Served or Serving: Curing the Sickness That’s Killing The Church

There is a corrosive contagion killing the American church.

Quite simply, it’s consumerism, the desire to be served. Americans exist in a culture built on productivity, buying, and selling. We don’t need to deconstruct the nature, causes, positives, and negatives of a consumeristic culture, but the by-product of that culture is a Christianity that has almost wholly imported consumeristic reflexes. This seizure of Christian imagination is the leading edge of the lack of meaningful spiritual formation in most churches.

I don’t know all the answers, but I want to highlight a few manifestations of the virus and invite you to offer gospel-shaped remedies to eradicate the contagion.

The Worship Wars

In the mid and late 90’s, my Christian tribe—along with others—experienced what we called “the worship wars.” In truth, the wars weren’t about worship, they were about music. On one side were the people who wanted their church to remain in and reflect traditional worship that was meaningful to them. Others wanted music that was more current and reflective of their experience. Like all wars, people were wounded. Churches split. Families became antagonistic toward one another and new churches–to be “relevant”–were started. All the fallout wasn’t bad. Some of it was even needed, but ultimately, the church had a contest over singing that was fundamentally based on individual preference. And worship, which is supposed to form us into the likeness of Christ, revealed our arrested development.

As a result, we remained spiritual unchanged. Worship styles were addressed and changed, but the fundamental, and more crushing formative malady–that church isn’t even one ounce about what we like or want–was allowed to grow and fester. Worse, the churches that best created worship “experiences” that people liked were exalted. A Kraken was released. Discipleship was sidelined. Now churches could be evaluated, joined, dismissed, and complained about based on personal satisfaction. Post-modernism reached it’s zenith. The individual was at the center. This first symptom gave birth to all the others.

Church Shopping

Next came church shopping. There are good reasons for both pastors and church members to leave churches. In fact, sometimes the reasons are God-honoring and good. But in the formation-free, consumer church model, people feel a seemingly unprecedented sense that it’s okay to pick-up and leave their church whenever they want.

Recent surveys suggests that the average church member worships within a particular community around 24 months before moving on to another one. We’ve all heard the language. “X church has a better worship experience,’” (whatever worship experience means), or a better kids’ program, or a celebrity pastor. Increasingly, the foundational motivation of American Christians is, “What’s in it for me?” We so easily and quickly seek the next, newest, shiny object.

Knowing church-shopping is an enemy of formation, C.S. Lewis reflects in The Screwtape Letters as a senior demon tutors a younger demon on appropriate measures to curtail spiritual development in a new Christian,

You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I had no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realize that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster and connoisseur of churches.

The Christian Product

After worship wars and church shopping, Christianity as a consumer good was bound to come next. As a speaker and writer, I know from the inside that American Christianity is a product. The items on bookstore shelves, presenters at large national conferences, and some popular author platforms are built on the same principles of brand management, marketing, and sales used by Apple Computers, Toyota, or Coca-Cola.

From the inside, I've learned that American Christianity has become a product. Click To Tweet

There are proven ways to drive the best-sellers lists, to become a conference speaker, and to increase website traffic. Add to that the advent of online church services, sermon podcasts, and online Bible courses, and what is undeniable is that the local church has given way to a Christian-Industrial Complex that is nothing short of a big business.

In response, some of us sit at home rather than committing to a local community. We watch and listen to online services and call that “church.” It’s a kind of spiritual pornography—the feel of the experience without the hassles of real people, real relationships, and the real world.

To make matters worse, often we’re not listening to the most anointed and thoughtful music and musicians or reading the most-compelling ideas about following Christ and being the church, or hearing the most prophetic and healing voices. Make no mistake: we are consuming what sells. Business interests have figured out who we are. Christians are a market far more than a discerning community.

Our tastes—defined and refined by the forces of brand management and marketing—are winning the day. We are purchasing units who are unwittingly playing along.

The difficulty exists because our collective imaginations around church presume our felt needs should be the church’s primary concern.

A Place To Start

Again, I’m not sure what needs to be done. But to continue down this consumeristic, self-centered path will hasten the death of Biblical Christianity with more speed than any exterior threat could. Part of the problem is that too few Christians rightfully understand themselves to be “the church.”

Rather, we regard “the church” as an external organization in which we can participate or not based on how we feel about what “they” are or are not doing. We don’t see the coffee bar as our coffee bar and the other church members and their families as ours to care for. We don’t recognize that when someone in our church goes uncared for, it’s not the fault of the smoke-machine, but our own blinding self-regard.

Something must shake us from this damning illusion that church is something we ought to “get something out of” or “feed us.” The church is a place for us to learn to love, to make space for the Fruit of the Spirit, to be discipled into Christlikeness, as well as disciple others.

When church becomes about us, it has ceased to be the church. The consumer mindset isn’t merely a problem to be faced, it is anti-church in its soul.

In Praise of Potlucks

But what might happen if we thought of the church, not as a set of structures, programming, goods, and services, but as a meal? The question we have to answer together is whether this meal is more like going to a restaurant or sharing a potluck. If it’s a restaurant, our tastes matter. We can pick and choose from the menu and request our salad dressing be served “on the side.” We can rightly regard the pace, kindness, and delivery of service. Our needs and perceptions matter at a restaurant. If we like the “experience,” we can leave a tip.

A potluck is different. If church is a potluck, we know to arrive with an offering and prepared to serve and be served. We demonstrate gratitude to the others who have come equally prepared to provide a feast for all.

Do we consume at pot-lucks? Yes. But we consume in an environment in which we also share and serve one another. Potlucks ask us to sit and commune. We hear one another’s story. We celebrate the good and mourn grief together. Potlucks are a kind of soul food where the chefs, waiters, consumers, and busboys are tied together in creating something fulfilling…together.

If church is a potluck, we know to arrive with an offering and prepared to serve and be served. Click To Tweet
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7 responses to “Served or Serving: Curing the Sickness That’s Killing The Church

  1. What (if any) role do you think vocational ministry plays in this respect? I can’t help but think people are consuming a church product because we as ministers treat it the same way, continuing the vicious cycle. Radical, I know, but do we buffer ourselves from the problem since we have skin in the game?

    1. I think, oftentimes, ministry professionals create and aid the problem. Part of that comes from the fact that we take our leadership cues from the world of business and part of it is that our view of success is bigger and better. Few pastors of 80-member congregations think they are “successful” and many of us join them. That’s because, like every product, consumption is the bottom-line.

      I don’t know how the vocational part plays into it, but I suspect the temptations are the same. Sorry.

  2. Thanks for posting. Insightful thoughts about where the church is today and how we need to refocus. Now, the challenge of helping the church re-image itself. Good post.

  3. I always attended business meetings because I cared about the church. At this business meeting, twenty five years ago, I saw a pie chart and the lights went on. It showed that 75% of the “giving” was CONSUMED by the people who gave the money. 25% went out the door. Later I read an article in Leadership Journal on “normal church budgeting” that showed 84% of “giving” was to be primarily consumed to buy staffing and facilities. This showed me that SYSTEMICALLY, where the money goes tells us we are CONSUMERS at the core of church practice. We must consume most of the “giving”.
    I asked God if there was a way for me to practice 100% of church that he asked for and send 100% of my giving beyond me – to serve the poor and send the gospel to those who have no one to tell them. He showed me very clearly in scripture how this can and should be done. He helped me deal with the key issue: Does every believer need a professionally prepared Bible lecture every week of their life for them to grow up to the “full stature of Christ”? Does “preach the word, in season and out…” mean lecture the word? Does “equipping the saints” mean lecture the saints? Does “feed my sheep” mean lecture my sheep? The answers I found all said no. These instructions are accomplished in a dynamic that is the opposite of one way communication. There are 58 “one another” instructions in the NT and none of them will be practiced when there is a pulpit in the room faced by all the chairs.

    No one in our church wanted to deal with this, even though I was on the board, was married in that church and had served in almost every area possible. There is a solution but it confronts ALL the deepest traditions of the church. Until leaders are ready to recognize that revelation says things that no godly leader in the past 500 years have dealth with, we are stuck in the rut of traditions of men.
    I dont’ have all the answers, but I know these issues must be addressed. I have written a free book (PDF) that shows how the scripture teaches that spiritual leadership must be combined with marketplace work. We all know Paul was a “tent-maker”, but tradition has led us to believe that is “optional” and we don’t need to “imitate” or “follow my example”. Ever since the reformation, protestants have been consumers. We even export these habit patterns in our mission work.

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