Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
These words have helped to shape the religious course of our country. The USA does not have a state church that so often lead either to spiritual dullness or persecution of minority/fringe religions. The fact that the government will not interfere in establishing nor prohibiting religion, coupled with a strong sense of individualism, experimentation and entrepreneurial spirit has led to the birthing and flourishing of a number of churches and denominations.
Without a state church, the American church engages in a free market enterprise. It has created an environment for new religious movements to emerge, but it has also fostered because of our consumerist bent, competiveness between churches. This market driven sense has turned clergy into vendors of religious goods and services. And churches chase after their share of the market.
A market driven understanding of the American church claims that while religious regulation creates lethargic religions, capable religions thrive in a pluralistic, competitive environment. Some religious bodies thrive because entrepreneurs capitalize on unregulated and pluralistic religious environments and aggressively market their supply of satisfying religion to new consumers. Christian Smith writes: “in these environments, religious ‘firms’ (denominations and traditions) that possess superior organizational structures (denominational polities), sales representatives (evangelists and clergy), products (religious messages), and marketing (evangelistic) techniques flourish.”
I am grateful for the flourishing of religion in America. New challenges face the American church as more and more Americans define themselves in relationship to religious affiliation as “None.” Beyond this there is increasing skepticism of institutions including the institutional church. What will be the shape of the future church?
Every local church must ask the question: are we a settled church or a sent church? Do we exist primarily for ourselves, or for others? This is the most important question. It cuts across definitions of church as large or small, evangelical or mainline, established or emerging.
Wes Granberg-Michaelson in his new book Unexpected Destinations writes: “a missional church places its commitment to join in God’s mission in the world at the heart of its life and its identity.”
Far beyond the freedoms the US Constitution demands, this is the mandate for the church.