from time to time, i use this space to decry the sorry state of the american church. the position from which i speak is certainly not one of accomplishment or insight: on the contrary, in many ways i feel myself a failure as a leader in the local church. i am, however, constantly seeking god’s wisdom and direction for my life and for his church in my community.
one of the things i struggle with is the consumeristic nature of our culture. i recently read about the spectacular gains americans have made over the past few years in median income, net worth, and home ownership. we are literally twice as wealthy as our grandparents (income, adjusted for inflation, grew 2.3 fold from 1903-2003 according to the u.s. bureau of labor statistics, consumer expenditure survey) and yet, according to forbes magazine, 66% of americans say they are worse off than their parents were, and half of all adults believe their children’s future will be worse than their present. i gotta’ tell you, that was surprising to me (and probably to most of my 50-year old friends) because i vividly remember life in the middle of the 20th century. i grew up with one bathroom in the house, one car in the garage, and one parent bringing home a paycheck. we have infinitely more “stuff” than our parents had, yet we are miserable. by any measure we are wealthy, and it’s just not enough.
what’s that got to do with the state of the american church? i read a fascinating article on the leadership magazine blog called “keeping it real.” it was excerpted from authenticity: what consumers really want by james gilmore, a christian business expert. he talks about the danger of the church adopting “business thinking” as a way to attract members, and the folly of catering to the whims of consumers. let me quote gilmore:
Don’t take this stuff about the experience economy and make worship a staged experience. Consumerism has come to dominate contemporary evangelicalism. We’re becoming a reflection of the world, instead of standing apart from the world. The church has moved to “spectacalism,” which can become a false gospel.
All of life is being commodified. The church should be the one place that stands apart and says, We have nothing for sale. We only offer a free gift. The church ought to be the place where people see that there’s something different about this place and this people from anything one experiences elsewhere in the commercial marketplace.
To me, the church should not aim to be “real” as an end. The church is there to proclaim truth. Trying to be hip and cool and real does a disservice to the church. We’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be obedient, even if they don’t come. Ministry leaders should think more like Noah, of being part of a remnant that is faithful. If somebody doesn’t find you objectionable, I wonder if you’re preaching the full counsel of God.
To some extent, if people view the church as being fake, they will never enter. But the extent to which the church has become a business, with food courts, skate parks, basketball courts, etc.–I think people look at it and say, That’s not really a church. That’s fake.
i am not suggesting we find ways to be objectionable, but if our primary goal is to make the church comfortable and convenient, then we have surely lost our way. nor am i suggesting that we somehow recapture some long-lost ethic in our methodology. i’m simply saying that the gospel is confrontational by nature and jesus invitation to “follow me” is not supposed to make people feel good about themselves. we have got to be authentic about our struggles and we have to be honest about the cost of discipleship. “you gotta’ get ’em in,” my friends say. granted, but i’m afraid we are subconsciously telling people that church is about them–what they want. after all, they are customers and the customer is always right. wrong!
is it interesting to anyone else that the more successful we become as a people the less need we have for god?