When newcomers arrive at a megachurch these days, they face an obstacle course of challenges -- from deciding how much to tip the parking-lot guy to tricking their normal children into looking like cherubs.
Finally, loaded with visitor swag -- donuts, coffee, official church water bottles, snappy Christian t-shirts, the pastor's new book -- they head into the flashing lights, dry-ice fog and pounding pop music inside the auditorium.
Now what? The bottom line: Look spiritual.
"On the powerful choruses, lift your hands high with abandon. On the subtler verses, tone it down a touch," advises the snarky narrator in the new book "How to Be a Perfect Christian," by the duo behind The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website.
After the guitar solo, there will be a "bridge" that worshippers sing over and over and over: "Go for it with both hands and a feigned expression of emotion on your face. Sway side to side like a tree in the wind. If you open one eye at this point, you'll probably notice that people … are staring at you in awe that they're in the presence of one so holy."
The book's goal isn't to mock Christianity, but to help believers understand that many churches have evolved into self-help supermarkets defined by trends in mass culture, said Bee founder Adam Ford. Often, faith turns into another "niche" product.
"We push back against the commercialization and 'celebritization' of so many aspects of the church," noted Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. "Get a famous pastor with a lot of Twitter followers, host the most carnival-like 'church services,' make sure everyone is as comfortable and entertained as possible, preach a Zig Ziglar-style message, and you'll get more people to come to your church. Like churches are circus franchises or something, with the ultimate goal being more butts in seats."
Ford wanted to become a pastor, but veered into the more private world of digital publishing (Adam4d.com). He founded the Bee in 2016 and recently sold the site, in part because of the hot spotlight caused by its success and a run-in with Facebook over content. Lead writer Kyle Mann is now the editor and publisher and also co-wrote "How to Be a Perfect Christian."
The book defines "a perfect Christian" as someone "who conforms to the man-made standards of the Christian faith in any given age. … To become perfect, you need to be baptized in the glorious waters of Christian culture." Next question: What is "Christian culture"? Think 1950s America, mixed with 1960s vibes and waves of technology and safe Christian versions of popular culture.
The subtitle sums up the format: "Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living." Ford and Mann offer spiritual shortcuts, such as:
* Biblical warnings against spiritual pride were written before the Internet. Today, Christians with social-media skills "were found to be 428 times holier than those who rarely … posted pictures of themselves next to an open Bible and a hot cup of coffee."
* Concerning prayer: "Ninety percent of any good prayer is comprised of the three words 'just,' 'Father' and 'God.' "
* "Doing life together" is a crucial modern Christian concept. This means doing whatever interest you -- but during "fellowship" time with church friends. "If done with non-Christians, you can call it evangelism and get even more spiritual credit! Awesome!"
* The "majority of converts to Christianity came to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior after a Christian friend just went nuclear on them online. … Trust us, it's science."
* "Never let anyone get close enough to your life to see what a mess it is below the surface."
This is satire, but written by believers who are observing church life from the inside. Ford, for example, remains active in what he called a "Bible-believing" Baptist church outside Detroit.
The big idea is that authentic faith is timeless, he said.
"Many people think that conforming to … man-made, Western, 21st Century evangelicalism is the way to become a real Christian -- as if simply plugging into a cultural program results in one being born again," he said. This book "pushes back against this idea using humor, challenging readers to ask themselves why they do some of the things that they do."