A couple of years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about a megastore for monks in Thailand. Like a sort of holy Buddhist Walmart, within the walls of the store one could find all the accoutrements of monk life: begging bowls, saffron-colored robes, incense, joss sticks, dharma books, Buddha statues. Equally important in hot, humid, crowded Bangkok, the store offers both enthusiastic air conditioning and a parking lot, in addition to its extensive inventory.
According to the article, the market for such a megastore is enormous, because Thailand has nearly 300,000 monks at any given time: “Thailand has 61.5 million Buddhists among its 65.9 million people, nearly all of them practicing in the Theravada tradition. Males are expected to take the robe at least once in their lives. With heads shaved, they spend a few weeks seeking offerings and learning the Buddha’s teaching, disciplines and meditation.” (Read the full article here: WSJ, Megastore for Monks)
In addition to monk supplies, the megastore also offers event planning, as it is both common and desirable in Thailand to hire monks to attend celebrations marking significant life events.
The part I found so interesting about this article was the idea that young men routinely rotate through monk training, the same way, for instance, young Israeli men and women rotate through military service. Imagine, for a moment, what that would look like in the United States, if at some point in your life, you were meant to remove yourself from your daily concerns in order to become more closely aligned with your faith?
Of course, some people do exactly that. I’m surrounded by them, and I can tell you that each of them has made major life changes in order to be in seminary, and intends to remain a priest until death. There is nothing whimsical about their intention, and for most of them, the decision to come here required enormous sacrifices.
What if, however, the process was less intensive and shorter, allowing more men and women to rotate through priesthood — a sort of quick Delicates Cycle of devotion to God? And what if it was normal, in the U.S., to request the presence of priests at significant life events? Or — even more likely in our culture — insignificant ones?
There’s no doubt that the presence of a priest lends a certain gravitas to a situation. Need a priest to act as a silent, but unassailable, character witness when you go to court? Want a priest to nod sagely and agreeably during your big presentation at work? How about a priest to lend an air of inevitable victory to your company softball game? This is a marketing campaign that basically writes itself. Here, I’ll show you an example of how Rent-A-Priest will win over the 18-24 year old demographic:
Scene: Gray cinderblock classroom. 30 students are bent over their desks, beads of sweat on each of their foreheads. One student, however, is seated next to a priest, who is smiling encouragingly at him. The student appears remarkably at ease.
Camera zooms in on the test paper: Tom’s drawer contains 142 socks. Half are yellow, one fourth are red, an eighth are blue, and the remaining socks are green. On each attempt, Tom, who is blindfolded, withdraws two socks from the drawer. What is the likelihood that on his seventh attempt, Tom will remove a matching pair of socks?
Student with priest grins and writes answer on exam paper: 50%, depending whether it is the will of the Lord or not.
Camera pulls back as Student and Priest high-five. Student speaks: Thanks, Rent-a-Priest! Wanna grab a coffee?
End of scene.
In the past, grabbing a coffee with your priest might have been a rare occasion; nowadays, however, it’s one of many ways clergy connect with their parishioners. As the number of regular worshippers declines in parishes across the country, priests, pastors, and rabbis are reaching out to the faithful (or the potentially faithful), making themselves available in new and creative ways.
From guitar-shredding praise bands to Jumbotrons, in-house coffee bars to drive-by pet blessings, illustrated Scripture readings to U2charists (Don’t know what that is? Read about it here: U2charist), today’s churches of all denominations are thinking outside the box to reach and retain those who might otherwise view regular worship as yet another obligation in an already-overcrowded schedule.
Some pastors have mastered this new model of ministering; they are the new rockstars. Waiting for my turn at the CVS Minute Clinic over Christmas, I read an article in GQ about Hillsong Manhattan, a branch of an international church based out of Australia, where the pastor — a young, hip guy — counts among his friends/flock a number of high-profile pop stars and reality TV faces. (Read the article here: Hillsong) He’s got the trendy facial hair and collection of hats to prove it.
By and large, the message of the new, cool ministers is prosperity theology; that the Lord intends for you to have a life full of abundance. It’s the message, distilled to its core, of Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch, as well.
I can understand the allure of these churches. They are vibrant, fun, and of the moment, simultaneously preaching, Tweeting and testing the amps for the next rockin’ number. The sermons are uplifting; you may come into church feeling low, but you’re going out feeling like a million bucks. Literally.
My favorite Joel Osteen refrain is “I do not receive that,” which he uses to ward off bad vibes, less than honorable intentions, and any negativity. I try to use this phrase daily. For instance, when my professor hands around exegesis assignments and the papers reach me, I say, “I do not receive that,” and pass the stack on down the row.
But these new, cool churches, they’re not for me.
Call me old-school, or set in my ways, but my church needs bricks, altars, incense on holy days, and an organ. My priests may not be hip and trendy, but they live into their calling — to further each parishioner in his or her life of faith — without sanctuaries the size of arenas, drum kits, and Frappucinos.
All that being said, I think everyone should worship as they see fit. If Lakewood appeals to you, by all means, go. Same for Hillsong and every other ‘modern’ church. I think religion is all about meeting people where they are and speaking to them in a way that resonates. Otherwise, what’s the point? Besides, that’s what the prophets and evangelists were all about: bringing the message of God’s election to Israel, spreading the good news of the Resurrection to the earliest followers of Jesus.
In the meantime, I’ll let you know when Rent-A-Priest is open for business. The plan is to get it up and running before the theme parks open for the season.