I remember talking at length in the past about how the modern (American) church functions more as a business than as an organism, and the ways that I’ve observed that church-as-business really gets in the way of our Biblical mandates. Recently, though, I’ve heard about some disturbing trends within the church that have revived this issue in my mind, got me thinking about it some more. It’s more than just a trend for churches to function like businesses–it points to what I’ll call “consumerism Christianity,” something I find not only to be unbiblical, but also dangerous.
First, what do I mean by “consumerism Christianity?” I mean that over time, somehow the western church has allowed our capitalist western culture to infiltrate our thinking about what church is, and what it should be. Not to get too political here–I’ve got nothing against capitalism in general–but if you think about it, the truth is our whole society is built on assessing value to something, even if money isn’t involved. Everything is measured. A church’s worth is measured by the number of people it attracts. A ministry’s effectiveness is often measured by how many “commitment cards” it receives. Everything in our culture is a product to be marketed–including, it would seem, the practice of our faith. We Christians no longer choose a church community based on its sense of community, or its collective mission. We choose based on what programs they offer, or whether we like the pastor’s sermons. The church leaders aren’t the only ones to blame for this farce–believers in general are just as guilty. I’m not sure how it happened, but we’ve allowed a priceless faith that used to cost people their very lives (and still does, in many places) to be reduced to a set of principles, products and self-help techniques. Christianity is the product; we are the consumers.
God have mercy.
Two different instances over the past week have fed into my revisiting this issue. This morning, I read a post by my blogger friend Matt at The Church of No People talking about how the American Church has been consolidating in recent years from many smaller congregations to a handful of mega-churches, and how the direction of much of the western church is now in the hands of a few men (and fewer women, I might add–just throwing that out there), and how we may be setting ourselves up for a fall in the process. That reminded me of something The Wild One shared with me earlier this week that was even more disturbing: the trend of new mega-churches to come into town and swallow up the little ones.
This is one of those instances where I wish I’d had the presence of mind to locate the source–it was something The Wild One had seen shared on Facebook, I think, but I didn’t see the link for myself. But it is apparently now an emerging trend for a new church plant to come into town armed with a celebrity Christian and a lot of start-up capital. Here’s the scenario that unfolds, as best I remember it:
1. The new church starts a new work in the area amid much fanfare and pre-awareness.
2. Thanks to name recognition by the celebrity figure (who may not even be there permanently), along with lots of comforts, amenities and advertised church programs, the new church draws a lot of transfer growth from other, smaller local churches who might already be struggling.
3. The new church sees instant growth into a mega-church, while existing congregations begin struggling even more. Some churches close down.
But it gets worse…
4. The new church, now the benefactor, offers to help some of the surrounding struggling congregations financially. Sounds good, until…
5. The new church eventually assumes control of those congregations it was helping, annexes them, and turns them into “satellite campuses.” Many times, the pastor is removed or put on paid staff as an associate, and the weekly sermon becomes an on-screen simulcast of the celebrity pastor’s sermon from the mega-church pulpit.
I repeat–God have mercy.
Now, some might argue that first of all, those other churches wouldn’t have lost people if they were meeting the needs of their people. They might also argue that bigger churches have more ability to conduct more outreach (and yes, due to sheer gravity, some of these churches will see a number of non-believers come to faith in Christ). But I fail to see how this trend serves the greater purposes of the Kingdom of God when most of the growth of these churches comes from existing believers with unfortunately consumerist mindsets, and especially when the success of these new mega-churches comes at the expense of other, God-fearing ministers who have served their communities faithfully for years before the out-of-towners came in.
This is NOT church unity: it is nothing short of cannibalization. It is unethical, and I fail to see the Christlikeness within it. And as Matt points out, when the church consolidates in this way, it lessens the pool of decision makers, putting more power into the hands of fewer people. And from what I’ve seen of what excessive power does to pastors, this can’t be good.
Does this seem familiar to you? It should. We see this kind of crap happening in corporate America all the time–larger corporations setting up recognized brand name chain stores across the street from smaller, ma-and-pa establishments, for the express purpose of putting them out of business and absorbing their customer base. It’s not very ethical when it happens in the world–why would it be okay for the church to behave this way? Some might argue that this is just an unfortunate side-effect of a well-intended church planting strategy, but don’t kid yourself. I’ve seen enough crap in this business (and that’s what it is, a business) to know that the people behind these strategies aren’t dimwitted. Either they know EXACTLY what they’re doing, or they’re willfully turning a blind eye to protect their “vision.”
This is consumerism Christianity at its worst (so far). Meaning, we may not have seen the worst of it if we don’t change our minds about this. And it’s not just the fault of the leaders doing it–it’s the fault of Christians who have fallen into the snare of seeing church as a product. These new mega-churches wouldn’t be succeeding if people weren’t being seduced by all the shiny bells and whistles. But church is a product, and we are the consumers, so we go “where our needs are being met,” not where “we can meet the need.” We consume. Unfortunately, it’s now apparently led to churches consuming other churches. That’s NOT what “one church” means.
Folks, to state the obvious, THE CHURCH IS NOT WAL-MART. We were never meant to be a huge conglomerate, eating up everything around us. Again, I’m no enemy to capitalism, but the church was never meant to be a capitalist entity. Once again, we’ve completely missed the point. What happened to the basics like discipleship, community, being on mission together? When did the size of the congregation become the measuring stick of success?
I’ve ranted enough about this. Suffice it to say this kind of thing makes me feel like I made the right decision to distance myself from church-as-business, and start looking for a better way.
Because there has to be a better way.