Faith

Why the Consumer Church is More Our Fault than Anyone Else’s

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There’s an ongoing battle among pastors of both new and old congregations over fighting to avoid what’s known as a consumer church.

One definition of a consumer church might be one that focuses on the likes of the congregation. In some cases, those likes outweigh or take priority over the teachings of Jesus Christ.

That’s about as short a definition of “consumer church” as you’ll find. When you Google the topic, you find lists of longform articles that debate the concept.

If we go with my simplified definition, going with the likes of the congregation may not sound like a problem. But some more conservative churches believe that a true “consumer church” takes that concept too far. Worse, they believe they choose “customer service” at the expense of the gospel entirely.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the consumer church.

The website Eager for [Truth] lists 20 signs of a consumer church culture in this article. I won’t list all 20 here. However, you can click the link and see all of them. Instead, I’ll mention five of them here:

  • Your church spends more time developing a marketing plan than searching scriptures for God’s take on the drawing force.
  • What the church talks about is determined by the impact on the bottom dollar than being biblically faithful.
  • The number of people present in the auditorium seats holds the highest value than anything else.
  • People leave your Church gatherings talking more about your stage props, the music that was played, and your pastor’s outfit.
  • Over 80% of church members haven’t lifted a finger in service to other members since they darkened the door. If they served and are asked to serve again, their response is, “I’ve done my time.”

Are these fair indicators of a church serving customers versus a church presenting the gospel? To the more conservative Christians, I’m sure they are. I know of a handful of conservative Christians who lament the passing of “hellfire and brimstone” services of decades ago.

I think you must examine such generalities carefully.

Churches in today’s society are businesses, whether anyone involved in a church wants to admit this or not. Churches need revenue to be able to pay the salaries of staff. While some may expect clergy should want to work for free, those people wouldn’t do so themselves. Running a church, even the most gospel-centered, anti-consumer focused church you could find, takes money.

The easiest way to bring in money is to have members fired up about participating who will then donate.

I don’t mean to justify acting like a business rather than putting ministry as top priority. But a focus on meeting financial goals to be able to exist has to be a priority somewhere.

I’ve seen church pastors who do worry about what the audience will say about some things they present. But I’ve also seen pastors who intentionally try to be “shock jocks” just to get a reaction. That’s definitely a common marketing tactic. Is it Godly?

I know of a church that once said publicly that they are “all about numbers.” And they do justify such a statement with the notion that numbers represent souls. But face it: you can’t focus on individual souls when you only focus on packing as many as you can into the same room.

We easily focus our attention on the wrong things no matter where we are, churches included. If we hate the music or the pastor’s attitude or even if we don’t feel welcome, we may not return. We allow less important details to influence whether we return. But is that the church’s fault or our fault? For that one, I’m going to have to go with the latter.

I will say, however, that in some cases, music is, I believe, a legitimate issue. Many visiter respond over the years to posts about music played at ear-damaging levels. They’ve also described responses to complaints about that volume. I’ve yet to find any Bible verse that justifies forcing Christ-followers to subject themselves to this.

Christ’s teachings definitely describe a church (see the Book of Acts) in which people cared for one another. Many churchgoers don’t care so much for each other. Some never speak to one another at church, much less serve each other. But again, I don’t see this as a church problem so much as a member problem.

The customer isn’t always right.

I hate to blow anyone’s mind with such a statement. Customers believe, because of their experience, that they’re entitled to everything they want. That’s true no matter what they want.

Pastors struggle with balancing between a consumer-driven and a gospel-driven church. I don’t envy them that struggle.

A 2016 Pew Research study asked parishioners to list the top four factors Christians consider in shopping for a church. They listed quality of sermons, feeling welcomed by leaders, style of services, and location.

Crisis Magazine calls that a “troubling omission.”

Its site questions the absence of “the desire for personal spiritual growth in a gospel-centered, mission-driven, discipleship-oriented church.”

Should a church’s distance from the church member matter? How far is too far? Should worship style decide whether someone attends? You will recall from your school days that some students learn differently. At church, this must also be true. Some styles of worship may not convey, for some, the same clarity.

I can’t imagine people would be able to adequately focus on the lesson when they aren’t welcome. Trust me: Been there, done that. It doesn’t work.

I must assume that the quality of sermon contains an implication of Biblical faithfulness. After all, who would take a survey about church if they weren’t genuinely interested in learning about God.

Pastors face this battle all the time.

I do feel bad for pastors forced to guide congregations, sometimes against their will, toward a gospel-centered focus.

They feel pressured to shift focus from convenience and comfort, even when that’s exactly what congregants may want. They must force people out of comfort zones, which, of course, isn’t remotely comfortable.

All the while, they must face questions of criteria like the points above.

Are they a consumer church if they have multiple programs for different age groups? Or are they trying to better reach individual segments of the community?

Should they offer coffee and doughnuts to their members in the lobby, or is that too “friendly” and not Godlike enough?

Can only the organ play truly reverent music, or must the worship team sound like a rock band to reach people?

I don’t think there’s any one valid way to do church. I don’t think one pastor’s answers to these questions will match every other pastor’s answers.

It must depend on the individual community itself and how its members learn.

Those of us who look for churches must keep in mind that the priority needs to be a focus on God. We probably will never love everything a church does. I’ve reached a point in my spiritual life — through bad past experiences — that I’d be perfectly content with a church service with no music and more time spent on actual teaching. But I’m in the minority there and I realize that. That’s a point where I have to look at what they’re trying to accomplish for God, not how they’re trying to please me.

When searching for a church, we have to realize that we’re often part of the very problem pastors face.

We must give the benefit of the doubt to those in charge and actually listen to the message before deciding if the church is right for us.

If we can’t do that, we’re being too much the consumer and too little the follower.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.