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Shopping for God

January 2003 | by Jonathan Skinner

It’s amazing what supermarkets have on offer these days. At ASDA we will soon be able to choose not only from a full range of soap powders but also gain some spiritual advice.

ASDA stores are introducing a new sort of ‘helper’ to stroll up and down the aisles. They will be ‘chaplains’ who will be on hand to help and support us in the trials of life.

They are being recruited, not only from different Christian denominations, but also from different faiths.

Great success

Where it has been put into operation, the store bosses tell us it has been a great success – indeed, it appears to be meeting a real need. But why is this so, particularly in a generation where church attendance is falling?

The answer is that two centuries of science without God – and rationality without spirituality – have created an enormous vacuum in our culture.

Something seems to be missing; some component and facet of a full human experience has been forgotten. However much we ignore it, or even deny it, we still have a desire to ‘connect’ into something greater and beyond ourselves.

We need a spiritual dimension to our existence. Some have called this ‘a God-shaped hole’.

Barren materialism

Wherever we look in our society these days, the search for spiritual or religious satisfaction is increasing. The shelves of our bookshops are sagging under the weight of publications that offer alternative therapies for our maladies – but usually with a religious world-view or technique behind them.

Books on mysticism and the supernatural abound, in a way that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

Decades of dry and barren materialism have left us feeling short-changed and cheated. God has been taken from us – and commercialism put in his place.

We have big questions, but few answers. We all stare our mortality in the face and, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, we are paralysed with fear of the inevitable.

Fragile and pointless

The trouble is – where can we turn for help and advice? Many have given up on the local church, and now have nowhere to turn when their needs can’t be handled by a GP or the citizens advice bureau.

We live in a society where relationships are crumbling, loneliness abounds and despair is reaching epidemic proportions. Life can seem so fragile and pointless, with no answers to the aches and questions people carry close to their hearts.

Little wonder, then, that ASDA’s experiment in spiritual counselling seems to be such a success. After all, it is tapping into a deep need. In sales talk, there is a massive gap in the market.

Failure in the church

In many ways it is part of a continuing social trend. We used to go to the corner shop – we now go to the megastore. We used to buy petrol down the road – we now go to the supermarket. We used to visit the bank in the high street – we now increasingly use Sainsbury’s, or whoever.

Everything is coming under one roof – insurance, investment schemes, loans, pharmacies – and now religion. It was waiting to happen.

The need for this supermarket spirituality lies (in part at least) in the failures of the church. One such failure is that many churches have forgotten what they once believed.

As secularism advanced, instead of giving an intelligent defence of their faith, they simply capitulated. They cut larger and larger chunks out of their Bibles, regarding them as ‘unbelievable’, until they were left with nothing but the ornate and crusty covers.

Instead of declaring the original life-changing message of Jesus Christ, the minister was left to pontificate blandly on his own ideas. The people left in droves.

Isolated

Other congregations forgot to pray – and so forgot what it was to see prayer answered. Religion became a matter of attending certain meetings, but involved no dynamic encounter with God.

The supernatural and the spiritual were carefully cut out, and people couldn’t see the point of coming.

Some churches still believed the message, and even prayed, but became isolated from the communities they were meant to serve.

Culturally, they got stuck in a time warp – of decades and sometimes centuries ago. When people crossed their threshold they felt like aliens or foreigners.

Would-be seekers could not fathom the message because an alien cultural cocoon concealed it from them.

Opportunities

Into this cavernous void created by a spiritually thirsty generation and a failing church, steps ASDA. Those of us on ‘the inside’ of Christianity ought to make the most of the opportunities now available.

If people go shopping for God in the supermarket, perhaps we should be there too.

But more than that – we must prayerfully and confidently proclaim our message in the context of a welcoming community. One that invites, helps, counsels and encourages people in our aching and isolating society – by pointing them to ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’.