Upsizing spiritual product

The Christian Science Monitor reports today on the important and sometimes troubling intersection of church and commerce, but correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald's compact article sometimes omits important points. In a context-setting paragraph, for instance, he draws an overly easy link between three rather different situations:

Those who crave Starbucks can step over to a kiosk at Grace Capital Church in Pembroke, N.H. At True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., the spot where the choir once sang now sells Subway sandwiches. And in more than a few picturesque meeting houses, hymns and prayers ascend through a steeple that doubles as a leased-out cellphone tower.

Yes, there's a squirm factor when any church opens a Starbucks franchise under the same roof as its baptismal font or Communion rail (my thanks to Tom Sorrell for permission to reprint his graphic, which originally appeared on Ubersite). But in fairness to True Bethel Baptist Church/Subway, there's still a choir singing behind the pastor, and the sandwich shop is on the other side of a wall. More important, True Bethel -- which is located in an impoverished section of the city, uses the shop to train and employ neighborhood residents (the CBS Evening News reported on True Bethel's efforts on its Dec. 2 broadcast).

MacDonald's summary of the differences between Catholic and Protestant thought is overly tidy: "In Protestant theology, the church building holds less sanctity than it does in Catholicism, since Protestants don't regard it as a necessity in the transmission of God's grace. Nevertheless, just as some Protestants cheer the practical value of sharing their space with business, others resist, citing equally pragmatic concerns."

Still, MacDonald does find the topic's ethical heart:

But short-term convenience and growth may come at the expense of church ideals, says Barry Harvey, professor of contemporary theology at Baylor University in Houston. In his view, spirituality has been "commodified" in the past quarter-century, in part due to "church shopping" and a hot market for religious merchandise. From there, he says, "It's just one more step to say, 'What's the big deal about bringing in a McDonald's?'"

As churches "come to resemble malls," says Dr. Harvey, "they no longer become communities that try to live differently from the rest of the world and model how life is supposed to be lived . . . We should meet [others] in a marketplace, but then welcome them into a community that says there are deeper ways of relating."

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