The story of my conversion from despondent hedonism to following Jesus is quite conventional and fairly dramatic in places. I’ve told it to believers and non-believers alike on many occasions, with dramatic flair. The story’s got it all: a troubled childhood, self-destructive tendencies, drug abuse, an existential crisis, and an abrupt conversion experience with immediate radical consequences to my life. One day I was smoking dope and contemplating my next rave. Two months later I was a de-facto youth pastor.
The idea that I had an impossible-to-fill “God-shaped hole” was quickly instilled in me. I internalized the narrative that I’d tried to fill this hole with drugs and general hedonism before meeting God, using it to explain my own story of coming to faith. The story goes something like this: “You see, I had this God-shaped hole, and no matter how many drugs our pleasures I tried to fit in there, it was just as empty as before. But then I gave my life to Jesus, and He filled it completely. Hallelujah!”
Before I come across as merely a disaffected evangelical, I’ll say that this narrative has some excellent explanatory power and isn’t all wrong. The biblical narrative clearly shows that we were created by God to be in relationship with Him—a relationship shattered by the Fall and made possible once again through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
The problem with the God-shaped hole narrative is that it follows the exact same structure as nearly all marketing narratives: 1) you are deficient in some manner, but 2) Product X makes up for your deficiency by 3) giving you Benefit Y. For example: I once was unpopular with the ladies, but now I have Axe Body Spray and the chicks love me. Or, I once was lost, but now I have Jesus and I feel better about myself.1
The gaping hole in this narrative is that it ceases to be compelling once the benefits lose their potency. I was an insecure sketchy kid who gained a sudden feeling of peace and belonging that I had distinctly lacked beforehand, which is no longer tangible to me 11 years later. I no longer have the day-to-day sense that Jesus made a sad kid happy.
The problem isn’t that I’ve lost that sense. The problem is that I’d put so much stock in that sense in the first place because I’d absorbed the God-shaped hole narrative. When you start to lose the sense of Benefit Y, you begin to question if Product X is right for you any more. And here I think we have an excellent explanation for the steady leak of younger folks from the church: Jesus just isn’t delivering the benefits that the God-shaped hole narrative promises.
Please, churches, stop telling the story of the God-shaped hole. We have enough troubles with consumerism as it is without turning Jesus into yet another product in the market. The reason that people are leaving your churches isn’t that they haven’t listened to what you preached, but precisely because they did. They were falsely promised Benefit Y and are looking for a more trustworthy product.2
As for myself, I’ve been blessed enough to catch sight of the story of the Missio Dei—the story that the Kingdom of God, where peace and justice reign in the person of Christ, has drawn near; the story that self-emptying love is the logic that drives the Universe. This story, freed of the narcissism of the God-shaped hole narrative, invites us to join the outposts of the kingdom of God to put forth the full powers of our various gifts in creative enactment of peace, laughter, reconciliation, mourning, and preaching the good news about Christ.
We need thicker, richer stories that can sustain us. We need stories that focus not on our emotional status, but on Christ and his ongoing mission in this world that we find ourselves caught up in. We need Christians everywhere3 to repent of their consumerist faith designed to augment their life rather than remake it. Above all, we need Christ himself, and openness to the wild things he might do in and through us if we would just take our eyes off of ourselves for but a moment.