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Blaming the Monster We Created - Consumer Christianity in America

Pastors often find themselves meeting together at conferences, denominational events, or community gatherings. Once the typical small talk is over, and if they actually like and trust each other, many will begin to express what they feel regarding the seeming lack of commitment of church members nowadays. This is not new. It has been the reality for decades. Yet, like all generations, the present realities are the most pressing. 

I talked with a church planter recently and asked the open-ended and very dangerous question "How are things going at your church?"

He answered. It was a typical answer. It was not one that is reserved for church planters, but in the world of planting is very, very common. He said, "It ebbs and flows. Yesterday was good, but it is hard. It's hard keeping members engaged and focused."

Yep. It's hard. Not just for church plants, but for established churches as well. 

One of the most common targets for sad pastors is lamenting "consumer Christianity" that seems to be so prevalent today. In case you have never heard this term, here are some descriptors:

Characteristics of Consumer Christians (not a complete list):

  • Self-focused
  • Looks for ministry options in the church that solely benefit themselves and their family members
  • Wants a children's program/youth program/choir/band/etc. that is large and attractive
  • Loves programs that entertain
  • Desires excellence in production of events and activities
  • Wants to "be fed"
  • Is an audience member, but not part of the congregation
  • Has a list of what the church should do for them
  • Sees church as a spiritual Target, Walmart, or Amazon, simply there to provide spiritual goods as desired
  • A purchaser who never actually gives back
  • Transient (brand-loyal for a while, but since church is a brand is eventually desirous of a new brand)
  • A marketing agency's target
  • Sees regular attendance as once a month...maybe
  • Actively attends church, unless something else is happening in the community
  • Does not serve
  • Posts "Looking for a new church" online every now and then to see what else is being offered

The consumer model of church attender, or "Consumer Christianity" is rampant in our culture. Whether you live in the urban core, the suburbs, or even in rural areas, consumerism reigns. 

Consider these words by Skye Jethani, writing for Christianity Today:

When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it [our faith] as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity. And the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences.1

Who's To Blame?

Consumer Christianity has existed in some form or fashion since the beginning of the church. People coming with less than holy motivations fill the buildings. The letters of Paul address some such instances. Yet, the current state of affairs in the world of celebrity pastors and spirituality sold as a commodity seems a bit out of hand. 

While pastors and church leaders lament the consumer nature of Christianity that results in tepid spirituality and a bevy of church shoppers, perhaps it is time to take a good, long look in the mirror. 

Like many pastors my age, I grew up in an era known for the church growth movement. Sadly, this led to the marketing of easy grace, the building of large facilities, and shifting of worship styles in order to reach seekers. The seeker sensitive, attractional model of ministry made headlines, created megachurches, and expanded the power of those at the pinnacle of movement. But...it also added to the creation of consumers, ultimately to the detriment of the church.

This is not to say that every megachurch, engaging church with a popular pastor/leader is wrong or "doing church" unbiblically. In fact, many are faithfully preaching, teaching, and leading. Nevertheless, the reality of consumer Christianity remains.

Who's to blame? We are. At least partially.

The seeker-sensitive model seemed logical at the time. "Let's look at the popular music of the day, strip down the religiosity of the service, and create a fun, exciting event each weekend so that lost people will want to come to church." At least that was the proposed reasoning.

Despite the seeming logic of it all, this passage of Scripture remains true...

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. Romans 3:10-11 (ESV)

So, no one seeks God, but the church sought to believe that people were seekers, looking for God. 

Frankenstein's Church

We continued to build the monster, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein. The American church pieced together parts and ideas all with good and, I'd say godly, intentions. Church staff were added with the intent of reaching segments of society, whether it be youth, single adults, young professionals, etc. This is not much different than having separate areas in a department store for different ages. People are different, right? Those of different ages desire different things. We know this. Marketing proves this.  It seemed logical.

And it worked...to a degree.

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Photo credit: twm1340 on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Crowds did gather. Groups did grow. The era of the huge youth group and ministry was strong. Para-church ministries increased their attendance as well, while many saying they were "for the church" but in practice were just competing with the local church. 

The evangelical church's Frankenstein's monster was roaming the countryside. New versions of church were launched. The old was abandoned as out of date and boring (to be honest, some were really out of date and boring.) New was in and consumers were sought.

Then, we got angry.

We blamed the church attenders and members for being what we built them to be. We became upset when the young family decided to try the new church with a larger children's program or event. We complained when church members started traveling with their children's travel team. We cried foul when numerous members purchased season passes to the local theme parks and began going to them every other weekend because that was their "escape" and their self-defined "family time." We wondered why offerings were down, seats were empty, and attendance sputtered.

But we should not have wondered.

We are a few generations into this model and it clearly works exactly as it was built.

Dr. Frankenstein's monster did exactly what it was built to do, even if the good doctor did not realize or wish to believe it.

Consumer Christians are always looking for the latest version of church. It's not unlike the marketing strategies of Apple when the release a new iPhone. The user's old iPhone still works, but the attraction of getting the latest is so strong that people wait in line just to spend a lot of money for the latest version. Then, in about a year, the "new" iPhone is an old iPhone and customers are now ready to throw it out (or give to their parents) and get an upgrade.

Sadly, some churches market the very same way to the consumers and wonder why there are consumers?

Now What Do We Do?

Well, the answer is not to turn our church services into stoic, gothic, 18th century gathering places. The gospel is not boring, so the church should not settle for boring services with no life. The answer is not to find the better model and shelve everything we're doing (though shelving some things is definitely a good idea.) The answer is not to falsely believe that the heyday of the church in America was the 1950s so we need to do what we did then. That won't work. We have too many churches today built to reach people in the 1950s. Those churches are dying.

What we must do is confess our sin and repent.

We must simply go back to the basics, realizing that lifelong discipleship and transformation of a person is not something that occurs because of a keen marketing campaign, a cool gathering spot, or a nice, new logo. None of those things are wrong. In fact, I like all those, but those are not life changing.

The gospel alone is the answer. Christ alone is the key. He is still the way, truth, and life. He is still the only way. When the local church pushes that message to the side and emphasizes all the extraneous, temporary things, no wonder we find ourselves a few decades later asking "What went wrong?"

While that monster is still roaming the countryside, I'm encouraged by what I am seeing and experiencing in our local church and among pastors and churches in our community. Sure, there are some still focused on being the latest version of church for local consumers, but by and large, most are abandoning the "Come look at us. We have a great, new version of this product you need" approach.

Jared Wilson's latest book The Gospel-Driven Church addresses this. He's not the only one speaking of this, but it is encouraging to see the conversation shift back to the gospel in such a way. Cam Hyde writes in his review of Wilson's book...

Wilson will argue throughout the book for a more gospel-driven approach rather than using any means necessary to get people through the doors of your church (an attractional method). He addresses the pitfalls of relying solely on being attractional and shows the biblical necessity of a gospel-driven approach while showing those in leadership how to steer their churches toward this change. 

We are learning that models come and go, but the gospel remains. The shiny, new, fancy attractional models will not last, and in most cases have proven to not sustain or create disciples. Since our commission as the church of Jesus Christ is to make disciples, not club members, we must confess our collective sin of relying on an attractional model and submit to the Spirit's lead that points to Christ and the good news of the gospel.

Consumer Christians remain. They're everywhere. It is very, very easy to slide into the model that seeks to "meet their needs wants" and build programs that do so. We must remain faithful to the Lord, be the church he has commissioned and called us to be, and remember that life-change only occurs through Christ. We must pray that the consumers in our midst surrender to Christ. Otherwise, they will remain weak in their faith, angry at their previous church, continually searching for the latest and greatest, all the while stagnant as a Christian, if a Christian at all.

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                  1Skye Jethani, "From Lord to Label: How Consumerism Undermines Our Faith," Christianity Today, July 10, 2006, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2006/july-online-only/from-lord-to-label-how-consumerism-undermines-our-faith.html

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