In our last post, we considered which should come first, church engagement or discipleship? In other words, is routing believers and non-believers alike through church events, activities and membership an impediment or gateway to discipleship? If church engagement was strategically leveraged as a gateway then opportunities for discipleship should be readily available after jumping through the requisite church “hoops”. However, few churches offer clear paths and adequate opportunities for growth and ministry in the community and world. Fewer provide intensive, personalized discipleship at all, replacing that with occasional and voluntary small groups.
Therefore, it is possible that for many churches the “hoops” themselves have replaced discipleship as the end goal. In other words, are we doing a better job of tracking attendance at membership classes and weekend services than forward progress in relational depth with Jesus Christ? Are we more closely monitoring member adherence to doctrinal statements and compliance with church policies than their evangelistic and disciple-making activity? The intended purpose of church is to build and release disciple-multipliers, but do our metrics today indicate a greater concern with attracting and retaining faithful churchgoers?
Who is the culprit behind this mission drift? Did our consumer culture force pastors to lower expectations and make church more attractive? Did rampant Selfism diminish interest in higher thoughts to the point where the survival of a church hinges on convincing the public of its relevance and recapturing consumer interest? Or did seminaries and consultants encourage pastors to adopt a business mindset and turn Americans into church shoppers? In other words, which came first – church shopping or churches competing for “business”?…the chicken or the egg?
Must We Go Through Church to Get to God?
To trace the origins of church consumerism, it’s helpful to examine the dynamics behind the common misconception today that the only route to God runs through church. Whereas Jesus modeled personal discipleship as His Kingdom growth plan, Americans have developed a dependence on pastors to provide evangelism and discipleship services. In lieu of personally living out the Great Commission, we are told to simply invite friends to church and tithe to compensate “professionals” for services rendered. In lieu of personal Bible study and prayer, we see increasing dependence on pastors and small group members to provide wisdom and advice – encouraging regular attendance. God’s math of multiplication has been supplanted by addition.
Going to church is not the only way to get to God. At Jesus’ death the veil was literally and figuratively torn, allowing everyone direct access to God through Christ. Church is designed to make disciples who lead people to Jesus and then bring them into a house of worship (to worship). However, the dearth of discipleship today both diminishes the churchgoer’s evangelistic ability and reduces their responsibility to inviting those who don’t worship Jesus to a worship service.
Additional evidence of the attempt to route everyone through church to get to God is the increase in church advertising. Churches sell their value propositions and competitive advantages, promoting church “shopping”. Those not in the “market” for a church are unlikely to respond to popular church marketing slogans like…
- “All are welcome”
- “Come check us out”
- “It’s a casual atmosphere”
- “Get practical advice for everyday problems”
- “Your kids will love it”
- “Meet new friends”
- “Are you going through hard times?”
- “Join our community”
- “Haven’t found your purpose?”
- “Looking for a sense of belonging?”
- “There’s no pressure”
As attractive as that all sounds, it isn’t “working”. The percentage of Americans who frequently attend church is in decline. In trying to look alluring, it is repelling. In trying to look interesting, fewer are interested. In asking little, most give little.
Disgruntled believers considering leaving their current church may bite on those slogans. A few lost and skeptical non-believers may wander in to find answers to life’s burning questions.
Yet is responding to any of those marketing slogans a good thing? Are any of them proper motivation in God’s eyes for entering into a church building? Or would God be more pleased if…
In the case of believers…
- …church consumers repented first of their desire to shop for a better experience (i.e. sermons, songs and services)?
- …churches repented of “stealing sheep”, encouraging folks to leave another church and come to theirs based on competitive advantages (which is ok for businesses but not for churches)?
In the case of non-believers…
- …skeptics first got to know a believer who invests time in leading them toward Jesus?
- …churches stopped advertising for those who don’t worship Jesus to compromise the holiness of praise and prayer during a worship service?
For both of those target audiences (of church advertising), personal reflection and personal relationships may be better front doors to stronger faith than the doorway of a church building. Therefore, a more biblical strategy would be for churches to produce men and women capable of mentoring wayward church “shoppers” and befriending those who don’t know the Lord. Yet since churches place more emphasis today on advertising than on intensive discipleship, it stands to reason that leaders may actually want to foster greater dependence to avoid asking too much of “consumers” and to help ensure the viability of the institution.
Unconventional Marketing Slogans
Regardless of how little pastors ask of churchgoers, that doesn’t lessen God’s expectations of His followers. As opposed to a church that advertises worldly concepts that appeal to consumers, consider these alternative marketing slogans of a biblically (and brutally) honest church that advertises concepts that would appeal only to unconventional church “shoppers” – those sold out for Jesus:
- “Enter at your own risk”
- “Don’t expect to feel comfortable here”
- “For a casual atmosphere, try the church down the road”
- “Ready to give up everything you own? (if God asks)”
- “Skeptics welcome, but not for long”
- “The church where repentance isn’t optional”
- “Window shopping prohibited”
- “Where the only path to life is death”
- “If you’re all in…come on in”
- “Be prepared…we’re here to worship Jesus”
- “Ready to disclose your darkest secrets? Then this place is for you!”
Doesn’t that sound like the worst marketing plan ever?
Well, church is supposed to be different. Shouldn’t we join a family for collective worship and fellowship based on principles that defy consumerism? Jesus was counter-cultural. Maybe what’s least attractive to non-believers should be most attractive to Christ-followers:
- Real, authentic relationships where everything is on the table
- Heavy investment of time in other people, the body of Christ and in service to the poor
- Genuine life change
- Unreserved commitment
- Time-consuming discipleship and discipling
- Extreme sacrifice on behalf of others
- Abject humility in service to the Lord
- Death to self and all things worldly
Which of those do most churches demand today? None. Each one of those is take it or leave it – so most opt for the latter. Marketing slogans of the biblically (and brutally) honest church don’t resonate with consumers content to dip their toes in the water, not ready to live up to the Great Commission standard. They’re naturally inclined to shop for churches using slogans with words like “casual”, “comfortable”, “fun” and “friendly”.
Yet unconventional church “shoppers” find more lofty ambitions attractive because they foster an environment low on entertainment but high on love. Scripture says it will be our genuine love between members of the body of Christ that will attract those called into the Kingdom to walk through the front door of your church.
It’s Your Turn
What came first, the chicken or the egg? Did consumers turn churches into businesses advertising their competitive advantages or did churches turn faithful believers into church consumers (through strategies to attract and retain members)?