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Restaurant Or Pot-Luck? Curing Our MeChurch Virus

There is a corrosive contagion at the heart of the American church. Quite simply, it’s consumerism. Even more frankly, I’m at a loss for what to do about it. 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 partly a Christianity that has almost wholly imported consumeristic reflexes into the church.

I wish I could offer solutions. Many have tried. Many have failed. What I can do is offer an anecdotal look at the symptoms of the contagion and solicit your help. To that end, I want to highlight the manifestations of the virus and invite you to offer gospel-shaped remedies to eradicate the cancer.

First Came 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 the traditional “worship” they had experienced and was meaningful to them. Others wanted music that was more reflective of their times and 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 fundamentally based in what individuals liked. While this may not have been the first time this happened, it was the first time in my life. As a result, because worship styles were addressed and changed, the fundamental, and more crushing problem – that church isn’t even one ounce about what we like – was allowed to grow and fester. Worse, the churches that best created worship that people liked were exalted! A kraken was released! 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.

My Way Or The Highway

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 consumer church model, church members feel a seeming unprecedented sense that it’s okay to pick-up and leave their church whenever they want. Recent research suggest that the average church member worships within a particular community around 24-months before moving on to another community. We’ve all heard the language. “X church has a better worship ‘experience,’” (whatever that means), or better kids programs or a celebrity pastor. It is clear that the foundational narrative of American Christians is “what’s in it for me?” when we are so easily and quickly seek the next, newest shiny object.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis put it best in The Screwtape Letters as a senior demon tutors a younger demon on appropriate measure 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

What I know as a speaker and writer is that more and more of American Christianity is a product. The items on bookstore shelves, presenters at large national conferences, and some popular authors are built on the same principles of brand management, marketing, and sales as that of Apple Computers or Coca-Cola. There are proven ways to drive the best-sellers lists, to become a conference speaker, and 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. Some of us sit at home rather than committing to a local community and watch and listen to online services and messages and call that “church.” It’s spiritual pornography – the ecstatic release without having to deal with real people in the real world.

What’s more, in American Christianity, we are not listening to the best music and musicians, reading the best and most-compelling ideas about following Christ and being the church, or hearing the most prophetic and healing voices. We are consuming what sells. Make no mistake. Business interests have figured out who we are! Christians are a market far more than a discerning community.

Disregard For The Teachings of Jesus

Increasingly, American Christians are distancing themselves from the actual teachings of Jesus in favor of particular and narrow  teachings of American, Civil religion. This is equally true of churches who align themselves with the political Left as well as the political Right. Where our churches, a few vocal leaders, and denominations stand have become the gospel. The teachings of Jesus are then appropriated, or misappropriated, based on what some people think is good for American Christians more than the words of the Christ. Use your imagination here, but, I suspect, your gut knows it to be true.

Felt Needs Based Decisions (I’m not trying to be a jerk)

In a very emotional and accurate post, I read about a family who lost its father to cancer and written by the widow. It was powerful and moving.  I agreed with the thrust of the post, namely, that churches spend a lot of time trying to be hip and cool. This pre-occupation with hipness often misleads the church away from pastoral care for those in the pews who are suffering under the weight of real, heart-wrenching issues and towards the rewards of large crowds and increasing budgets.

The post was dead-on. There was one small problem though: The author’s choice to partner with the church of smoke-machines, coffee bars, and ultra-high end programs in the first place. In many ways, such congregations telegraph what’s most important and everyone in their pews just kinda went along with it. On the plus side, reaching people who have concluded that church is stodgy, boring, and disconnected from life is often an honorable goal. That kind of church draws people and I applaud them for it.

What changed in the author’s life wasn’t the church. It was her. She choose a church based on her perceived felt-needs. When tragedy struck (and again, it was an immense tragedy), her needs changed and her evaluation of what was important in a local church changed. What did not change is the assumption that the church’s priority should be meeting her needs. This reveals a fundamental truth about life. Often we don’t even know what our needs are. We just know our wants. And we should be slow about making any decision based on our wants.

Was the author right? Absolutely.

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,” but rather regard “the church” as an external organization in which they can participate. 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.

In Praise of Pot-Lucks

Church is a meal. The question we have to answer together is whether we’re going out to a restaurant or a pot-luck. If it’s a restaurant, our individual taste 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. If we like it, we can leave a tip befitting what we believe we’ve received. A pot-luck is entirely different. If church is a pot-luck, 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 (TWEET THAT).

Do we consume at pot-lucks? Yes. But we consume in an environment in which we also share and serve.

  • jwheatley

    When you say that some people wanted to retain the traditional worship that was meaningful to them I think you are not giving full enough consideration to those people who feel that their traditional a capella worship is not just their preference but is a style of singing that is mandated by God. Many of these people would refuse to engage in a deep study of scripture that might show them they are wrong in their belief because to them, to do so would be to question God. I know this is just a small part of your article but it stood out to me.
    Being hip and in tune with the culture is important to liberal congregations but there are also conservative congregations which make it a point to appear un-hip and disconnected from the current culture. These congregations claim to follow the first century church but in reality are following the church of the 1940s-1960s. Either extreme is bad but in the case of the conservatives, they feel that they are acting in the manner prescribed by God and the writers of scripture.

    • I think you might be reading to narrowly about a cappella music. That was (and is) a church of Christ issue, and where that’s my context, the discussion was not about instruments in my tribe and was simultaneously happening in other Christian groups — think organ vs. bands. Where I was, instruments were not a part of the conversation at all, just style.

      Thanks for reading and engaging. I appreciate it.

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