“Cafeteria Christianity” is a phrase that is sometimes used to describe the modern practice picking and choosing which Christian doctrines and practices you will accept and which you will not. The hundreds of Christian denominations offer thousands of choices – just like a giant cafeteria. All that you need to do is pick the parts you like. Those who use the term often do so in a derogatory manner; those who practice cafeteria Christianity, it is thought, do so because they’re lazy and undisciplined and unwilling to make costly choices. They’re looking, it is believed, for the easy way out.
Like it or hate it, cafeteria Christianity is here to stay.
Our world is filled with ideas. Gutenberg’s printing press let a genie out of the bottle that we can never put back in. Books, newspapers, radio, television, the internet: the pace of the information explosion is ever quickening. People have access to more information, opinion and analysis than they ever have.
Ideas have always traveled over social networks, and human mobility is ever increasing. People are on the move, from town to town, state to state and country to country. I can travel farther in a day than people formerly would travel in a lifetime. Virtual communities have created even newer forms of mobility. Ideas now travel over social networks unconnected with geography.
Along with these changes, trends in social organization also favor a cafeteria-style approach to thinking. Less social rigid social patterns have less power to influence identity and thought. Groups have a lot less power to tell their members directly or indirectly what to believe and how to act. Social location has a lot less power to confer identity than it did in earlier times.
In a highly mobile world, filled with ideas and characterized by loose social organization, cafeteria Christianity is inevitable, especially among those who are paying attention. To tell the truth, many Christians would have to work hard to become cafeteria Christians. They’re nibbling on the fare that their church sets on the table, but they’re not really buying the whole set menu that their church is offering. They’re mostly feeding on the junk-food that they find in television, movies, music and popular culture.
A cafeteria offers a variety of healthy and unhealthy ways to put together a meal. By themselves, individual dishes are only part of the meal. A dinner of spaghetti, mashed potatoes and ice cream probably isn’t good for anybody, but pasta, a salad and some lean meat might fit the bill, as might some fruit, steamed broccoli and some baked fish. There’s more than one way to put together a wholesome meal.
Christian history sets an immense number of dishes on the table – from the church fathers to the latest pop-Christianity on sale at Borders. Academic disciplines and political ideologies are competing to be a part of the menu as well. I’m sure that there are unhealthy ways to put together a Christian life from that raw material, but I’m personally happy to have so much to work with. With so many choices, however, comes the responsibility to choose wisely.
I’m comfortable enough with the “cafeteria Christianity” environment that we have today. But, if you really want to use social coercion to force the members of your group to maintain your theological system, good luck with your cult.