The Consumer Church Gone Wild?

The plethora of issues that clergy face must be real, because the conversation has now moved beyond the Christian blogosphere and the mutual complaint societies that spring up whenever clergy get together. Last week, an article in the New York Times highlighted the problems of clergy burnout and argued that pastors need to take more time off. Back in the blogosphere, I’ve read reactions from clergy that run the gambit from “duh!” to relief that the issue is being recognized by such a mainstream media outlet.

A few days later, another article that was equally interesting and a bit more provocative Op-Ed by G. Jeffery MacDonald appeared in the pages of the Old Gray Lady, arguing that the chief reason for clergy burnout is the pressure that pastors get from their congregations to do things they way they want. MacDonald cites the example of his congregation requesting that he keep his sermons under ten minutes, focusing on funny and uplifting stories to make people feel good about themselves rather than challenging them to live differently in response to the gospel.

The tension and conflict that MacDonald identifies exists on many levels. On a personal level, the tension exists within every professional pastor, as MacDonald says, “between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security”. On a broader level, this conflict raises questions of what the identity of the church really is. Are we just another player in a consumer oriented society, trying to end up on top in the “marketplace of ideas”? Should we do whatever it takes to get as many people in the pews and dollars in the plate as possible? Those that, consciously or not, answer “yes” to this question are the target of MacDonald’s critique.

Andrew Thompson over at Gen-X Rising sees MacDonald’s question as primarily one of preaching. Thompson contends that it’s actually the church’s fault that such pressures come at the clergy. “It’s possible,” Thompson says, “that feel-good preaching is not a result of such shifts but rather a cause of them.” In other words, he’s playing with the idea that if the church had really done its job, the culture wouldn’t have become so shallow and consumption-oriented, and thus wouldn’t put pressure on the church to give feel-good nuggets of spirituality rather than challenging us to deep shifts in the way we think and live.

So what’s the answer? Like any complex and systemic problem, it’s all of the above, the chicken and the egg. The culture around us promotes endless, mindless consumption as the real purpose of life. And the church has largely done a very poor job speaking to that culture without pandering to it or condemning it wholesale. We have failed to create meaningful alternative narratives by which to live our lives. Like any complex, systemic problem, we all share in some of the blame, and thus we all have to play a part in the solution.

Perhaps one way to wrap our minds around the issues churches face in truly speaking to a consumer society is to consider the phenomenon of “church shopping”. My wife, Jessica, and I have very different takes on the issue and even talked about it on our podcast a while back. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with visiting different churches to try to find the one that is the best fit for you. But in a society where we are bombarded by advertisements every second of every day, we get lulled into the assumption that the perfect product that will solve all our troubles is out there, if we can only find the right one.

Since that’s what the culture tells us to look for, churches try to respond in kind and market themselves as having all the solutions to life’s problems. But what happens after the newness wears off and we realize that this new product we’re consuming isn’t exactly what we hoped or what was implicitly, if not explicitly, promised? We move on to the next big thing, hoping that will be the miracle cure, only to be disappointed over and over again.

We’ve all bought into the mentality that we can shop for or transform ourselves into the perfect church. We’re all part of the problem. So the first step is to repent of our idolatry, thinking that anything less than God be the answer. Repentance will free us up to be part of the solution: making this deep shift in our thinking and our practice and quit treating the church as another product to be consumed.

If we’re looking, let’s quit “shopping” for the “perfect” church, because it doesn’t exist. Let’s find a faith community that seems like it works for us, and invest some time and energy in the relationships we form there. Let’s resist the temptation to walk away the first time someone annoys us or we don’t like the color of the drapes.

On the other side, church professionals need to quit pretending that their services, discipleship programs, or small group ministries can cure all of life’s problems. We’re not selling snake oil, we’re developing relationships and growing together as disciples, and that’s a very messy process. Let’s put our best foot forward, and always work on being the best of who God made us to be. But let’s never make promises we can’t keep. Let us never be the ones who create the idol for others to consume just so we can look good on paper.

We’re all part of the problem, and with God’s help, we can all be part of the solution. It will take a lot of time and effort for the church to get out of the mess we’ve created for ourselves, and casting a bright light on these issues and calling them out for what they are, as these articles in the Times do, is a very good first step.

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