It was the summer of 1998 and I was raising support at the beginning of my time on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ. I was in the car on my way to a church gathering with a potential donor. He was going to be connecting me with a number of people from his church at this gathering. During our hour drive across Metro Detroit he shared with me his take on the future of the church in America. It went something like this...
The future of the church is the mega-church. The small neighborhood churches are just not going to be able to compete. Mega churches have the means by which to give the people what they want. We have plans at our church to offer so many different things that people will be able to hang out at the church all the time. We are planning a recreation complex, a coffee shop, even a restaurant! Everything we do is to meet the wants of folks from our community. Small churches just don't have the resources. They are going to lose and eventually, every town will have one or two mega churches. Our resources will allow us to have dynamic worship experiences and we will be able to bring in the most dynamic speakers. Our band is planning on publishing and selling CD soon too. The production value that we put into our worship services is second to none. Truly, if someone can't find what they are looking for here it's because they aren't really trying.
The conversation lasted an hour or so, but this was the basic gist. (Let me be very clear, the issues of consumerism and the critiques following are as prevalent in small churches as they are in mega-churches.)
When I was on staff with Cru at Illinois State I remember a student from Chicago who attended a famous mega-church in the suburbs came to one of our weekly meetings. I was excited to talk with him because he was a committed Christian and I thought that it would be great to have him involved so he could grow in his faith. He informed that he would not be coming back. Why? The production value of the weekly meeting isn't good enough. I just didn't compare to church back home. None of the campus ministries did and none of the churches in this podunk town had good ones either.
Conversations with so many people over the years about a church didn't “feed me” or didn't offer a particular program that I wanted or how the coffee was sub par. These things and so many lead to “church shopping.”
The American Christian church has become driven by consumerism.
How do we become bigger and bigger? How do we get more people? What do we need to do grow faster and faster? What will it take to attract more people?
Conversely those being shaped by this kind of church ask a different set of questions. What does this church offer me? Does this church meet my needs and wants? Does this church agree with me? Does this church feed me?
Consumerism is defined as, “the protection or promotion of the interests of consumers.”
When we think about the post World War 2 American experience it seems to me that consumerism is part and parcel of that experience.
I was watching 1923, the prequel to the show Yellowstone, the other night. The Dutton family had gone into the town of Bozeman, Montana. While they were walking around downtown they happened upon a salesman for electronic appliances. He was selling washing machines and a variety of other electronic conveniences. There was a great line in that scene that really struck me, “Sir, if we buy this stuff from you we begin working for you and not ourselvs.”
What a succinct illustration of the problem of consumerism.
Our whole society has been touched by it.
I am not sure that there are very many places that we go where we aren't consumers.
Consuming, that is something we are good at. Consider the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. It is a day when America consumes. We buy all the things, whether we need them or not.
When I consume food do you know what happens? My plate is empty. It's gone. Eventually, I will again get hungry. I won't be able to eat that same food. It's gone. I need new food. So I buy more. Food is of course a necessity. But it simply illustrates the point.
When Consumerism Comes to Church
The Church ought to be a place where we do not consume. When we read our Scriptures we see that worship is offered, it is given, it is not about “me.” At the very least once a week we should have this counter-cultural moment where our attnetion is focused on something other than the self.
By and large, that's not the case.
Now, we church shop like we are buying a house or some shoes.
Church is all about “me.”
When consumerism comes to church we lose the gospel.
This is part of the reason so many people are becoming fed up with American Christianity. They are rightly seeing it as an empty sham that is nothing more than candy. A Christianity that is consumer driven offers us nothing in the face of the pain and heartache that is life. A Consumeristic Christianity is one rife with hypocrisy lead by power hungry pastors looking to build their own platforms and kingdoms.
As the ancient Scriptures tell us, eventually all will be brought to light.
Consumer driven Christianity would have felt at home with the crowds who at the bread and fish and then chased Jesus around the lake. He chastised them saying that what they wanted was their bellies filled, they didn't want him.
I think in large part this shift began with Charles Finney in the Second Great Awakening. He tweaked the gospel message to be about personal salvation. Billy Graham in the 1950s and beyond made it even more pronounced. The various parachurch ministries also jumped on the personal salvation band wagon.
All of a sudden the gospel was a sales pitch to get individuals saved.
The gospel is not a decision point. It is a proclamation of the work that God has done through Christ in the crucifixion and resurrection. It is a call to follow the narrow way of self-sacrificial love that we demonstrated by Jesus and taught by the earliest followers of the Way in the Scriptures. The gospel is a summons to die to self so as to live free to express faith in love.
The gospel is not something to consume.
No, it is upside down from our American culture.
We have to disentangle our faith from consumerism. Following Jesus for what he can give me will always end up in failure and frustration. Following Jesus because living the way he did with compassion, mercy, and self-sacrificial love will open me up to something beyond myself. When we live this way we discover that there is no us vs them, there is simply “we-all”. If we can pursue this way of Christ contrary to the consumerism of our culture then we will become givers and in our giving we discover that we are cared for.
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