Church Leaders: 3 Questions When Dealing With Consumerism

I found it interesting and yet frustrating to read the latest statistics coming from the Pew Research Center around what people are looking for when they search for a church to attend. You can read all of the findings here, but for me, these were the most telling statistics:

Fully 83% of Americans who have looked for a new place of worship say the quality of preaching played an important role in their choice of congregation. Nearly as many (79%) say it was important to feel welcomed by clergy and lay leaders, and about three-quarters (74%) say the style of worship services influenced their decision about which congregation to join. Location also factored prominently in many people’s choice of congregation (70%), with seven-in-ten saying it was an important factor. Smaller numbers cite the quality of children’s programs (56%), having friends or family in the congregation or the availability of volunteering opportunities as key to their decision.

I would think that the statistics are probably broadly similar in Australia where I live.

Statistics and the Status Quo

On the one hand we could simply see these statistics as helpful. They give us information about the reality of people’s preferences regarding church culture. We could even look at these statistics from a marketing perspective and then work to improve sermons, worship services, leadership and programs in our churches so that we attract more people.

Statistics like these could serve to reinforce the status quo and make us think that all we need to do is get better at what we are already doing so that more people in our nation come to church and then hopefully become Christians. If we just improve the quality of our sermons, make our worship gatherings more attractive, and make our children’s programs competitive then perhaps we can return to the glory days of Christendom. We could get lulled into a false sense of security believing that by tweaking what we already do, we will gain success. Research statistics may incline us to focus on all the wrong things. Click To Tweet

Church as Vendor

The statistics discovered by the Pew Research Center very clearly reveal one thing: people still see the church as a vendor of religious goods and services primarily existing in order to serve its members.

Decades ago, George Hunsberger coined the term “contemporary variation” for this perspective on church. He wrote in The Church Between Gospel and Culture that in this understanding of the church, members expect the church to provide religious services such as good music, effective children’s programs and preaching that is relevant.

This is why we see many people today “church shopping,” where if they don’t like the services that one church offers they will move on to find a church which offers what they want. Terms such as “volunteers” are used in these churches, clearly conveying that some people are paid to do the ministry in the church and most of the others volunteer their time to serving in the organization. Derek Vreeland wrote about this just yesterday in his article: “Pastors: The CEO Has To Go.” People still see the church as vendors of religious goods existing to serve their members. Click To Tweet

There is nothing wrong with making sure that our church services are welcoming, our preaching is good and any programs that we run are helpful. What Christianity faithfully embodies is supposed to be attractive. Jesus said that as we let our light shine through our good works people will glorify the Father (Matthew 5:16).

However, when our primary identity and function is that of a vendor of religious goods and services for the sake of church members, we have a problem. The Pew Research statistics show most people search for a church which has good preaching, attractive worship style, welcoming leaders and effective programs rather than a place where discipleship for the sake of others is practiced. This shows that the false narrative of consumerism threading our culture is still trumping the narrative of the reign of God which tells a story of cruciformly, radical discipleship and service for the sake of others.

Three Questions for Church Leaders in a Consumer Culture

What is to be our response as church leaders? If we live in a culture of consumerism that has also affected the way we view church identity and function, how do we respond?

These are questions that church leaders, as theological practitioners, must wrestle with. I look at the many church plants emerging in the inner city where I live and most, if not all, start up with a church service which has “good” teaching, contemporary music, and high quality programs. These churches are attracting people and they are growing. Most of the people attending are a result of transfer growth, though some non-Christians attend also.

The rationale given to me by my friends who lead such churches is that people attract people, so as the congregation grows this will draw in those who are not yet Christians. Another friend who I discuss church leadership with confronted me by asking the other day, “What’s wrong with giving people what they want anyway? If people want a church which is going to meet their needs isn’t this what church is all about? Should not church be a place of healing and rest?”

So what do I do as a leader? Do I start up a church that meets people’s needs and wants which will certainly attract people? If people want a church which is going to meet their needs isn't this what church is all about? Click To Tweet

These are tensions which all leaders wrestle with in our individualistic, hedonistic, consumerist culture.

Here are three question to keep in mind as leaders who must navigate these times.

1. What is the purpose of the church?

Whatever we think about missional church, this paradigm with its rich theology has compelled us to reassess the nature and identity of the church. Clearly we see that the church does not exist for the sake of itself but rather it is an agent which God works through in order to accomplish his mission.

Our identity is therefore as children of God sent into the world to join with God on his mission. This is a crucial truth to come to terms with regarding our ecclesiology as leaders today that must shape our practice. This view critiques the church as primarily existing for the sake of its own members. Our identity is as children of God sent into the world to join with God on his mission. Click To Tweet

2. Are people in my congregation being formed into disciples who are living the story of the reign of God?

Whatever our choice of church model, each of us as leaders must ask ourselves whether people in our congregations are being formed into consumers or disciples who are living the story of the reign of God. Our culture will form us into the shape of its many false narratives however, we are followers of the one Story, the story of the reign of God expressing beauty, truth, justice, salvation, mercy and love. This narrative critiques racism, sexism, economic injustices and other false narratives which promise much but work to enslave us to a culture of death today. If our churches are not forming people into disciples who embody the love of Jesus in our community then something is very wrong. Is our church forming our people into consumers or disciples following the reign of God? Click To Tweet

3. Am I keeping in mind that the church in the West is clearly trending toward decline?

I keep this question in mind not in order to be a prophet preaching hopelessness, but quite the opposite. I know that as a Christian leader I can get involved in petty internal debates which can justify that my church is doing well. A good example is an article which recently said that Pentecostals have just surpassed Anglicans as the second highest religious group in Sydney, Australia. Anglicans wring their hands at this news because they have been toppled off second place, Pentecostals nod “I told you so” pointing to the primacy of spiritual experience.

However, overall the trend in Australia, as it is in North America, is that the Church is in decline. The broader population shrug their shoulders and think “who cares?” Remembering this as a leader stops me from feeling too settled if my particular church or denomination is doing well. The fact that the “unchurched” is a fast, growing segment of the population means that most of our resources, thinking and prayer need to be channeled here rather than obsessing about better sermons, more contemporary worship and higher quality programs for the sake of church members. Obviously, if we keep doing what we are currently doing, the church will continue its trend towards decline.

A different way forward

We need a different approach for times such as these.

Walter Brueggemann says “To be prophetic is to host a world other than the one that is in front of us.” This is who we are today as church leaders; modern day prophets of hope hosting an alternate world for the sake of those in our neighborhoods and on our streets who are maybe even without knowing, longing to encounter this wonderful new reality that Jesus has sacrificially opened up for all of us. To be prophetic is to host a world other than the one that is in front of us—Brueggemann Click To Tweet

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