Tag Archives: Leadership Journal

Should the church cater to the consumer mentality?

This is from Leadership Journal,      http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2015/april/dangers-of-consumer-church.html?paging=off

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.

Get real! You want real worship? It’s right there, churches like First St Johns

The evidence keeps rolling in, while people don’t seem to actively express the desire, more and more it seems that people want worship that is serious.

The common rap is that “liturgical” worship is “boring”, it’s not fun, it’s not entertaining. Who said that worship was suitable for any of this. No it isn’t entertainment. But when you actively participate, when you genuinely try to understand versus this odd idea that most come into worship with: “I’m an empty vessel fill me”. These same people have been going to worship for years, decades, yet two, maybe three times a month, they go to worship and say “fill me, I haven’t done anything, you need to do it for me.” OK, sure, I’m there “to do”, to lead in worship. But folks, this is the “Body of Christ”. If you come in with the attitude that it’s all about me and you need to do for me, it’s not going to work and I submit that is becoming more evident in all these “churches” that do everything but worship.

People are looking to be connected to God, we are connected to the Father, because of the Son, by the Holy Spirit. As I said, this is “the Body of Christ.” What does that mean? The head does all the work and everything else just hibernates. That’s not going to work in human biology, why would it work as a Christian. If the heart stops beating, the head isn’t going to be of much use. You can sit there with head and heart, but if nothing else works, you’re simply not going to get it. Christian worship is participatory, not passive taking in. The issue becomes who is worship for? Well yes, it is for you, it is for those around you, it is for those out in a dark, cold world. It’s not for God. He wants us to worship and through our worship He feeds us, He builds us up, but you need to genuinely be heart and soul in worship, passively sitting back doesn’t work for you, brothers and sisters in Jesus or God. The church is there to serve, to equip you in order to grow in Jesus, but my philosophy is that if there is 5, 50 or 500 it’s still the same. If 5 have shown up, I’m not going to get all bitter with the others who didn’t. Five people, plus me, showed up to worship. I have 5 faithful brothers and/or sisters (it’s only 5 it could be all guys…) Anyway, they are there for me, I am there for them, we’re all there before God, that’s all that matters.

In a Leadership Journal article Marian Liautaud likes to pat herself on the back as to how millenials have become so critical in their thinking. (Make Room for Me Fall 2014 pp 55-57)They haven’t found genuine worship in churches, so they don’t go to worship. I’d like to assure them genuine worship is very much alive, if you haven’t found it, you haven’t looked to hard. Now, I have to wonder, is this just an excuse to avoid worship or a lack of effort to truly look. My answer is “yes”. Everyone likes to pat themselves on the back as to their critical thinking and discernment, but they frankly still want to sit back and just be an empty vessel. Frankly, I don’t even get the title. I assure you Marian, 100%, you show up with a genuine willingness to be a part, I will do back flips for you to be a part. But frankly in that generation I get this sort of “arms-length” attitude, they really don’t want to make an effort, they want someone to read their mind and they then still continue to dissemble.

Heather Stevens, a junior in college, writes “If you are a church leader, this data should stop you in your tracks. It should make you think, ‘What the heck am I doing wrong?'”

Wow, isn’t that just precious, her go to position is someone else is doing something wrong. I would agree to an extent, there is a lot of “wrong” “worship” out there. Seems to me Heather is more concerned about changing the places she thinks are wrong to fit her profile, versus finding the places that will meet her questions. This is another indication that people today, and frankly it’s any age group, are not very critical in their thinking. ‘Something’s wrong, so it must be someone else’s fault.” Instead of, I need to keep an open mind to the other possibilities out there, that do offer genuine worship and are eager to share that, to disciple others. I would jump through flaming hoops to have such a group together, but they won’t, they’re not really looking for answers, they’re just about airing out their lungs, letting everyone else know what their uninformed opinion is.

However, and I’ve said this before, the church has messed itself up too, The church has tried, for at least, the last three generations, to cater to this attitude that Heather expresses. So it’s not just millenials, it goes back to at least to people in the Depression Era. The church hasn’t stood up and said “this is what’s important”, it’s kind of groveled and said “tell us what you want, just try to make it in a Christian context.”

Just expressing what any contemporary American could/would say Taylor Snodgrass says: “Our generation has been advertised at our whole life and even now on social media,’… Consequently, if a church isn’t giving you the whole story, if it’s sugarcoated or they’re onstage putting on an act 20s see through this. It causes us to leave. We’re good at seeing when people are lying.” Well bless your heart Taylor, you have part of it, but it’s still a copout, an excuse. Great, if you think that, but be as honest as you claim to be. You don’t really want the truth, I feel like Jack Nicholson here, “You can’t handle the truth.” You want to avoid and you’re using someone else’s failure to drop out. Believe me, if people were genuine in these assertions, the church I pastor would be heaving at the seams, instead it’s excuse after excuse.

Ya, maybe my candor, might be a little intimidating, but that’s what all these “get real” types want, isn’t it? No, they want nice, they want sugar coated, just their way, not their parents. I’m not saying beat people, pummel them with truth, that’s not my style either. But my style is to be upfront, to challenge, to deal with the real issues. Come on, let’s deal with them together, I’d love it!

To wit, let’s look at the rest of what millennials want and a church like First St Johns has. “Visual clarity: ‘Millennials want to be able to answer the questions ‘Where am I?’ and ‘What’s expected of me?” This is according to David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group….”

“As part of Barna’s study on Millenials and church architecture, they brought two groups of 20-somethings to modern churches, and then to cathedral style churches. In the cathedrals, ‘they felt it was a space for serious activities such as prayer, coping with tragedy and communing with God. They sensed the spirituality of the place,’ says Kinnaman. ‘At the same time, they were concerned about how they would fit in – If I visit, do I need to wear dressy clothes? – and a few participants, especially unchurched people, felt intimidated by the spiritual intensity of the space.'”

Well! Welcome to First St Johns. First off, no, believe me “dressy clothes” are not a big priority. We have plenty of people who do the best they can, that’s all I can ask.

One of the biggest kicks I get being the pastor of such a church is showing people the church sanctuary. I don’t think it’s failed to happen yet, you hear them silently, reverently suck in a little air and say a quiet wow! You want a place that evinces true Christian spirituality? Look at the featured picture, and that really doesn’t do it justice. If you don’t know where you are, well you have problems that I can’t help you with.

I did find the point of bringing nature into a church an interesting one. . I’d like to see if we could do more of that. I will say Christmas the altar is covered with poinsettias and Easter with lillies. But it is an inner-city church and a place in the church that would be a place where we could have some plants and some kind of natural effects would have a huge benefit, so thanks for the suggestion. Let’s see some of these people who talk a good game show up and put it in motion, I’ll be right there with you.

Respite” “Millenials, perhaps more than any other generation, have a deep need for peace and quiet; they long for a sanctuary. ‘Our culture is fragmented and frenetic and there are few places to take a breather to gain much-needed perspective,’ says Kinnaman. ‘Ironically, most churches offer what they think people want: more to do, more to see. Yet that’s exactly the opposite of what many young adults crave: sacred space.,’ ”

“Our churches are places of action, not places of rest; spaces to do rather than spaces to be. The activities, of course, are designed to connect people with God and each other – and some Millennials hope for that, too – but many just want an opportunity to explore spiritual life on their own terms, free to decide when to sit quietly on the edges of a sacred space and when to enter in.”

My answer, you need sacred space at two in the morning, you call me up and I will come down and open up the church. But you better be serious, don’t be there whining, be there genuinely searching. I would love it! We have action, we are an inner-city church and we often have to deal with real issues, but our priority is always spiritual health. Dr Luther describes pastors as Seel Sorgers, ‘soul healers’ that’s what I am first and foremost, but I try to do the other things.

When we first got to First St Johns, we set up a “Prayer Room”, I also had a few, very few, people want to go into the sanctuary to pray. We have prayer groups right after worship, we have a prayer breakfast once per month, we have a “Healing Service” one per month, Matins worship Thursday mornings and Sunday morning. I’d happily do some of these much more often, but frankly, not exactly overwhelmed with response as it is now.

“Give them Jesus – building relationships and learning about Jesus are two central reasons why Millennials stay connected to church. Barna’s research shows that young adults who remain involved in a local church beyond their teen years are twice as likely as those who don’t to have a close personal friendship with an older adult in their faith community (59% vs 31%).”

For a small church, we do this pretty well, we could do better, but there has to be buy-in from everyone and again I would jump through hoops to facilitate it.

So to Marian and David, Taylor and Heather, here you go. This is it right here. Genuine worship, genuine doctrine, genuine space, genuine relationships and authenticity. Let’s sit and talk, let’s really deal with our relationship with Jesus and genuinely worship and honor Him. Does He need our worship? No, but we need to worship and we need to do it with authenticity, not sit back and fill me/entertain me. Don’t expect me to just pat you on the head, sure when it’s needed, but today, we need to get real and get back to the real church and not the happy/clappy God just wants me to be happy. No, it’s joy in Christ, won’t always be pleasant, but it is true relationship. Do you want that or not?