Few in confessional Reformed circles would question the ‘McDonaldization’ of the Church thesis. So much of evangelical Christianity in America has caved in to consumerism. But historically, I have to ask whether we’re at the end of a long journey begun by 19th century Voluntaries? Or was it perhaps commenced inadvertently by the 17th century devotees of “gathered churches?” The following quote from William Smith (a la Chalmers) at least raises the question, given that his central critique of Voluntaryism is its commericialization of the Church:
“But the radical and fatal defect of the Voluntary system lies in this, that from its very nature it tends to occupy and engross itself with the fat places of the land, leaving the lean neglected and uncared for—that it absorbs and isolates into self-supporting confederations the very portion of the population that ought to be caring for the perishing souls of others less happily conditioned—that the more successful it is in any field, the more neglectful must it be of those persons connected with that field who most require the ministrations of the Gospel —and that its besetting and generally irresistible temptation is to make the grace and ordinances of religion a matter of mere competitive shopkeeping on the one hand, and of ready-money purchase on the other” (William Smith, Endowed Territorial Work, 100-1).
Yet, I fear that Smith’s critique of consumerism cuts both ways.
Smith wrote at a time when the integrity of evangelicalism had not been radically vitiated. Many (most?) Voluntaries were Calvinist. Smith really was criticizing all Voluntaryism, Calvinist or not, because it tended to make the faith once delivered gravitate to where the money is. Voluntaryism of whatever stripe simply had no internal mechanism to ensure that everyone in the land, including the working classes, were provided the pure ordinances. The old Kirk, with its principle of endowed territorialism, did.
Reformed churches in North America are de facto if not de jure gathered churches. And while many of us have been kept from the abyss of crass McDonaldization (so far), yet we tend to exist only where we can be financed. Does this explain not only the temptation to dilute our confessionalism, but also why there are so few confessionally Reformed churches in urban America?