Thieves in the Temple by G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Thieves-templereviewed by Karen Sellers

In Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2013), author G. Jeffrey MacDonald contrasts the church's mission of loving God and people with the church's current focus on consumerism.  MacDonald posits that a focus on "getting people in the door" counters and minimizes the church's effectiveness in fulfilling its mission.

American society has become increasingly consumer oriented.  The entire advertising industry helps to drive people's desire to acquire.  This mindset has also permeated the church. People have been bombarded with the message that they should have what want when they want it.  In the church this is expressed in a growing demand for an "easy" faith, one that demands no commitment to God, others, or to the hard work of building a deeper faith or community. If people do not like what they hear or see in one church, they move on to another church in search of a message they are comfortable with.

Because consumerism encourages an individual rather than a communal focus, many Christians have trouble engaging their imaginations in partnering to help people in either the immediate or far-off community. Or if they are open to partnering, they find it easier to put money in a donation box than to commit to supporting a long-term overseas project with prayer and expertise or to mentor a local child.

Today's churchgoers tend to expect that life will be good.  They shy away from teachings that suggest otherwise. Most people are not interested in hearing that developing a deeper spiritual life will require diligence and sometimes painful work.  Many will "vote with their feet" and look for a place where little is expected or required of them.  Unfortunately, these people are not being prepared for the hard experiences that life inevitably holds for all of us.  Nor is the lack of spiritual maturity preparing future generations to grow into solid leadership that will work for peace, justice, and the common good.

To illustrate how consumerism has infiltrated various areas of the church, MacDonald examines worship, music, communion, baptism, funerals, and tithes/offerings.  He points out that while these all represent opportunities to share the gospel, instead they often lose their meaning as people value convenience, consumer preference, and efficiency over spiritual significance.

The church in previous eras served as the moral compass of society. No other institution is so equipped. The church has a tradition of confronting moral issues and must continue to do so.  However, it must do so from a position that is not corrupted by individual desires but from a position founded on God's laws.

Thieves in the Temple does an excellent job of identifying the consumerism that threatens today's church and of tracing the church's approach to mission throughout history.  It also gives good examples of churches that have successfully combated the danger of a consumerist faith.  The book offers practical advice to people who want to bring effective change to today's church and help it to fulfill its mission.

Karen Sellers is dual degree MDiv/International Development student at Palmer Theological Seminary/Eastern University. She enjoys reading and researching a variety of topics.

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