A slick repackaging of Christianity
‘Not Religious? Neither are We.’
It’s the tag-line of C3SV, the latest in a series of slick churches aiming to convert the reigning heathens of California’s Silicon Valley. As attention-getters go, it’s the best so far, and the key to the entire mentality of the modern religious system as it adapts to Digital Age expectations. It is a surrender and a bold reclamation of lost ground, all at the same time, a cunning repackaging of old material obscured by an Apple-inspired gloss of sleek ease over substance.
Sleek is the operative word for C3SV. Their website is full of affirming pictures, grandly vague statements, and a snazzy dual-scrolling feature, and that’s it.
Nothing to disagree with, nothing to feel strongly about, just something unobtrusively there.
The pastors – Adam & Keira Smallcombe, above – are two precisely-attractive-enough Australians with a gift for telling breezy stories. The first two big series of sermons revolve around the comforting themes of “Not religious? Neither was [famous figure from Christianity]” and “Relationships.”
And so they must. Very sensibly, the pastors have realized that a tipping point has been reached in this area of the country where the technological connection of cultures has resulted in an underlying and irrevocable skepticism towards any overarching claims of universal truth.
Speaking to them of Hell, or Heaven, or the One True Way is to lose them in a moment. And what the residents of Silicon Valley are now, the rest of the country will soon come to be, so finding a way to unlock the mystery of the SV resident is key to the whole future project of religious salesmanship.
Step 1: “Not Religious”.
The first trick is to define religion as something that you can put your church in juxtaposition to. Two millennia of recorded experience have taught us that Religion tends towards a myopia that is simply not an option for somebody hoping to be part of an interconnected world community. It’s a bad word, and you need to overcome it if you’re going to survive. C3SV tries mightily, cleverly not mentioning on its public sites precisely how it is a non-religious Christian church, forcing you to listen into the sermons (available, of course, on iTunes) or attend their services to be let in on the secret.
Having delayed that moment of self-revelation as long as possible, the answer is perhaps inevitably disappointing.
C3SV’s definition of religion is basically “Salvation through Works” or “Adhering to the Law.” Their position, by eking contrast, is one of salvation through grace, and trusting Jesus to sort out the technical details of sin, which is about as mainstream a conception of Christian religion as one can get. So, not exactly a religious revolution, but it does have one signal virtue – with enough of a gloss, it can be used to let you live precisely the life you happen to be leading at the moment anyway.
Step 2: “Go About Your Business”.
Since you, as an individual, can’t save yourself through works, since you are entirely dependent upon Jesus to save you, then there’s no sense in trying to redeem yourself.
Jesus, by C3SV’s account, frees you from incessantly worrying about sin. The one thing you need to do is accept Jesus, and everything else will work out. Knowing that religion has a horrible track record with declaring things Immoral, C3SV, and I suspect any religions coming down the pipeline with a mind towards survival, has just jettisoned the entire framework of Religion Ordering Morality, and crafted a system that allows life to proceed exactly as before, but with the benefit of a personal relationship to the divine and perhaps some eternal life on the side.
To a culture whose watchphrase is, “I really can’t be bothered – isn’t there an app to do it for me?” the pastors at C3SV have made a religion of absolutely minimum effort. Just nod your head, and you get the good stuff.
Step 3: “Fillllllllllllling … …. …. Time”.
At this point, it might occur to you that a church without exhortations to works, without harangues about the perils of sin, without the cavalcade of shame that mobilized the guilt-ridden souls of previous centuries into earnest penance, doesn’t have much else to talk about. And oh, how right you are.
The bulk of the six sermons I listened to was really devoted to the pastors telling personal stories or jokes that had, at best, a word in common with something vaguely religious-sounding. In a half-hour sermon, they might talk about dating, or amusing memories of childhood, or some joke they heard once, for a full half of the sermon, interspersed with automatic-sounding, rattled-off group prayers that say little more than, “Thanks, Jesus,” and concluded by the inevitable call that all you need to do is believe, and the deities will do all the heavy lifting.
Alternately, they will take something from everyday life that people tend to enjoy, and, through some torturous linguistic events, climax on the conclusion that “Jesus is the ULTIMATE [that thing]!”
Jesus is the ultimate blind date. Jesus is the ultimate party-animal. And so on. This allows them to talk about pretty much anything, as long as the last sentence is about how Jesus is, somehow, if you think about it, but not too hard, the grand summation of that object, which fills the time in a manner both non-threatening and Jesusish.
Right now, C3SV is taking a fair amount of flak for the flimsiness of their dogmatic content, the permissiveness of their conclusions about grace.
It remains to be seen if they remain successful, if the pull of a weekly communal gathering organized around the central principle of, “Everything’s cool, keep believing and carry on,” continues to be as alluring as the prospect of just staying home and living life.
Do people fundamentally NEED their church to be a bit assy, a smidge on the judgmental side, in order to sustain their devotion, or is this patchwork of anecdotes and low expectations really the way of the future for religion in this most Christian of countries?
C3SV has sent its most robust canary into the dark shafts of Bay Area skepticism, and if it survives, it won’t be long before the App Approach to Religion becomes the mainstay of a land growing more steadily sure of itself and the existential legitimacy of its leisure pursuits