Do you remember the old Burger King commercials that used to come on television that touted to consumers to come to Burger King so that you could “Have It Your Way”? The campaign which began in the 70’s was designed to appeal to consumers’ desire of personal sovereignty as opposed to the rigid and cold offerings of BK’s competitors that pre-made their burgers and threw them out under a warming lamp. There is a deep, innate desire in each and every one of us to be the ultimate determiners of our future and only to engage in those options which have the greatest appeal to us and to reject those options that we find less appealing or entertaining. Some of us remember as a kid when our parents didn’t ask us what we wanted for dinner. Instead, they had a plan of what they were going to make and they put it on the table with the expectation that we would eat it, whether it met our preferred taste palate or not. For that reason, many of us “learned the hard way” that green beans or broccoli were good for us when our tastes told us that french fries or ice cream were what we really needed.
One of the great American values is “choice” and the ability to have what you want, when you want, with whom you want, and to whatever amount you want. To suggest to anyone, at any time that their “choice” might not be good or healthy for them is often met with not only stiff resistance, but sometimes accusations that we should not be so “judgmental”. In our culture, the “consumer is king” and there is no shortage of suitors out there vying for your consumer dollars. However, it’s one thing to deal with consumer sovereignty in the fast-food market. It’s quite another to deal with it in the living, organic Body of Christ that has existed for 2,000 years, primarily at the margins of society and not necessarily under the auspices of cultural favor.
When I began in ministry in the early 90’s, the “seeker-sensitive” movement was beginning to blaze a trail across the evangelical landscape. The two pillars of this movement at the time, Willow Creek Community Church of Chicago and Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, CA, became the standard that most of us young seminarians aspired to. Most of the conversations I remember with my seminary classmates was about “church growth” and baptisms and how to create “environments” where “unchurched” people felt comfortable and appealed to them. I naturally devoured every church growth book I could get my hands on the next several years. I went to the conferences at these churches to learn the secret of getting more people into church.
For the most part, everything I read and everything that many of us built our ministries on was built on two main premises. The first was”consumerism”. Find out what people want in a church and what they don’t want and, as long as you cannot find any reason why it violates the Scripture, give them what they want. If they want shorter sermons that are marked with funny stories and “life principles” to help them be better people, then give them that. If they want upbeat music with modern lyrics instead of old, out-of-date hymns that speak of the “mighty fortress” of God, then give it to them. The second premise was “pragmatism”, the idea that if something “works” and gets them in the door, as long as you couldn’t find a Bible verse condemning it, it must not only be ok, it is probably the way the Holy Spirit is “leading” at the present time. Pragmatism can be a deadly poison that assumes that “numerical metrics” serve more as an indicator of blessing than the long-term development of the fruits of the Spirit.
Then one day, as I continued to read my Bible and evaluate the words of Jesus, I sensed a question from the Holy Spirit I had never considered and still troubles me to this day. I don’t mean for this to sound super-spiritual, as if I know the answers more than anyone else does. It was just that as I evaluated my “growing” youth ministry in my “growing” church that appeared to be continuing to ask questions based primarily on consumerism and pragmatism, I couldn’t answer this question:
“If you continue to build a church that’s all about the people, at what point do you tell the people that the church isn’t really all about the people?
Now, let me take a moment to clarify some things. I am not “anti” big-churches. I don’t think “mega” churches are the problem. I don’t think that big numbers are a sign of gospel compromise any more than I think that big numbers are a sign of spiritual blessing. I also don’t believe that everybody in the new “attractional church” movement are trying to pad numbers on the backs of biblical compromise. (If you don’t know what the “attractional church” is, it’s the modern-day cousin of the “seeker-sensitive” church) I believe that most people in the attractional church movement sincerely desire to see lost people saved. I believe that some of them are doing a good job of building conversational bridges with lost people. I will reserve my comments on the evangelistic approach of attractional churches for another day. My present concern with this movement is that I believe a lot of present-day “atractional” churches are built at the core with a philosophical approach designed not only to attract the “unchurched”, but also to appeal to those already in the church who see a better show up the road. I have yet to see many leaders of larger attractional churches articulate an answer to the criticism that they take a “big box” approach to spirituality that draws people from smaller churches away for a flashier, more appealing option. I have yet to hear a story of a pastor of a large attractional church actually ask someone who is already a member at another church nearby why they are changing churches and suggest to them that rather than abandoning their church for a flashier option, that they should go back to their “normal” church and plug into the mission there. (I have heard Matt Chandler from Village Church suggest to people that if they are only there for the show and aren’t really on board for the mission that “we need your seat.” I don’t consider Village Church to employ an attractional model.) I have yet to hear any such pastors that have had a serious conversation with someone about severing ties with brothers and sisters in Christ at another church just to appeal to better music and cool videos.
Now, inevitably, whenever a smaller church pastor expresses concerns about larger churches, the expected reaction will be one of jealousy, pettiness, or trying to ignite an internal squabble while the lost are going to hell. I know those accusations. I made them a lot when I was the youth pastor in a larger church. I am none of those things. I am just concerned that we are just beginning to see the effects of decades of consumerism and pragmatism in the evangelical church today and I don’t think all the results are positive. As I stated in the title, I don’t think “having it your way” is necessarily good for your soul. So, let me just end this post with some observations that I am trying to resolve as a Christian and church leader regarding the current evangelical landscape going forward. Here are a few concerns I have regarding “having it your way”.
- It has the potential to turn you into more of a personal consumer of religious products than a productive member of the body of Christ. At the end of the day, your boring “traditional” church that you belonged to for so long actually needs you to invest in the people there, to serve others there rather than being served, and to help steer a course that accomplishes the Great Commission in your context. As one of my friends has often said to people who have left his church for the large, big-box church up the road because his small church didn’t have a youth ministry, “If you stay and work with us, you will become the answer to your problem.”
- It continues to foster a mentality in the younger generation that church is all about your wants and wishes rather than about Christ and his word. As a veteran of 15+ years of youth ministry built on pragmatism, I can tell you that approach didn’t bear as much fruit as I had hoped it would. And, we continue to see a never-ending stream of younger evangelicals who leave the church of their teenage years simply because we cannot compete with the entertainment value that the world has to offer.
- It often ignores the discipleship mandate of self-denial that Jesus himself taught should mark his disciples. Nobody really wants to talk about this much, but Jesus made it clear to his disciples in Luke 9 that following him began with self-abandonment, not self-fulfillment. Paul taught us that one of the qualities that the Spirit is developing in us is “self-control”, the ability to not have to have it our way all the time.
- The statistics bear witness that 40+ years of pragmatic and consumeristic ministry models have not worked as well as we would like to think. While the present trends suggest that the mega-churches are still “growing”in numbers, the number of conversions and baptisms in the evangelical world are still shrinking. By all accounts, the present evangelical church is more biblically illiterate than ever before. With 100+ translations available on our smartphones right now, we still don’t know what the word of God says, much less how to apply it. Finally, a conversation has emerged in recent years in the evangelical world about the priority of “disciple-making”, realizing that we have filled our pews for decades with infantile Christians, if not outright unconverted persons.
So, where do we go from here? I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know at the present time if I have any tangible answers. I am not trying to suggest to anyone that your church is bad. I hope over time to be able to wrestle with these questions through this forum. I would suggest that whether you agree with my assumptions or not, you might read Jared Wilson’s book, “The Prodigal Church“. Jared has written a lot over the last few years about some of his concerns and articulates many of the feelings I have had. I ask that if you are in a larger, attractional church that you read this book with an open mind and not as an attack on your church or your pastor. I think he brings up issues that many of us have not taken the time to consider regarding the church and its present trends. Whatever your position, I hope that we can all undertake a constructive conversation about the church, what it means to be a disciple, and how we can accomplish the missional mandate of our Lord and Savior.