Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (7)

Chapter 6 The Church as a Rhetorical Community

I am pretty sure that you haven’t heard of your local church being described as a Rhetorical Community. Neither have I. So what does Mark Clavier mean?

To get to that, first some context. He argues, that despite all sorts of efforts by churches to be more culturally relevant over the last generation or two, the demographics (he uses stats from the USA) continue to show alarming decline, with millennials opting out in large numbers.

Such churches, Clavier says, have adopted the strategy of the market. They have ‘retooled’ themselves to meet the spiritual needs of their customer base. How’s this for a criticism?

Some strands of Evangelicalism, for example, have tried to adopt and reorient the practices of consumerism towards the gospel – in effect, repackaging the substance of the faith in forms developed by consumer culture. They present worship in more entertaining formats, draw from popular tastes in music to compose praise songs, and use the resources of marketing to develop brand loyalty. In a sense, these churches have created an alternative consumer culture where the presence of Jesus is pervasive; indeed Jesus himself becomes a kind of logo that assures shoppers that their goods and services are wholesome and permissible: a brand Jesus. (105)

Ouch.

He makes a telling point that the impact of consumerism reaches deep down to what issues preoccupy the Church.

Questions about identity, personal freedom, psychological wholeness, and personal spirituality have tended to eclipse traditional concerns about doctrine and salvation. (106)

He’s right – we need only to look at how issues of sexual identity and personal authenticity are tearing churches apart for an example. Themes like sin, the cost of discipleship and judgement don’t tend to sell too well (and I’m not saying that is where the gospel begins, but without them the gospel is incomprehensible).

Clavier brings in Stanley Hauerwas’ call for the church to a colony of Resident Aliens who transform the world, not be conforming to it, but by being a faithful alternative to it –  a community formed by the story of Scripture issuing in radically distinct ethics and way of living.

Clavier agrees with Hauerwas call to be Resident Aliens and that this is not a sectarian withdrawal from the world since there is nowhere to withdraw to. But he thinks Hauerwas does not go far enough. It isn’t that the church can’t withdraw because it is already surrounded, it can’t withdraw because it is already overrun by the rhetoric of consumerism.

And this brings us to the church as a rhetorical community.

For the church to reclaim its mission, therefore, it must first strive to be an intentional community of rhetoric that eloquently calls people to participate in its story of redemptive reality be appealing to their imaginations and their hearts. (107)

After discussion of Augustine, Charles Taylor, Oliver O’Donovan and JKA Smith, this is where Clavier is headed in terms of the mission of the church in a consumer dominated culture.

The church is called to be a formative community, that embodies an alternative to the destructive delights offered by consumerism.

The mission of the church, therefore, is fundamentally a mission of delight: to strive to be a formative community of rhetoric that can persuade the dispose Christians to pursue the love of God.  …. Broadly speaking, this is accomplished by beginning to think about how to proclaim Scripture, worship God, and love one another in ways that either delight or challenge anything that seeks to mask God’s delight. (121)

The church does this through communicating eloquently its own story, practices, habits and symbols with imagination and creativity in a way that resonates with people’s hearts. So Clavier wants to find a central place for art, music, architecture, story-telling, forms of liturgical worship, ritual and the ceremonial as ways to help people experience delight.

The goal is to develop habits that root believers in God, bind them together in community and develop a love for beauty. Children are to be inducted into the stories and habits of the church, engaging them imaginatively with the Bible and worship of the church. When it comes to children’s and youth work

Churches should long ago have given up on trying to out-entertain consumerism. (122)

It is only from such delight in God that Christians will make virtuous, moral choices that reflect God’s love. This is true freedom.

I really liked his description of the ‘outcomes’ (my word) of Augustine’s ‘earthly city’ (consumerism) and the ‘heavenly city’ (the city of God):

The earthly city’s self-love produces a reality manifested by a desire for glory that ends in violence, war, empire and perpetual restlessness. On the other hand, the heavenly city’s love of God produces a reality characterized by a humility that engenders communion, justice, happiness and peace. (119)

Is this all rather idealistic? How can it be enacted in day to day practice? These are some of the questions addressed in the final chapter.

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