A number of years ago I came across an unsigned editorial in Israel My Glory magazine titled "Salad Bar Sanctuaries." It was about the return of the Yuppies to the churches, which it described as a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that many of the younger generation seem to be disillusioned with their barren materialistic lifestyle and are returning to the churches. The bad news is that they are seeking churches modeled only after themselves and their personal interests. The editorial included quotes from an article that had appeared in Newsweek magazine several months earlier. One representative of the new generation said, "Instead of me fitting religion, I found a religion to fit me." The writer observed of this new church-going element, "They don't convert‹they choose." He called the customer the king, adding perceptively, "The market place is now the most widely used system of evaluation by younger churchgoers," and that "by this standard, the most successful churches are those that most resemble a suburban shopping mall."
That is not an entirely new observation, of course. Churches have been bending over backward to become spiritual shopping malls for some time. But we need to take a hard look at that response. We can say that salad bar sanctuaries work--up to a point. Churches that allow people to choose from things they might want rather than proclaiming what they actually need will grow, just like churches that major in religious entertainment. Vaudeville, talk shows, pop concerts, free therapy, and aerobic dancing, whether secular or religious, may bring in crowds. But these things do not satisfy genuine spiritual hunger. Therefore, although they attract large crowds, they also detract people from finding what is truly worthwhile, just as the secular entertainment industry does by its diversions.
Some churches have chosen a different path. They have ignored the changes altogether and have gone on doing religion as before. This is better than the first response in my opinion, but the price of failing to change at all is often to forfeit perceived relevance and growth.
I propose another way: recognizing and affirming this new openness to religion but addressing it from the perspective of authentic New Testament Christianity. To do that well we need to accomplish three things.
First, we need to recognize the hunger these changes express and affirm it. If this spiritual hunger is from God, it may be the beginning of a true spiritual awakening. But even if it is only a search born of desperation, we can affirm that too, for it will be an expression of the grim downhill path described in Romans 1. Christians should understand where unbelievers are coming from and what they actually need more than anyone else, especially secular therapists or false religious teachers.
Second, we must major in truth, meaning the truth of the Bible. We must not fall into a spirit of accommodation in which we treat the human condition as due to anything less than sin. If we fail at that point, the gospel we proclaim will be a gospel without meaning, for it will not be a solution to any real problem. But, at the same time, we will have to speak the truths of the Bible in ways the new generation can understand. We will have to abandon clichés and challenge some thinking.
Third, we will need to minister in a context of community. Most people are deeply and desperately alone. Most of their felt needs as well as their real needs stem from this sad lack, and genuine Christian fellowship among those who have found God in Jesus Christ is the answer to it. The Apostle John must have seen a situation that was similar to ours in his day because he expressed much of what I have been writing about when he explained his approach, saying, "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3).
In teaching a generation that knows almost nothing about the Bible, Jesus Christ, or the way of salvation, we may have to begin with the milk of the Word before serving the meat. But we will have to have meat on the menu. It will not do to offer lettuce alone, still less a salad bar from which one can choose only what looks good. It won't help to skip the main courses and serve nothing but sweet desserts either.