to bring out the best in its members.
After twenty years in ministry and a track record of celebrated accomplishments, Kallestad went before his gathered flock and tearfully repented. On his watch, he said, the church had become a “dispenser of religious goods and services.” From now on, for the sake of God, church integrity, and society, life inside his congregation would have to change in a big way.
Kallestad purged frills churchwide. Gone were the talented professional musicians who had no personal passion for the faith. Churchgoers bid adieu to group trips to favorite restaurants, square-dancing classes, and card-playing evenings that had nothing to do with Christianity. Rebellion quickly followed. One out of every three members and about half the staff quit the church in protest. Members who remained were expected to practice regular devotions, tithe to charities, and serve alongside poor neighbors.
Six years later, the congregation still hadn’t recovered even one-fourth of its lost members. But the remnant had learned important lessons: faith is costly, and spiritual growth involves sacrifice. “I tell people every week, ‘If you’re a spectator and a consumer in here, then you are living in disobedience to God,’” Kallestad says. “‘And it’s time you grow up.’”
The Community Church of Joy is reckoning with a spiritual crisis that congregations across America have largely opted to ignore. Faith has become a consumer commodity in America. People shop for congregations that make them feel comfortable rather than spiritually challenged. They steer clear of formal commitments to Christian communities. They flee when they are not quickly gratified or when they encounter interpersonal problems. Changing churches has become as routine as changing jobs. As a result, churches are no longer able to help people develop solid moral characters.
Religious mobility has become a way of life in America. In 1955, only 4 percent of Americans had switched religious affiliations in their lifetimes. By 1985, it was one in three. By 2008, the number had reached a whopping 44 percent. Among Protestants, including former Catholics, most people who have changed their religious affiliations have done so because they found a spiritual pathway or community that they liked better. These patterns herald the arrival of a new religious marketplace, where churches overtly compete for customers and unsatisfied souls dabble to a degree that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.
Though the trend of increasing religious mobility has been remarked upon in recent years, news organizations have categorically failed to identify why it matters. They’ve focused on which groups are growing, which are shrinking, and what all of it means for electoral politics.
The far more important question is, what does all this restlessness mean for spiritual development and character formation in America?
Though American society has seen a certain amount of religious mobility in prior generations, it has never before known such a competitive religious marketplace. Americans find options galore on a religious landscape that’s grown exponentially more diverse over the past three decades. Church hopping is now so commonplace that congregations vie to attract and retain fickle attendees. Can churches that are aiming to please still mold people of high caliber? The answer to that question will have implications for every part of American society, from the Little League field to the office to the courthouse. Americans expect and need their Christian neighbors to be people who do what’s right, even when it’s difficult. This book explores the tragedy that results when new market forces steer American churches away from their essential, character-shaping missions.
I approach the subject first as a national reporter specializing in religion. I’ve been covering trends in church life for more than a decade, and my interviews with dozens of church leaders, parishioners, and expert observers over the years have convinced me that churches are becoming less effective in critical areas as they become more consumer-sensitive.
I also witnessed troubling dynamics from my vantage as the pastor of Union Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation of seventy-five members in Amesbury, Massachusetts. During my tenure there from September 2000 through August 2004, I tried to encourage meaningful discipleship commitments but found my efforts thwarted more often than not by a consumer mind-set.
Perhaps most importantly, I face this issue as an ordinary American Christian. I remain an attendee of worship services and a seeker of spiritual guidance from the Christian Church, an institution that I trust to be wiser than any one person. Its wisdom, I find, is increasingly elusive in an environment where pressures to provide lesser goods tend to prevail.
In all these roles, I’ve found that today’s religious marketplace obscures a basic truth: the Church isn’t a business. Unlike commercial enterprises that sell widgets or life insurance, the Church doesn’t exist to satisfy the wants of customers. The Church needs to serve the higher purpose of transforming what its “customers” want, of diminishing certain primitive desires while cultivating holier ones. People need the Church to help them rise above their lower natures and come to care deeply about higher things, such as the well-being of a stranger in need, or the redemption of a hardened criminal. Our society depends on this elevating force to produce people who offer a conscientious compass in public discourse. But this force is rendered impotent in today’s religious marketplace, where churches must either satisfy demand or go out of business.
Economic realities have come to imperil what the Church is fundamentally about: saving souls. This loaded and often-misunderstood phrase cries out for definition. The soul is the seat of the emotions. It’s where desires for good and ill alike get hatched. Hence, a person whose soul has been saved through faith in Jesus Christ has different desires than a person whose soul has not been saved. Salvation is not about reciting magic phrases or doing everything to the letter of Old Testament law. To be saved by grace is to be freed to let go of destructive desires and replace them with passion for the ways of God.
When true to its mission of saving souls, the Church helps new desires take root. These new desires, when nourished, give rise to new resolve: a changed will, or “heart” for doing what’s good. Whatever else churches do, from running soup kitchens to lobbying for public policies, should signal that saved souls are learning to love God and neighbor more than self. When the Church’s capacity to transform desires is undermined, the Church abdicates its mission and functions just like any other customer-pleasing business.
If the Church fails to instill lofty values in Christians, no other institution on the American cultural landscape will fill the gap. Public schools, along with many of the country’s most prestigious private ones, have nothing to say about what students ought to want for themselves, their families, or their communities. These schools try to equip students to reach their goals, but most dare not suggest what those goals should be. Similarly, mainstream media outlets don’t strive to foster virtue. Local news shows are too busy generating fear of strangers and whipping up consumer appetites for new gadgets to worry about how they’re impacting moral character for the worse. Cultural institutions such as museums hope to edify their clientele with stimulating exhibits, but they don’t actively engage people in bids to make them, say, less materialistic or more patient. In the most important project of all—that is, stretching individuals to care deeply about the highest things—the Church is on its own. If the Church becomes unable to do that job, there will be no large institution in American society capable of shaping good people from one generation to the next.
The Church’s present crisis reflects a rare moment in Scripture where Jesus shows anger. He’s just arrived in Jerusalem, where crowds hail Him as a prophet, to find that the holy city’s temple courtyard has literally become a marketplace. Money changers have set up shop. Customers come to trade. Each group uses the temple as a place to satisfy earthly desires, rather than as a place to surrender to God.
Aghast to see sacred space co-opted for personal gain, Jesus explodes. He flips seats and overturns the money changers’ tables. One can imagine the traders’ rage at having their coins thrown about and mixed in with their competitors’. Chief priests and scribes, who have permitted the marketplace to flourish, are indignant at Jesus’ nerve. But Jesus stands His ground. He invokes the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah, prophets who had little patience for those who willfully violated the commandments and then sought refuge in the temple: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13).
As in Jesus’ time, buyers and sellers in today’s religious marketplace bear mutual culpability for betraying the Church’s mission—any business transaction needs at least two parties. Both pastors and congregants have earned the moniker “thieves,” since they effectively steal from God by leading His institution and His people astray. Still, it’s worth remembering that even Jesus’ angriest moment leads not to destruction but to restoration. As soon as He’s said His piece, the blind and lame come to Him in the temple and are healed. I can only hope that some type of restoration will flow from my examination of mission drift in today’s Church.
Although critiques levied in this book might apply to more than one religious tradition, I’ve focused primarily on American Protestantism for practical reasons. The probe would be too diffuse if I were to attempt an analysis of the entire religious landscape. Further, I know Protestantism from the inside, and this gives me insight that I wouldn’t have in a more broadly framed inquiry. On its own merits, Protestantism is arguably the best laboratory in which to consider the effects of market-driven religion. Protestant churches are especially sensitive to market forces as a function of their relatively decentralized structures, empowered laity, and traditions of trying to adapt to the cultures around them. Protestantism also merits a close look because it’s still America’s largest religious tradition, with more than 100 million adherents. If American Protestantism loses its power to elevate souls, then a primary source of moral leadership in the nation and the world will be lost. The sheer size of American Protestantism means that a sea change in its character-shaping dynamics is important for all Americans to understand.
Also for practicality, I use the term the Church to refer to the established institution in its many forms. I’m not talking about a building. I’m talking about the many resources that exist to advance God’s soul-saving mission (e.g., professional staff, volunteers, programs, and so on). I realize that this use of the term could generate confusion among readers who might insist that the Church be understood in its pure sense—not as an institution or a building but as a community of believers. I ask that purists bear with me as I use the Church in this less-than-pure sense in order to distinguish the institution from its clientele.
In the new religious marketplace, does the Church offer Americans a way to the highest things or yet another space in which to be self-indulgent? For me, no issue is more important than this one. I cherish the idea of the Church community as a distinct people, called by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus, to live counterculturally, to bear witness, to make sacrifices, and to change the world for the better as agents of God’s love. I can’t stand to see the Church reduced to an instrument that strokes worshippers’ egos and reinforces destructive habits of the heart.
When I think about the future of the Church, I think of my young nieces and the two young boys who regard me as a step-father figure. They need the Church, every bit as much as I did, to help them see the purpose of life beyond accumulating possessions, collecting accolades from admirers, and having a good time. Their lives can be rich in meaning, purpose, and satisfaction if the Church teaches them to care more about the well-being of their neighbor than they do about their own natural impulses to feel dominant, maximally safe, and ever more comfortable. They, along with the rest of us, need a wisdom that’s not learned by simply observing nature, where strong species devour weak ones, or by reading inspirational literature or even Scripture, since we’re all prone to hearing only what we want to hear. America needs the Church to be the elevating influence that God intends for it to be. Our job, however tough, is to make that happen, even in the age of the new religious marketplace.


The Rise of the Consumer-Driven Church
HARLAN BRANDON, A MIDDLE-AGED AFRICAN AMERICAN businessman, still goes to church in the same part of Brooklyn where he grew up. But church for him is nothing like it used to be.
“There’s been a big change,” he told me as we sat together at a table overlooking the lobby and shops in the 120,000-square-foot Christian Cultural Center (CCC).
Some forty years ago, when Brandon was a child living in poverty, he heard much from the pulpit about humility as an essential tool for keeping the Devil at bay. Today in church, he hears practical advice for succeeding in business and improving his position in society. His preacher is A. R. Bernard, a former banker who attracts 10,000 congregants on a typical Sunday to his campus on Flatlands Avenue. Reverend Bernard’s church is lavish in every respect, from the cushioned theater-style seating to the professional-quality band that plays during services, from the three giant projection screens to the singers in matching charcoal suits. “There’s no way you can equate God with poverty,” Reverend Bernard claims, adding that biblical images of Heaven feature gold streets and other signs of opulence. His church is a monument to his gospel of prosperity.
When the seeds of the CCC took root in 1981, the church was a storefront congregation in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. Now, the community occupies a $28 million building, has a $15 million annual budget, and counts more than 30,000 members. That makes it New York City’s largest church, attracting middle- and upper-middle-class African American professionals from as far away as Delaware and Rhode Island.
The gospel of prosperity is one reason that the CCC is flourishing while many other churches are floundering. “Jesus said, ‘seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you’,” Bernard told me when I interviewed him in his spacious office, which features a full bathroom and a flatscreen TV. “The idea is that if you can abandon materialism and put God first in your life, then he will give you that materialism back so that you can do something with it.” When he preaches in a dark suit from behind a glass lectern, listeners whip out laptops to take notes on how to be successful and get ahead in corporate America.
Remember: as creatures of God, you are infinitely valuable, Bernard tells them. God wants to “lavish” blessings on His people, he says, and we should help Him do it. Hatch big dreams, keep smart company, be a good listener, and use what you learn from those smarter than you. To get ahead in life, Bernard urges, be an asset to big business, not a thorn in its side. Listeners soak up Bernard’s tips and praise, shouting “Bless you!” and “Amen!” in response.
The CCC is not alone in swelling its ranks by preaching prosperity. Mega-ministries around the country have blossomed by professing that discipleship is a ticket to wealth. Millions of Christians learn the life of faith from the likes of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, an institution that proclaims: “health and wealth belong to the believer.” Or, as Kenneth’s wife, Gloria Copeland, told attendees of a convention in Fort Worth in 2009: “God knows where the money is, and He knows how to get the money to you.” Joel Osteen, whose 47,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston is the nation’s largest church, pledges that “God intends for each of us to experience the abundant life.” He assures donors that “because of your generosity, God’s favor and goodness become a part of your life too.”
Georgia preacher Creflo Dollar goes so far as to offer an on-line “School of Prosperity,” where teachings from his vast, multimedia ministry get boiled down to practical basics. “Having no increase renders you useless to the kingdom of God,” says the aptly named Pastor Dollar on his ministry’s Web site. The School of Prosperity is “designed to teach you how to fulfill your God-given destiny … by being His distribution center.”
Prosperity preaching is a symptom of a deeper problem. Ministries of all sizes are packaging the Christian life as a consumer commodity, a customizable experience. This has become abundantly clear in the success of Christian retailing, a $4.6 billion industry that flourishes by equating discipleship with the joy of consumption. Pastor Rick Warren’s best seller The Purpose-Driven Life has spawned more than a dozen spin-off items, from journals to meditations and DVDs, as readers snap up “essential” accessories for their religious journeys. Organizers of the traveling Christian women’s conference Women of Faith tell women they can hear fabulous music, listen to hilarious stories, and “encounter a love that is life-changing”—if only they’ll pay $89 each for admission ($109 for premium seats). When big Christian films such as The Passion of the Christ come to town, local church groups characterize moviegoing as an act of Christian witness. For those with a few dollars to spend, being a Christian has apparently never been easier.
Christian life hasn’t always been so cushy. Jesus Christ himself lived as a homeless wanderer, with “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). He professed that a rich man must renounce all worldly goods in order to enter the kingdom of Heaven (Mark 10:17-25). His earliest followers understood that sacrifice, sometimes even the ultimate sacrifice, was part and parcel to Christian life. Many of them died for their faith. Jesus made clear that the Church would be no place for anyone who wanted to minimize adversity or have an easy life in this world. “You will be arrested, persecuted, and killed,” he tells his disciples on the eve of his death. “You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers” (Matthew 24:9).
The renunciation of worldly comforts remained a staple of Christian faith long after Jesus’ death. Desert fathers and mothers of the second century, for instance, were seen as heroes for sacrificing food, sex, and even sleep for extended periods in order to master bodily impulses and thereby purify their hearts. Their practice was far more rigorous than what many worshippers could tolerate, but it established an ascetic ideal that would endure in the minds of Christians for centuries.
Sacrifice has until recently remained a central tenet of Christian life. For hundreds of years, monasteries and convents have trained men and women to live ascetically in order to better know the Lord who trusted not in worldly ways. Even after Protestants replaced the celibate priest with the faithfully married cleric, they continued to admire self-denial and tempered appetites. Think, for instance, of Methodists, who have perennially sought to keep their flocks sober; Baptists, who have discouraged the use of drugs, drinking, and even dancing because these practices diminish inhibitions; and Seventh-day Adventists, who commonly refuse meat as an act of discipleship.
Though the particulars of prior eras’ ascetic practices often seem a bit silly to later generations, the understanding that an elevated heart stems from self-denial has endured—and still endures for many. But in the last three decades, America has witnessed a radical reformulation of the Christian ideal, in which the Church and other Christian organizations have begun repositioning the faith as a resource for satisfying primitive desires. How did we get to this point, where ministers expound and congregants seek a version of discipleship devoid of real sacrifice? It is a question that requires rigorous examination if we are to have any hope of saving Protestant Christianity in America from self-destruction.
AMERICAN SOIL has long been fertile for both religious individualism and religious innovation. Even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they saw their quest in the New World as the response to a divine call. In this new land, they would strive to shake off Old World restraints and forge, in a freer environment, new communities where the Lord could be rightly worshipped and glorified. In this New World, they believed, they would not be bound to ceremonial, unscriptural traditions that gave rise to corrupt practices. They would instead claim power through grace to embrace a higher calling. To that end, they broke away from the Church of England and established a Christ-centered society—a “city upon a hill”—to serve as an inspirational model for the world to see.
The idea that an individual should take direct responsibility for the quality and content of his or her relationship with God became an early hallmark of American religion. It was on spectacular display during the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s. Colonists flocked to hear George Whitefield, a traveling evangelist who brought grown men to their knees, weeping in repentance. By the thousands, they gathered in open fields, where the fiery Whitefield reminded them that no church hierarchy or membership would be sufficient to save their sinful souls. To be saved, each would need a personal conversion experience, led by the Holy Spirit and marked by overwhelming remorse, to be followed by the joy of being reborn in the Spirit. In a phenomenon unlike any seen in Europe, individuals across the colonies sought out the often-wrenching open-air experiences associated with personal salvation. In so doing, they demonstrated their conviction that no one save the Holy Spirit could deliver them into right relationship with God. Each individual would need to find his or her way to God’s throne—even if that meant embracing expressions of faith that hadn’t yet received official church approval.
By the late eighteenth century, Americans recognized religious individualism as an indispensable feature of their society. The landscape of faith had become relatively diverse, with Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and the Dutch Reformed, among other sects, expanding their ranks. Framers of the Constitution worried that state sponsorship of any church would threaten the Church’s integrity, since governments tended to have their own agendas. They debated whether the new republic would be wise to forgo the type of state-funded church that they knew to be the norm across Europe. In the end, religious liberty prevailed. Freedom of religion for every American became part of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Americans would forevermore have a right to seek God on their own terms.
In the absence of a state church, the United States developed a brisk religious marketplace. By 1833, every state had stopped funding churches. Without an inflow of government dollars, congregations were forced to rely on voluntary donations to keep their doors open. Competition for followers heated up. In some areas, especially less-settled ones, Methodists and Baptists aggressively maneuvered to attract new members. They routinely measured ministerial success in terms of the number of people baptized and sanctified each week. Members broke off to form new churches or to join new movements, such as Joseph Smith’s Latter-day Saint movement, which later became Mormonism. The seeds of the exorbitant religious mobility of the current age were arguably sown in the age of the horse and buggy.


On Sale
Mar 30, 2010
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

About the Author

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, he is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Religion News Service. He writes regularly for Time Magazine on topics in business and business ethics. His work has also appeared in publications including Ms., The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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