Charles Taylor and Church Shopping

Chapter 13 of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is an epic narrative of the rapid expansion of expressive individualism in western culture in the postwar era. Aptly titled "The Age of Authenticity," the chapter provides a devastating survey of the havoc wrought by "this new social imaginary of expressive individualism," on culture at large but particularly on religion.

Taylor describes how we came to this Age of Authenticity, where faith and spirituality are mostly understood within the "expressivist dispensation" of consumerism. Faith/spirituality is no longer seen as necessarily bound up within larger frameworks or associations like churches, particularly because such things impose external authority/guidelines which are incomprehensible in the individualistic Age of Authenticity. In this era, to be spiritual is simply to "accept what rings true to your own inner Self." 

Taylor describes how we went from a "paleo-Durkheimian dispensation" where it was assumed that one's connection to the sacred entailed belonging to a church, to a more consumer-friendly "neo-Durkheimian dispensation," where one can "enter the denomination of my choice," not by societal obligation but simply because it "seems right." But then that gave way to a non- or post-Durkheimian disposition, where expressive individualism leads us to talk about church in consumerist language of choice, preference and comfort. Though he doesn't talk specifically about the "church shopping" phenomenon of modern Christianity, Taylor more or less describes it when he says:

The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. This takes us farther. The choice of denomination was understood to take place within a fixed cadre, say that of the apostles' creed, the faith of the broader "church." Within this framework of belief, I choose the church in which I feel most comfortable. But if the focus is going now to be on my spiritual path, thus on what insights come to me in the subtler languages that I find meaningful, then maintaining this or any other framework becomes increasingly difficult. 

Taylor's observations suggest that by perpetuating the "seeker/consumer" paradigms of expressive individualism, today's churches are setting the stage for their own spiritual demise. When churchgoing becomes mostly about a person finding the church that best supports their own subjective "spiritual path," it will eventually become an impossible task, more frustrating and draining than it's worth. Church shoppers are never satisfied in churches, because no church is ever going to be perfectly tailored to the "subtler languages" that individual consumers find meaningful.

This is one of the reasons I wrote my new book UncomfortableIt's crucial that we challenge ourselves, and our congregations, to break out of this post-Durkheimian, expressive individualist approach to faith. This is a path to spiritual death. Spiritual vitality comes by understanding the necessity of being embedded within larger structures, namely a church that provides support and accountability and draws us away from the dead-end prison of Look Within spirituality and accountable-to-only-me "authenticity."