I’ve never been bothered by a commercial like I was bothered by a commercial for the Kentucky lottery. In this morally deplorable commercial a man is purchasing gas from a gas station cashier partly with pennies from those little register bowls and is asked by the cashier if he might like to buy another lotto ticket today. The man who obviously barely has the money to fuel his car insists he can’t afford it. In response the woman who had obviously sold him lotto tickets in the past suggests he can’t afford not to play the lotto. The man whose previous lottery purchases likely contributed to his fiscal woes then decides that the very cause of his problems could be his salvation and buys the ticket. The Kentucky government funded an ad that informed people doubling down on poor choices is the best way to solve the consequences of such poor choices. This ad was foolish and devastating to the public but I worry that Christians churches do much more damage when they fall into the same errors. Consumerism has wreaked havoc on churches big and small across America and has substantially decreased faith retention rates but strangely many voices within Christianity believe we solve this problem by furthering it.
Over the past several decades a focus on Christianity as a consumer experience has taken greater and greater hold in America. We have widely embraced church terminology that shows the hold of consumerism. Terms like shopping, market research, consumer satisfaction, or advertisement strategy were only to be found in the business world not long ago but now dominate church discussions. Many church leaders discuss what lesson their churches can learn from Taco Bell’s newest sensation and many pastors look to the opinion of the CEO far before the theology professor. The problems is not limited to church leaders, an increasing number of church transfers are credited to desiring a preferred style of worship or to hear the funniest preacher in town. In many ways this consumer mentality is the worst when we look at a church’s children and youth ministries. These ministries once created as additional means to teach young people in surprising depth have largely become fun zones with a tiny bit of Bible. Churches use consumer methods to increase their numbers more than anything and many a Christian believes the key to church growth is having the most fun event in their community.
The success of a church is very clearly faithfulness to God more than anything and churches built around the consumer experience have obviously failed by that metric. The success of a business is instead found almost entirely in the bottom line, numbers drive all in the business world. Ironically treating church as a consumer experience has not even led to success by the standards of the bottom line in the vast majority of cases. Some of the early adopters of a consumer approach to church that are still hailed as leaders in the “church growth movement” have quietly been in decline for the better part of a decade. Many consumer focused churches are growing but deeper statistics show in the vast majority of these cases that growth comes almost entirely through transfers from smaller churches not through new salvations. The areas where prominent consumer churches have sprouted up have largely seen decline in Christian church attendance. Orange County California once known to be America’s church trend setting county and home of some of the most well known consumer churches has seen rejection of Christianity in numbers few American counties could have dreamed about.
Websites and ministries once created to prove the numerical success of consumer churches are now including churches that reject the pillars of consumerism among the fast growing churches in the nation. One prominent example; Village Church in the Dallas area is reaching people for Jesus in mass while having sermons that push an hour, encouraging children to worship with parents, and recently standing against the multi-site model. The two fastest growing American denominations have not been ones that largely embrace consumerism but instead the PCA and EFCA which are known for deep Gospel centered Biblical teaching.
Consumer Christianity has the unsurprising effect of making our faith into just one more consumer product to be treated thus. McDonalds does not want you to reorient your life around the McDonalds way, they just want you to have a Big Mac every week or so. Consumerism is merely adding one more thing that you like to your many desires and interests. Consumerism also is tailored to our innate desires far more than our needs. There is a reason film studios spend more advertising on the superhero movie than their informative documentary. This is also why consumer churches spend so little time in the Bible and so much time teaching feel good message. Consumer churches try to get people in with what they want to later find a way to expose them to the Gospel they really need or the bible study they really need. The reality is though the movie studio brings you in for the blockbuster and you still never see the documentary. McDonalds bring you in for the Big Mac and you never really go on to order the healthy salad. Churches bring people in with feel good messages but they seldom stay for the Gospel message. As they say, what you win them with is what you win them to.
The consumer approach to church is not working anymore (maybe it never really did) and the reason is not because these movements have not gone far enough as some seeker sensitive church leaders suggest. The reason this model fails is fundamentally theological and it has everything to do with a doctrine called soteriology, which means the doctrine of salvation. Consumer marketing and experiences works fantastically in business when they show their product to be appealing to what a consumer already wants. Chick-fil-a wins me as a consumer because I am a person that wants something tasty to eat and they have convinced me Chick-fil-a is one of the best places to meet that desire. Solar City convinced me to buy their solar panels by convincing me they are the best way to meet my pre-existing desire to save money on my electric bill. Christian churches are called to reach a lost world that naturally has no desire for the reconciled relationship with God through Christ we offer to them. Scripture is extremely clear on this: “no one understands; no one seeks for God.”-Romans 3:11. After the fall mankind’s desire turned inwards rather than to God, and thus lost sinners on their own are incapable of wanting the message we offer. Some people do have an interest in religion but apart from the Holy Spirit all natural interest in religion is a pursuit of self in one way or another. Consumer churches refer to their target audience as “seekers” or people who have a natural interest and desire for a relationship with God if it’s only sold to them just the right way. The problem is no one is naturally a seeker as our passage shows so clearly, their target audience frankly doesn’t exist.
This probably all seems rather hopeless up to this point but there is a great and marvelous hope that is far more powerful than the wisdom of the fortune 500 company. That hope is that our great God can reorient those who have no interest in true salvation, He can regenerate us and if we are Christians He already has done so. God doesn’t need the most comfortable market driven worship services to do this, He has something better that is strangely far simpler. That better tool God has is the message of the Gospel. When we tell others the Gospel message clearly the impact will far outweigh our service styles or sermon length. The Gospel and the Gospel alone produces real salvation and that salvation reorients lives so much that we become far more than seekers. The Gospel transforms those who once lived for self and only sought the best consumer experience into Christians that more and more live for the glory of God and are willing to kill their preferences and become uncomfortable because they love Jesus. Let’s stop doubling down on the problem of treating Christianity as one more consumer product and truly return to the transformative Gospel community God made us to be.