I enjoy buffets. Buffets allow us to pick and choose and eat as little (or as much) as we like. Buffet meals have come to mind as I've been pondering over a new and troubling mood in the church today. It's typified by the following story. A man goes to see a church minister about a family funeral to discuss the service. 'This is how our church does funerals,' the minister says, passing over a standard service outline. The man peers at it and firmly shakes his head. 'No, let me tell you how I want it done.'
Today we live in a consumer age where the right of an individual to choose is felt to be unchallengeable and it's unsurprising that this attitude has slid over into matters of faith. The result is a demand for a 'Buffet Christianity' in which the believer can choose or reject what's on offer as the fancy takes them. It is a restless, selective approach to Scripture and Christian truth that rejects traditional certainties, shuns hard answers and prizes breadth and novelty.
Buffet Christianity is, as yet, a mood, not a movement, but it breathes the same air of disquiet, questioning and impatience found in the 'progressive' or 'revisionist' beliefs of those who, over the last few years, have noisily walked out of the traditional evangelical church and stormed off into the wilderness. It's a mood, however, that I fear is growing. Indeed, I think it has been encouraged over the last two years, as locked-down churchgoers found themselves browsing through an online supermarket of Christianity overflowing with an alluring range of services and theologies.
In Buffet Christianity there's a hunger for the 'tasty', the eye-catching, the upbeat, the affirmative and the non-judgmental. And if it knows what it likes, it knows what it doesn't. Buffet Christianity rejects certainty, especially where it makes demands or challenges. It has absorbed the spirit of postmodernism where the truth of a statement lies not in what the author says, but what the hearer or reader thinks it says. The result is that today someone can gaze at a scripture on sin and, with a muttered, 'That was then, but it's not how I see it now,' can simply turn the page.
If there's an aversion to certainty, there's also the affirmation of doubt. Sometimes challenging passages in scripture are evaded with the words, 'I'm really not sure we can know what the Bible means here.' Once people were embarrassed about their doubts; now they are embarrassed about their beliefs.
Buffet Christianity also prefers choice. A wide range of dishes gives popularity not just to a buffet, but also to faith. When we express reservations about something on offer we get a simple response: 'Well, you don't have to eat it.' The offence of the gospel is diluted by the sheer range of choice.
Why am I against Buffet Christianity? One reason is that it is not the true faith; the robust, time-honoured evangelicalism that has fed me and countless Christians over the years. For another, it's clear that Buffet Christianity is driven by a belief that human reason is to be preferred to any simple trust in God and his word. Indeed, I have to say that Buffet Christianity's mood spills over into a condescending, if not sneering, attitude to those of us who have chosen to stick to the 'fixed menu' of orthodox traditional faith. We find ourselves labelled as 'naïve', 'simplistic' and even 'fundamentalists'. I have always dined well at the King's table and will continue to eat there.
No, for all its appeal, Buffet Christianity offers several deep problems.
First, it undermines Christian care. The certainties that traditional evangelicalism taught were not only teachings that flowed from Scripture but truths that, over time, the church had found to be beneficial. It's the fixed menu, not the pick-and-mix buffet, that offers the balanced diet. In its doctrines, historic Christianity put up fences which kept God's precious sheep in pastures where they could safely graze. To stray beyond these fences is to go where famine threatens and wolves prowl.
Second, it undermines Christian challenge. The beauty of the traditional gospel, with its view that Christ took our place and paid our price on the cross, is so wonderfully simple that it can be understood by every intellect. Buffet Christianity has created something that is so fluid and flexible that it's very hard to know what it stands for or stands against. In truth, it's not tasteful because frequently it is lies. In an age of uncertainty people are seeking not doubts, but answers.
Finally, it undermines Christian comfort. A 'choose your own' faith may be fine when all is going well in life, but for tough times, we need to be nourished by something more solid. The problem with applying consumerism to beliefs is that it undermines not just the problematic verses in the Bible but also the consoling ones.
So finally, what do we do about Buffet Christianity? Quite simply, recognise and resist.
We need to recognise the problem of Buffet Christianity. It's fascinating that in Genesis 3 the devil encourages Eve to ignore what God has said and take a bite out of what she fancies. We need to recognise that for all its delights, a buffet diet of beliefs does not lead to spiritual health and strength.
We need to resist. We need to read our Scriptures thoroughly, feeding on all truth, whether it is tasty or tough. We need to be humble and remind ourselves that while what God offers us may not be what we fancy, we can be confident that it is for our good.
God calls us to his table on his terms. Let's go and eat!