St. Mark (When Freemium Meets Faith)

The word that EA kept using to describe Venice is ridiculous. And she’s right. There is not city in the world like Venice, Italy. Its famous canals, labyrinthine roads, and old world architecture make the place feel like a fantasy world dreamed up by a writer. You keep thinking you might stumble into the Italian version of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

On paper, Venice shouldn’t work. Yet it has survived for centuries. Granted, it is going to inevitably sink into the sea. So I don’t know if that will negate the idea of Venice “working” or perhaps we’ll just be impressed that it had such a good run.

But I digress. I love visiting Venice because it truly seems a world away from everything I have known. It is a quirky city and I like its quirk. I like how its rail thin streets burst out into wide piazza. I like how that gives even mundane walks a sense of adventure because it’s like you’re in a maze. I like the winged lions scattered throughout the city in recognition of St. Mark. Even the Hitchcockian number of pigeons in St. Mark’s Square have their own charm. It is simply a place that you should visit if you get the chance. 

When we arrived in Venice at the train station, we hopped a vaporetto (water taxi) that took us down the Grand Canal, and then we navigated our way to our hotel. After we got settled, we set out on a short walk to the Basilica of St. Mark. This is where the word ridiculous comes back into play though not in as glowing terms.

The line between church as sacred space and church as tourist attraction is skirted fairly uncomfortably throughout Italy. The uneasiness becomes increasingly dicey when money is involved. Some of it makes sense. In Florence, you have to pay to climb to the top of the Duomo. That makes sense. You’re not paying to visit the church as much as you’re paying for a panoramic view of Florence.

In the world of phone applications, there is a selling strategy known as freemium. A freemium app is one that you can get for free, but if you want the full functionality of the app, then you have to pay additional money. For example, I once got a Lego Star Wars game for free. I came to find out that only the first chapter was free and if I wanted to play chapters with Luke Skywalker or Han Solo (you know, real Star Wars) then I’d have to pay more. The hope is that once you get in the front door then you’re going to want to pony up the cash for the full experience. In my case, it just ticked me off and I deleted Lego Star Wars off my phone.

St. Mark’s is a freemium church. You can get into the building for free. And outside there are signs that make a huge deal about how the church is such a sacred space. Yet when you get inside you discover that you have to pay more to access certain areas. You want to see the terrace that overlooks the famous St. Mark’s Square? That’ll be €5 (I kind of understand that one because of the Duomo Principle). Want to see the treasure? €3. See more of the actual church, blocked by a velvet rope? Another €3.

That last one is where it felt like it might be time to start flipping over tables. In a church—one that is still used weekly for worship—there is a money changing station at which one must pay to see more of the house of worship. They did not do that in St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, or St. Francis: all places of more religious importance. Throw in the fact that there is a gift shop in the portico of the basilica and the entire vibe seems to be one of cashing in on this church.

And that thought was not just in my head. As we exited, a teenage girl commented to her family, “Man, these people know how to make money.” I cringed. How many people from around the world are coming into this place of faith and thinking that it exists to turn a profit? Maybe the church is in trouble and need to pay for renovations. There was scaffolding outside the church. But will they stop when the renovations are made? If they had to charge money, did they have to put the ticket booths inside the church? Did there have to be signs at every corner asking for more money for more access? No, there did not.

The sad thing is St. Mark’s is a beautiful church. There are impressive mosaics throughout depicting scenes from scripture and not just the big, important scenes. Right near the souvenir shop, there are mosaics depicting the story of Drunk, Naked Noah (like I said, Venice is a quirky city). That’s at the entrance! It’s weird but in a delightful way. Then you go inside and you see scenes from the life of Jesus. Yet the queues, signs, and ticket stations everywhere detract greatly from all that which makes the church special.

I walked out into the sunshine of St. Mark’s Square discouraged. Freemium. I think it bothers me because it seems dishonest. You think you’re going to get one thing, but then you discover that you actually have to give up more to get the real thing. I sometimes fear that we make the Christian faith appear like a freemium product. There are so many people that will tell you that it is so, so easy to accept Christ. Say a prayer and—boom!—you’re set. 

Then they get in the door and they find out that following Jesus is not that easy. Hopefully they stick around, but I wonder what that does when we’re not as honest about how tough it can be. We’re not trying to make money, but I wonder if people walk away from that experience thinking, “Man, these people know how to sell stuff.” And that stuff is faith. Faith is not something to sell. As I tell people about my faith, I pray that I don't sound like a salesman.

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