cafeteria Christian, cafeteria Christianity

July 18, 2013 | By | 6 Comments

Pick and choose the doctrines you want to subscribe to and leave the ones you don’t. That’s “cafeteria Christianity”!

definition of cafeteria christianFor many years I had only known of the term cafeteria Catholic, and it was just recently that I learned that the term cafeteria Christian not only existed but had even been in regular use since the 1960s. Cafeteria Christian means pretty much the same thing as cafeteria Catholic: a person who doesn’t accept all of the traditional or standard doctrines of their faith but instead accepts some and rejects others, often for personal reasons of one kind or another. (For another Christianese term that is closely related to a Roman Catholic expression, see cradle Christian.)

The image of a cafeteria is actually quite an apt one in this Christianese metaphor. Fifty years ago, when cafeteria Christian first started gaining traction, cafeterias were primarily self-service. You would push your tray down a long counter, and laid out along the length of the counter there would be a variety of prepared food available within arm’s reach. If you saw a food item you wanted, you would simply transfer it to your tray. If you didn’t care for a certain food, no problem—just ignore it and keep pushing your tray forward. When you got to the end of the counter, there was a cash register and an attendant there so you could pay for only the food items you had placed on your tray.

Over the years, this image of “serving yourself what you want and only what you want” when it comes to faith has become expressed in additional terms: convenience-store Christianity, designer Christianity (think of a pair of designer jeans… they’re shaped to fit your body!), and smorgasbord Christianity.

Smorgasbord Christianity has rapidly become one of my favorite Christianese terms. What exactly is a smorgasbord, you ask? It’s the Swedish word for what is essentially an eat-what-you-want-and-all-you-want buffet table. Oh, Christianese, you are so multicultural! So far this is the only Christianese term I know of that incorporates a Swedish word.

Do you know of any similar terms for Christians who pick and choose what they want to believe and what they refuse to accept?

 

cafeteria Christian n. [in allusion to a self-service cafeteria where diners “pick and choose” among the offerings] A Christian who accepts some orthodox doctrines but rejects others.
See also *cafeteria Christianity; *convenience-store Christianity.
1966 Haerem A Handbook for Neurotics 92 : As on other subjects, few good churchgoers accept totally and completely all the ideas held forth by their church. Usually they will accept some and either disregard or privately renounce the unacceptable ones. Such cafeteria Christians probably have less conflicts than those more conscientious ones who try to digest every detail of complicated dogma dreamed up by some saint of the past. 1968 Bach Miracles Do Happen 5 : Once they were tabbed as pilgrims and wayfarers, lost souls seeking they knew not what, and not knowing what they had found when they found it. True, some were dilettantes—cafeteria Christians, I once called them—filling their trays with samplings. 1982 Watts This Is the Day 255 : Perhaps we could call selfish people cafeteria Christians, for in a cafeteria everyone serves himself. 1995 Wiersbe Be Skillful 138 : A pastor friend of mine once said to me, “There are too many ‘cafeteria Christians’ in our congregation. Instead of letting God plan the whole meal and accepting it, they pick and choose what they want, and they miss the best dishes He fixes for them!” 2000 Huston–Holm Shattered: True Story of an American Teenager 194 : Helen wasn’t some “cafeteria Christian,” picking and choosing what suited her at the time. She read the Bible and believed every word. 2001 Hewitt The Right Course vs. What’s Left 7 : There are many more Cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which parts of the religion they will follow and which parts they will discard. They discard those parts they deem to be too inconvenient or politically incorrect. 2001 Bartkowski Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families 89 : This teacher referred to such individuals as “cafeteria Christians,” because they take a little of this, a little of that, and throw away the rest. 2002 Kreeft How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis 27 : Our enemies are not even the heretics within the Church, the cafeteria Christians, the à la carte Christians, the “I Did It My Way” Christians. 2005 The New Yorker LXXXI. iss. 29–38 93 : I guess I’m probably what the religious right would call a “cafeteria Christian”—I select the parts I like and ignore the others. 2008 Spencer Willing 3 : He was not what is called a cafeteria Christian, someone who helps himself to the easy and attractive parts and ignores those parts that are inconvenient or call for self-sacrifice.
cafeteria Christianity n. [see *cafeteria Christian] The practice of accepting some orthodox doctrines but rejecting others.
A Christian who practices cafeteria Christianity is called a *cafeteria Christian.
See also *convenience-store Christianity.
1988 Prusak, ed. Raising the Torch of Good News 257 : If the areas of dispute are not taught carefully, the student can come away with the impression that anything goes in the Church, and that cafeteria Christianity is the only thing that makes sense. 1989 Wiersbe Be Counted: Living a Life that Counts for God preface : We have too much “cafeteria Christianity” these days, with God’s people going from church to church, “sampling” ministry and not settling down to serve the Lord faithfully in the place where He’s assigned them. 1989 Balmer Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (2006) 324 : Though sometimes derided by critics as “Cafeteria Christianity” or “Christianity Lite,” the megachurches have had enormous appeal. 1990 Merritt God’s Prescription for a Healthy Christian 76 : Some Christians would like to practice what I call, “cafeteria Christianity.” They would like to select their spiritual gifts just as they choose food in a cafeteria. “I’d like some tongues please, but I wouldn’t care for any administration.” 1995 Simmons The Unveiling: Exploring the Nature of God 89 : That was the problem. They had borrowed the old Burger King, “Have It Your Way” slogan for their spiritual lives. They had introduced and were heavily marketing “Cafeteria Christianity.” 1999 Adams How the Clinton Clergy Corrupted a President 141 : Wogaman’s “cafeteria Christianity” has contributed to the President’s downfall in three ways. First, it has taught him that the Bible is not a reliable moral authority. Second, Wogaman has told Clinton that the human brain is the highest authority and is capable of deciding which parts of the Bible are true and which are error. Third, this communicates to the President that he can write his own commandments about right and wrong. 2001 Third Way (Sep.) 17 : But, as the evangelicals, and others, rightly said, when you start making choices you have eroded the whole system, because we believe the whole system is the truth and you have to take it all or take none of it, because you are radically relativising it if you make these choices. You get cafeteria Christianity, a kind of shopping for ideas you approve of. 2007 Jacobs The Year of Living Biblically 327 : It may not be majestic, but here goes: There’s a phrase called “Cafeteria Christianity.” It’s a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is that the moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow.
convenience-store Christianity n. Syn *cafeteria Christianity.
1988 Yohannan The Road to Reality: Coming Home to Jesus from the Unreal World 13 : All those uncomfortable Scripture verses about taking up the cross—discipline, sacrifice and suffering—somehow, they just seem to get in the way of our modern-day “convenience store” Christianity. We’ve been taught to serve up a watered-down gospel for so long that the real Gospel has become an embarrassment. 1992 Princeton Alumni Weekly (28 Oct.) 43 : In one scene, a congregation in suburban Chicago gathers for a service that seems more like a variety show—a practice Balmer dubs “convenience-store Christianity.” 2010 Catt The Power of Surrender: Breaking Through to Revival 40 : Repentance removes any thought that “easy believism” is acceptable. There is no room for La-Z-Boy believers. Convenience store or cafeteria Christianity—where you run in, get what you want, and leave the rest—is not New Testament faith, nor is it adequate for the hour.
designer Christianity n. [designer ‘specially made, tailor-made’ (as in, designer jeans, designer labels) + Christianity] Syn *cafeteria Christianity.
For more information, see *cafeteria Christian.
2000 Yount Be Strong and Courageous: Letters to My Children About Being Christian 57 : There would always be a tendency to reject off-the-rack orthodoxy in favor of a “designer” Christianity bearing the individual believer’s private label. 2008 Wellman Evangelical Versus Liberal 114 : The whole idea of smorgasbord religion or Christianity where you come and take what you want, you decide for yourself, is very much part of the culture. It has been for several decades now and it’s kind of a mix and match, designer Christianity. You make up your own mind.
smorgasbord Christianity n. [Swedish smörgsbord ‘buffet table’ + Christianity] Syn *cafeteria Christianity.
For more information, see *cafeteria Christian.
1979 Christenson Back to Square One 99 : No obligation. No discipleship. No trouble. No demands. No suffering. Smorgasbord Christianity. Take what you like and leave what you don’t like. 2005 Coleman The Woman Behind the Mask: Trading Your Façade for Authentic Life 106 : According to George Barna only seven percent of those who call themselves Christians actually follow a Christian lifestyle. I’m still blown away by that, but I’ve seen it, smorgasbord Christianity—just pick and choose what parts of the Bible you want to accept If it doesn’t quite fit what you really want, disregard it.

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  • Tara Taylor

    Would choosing not to meet together with other Christians in a church setting be considered a “doctrine” of the Christian faith?

    • http://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/ Tim Stewart

      That’s a good question, Tara. I don’t know the answer. In talking with my friends about this topic, I’ve heard a verse from Hebrews mentioned: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Though what it means to “meet together” I think is up for reasonable debate. Does meeting together refer specifically to Sunday morning worship? Or can meeting together mean continuing to have Christian friends and praying with and for those friends and continuing to grow in faith, even if Sunday worship services aren’t a part of that faith? I think these are all reasonable questions.

      For what it’s worth, the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed don’t mention anything about checking a box every week when you show up to church.

      Thank you so much for commenting and for visiting the website.

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