After doing a one-woman protest at the Hillsong Conference last week, Christian Today writer Mark Woods interviewed me. He asked whether I thought the protest had been a success. It got me thinking about what “success” is.
The Christian model of success seems to mirror the world’s view; it’s numerical… The more people that buy into your brand, attend your event, buy your books. That’s how you know you’re successful. There are Christian courses about building your online platform, growing your personal brand and blogging for success.
By those standards, my protest wasn’t very successful. It was me. On my own. By numerical standards it was 8000 (or more) to 1. By those standards, it was a failure.
However, Christian culture’s valuing of things isn’t God’s valuing of it. The kingdom of God is in the weeds that push through the pavement cracks, in the birth of a human child over 2000 years ago, in the smallness and in the whisper.
It seems in the Bible there is something significant about numerical growth. In Acts we hear of people joining the faith constantly, of meetings where thousands were added to their number. We hear of Jesus feeding the five thousand and the crowds that followed Him wherever He went. Yet, within Christian culture it seems success is measured solely in numerical terms.
I’ve been pondering Christian culture’s tendency towards numerical success. It’s led me to thinking about mega-churches and Christian brands. Hillsong, HTB, Bethel, New Wine, Soul Survivor, Spring Harvest. And the human brands within the wider brands; Osteen, Meyer, Houston, Hybels, Warren, Dollar, Driscoll, Gumbel.
It seems we currently have a dominant Christian model of “Supermarket Christianity”. Everything is pre-packaged. Shiny and new. Every taste is catered for. You can go to one church and have all your needs met. Supermarkets aren’t fundamentally evil, they meet the needs of people with busy lives. People who don’t have the time or skills to grow their own food or milk their own cow (if the even have a cow at home any way…).
In the same way, most mega-churches (and even a lot of regular churches) aren’t evil. They provide for people who don’t have the time or skills to take on their own spiritual growth. In a church where there are few creative people, an Alpha Course is a great package to begin conversations with non-Christians about God. Many amazing ministries have been birthed out of events like Spring Harvest and Soul Survivor. Supermarket Christianity is not evil.
However, though supermarkets are not evil. They are perpetuating injustice. There has been an enormous increase in food insecurity as supermarkets buy food overseas and have it shipped over to the UK. They don’t pay staff a Living Wage. They prioritise profits over ethics. And now we are all reliant on them. We can’t live without them. We are dependent on them. I don’t know how to grow vegetables. I can just about keep children alive, but give me a plant and it will be dead with a week.
In the same way, it seems that Christian culture has become reliant on Supermarket Christianity. Rather than learning to hear God’s voice for ourselves, we seek out another book/sermon/worship song to tell us what God thinks. We read more words about the Bible than the Bible itself. We expect Supermarket Christianity to meet our needs. With pre-packaged courses and sermons for every situation. Instead of considering the needs in our community and how best to represent Jesus to those who don’t yet know Him, we simply put on an Alpha Course. Supermarket Christianity isn’t wrong. Supermarket Christianity as the default is.
I’ve been part of Christian culture long enough to have seen Supermarket Christianity as the answer. Growing up in a medium sized Anglican church, I was attracted to the idea of thousands of people in one place, cool preachers and the general largeness of Christian youth events. I thought that’s where people grew in their faith. And for some people, large events are where growth is found. Yet, there’s something slightly off kilter about our relationship with God being reliant on things that aren’t God. That aren’t local church or the Bible. That are branded and shiny and new.
I knew a guy who would always start to lose his connection to God in September. “But don’t worry!” He told me, “This always happens around this time, then I’ll go to Spring Harvest at Easter and I’ll get time with God and everything will be okay again.”
Maybe it’s partly that my faith didn’t grow large at an event or through a popular Christian book. Maybe it’s just my experience that makes me sure that Supermarket Christianity is not that way. And if so, then I’ll just keep walking the road that God has placed me on. But it feels like more than just my experience.
It seems that Supermarket Christianity allows us to vicariously live faithful lives through the testimonies of people who give up everything for Jesus. Just as the Tesco aisle invites us to have a “taste of India”, believing we have become more exotic for eating a pre-packaged meal made somewhere in Milton Keynes, so we hear the stories of people who are doing amazing things for God and we feel filled with a sort of confidence that Christians are doing good things.
We can now donate to a food bank and buy fairtrade produce on our way round the supermarket; either ignorant or avoiding the many ways supermarkets contribute to the need for food banks and fairly traded goods. In Supermarket Christianity we can donate to projects or even set projects up, while still living our lives in ways that exploit the most vulnerable.
My faith was founded in the crucible of suffering and through learning to be obedient. I have learned that the measure of my faith is not the amount I am on the church rota nor the number of people who stand with me in that which God has called me to. Not everyone has the “opportunity” to find God in losing everything, so maybe this is my truth and not The Truth.
I am trying to live a “Smallholding Christianity”. One which relies on the weather that God sends, that involves taking full responsibility for my walk with Him. Learning to grow my own spiritual food and not rely on the pre-packaged kinds. It’s a lonely road as most people are still living out Supermarket Christianity. I think I might be allergic to Christian events now. The last event I went to I cried all the way home. Just as people who re-enter the UK after a prolonged time in the majority world experience culture shock going into a supermarket, with the choice and shininess. So I think I have developed Christian culture shock.
Someone sent me this quote the other day,
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Mark Twain
I responded to Mark Woods by saying that I thought the protest was successful. God has taught me that success isn’t found in the numbers of people by your side, the number of books you sell, the size of an event. It is found in being fully obedient to God’s call. And we can only become obedient to God’s call if we learn to hear Him above all the other voices in our lives. Success is not found in this life, but in hearing, “Good and faithful servant” on the other side of eternity.
So you’re welcome to join me in discovering “Smallholding Christianity”, but I don’t mind if you don’t, I’m okay over here on my own…