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Spiritual Fitness, Church in a Culture of Choice

I have just started reading this book, Spiritual Fitness by Graham Tomlin (London: Continuum, 2006). It is a really good read, and quite challenging in places. I'm not in total agreement with Tomlin in every area, but find him a very stimulating conversation partner (this ought to be expected after his Provocative Church (2002)). The premise of the book is partly as a follow up to his earlier work, and partly as a fleshing out of the question "what would happen if Christians started to put huge amounts of time and energy into developing their spiritual health and fitness?" There is a missional drive to this: such lives would be attractive to others, doubly so in our post-modern world in which people are looking for points of reference (if Zygmunt Bauman is to be believed).
I thought I would have a go at blogging my way through, chapter by chapter - partly as good practice for me when it comes to blogging, and partly for fun!
So here goes...

Ch. 1: Church in a Culture of Choice
The main focus of this chapter is the introduction of a problem, viz. the place of the Church in a consumer society. Tomlin articulates this problem is several different ways, but settles mainly for the language of relevance. His assessment is quite sharp: "Church for many people simply feels boring, irrelevant and unnecessary". Anyone who has lived as a Christian in the real world knows that this is quite a good account of the way many people feel. But for many of us, it's not a huge problem that our colleagues, friends, or family feel like this about our faith. We learn to live with, and have happy and meaningful relationships with, those with whom we do not agree. Tomlin prompts the Church not to be too relaxed about this though, and not just because we are shrinking in number. He feels that this should be of great concern to the church because "if (Christians) are faithful they will also be relevant". It is not such an unusual argument: church, doing what it ought and remaining Christ-centred will in some sense be relevant to the rest of the world because this is the purpose for which we were created by God who is Lord of the Church.

Nonetheless, the category of relevance makes me slightly uneasy. I think in common parlance relevance is about orientation and agenda. What is it that our customers, those whom we are aiming at, really want? In this chapter its not clear exactly what Tomlin intends by relevance, but i'm really hoping this isn't it - not without several qualifications at least.

Tomlin is keen to press the point, in this chapter, that our surrounding culture is heavily consumerist. It goes without saying perhaps, but it is important not to forget - particularly if we are concerned with making inroads to the society in which we find ourselves as Church. Consumerism has positive and negative aspects: "it is fundamentally about making choices" which is both empowering and isolating. Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2004) is a helpful aid to Tomlin's point here, and a source from which Tomlin draws. Choice may not always equal power, and in a consumer society where there is so much choice, having the right sort of moral (?) framework to inform our decisions is a pressing but often absent necessity.

Tomlin casts a more positive light over consumerism than many Christians have done though. He argues that amidst the clamour to acquire more things, some consumerist outlooks encourage us to shop also for meaning and experience. The objects we acquire are often invested with significance and meaning beyond the monetary value of the object: as status symbol, as class indicator, as a sign of self-identity or image. These objects are often advertised according to the kind of life experiences they will bring for the purchaser. Consumers are seeking as much these things as they are objects.

consumerism is not simple. Nor is it simply bad. It is merely the way in which we say who we are. In one sense, Christians who buy 'What Would Jesus Do?' bracelets, put fish stickers on their cars, or buy crucifixes to wear around their necks are doing exactly the same thing as shoppers who wear Dolce and Gabbana clothes - they are choosing to say something about who they are and where their identity is

The Christian is different from the regular consumer in this case primarily because of the things they choose to consume. If Tomlin is correct about this, and here is where I look forward to the rest of the book, then We are caught up in a tension. One part of me worries that we miss the point a bit: Christianity is surely about more than the rectification of our choices? Nor is it primarily about competing with other spirituality brands on the market? But having said that, culturally this is where we are - or at least need to be, because this is our context. If he is saying that we need to make it easier for people to consume Church, I agree. The world we live in is too busy and overwhelmed with stuff for us to make getting together as the family of God another chore. People simply won't do it! they will stop coming. Tomlin supports his argument with scary statistics: over twenty years, between 1979-1998, 1.6million people voted with their feet and stopped attending institutional churches (see Bob Jackson, Hope for the Church (2002)).

The problem is complex, and terminal: churches exist in a consumer culture, but are not meeting that culture in a meaningful way. Church is in decline. Is there a way for the Church to engage consumerism without compromise? This is the nub of the opening question of this book. Tomlin's answer is yes. The clue to our human needs, he suggests, is in the proper interpretation of our desires (ideas he borrows from Augustine and CS Lewis). As such, consumerism is a window into the human soul.
If itis true that we are created by a good and generous God, and that we were made to live in relationship with him, then deep within the human heart we must not be surprised if we find just that - a desire for God. It won't always be expressed in those terms, but the Christian doctrine of creation tells us we must recognize it for what it is, however much it may seem like a desire to find significance in something else.

What Tomlin outlines then is a way for Christians to engage constructively, and missionally, in a consumer society - which actually reckons with rampant consumerism as a spiritual as well as physical issue. I think this is an interesting and creative start. Chapter 2 promises a next step: a means of reading, interpreting, and understanding the ways in which the search for God is expressed in our consumer society. I look forward to it.
- Posted from my iPad


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