Would You Like Fries With That: Consuming the Church

kinnon —  September 20, 2006 — 2 Comments

In my previous links post, I linked to the Skye Jethani article – iChurch: All We Like Sheep. But his Leadership Journal article is worth more than just a link. First a little ae blog history:

Last month I wrote a sarcastic post taking a shot at the blog, Church Marketing Sucks – I called it Family Marketing Sucks™. And then three days later, wrote the post, Jesus – Apparently A Product in Need of Good Marketing, linking to a Toronto Star story on local churches who were “successfully” marketing Jesus. This quote perfectly summed up both CMS and the Toronto Star article:

“You have to know your product and be able to market your product and our product is Jesus Christ,” says Taynia Wright…

Are we all not consumers, just looking for the right product – whether physical, temporal, corporal or spiritual. Isn’t it all about me and my needs. The music I like, comfortable chairs for my fat butt, messages that encourage rather than challenge…all for a small fee tithe.


One of the core characteristics of consumerism is choice. With each new option, the shopper is better equipped to construct his unique identity. Customization, creating a product that conforms to my particular desires, has driven businesses to offer an ever-increasing number of choices. This trend is seen most clearly in the iPod. No longer is a listener required to buy an entire CD to enjoy just one song. You now have instant access to millions of songs, and download them individually for a personalized playlist. The demand for more choices also drives modern churches. The goal is to provide religious consumers with as many individualized choices as possible. The latest permutation is “video venues.”

At one church, upon arriving each family member can choose the worship setting that fits their personal desire. Simultaneously, grandma can sing hymns in the traditional service, mom and dad can enjoy coffee and bagels in the worship cafe, and the teenagers can lose their hearing in the rock venue. The value of shared experience and congregational unity is drowned out by consumerism’s mantra of individual choice.

“The inspiration for what this church is doing,” one journalist reports, “comes from a place where freedom of choice and variety are celebrated: the American shopping mall.” To which the pioneering pastor responds, “I am very comfortable with a consumer mindset and use that tool to help reach people.”

To Meet, or to Discipline Desire?
Consumers demand options, but this poses a problem. Formation into the likeness of Christ is not accomplished by always getting what we want. In ages past, choice was not heralded as a Christian’s right. In fact, relinquishing our choices by submitting to a spiritual mentor or community was prerequisite to growth in Christ. Believers were guided through formative and corrective disciplines—most being activities we would never choose if left to our desires. But surrendering control ensured we received what we needed to mature in Christ, not simply what we wanted.

In consumer Christianity, however, church leaders function as religious baristas, supplying spiritual goods for people to choose from based on their preferences. Our concern becomes not whether people are growing, but whether they are satisfied. An unhappy member, like an unhappy customer, will find satisfaction elsewhere. As one pastor enthusiastically said, “The problem with blended services is that half the people are happy half the time. With a video venue, you can say, ‘If you don’t like this service style, try another one!'”

Let me confess that I lived and worked in this world. I talked about the importance of branding for both churches and ministry – discussing how best to get “bottoms in chairs”. I knew and used the attractional tools to increase Sunday morning attendance. I co-planned “bridge events” designed to trick non-affiliated (or other-affiliated) prospective church-consumers into our environment so that we could win them over. (Fashion Shows? Valentines banquets?)

Too what end? Entertained consumers with one more choice in their viewing pleasure, perhaps? Disciples? Not even remotely.

Eugene Peterson interprets 2nd Timothy 4:3-4:

You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They’ll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you—keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.

UPDATE: A much more articulate Jordon Cooper, quotes an even more articulate Eugene Peterson:

The major American innovation in the congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise. Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting and requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had. We are insatiable. It didn’t take long for some of our colleagues to develop consumer congregations. If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our churches is to identify what they want and offer it to them. Satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel into consumer terms — entertainment, satisfaction, excitement and adventure, problem-solving, whatever. We are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches?

Given the conditions prevailing in our culture, we have the best and most effective way ever devised for gathering large and prosperous congregations. Americans lead the world in showing how to do it. There’s only one thing wrong. This is not the way that God brings us into conformity with the life of Christ. This is not the way that we become less and Jesus becomes more. This is not the way in which our lives become available to others in justice and service. The cultivation of consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacrificial, “denying yourself” congregation. A consumer church is an anti-Christ church. It’s doing the right thing—gathering a congregation—but doing it in the wrong way. This is not the way to develop a contemplative life, a life in which the Jesus way and the Jesus truth are congruent, where “kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.”

Jordon strongly recommends listening to this Peterson podcast from my friends @ Allelon.

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

2 responses to Would You Like Fries With That: Consuming the Church

  1. Once again, Bill, you have hit upon a most timely topic. Those of us who serve in suburban areas know how people “jump here, there, and everywhere” (i.e. from church to church) seeking what they want, or feel (notice that I said “feel”) what they want. That does indeed make it tough for pastors and congregations, especially when one or two, usually independent or non-denominational congregations become “hot” in an area, offering exceptional, almost Disney-like facilities for children and youth, plus all kinds of experiences for adults of all ages. A lot of second-guessing begins to occur as to what we in other congregations need to do to imitate, catch-up, etc., as if we have “to keep up with the spiritual equivalent of the Jones.”

    Also, at times, I wonder if we should all be Orthodox Christians or Roman Catholics, as both have the longest history as churches and both seem to hold as much as possible to their ancient traditions. Of course, having said that, we can note how nationalism, corruption, inflexibility, etc. have had effects on those two branches of the church, and hence the Reformation and numerous other attempts to reform, get relevant, “get real,” etc. (Once the door opens, other doors will follow–other attempts to get back to the so-called New Testament church–by the way, which one: Corinth? Philippi? etc.,– and other efforts at “reform.”) I have no answer other than attempting, with all the help from God that I can get, to follow what Eugene Peterson offers in his translation of 2 Timothy that you cited.

  2. My friend, Ed Brenegar has said that he feels the Missional church is the only hope for church in the west. Until we realize that the church is all not about us, we will never experience the real joy that awaits us as we move into God’s mission.

    If we only feed peoples felt needs, they will never experience the true Good News that awaits them.

    In my, not-so humble opinion.


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