Should the church cater to the consumer mentality?

This is from Leadership Journal,

Dangers of Consumer Church

Can self-centeredness be leveraged for the gospel?

“We are unapologetically attractional. In our search for common ground with unchurched people, we’ve discovered that, like us, they are consumers. So we leverage their consumer instincts.”—Andy Stanley in Deep and Wide

“In order to help people follow Christ more fully, we would have to work against the very methods we were using to attract people to our church…we slowly began to realize that, to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus, consumerism was not a force to be harnessed but rather an anti-biblical value system that had to be prophetically challenged.”—Kent Carlson and Michael Lueken in Renovation of the Church

So which is it?

Are “consumer instincts” morally neutral (or at least morally inevitable) and thus fair game for being leveraged toward spiritual ends, or are they something the gospel intends to crucify?

Can a person’s innate self-orientation be used to introduce him to Jesus and to becoming less self-oriented and more God-oriented? Or is a person’s self-centered orientation the very problem that the gospel seeks to cure?

Wasn’t Jesus “attractional”?

Most of us want to believe the church’s relationship to consumerism is a both/and. I want to believe consumerism is simply an inevitable (and perhaps a bit less than ideal) reality that might as well be leveraged in the name of Jesus.

That seems to be Andy Stanley’s point and the conviction that shapes the way North Point practices church. There is something refreshing about Andy’s candor and you can sense the freedom this approach has afforded North Point—freedom from neurotic analysis and endless introspection; freedom that becomes energy to go and do church in a winsome way.

While Andy deserves kudos for even taking the time to defend the church’s relationship with consumerism in a culture where many pastors don’t think to bother, sometimes his rationale is problematic:

“When you read the Gospels, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Jesus attracted large crowds everywhere he went. He was constantly playing to the consumer instincts of his crowds. Let’s face it: It wasn’t the content of his messages that appealed to the masses. Most of the time they didn’t even understand what he was talking about … People flocked to Jesus because he fed them, healed them, comforted them, and promised them things.”

Was Jesus’ goal to attract a large crowd? We cannot ignore the fact that in John’s gospel, Jesus reprimands the large crowd that flocks to him for food and miracles (6:26-40), which sets in motion a chain of events that prompt Jesus to say some rather abrasive things about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which causes the crowd to thin out considerably, leaving only the twelve and perhaps a few more (6:52-68). I don’t think this is Jesus appealing to the consumer instincts of his crowds.

Or there is the stark solemnity of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus hangs all alone, forsaken by every male disciple and glimpsed only by a few female disciples from a safe distance. Yes, at times there were large crowds, but Jesus’ ultimate goal seemed to be something else. In other words, in the Gospels a large crowd is not the unreservedly positive thing we often assume a large crowd to be. Indeed, large crowds are especially prone to miss the point.

I’m not sure the Gospels anywhere imply that Jesus desired to attract a large crowd. It seems Jesus desired to show and tell the truth about the kingdom of God while being absurdly hospitable to all manner of sinners and nobodies because that is what the kingdom is like. Nowhere do I find some sort of calculated exploitation of consumer instincts (“how attractive are we to our target audience?”).

If a large crowd showed up to hear and see the truth about the kingdom, great. If it didn’t, great. I don’t think it moved the needle for Jesus either way—certainly he didn’t feel obligated to get the crowd to return, or to grow the crowd even larger. Nor did his stomach sink at the sight of a small one. None of this is because he didn’t care about how many people entered the kingdom (Jesus certainly wants a full house at the wedding feast!), but because Jesus knew it mattered how you entered the kingdom.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken pastored a church that also believed we could and should exploit consumerism. But through a long and arduous process of examination, they changed their mind. They came to believe that the way we practice church forms us in ways that rival, and at times, preempt the things we say. We can tell people to practice self-denial, but when everything we do caters to their felt needs as consumers (from their placement in small groups, to their participation, or lack thereof, in worship), our practice contradicts the teaching. It’s no wonder so many well-meaning church goers find the call to a cruciform life utterly incoherent.

What do I mean by consumerism? I believe it’s best understood as an ideology that sees personal freedom as the highest human good, and that freedom is realized in a person’s ability to take and throw away, whatever, however, and whenever he/she wants (be it spouses, babies, genders, goods, ideas). In our culture, this is freedom, the highest good: “the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestioned truth.”

Mixed Messages

When we talk about leveraging “consumer instincts” in the way we practice church, we are taking the ideology of the market and the narrative of acquisitive freedom as the highest good and baptizing them. We are telling our people that their wants and felt needs need no further justification and need not be questioned. What is most important is not that they become like Jesus (unless of course they feel like it), but that they are free (and comfortable) to become whatever they want to become.

Of course we will do all of this while saying the exact opposite, encouraging people to follow Jesus, to be transformed into Christ’s likeness, to die to sin and walk in newness of life.

The unspoken assumption is that this is a no-obligation relationship. You can have a relationship with Jesus as long as you feel like it … and if not, that’s totally okay. Come and go as you wish.

Few of us consciously propagate the ideology of the free market to the detriment of the gospel. Our motives for exploiting consumerism are benign if not pious. We want as many people as possible at our churches because that means more people get a chance to meet Jesus and that is justification enough for leveraging consumerism. I can go down that road, so long as I don’t think about it too much.

So what does this mean for the way we do church? I have formed a core conviction as I sort through all of this: The primary goal of a church is to be a faithful expression of God’s kingdom.

I think the Anabaptist tradition is on to something here. The church’s deepest calling is to be the kingdom of God in the world; not to change the world, not to save the world, but to be a glimpse and partial embodiment of a different world: God’s world.

It seems to me the primary goal of many churches is to grow as large as possible while still being a faithful expression of church. I think the goal must be to be as faithful an expression of church as possible, while also seeking to grow as big as being a faithful expression of church allows. We do this by practicing radical hospitality, love, and forgiveness..

I think Jesus wants a full house, but I don’t think we have permission to make growing as big as possible our primary goal. If we aim at growing as big as possible—while still seeking, when possible, to be a faithful-ish expression of church—we inevitably lose our way.

Some may see this as splitting hairs, and perhaps it is. Consumerism obviously exists on a continuum. A church like North Point is, clearly, a beautiful expression of the kingdom. But a split hair can change trajectory, and trajectory, over time, can make all the difference in the world.

So which is it? Should the church make a habit of leveraging consumer instincts, or not?

I think “consumer instincts” can be a euphemism for the modern ideal of acquisitive freedom—an ideal the gospel has every intention of crucifying. I think consumerism, at its core, is rooted in taking, getting something for ourselves, while the gospel, at its core, is rooted in God’s grace to us in Christ, and our response of faith and hope and love. These are not always easy bedfellows.

So what am I suggesting? Go out of your way to make your church smaller (surely many churches don’t need any help with that)? Frustrate people with petty inconveniences (surely the standard truths of the gospel are inconvenient enough)? Reenact the early church’s policy of asking unbelievers to leave before serving the Eucharist? Stop serving good coffee? Use incompetent musicians?

No. What I’m am suggesting is that many of us have become far too obsessed with making people comfortable, far too fluent with the grammar of the market, far too timid in our practice of the most revolutionary phenomenon the world has ever seen: The Church.

Austin Fischer is the teaching pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, Texas.

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