“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.”
—G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Originally released in 2010 and now out in paperback form with a new epilogue, G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s Thieves in the Temple offers a critique of the Christian church in America that rings true even as it feels incomplete. MacDonald’s view is that a consumer-oriented mindset has come to infect wide swaths of American Protestantism, which has given rise to churches both liberal and conservative, white and black, big and small, that emphasize entertainment and comfort rather than Christ-like virtues such as sacrifice and self-denial. In short, Christian life has become easy.
How has this happened? MacDonald, himself an ordained minister as well as a journalist, argues from experience. With deep pastoral concern, he contends that because Americans are more willing than ever to switch their houses of worship, churches are under increasing pressure to make fewer and fewer demands of their parishioners (this at a time when denominations across the board are hemorrhaging members). The thinking goes that emotional uplift and affirmation will help retain “customers” while the call to live out “challenging forms of discipleship” may only drive them away.
However, as MacDonald sees it, the church’s mission is not to boost membership rolls but to change hearts and save souls, and the therapeutic, frills-heavy packaging that the Christian message so often comes in these days is a threat to the latter. On all of these points, MacDonald’s analysis is convincing, and yet there are certain omissions that seem glaring.
In the first half of Thieves in the Temple, MacDonald pinpoints many of the ways in which the American church has violated its true calling. The list is lengthy, especially with regard to the influx of “spiritually flavored entertainment” into church life. On the more frivolous end of the spectrum, there are activities like Christian comedy shows, product giveaways, and church movie outings. MacDonald rightly wonders what the connection is between events such as these and following the example of Christ.
He spends far more time, however, examining how the push for ease and entertainment has gutted very significant church traditions of their meaning. Baptism and communion no longer entail sacred commitments. Weddings have become little more than celebrations of the newly-weds-to-be. And overseas missions could easily be mistaken for adventurous getaways. According to MacDonald, all of this demonstrates that “comfort has become a central goal of worship”.
Elsewhere, he takes the church to task for its “therapeutic function” and its failure to develop the kind of moral character among believers that sets them apart from the rest of society. To buttress this second point, he cites a study from 2009 which showed that sizable majorities of various Christian subgroups, like white evangelicals and mainline Protestants, don’t flat-out reject the use of torture. It’s a truly scandalous finding.
As stinging as MacDonald’s overall critique is, though, a crucial piece is missing: what about the messages coming from the pulpit every Sunday? Aren’t sermons—and, crucially, the doctrine they contain—the centerpiece of a worship service, informing everything else that takes place? Aren’t they perhaps the most important window into how a church understands its mission? It seems to follow that if a church’s handling of the Christian message is amiss, everything else will be, too. As a minister, MacDonald recognizes this. He writes, “Pastors need to be sure they’re not only proclaiming orthodox doctrine, but are also spelling out its broad requirements for the Christian life.”
If that’s his stance, though, then why would he by and large ignore sermons, where doctrine and its day-to-day implications should be found in abundance? The closest he comes to tackling the formal, systematic presentation of “the Gospel” within American Protestantism is found at the beginning of Thieves in the Temple, when he chides prosperity preachers for their foul mangling of Christ’s words. Beyond that, there’s little else. One would think that if MacDonald was willing to spill ink over, say, the theology of tithing and certain burial practices, he would also see fit to address this area in some detail. Doctrine is, after all, the bedrock of church life.
In part two of Thieves in the Temple, MacDonald profiles three churches and one college, all in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, that in his opinion have pushed back against the tide of “cheap grace” (to use the words of Dietrich Bonhoffer). The common thread among these examples is a commitment to the idea that “spiritual growth is supposed to be difficult and uncomfortable at times.” For example, MacDonald meets with a woman who, inspired by her church’s message of sacrificial love, walked away from a cushy suburban lifestyle and moved to the inner city so she could serve a community in need. He also details how people in small group settings at one church have held each other accountable in ways that bear fruit.
According to MacDonald, one of the keys to understanding these success stories is to recognize that the effects of the “new religious marketplace” don’t have to be negative. Because laypeople are now able to exert influence in such consequential ways, they’re uniquely positioned to demand that their church ask more of them. As MacDonald writes, “Few moments in history have offered ordinary people as much opportunity to shape the institution that points to highest things.” But whether they will or not on a large scale is another matter, which creates room for skepticism of MacDonald’s hopeful perspective.
I don’t think it’s faint praise to say that Thieves in the Temple is a good book that should have been better. More to the point, it should have been longer. MacDonald is absolutely correct that a Christianity that doesn’t make weighty and at times painful demands of its followers is an empty Christianity. But in a longer version of the book, he might have used more space to describe how American Protestantism arrived at this strange and uncertain moment. His thumbnail sketch of recent church history has obvious limitations. (The same problem hampered Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion.) And in a longer version, he might have focused more on the health of the Gospel message within the American church.
What is it about the preaching of Christian doctrine across the sweep of Protestant denominations that has allowed for this spiritual decay to set in? It’s a question I returned to time and again while reading Thieves in the Temple.