Big Box Altars


All hail the might dollar!This last weekend, my wife and I did something we haven’t done in almost three years…

We spent a day shopping.

Unlike some Americans, we shop only if forced. As we try to simplify our lives by purchasing fewer and fewer things, shopping dwindles into the background along with other things we’ve relegated to the backburner of life (like TV viewing, going to the movies, and taking vacations every year).

One of the truths the Lord’s been teaching me concerns the embarrassment of riches we have in the United States. I got a larger lesson in this when I walked into a store I haven’t visited in more than two years: Best Buy.

My wife practices her singing on the way to work, but her car’s stereo burned out so she can’t practice along with her CDs. I came to see what I could find in a new stereo under $150. I also noted here a few weeks ago that our TV burned out. While we may watch next to no broadcast television, we do, on rare occasions, get a DVD out of our local library and take an evening off. So I wandered into Best Buy to get a feel for what’s out there in both offerings.

Whoa. The price tags! Am I reading it right that a TV capable of rendering a fully digital signal—as mandated by the FCC as of this month—costs a minimum of $1,500?

Sometime in the distant past of my shoddy memory, $1500 used to be what a car cost. In other words, one heck of a lot of money. Yet on this eighty degree, sunny day, Best Buy filled with people waving cash, their eyes wider than the width of the TVs that grabbed their attention.

What grabbed my attention was those folks’ shoes. You can tell everything you want to know about someone’s income by their shoes. Well-off people may wear grubby clothes, but rarely do they wear grubby, no-name-brand shoes. (When I worked in sales years ago, I picked my customers based on their shoes and routinely chalked up monster sales figures as a result) .

The shoes on the humungo TV-buyers said this: “We can’t afford this TV.” The kids wore knock-offs, swooshes that mimicked Nike, stripes not exactly Adidas. And so did their parents.

Thrifty, perhaps. But a quick scan of the newspapers tells a different story. We’ve got record personal bankruptcies, record mortgage defaulting, a huge spike in credit card debt (after years of downward numbers), negative savings rates, too much leverage on our houses through home equity loans, and a rise in every negative economic indicator known to Man.

Yet we keep on buying. We have to.

Hear David’s heart cry:

Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul. I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
—Psalm 142:4-5

Standing there in Best Buy, watching people cart out thousands of dollars worth of items that a house fire would reduce in heartbeats to so much melted glass and oozing plastic, I understood.

Best Buy takes notice of them. Samsung cares for their souls. Sony is their portion, Panasonic their refuge. Be it Best Buy, Home Depot, DSW, Bass Pro Shops, or whatever— that big box store’s got an altar to perfectly fit that hole where God should be enthroned.

At some point in the history of the United States, Jesus Christ failed to satisfy. You and I know this had nothing to do with the splendor of the Lord. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. But something changed in us.

I’ve been writing about the Holy Spirit quite a bit lately, and I think the American Church’s understanding of Him may explain our Big Box Altars.
I believe that we made the Lord a mental exercise. The Enlightenment inflicted a dire wound on our grasp of the Faith. We turned the Faith that enlivens us into something we cognitively assent to. Yet in doing so, we stripped the passion, the intense feelings of intimacy, that accompany faith in Christ. Our churches transformed into dim depositories of hazy reflections of what it means to be aflame with love for Jesus.

As a result, verses like the following don’t register with us:

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
—Psalms 122:1

I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women. As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love.
—Song of Solomon 2:1-5

Instead of being sick with love for Jesus, instead of longing with all our hearts to dwell with our brothers and sisters in Christ before Him, we pump ourselves up to watch March Madness on our new 60″ plasma TV. You should have seen the eyes of the men in that store as they watched (oh so fortuitously) NCAA basketball games on those monster TVs. You could almost hear their souls saying, “This is what I truly need. I’m sick with love.”

Idolatry isn’t pretty.

But then again, neither is sterile intellectual debate. Yet how easily the American Church concedes passion and emotion! Dry, dusty churches fill with people looking to be sick in love with something, someone, anything, yet we give them intellectual discourses on the fiery faith of our fathers. We hold Jesus Christ out as a systematic theology. Or we make Him into a trifle that exists only to wave a magic wand and Poof!, a more real object of our affection shows up in our living room—all sixty plasma-filled inches of it.

A reader asked me the other day what kind of church I go to that it has drums and dancing. The fact that someone asked that question saddened me, because it made me wonder what kind of church he/she attends. What kinds of sermons? What kind of fellowship? What kind of worship?

Any life at all?

I’ve got to believe there’s something wrong with a Church where week in and week out there’s no weeping before the altar of the Lord. If a man can go through an entire church year without once falling on his face weeping, without soaking the church carpeting with his tears, something’s desperately wrong with his church.

I’ve got to believe that a church will never amount to much for the Kingdom if it never once sees someone get up and dance during worship. I’ve got to believe that a church filled with people who just sit and nod their heads will be asleep when the Bridegroom comes. The Holy Spirit’s missing in a church that goes through the emotionless motions.

How can an unstirred church reflect anything resembling the abundant life?

In C.S. Lewis’s masterful book, The Great Divorce, he posits a heaven so substantial that all of life this side of it resembles a vapor. Massive, unearthly Christians fill that dense heaven, giants, heroes that shake the foundation of the world with their conquests. How then can it be that so little life fills believers today? Why is it that we cannot find succor for our souls on Sunday, but instead find our hearts strangely warmed—if only for a passing moment—by a 60″ plasma display rocking with the Final Four?

Have we Christians rendered Christ so inconsequential? Have we denied the power of YHWH for the power of LG?

What happened to passion and fire?

33 thoughts on “Big Box Altars

  1. Matt

    Great post, Dan. I confess I struggle with this, although I’m also learning it’s sometimes thrifty to save the cash and spend a little more on durable clothing rather than going for the bargain basement shirts at WalMart.

    Truth be told, this is my struggle these days. I crave one. God forgive me!

  2. Ronni


    You know God has been on me so much about this too. Anymore I find myself getting rid of more and more stuff (and compared to most people in my family I don’t have much). I told my husband the other day, clothes that cover me, books to read, my computer to do work, and my guitar to minister with. That is really all I need (in tangible goods).

    I seriously hate shopping. I’d rather order it online, or go without.

    I watch so many people I know buy and buy and buy… a group I was teaching online (scrapbooking stuff) eventually became a contest and greedfest of who got the newest toy first and who had the most stuff… they even posted pictures of their stuff to show off… I got quieter and quieter on that board and eventually one of the moderators (a friend) posted a question as to why I didn’t comment much anymore. I said that I was interested in the art of this, and teaching techniques, and had little time or money to keep up with the buying frenzy. Suddenly I was treated like a harlot. They were searching so much that that new piece of paper was the crack they needed to fill the hole in their soul, and me being the business woman and owner of a crack selling company… my heart broke. 6 months later I sold my shares, and left the business all together.

    I’m free now.

  3. George

    I have learned to realize what you have: we live in a culture defined by consumerism. Not democracy, not capitalism, not religion, not materialism — consumerism. We take it for granted that what life is about is what we consume. It’s what made the prayer of Jabez so popular.

    But the good news — and there’s an irony if not foolishness in my use of that term here — is that the $1500 price tag, I think, applies to HDTVs you saw: High Definition TVs with more lines making up the picture so that details are more, uhhh, detailed. What you are after is simply a digital TV: a TV with a tuner that translates a digital, rather than analog, signal. All HDTVs are digital, but not all digital TVs are hi-def.

    According to Circuit City, “FCC rules require that by March 1, 2007, any TV produced with an analog broadcast tuner must also have a DTV broadcast tuner built-in or marketed to retailers with the set.” So if you’re buying now, just make sure the TV you buy has a digital tuner included.

    I think there is no legalistic answer to consumerism that would make life choices easier for me. I believe that the wisdom we need can be found in Paul’s advice on wine. The Ephesians he told to avoid getting drunk as that would lead to excess, while Tim was told to drink some for health reasons. And Jesus’ example shows that wine is indeed a party drink. The wisdom is: enjoy with being distracted from God. But with our fat wallets and the plethora of services and goods available, it’s hard to stop with one drink, so to speak. For me, anyway.

    • Too true…And as events with China, Vietnam and the Middle East have shown, consumerism does not go hand in hand with freedom. In fact, businesses seeks stability, and entrenched totalitarian regimes are more likely to provide that than new democracies. It is better for Christians to focus on Christ than our pocketbook, because as soon as we start “making a living” we are loosing the battle.

    • George,

      You know that sooner or later, the Powers That Be will deem only those TVs that are 1080p or 1080i will work with “the new system,” whatever the new system will be. You know it.

      The working rule on this that I keep in mind is Susanna Wesley’s advice to her son, John:

      Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.

  4. I think the passion and fire start dying out pretty much as soon as the church hands you your own personal copy of Big Book of Rules with room for adding a few of your own. This is what we normally get instead of laying of of hands to receive the Spirit. There is no joy in normal western Christianity, and that’s why we line up at cash registers and anywhere else the world promises a few minutes of happiness. I for one am a miserable person ( you can take this as a request for prayer) , but it has not always been so. There are many things sadly lacking in my relationship with God, but I’m realizing that this problem is not entirely a personal problem. I was meant to be part of something bigger and better and I’m not. I need a church, a real one! (you can take this as another request for prayer, thanks!)

      • Julie,

        Every hot new book on the Christian life that I’m reading is saying the same thing: If you don’t like your church, leave.

        I hate that advice; it’s too simpleminded and plays into the consumerism I’m decrying. I’m with David on this.

        • We left our church almost a year ago and will not go back. We were there for 8 years and left because God told us to. We thought we’d die with that group of churches, but God led us out. Actually, I disagree with you. Would you counsel a Morman or JW to stay and fight for change? There are some good reasons for leaving a church…

  5. Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books, one which we would be well to study on a regular basis…In chapter 7 comes this little pearl…15 In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. 16 Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise– why destroy yourself? 17 Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool– why die before your time? 18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.There’s all kinds of good advise about wealth in there, too. Another interesting look at wealth (or the lack of it) comes from Paul. The famous “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” in Philippians 4 is after a discourse on living in plently and without and being content in whatever circumstance. And therein lies the cross…We are become too easily content in our life in Christ, and discontented with our physical, temporary condition. Would I die for Christ? Then why can’t I live for Him?

  6. sushil_yadav

    Dan Edelen,

    In response to your post on Consumerism, Counter Culture, Simple living and Spirituality I want to post a part from my article which examines the impact of speed, overstimulation, consumerism and industrialization on our minds and environment. Please read.

    The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

    The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

    Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
    Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
    Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.

    Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

    If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

    Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

    When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

    There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

    People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

    Emotion ends.

    Man becomes machine.

    A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

    A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

    A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.

    Fast visuals/ words make slow emotions extinct.

    Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys emotional circuits.

    A fast (large) society cannot feel pain / remorse / empathy.

    A fast (large) society will always be cruel to Animals/ Trees/ Air/ Water/ Land and to Itself.

    To read the complete article please follow any of these links :




  7. Again Friend, your words inspire and ring true to what I’ve been witness too recently. It is sad how we see so many bowing to the earthly – and I struggle with it myself and am working to correct that by the power of Christ in my life!

    I have felt lead as well to post about this on my blog, wondering why we’ve come to this point in the U.S. – where things matter more than God, Famliy & Relationships. The focus is gone. Are we slowly sinking into 1984 where we can no longer think for ourselves but have “big brother” (e.g. corporations & government) telling us and showing us how to live and what to live by and for?

    Truly a sad commentary to where we have let this country and the world come to.

  8. Dan,

    I have pondered your post all day……..

    While I agree to some degree, I see a real danger in this post, and that is the notion that “my piety is better than your piety” with the rule of judgment being the possessions we have.

    Let’s face it, we all have stuff. Who is to say that the amount of my stuff makes me spiritual or unspiritual?

    By Americans standards I have less stuff than the vast majority of Americans BUT I have more stuff than the majority of people in the world. It is a matter of perspective.

    One man’s necessity is another man’s frivolousness and I think it is unwise to judge in these matters. Now this doesn’t mean that we can consume and have anything and everything, but God gives us great latitude in enjoying the fruit of our labor.

    Some people are cheapskates and they hide behind piety. They think it is a badge of honor to be still using a computer with Win95 on it. No problem if a person wants to, but don’t make it a prideful mark of spirituality.

    I am just passing on a little warning here………it is very easy to lapse into a phariseeical attitude about the possessions of others.

    Here is how I deal with possessions. I made up my mind years ago that I would not covet what others had. I also would not let any possession control me or attach itself to me. As a result, I do not find it hard to part with things. I have sold my fair share of things over the years. No regrets. It is just stuff.

    Several years ago we left the only home we have ever owned and a good bit of our possessions to pastor a small Baptist Church that paid 200.00 a week. My wife left a good job, only to be able to find a job that paid 7.00 an hour. We made great sacrifice materially to pastor this Church. My tenure there was 7 months. (long story) We were angry for a time because of the “sacrifice” we made…..but in the end it was just “stuff”

    Well, that’s enough rambling.

    BTW you can get a fully digital TV for far less than 1500.00. Check out Sam’s Club. We bought a Vizio 32inch LCD 1080i HD TV for 699.00 Great picture.


    • Bruce,

      If there’s even one person in my church who’s suffering due to financial issues, to buy something for myself before meeting his need is a sin.

      Yet that’s what we perpetually do. So yes, for most people in the United States, we have too much stuff that we do not share with others. And that’s a sin.

  9. i recently tried to buy a tv for under $250…really hard to find something larger that 13 inches in that priace range. And, I was amazed that you can’t buy just a “normal” TV…everything is flat-screened and HDTV. What happened to the big-backed tv that takes three people to carry but doesn’t cost an arm and a leg?

    We were made to worship our Creator, but we settle for worshiping created things. That is, unfortunately, our sinful tendency. What you are describing is the manifestion of Romans 1 in our particular culture…it is very sad.

    Is “stuff” necessarily bad, though? I mean, thinking of King Solomon and all that he was blessed with materially…in the end, that wealth was part of his demise, but only because of Solmon’s misplaced love, not because of the things themselves. I mean, talk about 60-inch TVs…everything Solomon owned seemed to be covered in gold. God blessed Solomon with wealth, or so it seems as I read Scripture. What Solomon did with that blessing was wrong, but was the wealth itself bad? just a thought…

  10. Dire Dan: The Enlightenment inflicted a dire wound on our grasp of the Faith.


    I’d like to kick the Enlightenment down the stairs, along with market research, sociology, feminist studies, Rousseau, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Kinsey, Sagan, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, Henry Ward Beecher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, John Shelby Spong,, Ludwig Von Mises, Seeker Sensitive, Purpose Driven, Harvard Business School, S.H.A.P.E., Church Growth Institute, and a whole host of other things.

    Jer 2:13

  11. Marta Odum

    Great post! I agree that Americans are out of control with consumerism. My pastor frequently points out the fact that most businesses are open on Sundays, and that you can buy liquor on Sundays. He is seventy years old, so he can remember a time when the ONLY thing open on a Sunday was the church, period. As you said, people are filling the holes in their lives with stuff and the pursuit of stuff, instead of with God. And it is such a shame. God bless you! Love this blog.

  12. Tammy

    I think we see this even in the “big box” mega-churches, and “big box” conferences such as Women of Faith, Promise Keepers, etc. The mentality seems to be the same. In order to attract more people, we need to be bigger, better, cooler, neater, and more fun than that boring, small church you grew up in, and in some cases, bigger, better, cooler, etc. than even the rock stars and politicians. Since when did God worry about any of this? Was Jesus the trendiest thing to come along in His day? We will draw more people by letting the light and love of Christ show through us and in us, not by marketing!

  13. Being here now at the King’s Lodge in England we are seeing that living in a home as a solo family is a luxury. Having a bathroom is a luxury. Having your home heated to 70 degrees is a luxury. Having a washer and dryer at your fingertips is a luxury. Being able to get places by car is a luxury. That doesn’t even speak to the full blown issues of consumerism you hit on above. Great post.

    • Bryan,

      We are so blessed in the West to live in such abundance, where infant mortality is measured in low single-digit percentages, more people live into their 100s, and you can walk into a grocery store and see more varieties of quality foodstuffs than could be imagined by our great-great-grandparents.

      We are so blessed and yet so ungrateful.

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