Church Trapped by Consumerism

Church shoppers. They’re derided as fickle, self-centered customers caught up in the toxic fever of consumerism.

“People treat church and church programs like the mall,” said a church leader. “All they want is the latest shiny object and ‘what’s in it for me.'”

As church memberships decline and more people slip out the back door to try the church across town, church leaders look for someone or something to blame. And there may be some truth to the charge that consumerism is contributing to sagging church commitment.

But I suspect that the church itself has played right in to this sense of consumerism. If people are treating churches like stores in the mall, maybe it’s because churches are acting like stores in the mall. A consumer mindset is driven by a merchant mentality. And many of our churches have adopted the very consumeristic tactics they say they despise.

CONSUMPTION. The objective of the consumer is to receive. And most churches have designed their main product, the worship service, as a spectator event. The pew sitters come to receive. They passively listen to the well-rehearsed preachers and the professional musicians. It’s a scripted hour. Just like what consumers expect when they buy a ticket to a show. They pay the professionals to perform, while they receive.

COMPETITION. Merchants compete with one another. They boast about being the best in town. They don’t do any favors for the competition down the street. Increasingly, churches have adopted competitive postures, vying for the shrinking number of people who are browsing the commodities under the steeples.

ACCOUNTING. Consumer businesses measure their success by the numbers. And so do most churches. The bottom line that gets the prime attention is numerical–attendance, offerings, and square footage.

TRANSACTION. Merchants push to get you in the door. Make the sale. Close the deal. And many churches emulate the transactional model with altar calls, membership drives, and pledge campaigns. Staffers quietly refer to families as “giving units.”

Though some may try to rationalize these methods, many churches unwittingly portray faith as a product to be pitched. But faith is not a consumer product. Faith is a relationship.

Church leaders often describe our faith as a “personal relationship with Christ.” If that’s really true, perhaps it’s time to take seriously the essence of relationship. How does one pursue any good relationship? Is it a consumeristic shopping experience? Is it an academic exercise? The public might think so, based on how churches typically promote the faith.

How does a relationship-oriented approach look different for the church?

Rather than emphasizing a consumption model for worship, the relational church becomes more participatory, allowing for some dialog, conversation, and music that encourages congregational involvement. Congregants need to see that worship–and ministry–are everybody’s job. The paid professionals are there to empower and energize the people, not to perform for passive spectators. Relationships grow through two-way communication and shared involvement.

Rather than seeding competition and comparisons, the relational church looks to cooperate with all who share our common desire to see people grow in relationship with the Lord. The public, weary of churches’ competitive spirits, find any open cooperation among Christians to be inspiring and attractive. It’s a display of the true Body of Christ. Relationships grow through a spirit of cooperation.

Rather than calculating numbers, relational churches relate narratives. Rather than citing statistics, they tell stories. Rather than touting the number of butts in seats, they relate how God is moving in the lives of the members. Relationships grow through telling one another the extraordinary stories of our ordinary lives.

Rather than pressing for quick transactions and arm-twisting, relational churches focus on the process of relationship-building. Good relationships (including relationships with Jesus) usually grow gradually, over time, through trust and patience and love.

Sick of consumerism? Maybe it’s time to tone down the consumer-styled trappings of the contemporary church and reclaim the pursuit of a relationship with Christ–by acting like people pursuing a quality relationship.

15 Responses to “Church Trapped by Consumerism”

  1. This can be tough. We want to be relevant and attractive but we don’t want the delivery of the message to be the message. The Gospel is strong enough to be the message every time. I have to ask myself, “Do I believe that to be true?”

  2. After moving across country with the family and visiting a dozen local churches in search of a new church home, I am baffled by the amount of talk by church leaders on Sunday mornings that references ‘building our church’. It seems the focus is their church and they are quick to let me know where I can sign up to help them build their thing.

    What I’d rather hear is the focus on how to follow Jesus and love others with his love. I think if we focused on the gentle love of Jesus and how to share that to our community, the ‘church’ would be built as a byproduct.

    It seems our focus is on building the institution instead of building the community of Jesus followers.

    Thanks for the excellent and thought-provoking insight on this very important matter.

  3. You nailed it, Thom! In fact, not much thought has to be put into running a church if you know the marketing game. You can just pull a couple tricks out of the ol’ bag and voila!–church. And butts in the seat, giving units, etc., are all part of the lingo.

  4. Thanks for this post. I think the church has tried to work consumerism and what the world really wants is authenticity & relationship. The problem is that consumerism on the surface often looks like its working, but I think many are beginning to realize it’s not the answer. I’m definitely sharing this!

    • It works because it’s easy, formulaic and produces the desired results. I do agree that more and more people are waking up and just like any business, if enough people walk away, maybe some churches will finally wake up and put away the marketing schemes and get back to the authenticity that you mentioned. Until then, they’ll just keep plugging away with a different strategy to produce the results they’re looking for.

  5. It would be nice to see a list of Church’s practicing the relational approach successfully.

    • Check out the House Church movement

      • I host a bible study once a month. The reason why once a month? So people will not get hung up and dependent on a teacher and so they can practically walk out what’s being taught, tell about difficulties and triumphs, and become an active participant in the lesson. As a matter of fact – I don’t have to say much, the people are excited about sharing what they’ve experienced and what they are learning about their walk.

  6. On Facebook, Pam wrote: “Why do we need a church? I am not implying we don’t but am more curious what is the longing that yearns to be gratified that can’t be met in other ways?”

    • Why do we need a church? I think that question might depend on how one defines church. If it is defined simply as a building, then technically we don’t need a church. In the book of Acts, believers met from house to house. If you define church as some weekly ritual, then one could argue, “What’s the point?”

      However, what if we define church as the Bible defines church–as the world wide fellowship of believers who are empowered by the Holy Spirit. That world-wide finds expression in local groups that assemble to fulfill the Great Commission. If we define church in that way, then every believer needs church. First, we are commanded to assemble with other believers. consider Hebrews 10:24 and 25, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

      Second, the church provides care, concern as well as protection from Satan for it’s members. Consider 1 Peter 5:1-9:

      The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.

      Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.

      God did not design us to be Lone Ranger Christians. We are meant to be part of and function within a body. I could quote numerous other Scriptures to support this point, but I think the ones I have quote prove the point.

  7. I feel like I am being sold to at my church. There are rarely any opportunities that they have a fellowship time. We collect for this or that during Wednesday offering, Sunday morning is about saving those not saved. Sunday evening is generally when we do Lords supper the first sunday of the month. We have missions conference, but I don’t feel like I need to sit and be sold to for 3 hours a week. I feel as thought people are allowed to be judgmental because they have “been here since the founding” and I am just sick of it. The church is hooked to a school, we took our child out of and feel as though we were black balled in a way. Sad really.

  8. Just a thought. The relationship approach may just be another ‘marketing’ tactic. Really though, church is an expensive place and needs to be run like a business financially as not to go broke. If people want a pastor who can give their full attention to the church and not split their time with other jobs, that takes money. So of course the church needs donors or giving units. So there is a lot of pressure to make church a place where people want to be and stay and give. Everyone needs to put themselves in the pastors shoes at least for a moment and understand how many people it will take to pay the wage you think you would deserve. If you don’t have giving people, you might not get paid enough to make your bills and support your family. So anyone would be tempted if not pressured into marketing tactics or other fear and intimidation tactics imbedded in your sermons to keep people coming, serving for free and giving their 10%. I’m glad I’m not a pastor.

    • Ryan, I served as an elder, one step away from the pastor. I know from firsthand knowledge some of what goes on behind the scenes and some of it is a vicious cycle that churches create for themselves. If you build large, expansive churches in order to be the hottest ticket in town, then yes, that does require money. Oftentimes, those plans for more, bigger and better are opposed by many in the congregation, but a few power brokers that run the church and feel they know what’s best continue to get their way and so more marketing techniques are used to get people coming and giving to continue paying for what a lot of people didn’t want in the first place. And it’s all under the guise of “reaching people for Christ”.

    • Ryan and Pat, I too served on the board of a church, sadly I have seen this all too often. Money talks and begets the need for more and more.

      I have seen churches where the pastor is in the upper 5% of income earners for the area in which he pastors, is this proper? I have seen churches where the building is costing 10’s of 1000’s of dollars per month to pay the mortgage, is this God’s will for reaching my next-door neighbor or coworker? I submit it is my job, right and honor to reach them.

      The best possible method is for me to get dirty and ask my friends how they are doing and then sit there an wait for an honest answer. Not drag them to some palace to attend the concert and story telling, wash my hands a walk away. God forgive ME for being that guy way too often!

  9. Thom,
    There are problems with the institutional church model altogether. People put the “pastor” on a pedestal. His gift may or not be pastoral, but he is the head of the church. Congregants look to him to “be fed” and keep from dozing off. This model was never meant to be. The organization must survive to the detriment of the people. It becomes the living organism that must be nourished through the money mill. People are incidental. But wait….didn’t Jesus come to have a relationship with people, to serve, to love, to forgive, to interact? How can believers do this when they are busy 7 days a week servicing the organization or attending studies inside the four walls of a building? My husband and I solved this problem. We walked away from the institutional church. We are free to serve and love people in our community without being bogged down with churchianity and cultural christian dogma(which is not written in the Biblel). I volunteer with at risk kids at a local public school and my husband works with young men who have aged out of the foster care system. We have shed church consumerism. We are now a church of two meeting in a coffee shop on Sunday mornings and forming relationships with those we meet. It is lonely, yet freeing. We mainly have each other for fellowship, but we do occasionally gather with other believers. After leaving,we found out that some friends are only your friends if you attend their church building.

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