The Consumer-Driven Church

A recent survey (August 2016) by the Pew Research Center reveals that American churches have produced a generation of spiritual consumers who want little more from their religious community than a good pulpiteer, a satisfying worship service, and a congregation filled with nice, friendly members.

Researching the habits of U.S. Christians, Pew found that nearly one-half have changed their church membership at some time as adults. Of those, only about one-third changed because of relocation—the rest did so for things like “social reasons,” “practical reasons,” and “problems with old church.”

Pew also found that the top four factors Christians consider in shopping for a church are: quality of sermons (83 percent), feeling welcomed by leaders (79 percent), style of services (74 percent), and location (70 percent). The remaining factors are: education for kids (56 percent), having friends/family in congregation (48 percent), availability of volunteer opportunities (42 percent), and “other factors” (29 percent).

A Troubling Omission
I suspect many—if not, most—churches will respond to the survey in one of two ways: churches providing the things that shoppers are seeking will be pleased that their thumb is on the spiritual pulse of the culture; those that aren’t will be anxious to catch up to the demands of the market.

However, for discerning churches, the findings will be a wake up call. For absent is anything suggesting the desire for personal spiritual growth in a gospel-centered, mission-driven, discipleship-oriented church. The possible exceptions are “volunteer opportunities” and the “quality of sermons.” However, the former is available in any number of civic organizations and the latter can mean vastly different things to different people.

I was once contacted by a pastoral search committee about a former pastor who listed me as a reference. The first criterion on the list was, “Are his sermons uplifting?” To which, I replied, “Uplifting is not the word that comes to mind. Rather, biblically sound, spiritually challenging, and sometimes downright uncomfortable are how I remember them, much like the letters of Paul.”

At best, the question betrays the notion that an essential, if not the essential, need of members is a pastor who can deliver a soul-soothing message week after week. At worst, it is indicative of a market-savvy church, responding to the desires of the consumer.

A Perfectly Designed Result
This is not to suggest that such things are unimportant in the hunt for a church. But it’s a bit like job hunting and elevating the rhetoric of the CEO, affability of the managers, feng shui of the office, and commute time to work over a company’s vision, mission, strategic goals, business model, employee development program, and industry track record.

Nor do I want to imply that their felt importance is primarily the fault of church members, but of the Church itself.

A common adage in the marketplace is, “your system is perfectly designed to produce the results you are getting.”

Take the Hostess Cupcake Company, for example. If every tenth Hostess Twinkie comes off the line without cream filling, then the production process of the Hostess Company is perfectly designed to get that result. To get a different result—every cake produced with cream filling—the company must change the process.

Likewise, Christians, whose desires for church have little to no bearing on the objectives of discipleship found in Sacred Scripture, are products of a church’s spiritual formation process. To get a different result—Christians whose priorities are spiritual development and discipleship—a church will have to change its process.

Sadly, although every church has such a process, few have one that is defined, designed, and integrated into the life of the church to produce that result. More typical—especially in non-liturgical or “low-church” Protestantism—is a commitment to quality preaching, soul-stirring worship, and a welcoming environment spiced with programs and events in the belief that this is what the church does. The consequence being that instead of developing disciples who are being formed in the image of Christ, churches are developing consumers conditioned to judge a church by those marketplace standards.

Maybe the Christian Church should be more like Hostess.

A Lesson from Hostess
The production of a delicious, satisfying, and economical snack cake starts with detailed specifications of taste, color, texture, consistency, and cost. Ingredients are chosen to achieve those qualities, suppliers are contracted that can reliably provide them, and a manufacturing process is designed to transform them into the famous Twinkie.

The process not only involves mixing, baking, filling, and packaging, but quality control—monitoring the properties of the product and modifying the process by changing the ingredients, suppliers, and/or the manufacturing method as necessary.

The product of the Church is disciples—people who, in thought, word, and deed, are growing in Christlikeness. It is the result of an inside-out process that begins in the head, transforming people’s thoughts in how they view themselves and the world; proceeds to the heart, transforming their character as manifested in “fruits of the Spirit”; and flows out to the hands, transforming their activities into “fruits of the Kingdom.”

The key “ingredient” is the Word revealed in Scripture through the Holy Spirit; it is imparted by the “suppliers” of pastors, teachers, mentors, and fellow Christians; and it is “mixed in” through the integration of catechesis, worship, fellowship, mentoring, accountability, service, and the sacraments.

And like in the production of the Twinkie, the process of spiritual formation should include a method of quality control. Considering that Jesus regarded “fruits” as the touchstone of Christian character, let’s see how those might apply.

Fruits of the Spirit
The “Fruits of the Spirit” identified by Paul—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—are the biblical measures of character. To test those fruits, churches might ask members how they have developed since they have been Christians. For example:

Is your attitude toward your neighbors and enemies more loving?
Do you find it easier to experience joy and peace when things aren’t going your way?
Do you have more patience with frustrating people and circumstances?
Are you better at responding kindly to unkind people and returning good for evil?
Have you become more faithful to the things you know as true?
Are you better able to say no to harmful thoughts, desires, and temptations?

Ideally, small group leaders would collect these data and return them to church staff for compilation. For congregations without comprehensive small groups, a one-page survey could be developed for members to complete anonymously and turn into the church office. The results would be used to identify “areas of improvement” in the discipleship process.

Fruits of the Kingdom
Fruits of the kingdom are about multiplication—leading individuals into a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ and redeeming nations through the social, political, and cultural institutions that make them.

Admittedly, any numerical measure of those fruits can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine. Thus, common yardsticks such as souls “won,” baptisms, membership roles, ministry involvement, and churches planted will be defective, if not deceptive indicators of kingdom fruit. That’s why, in the divine calculus of Heaven it is not material success that matters, only faithfulness.

Faithfulness is the alignment of our head, heart, and hands with the will of God. To sample that fruit members might ask themselves,

Do I regularly seek God’s will through prayer, study, and contemplative thought, and do I follow it?
Are my beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors aligned with orthodox Christian teaching?
Do I know my spiritual gifts and am I using them?
Does my faith inform the way I live at home, work, school, the ball field, the mall, etc.?
Do I have a heart for the unchurched, de-churched, and re-churched? Am I intentional in forging relationships with them?
Do I strive to understand others so that I can engage them meaningfully and winsomely?
Am I ready to counter falsehood with truth and grace?
Do I promote the sanctity of life, religious freedom, and sexual purity in natural marriage through my profession and practice?
Do I take seriously my duty to the poor, imprisoned, orphaned, and widowed?
Do I approach creation as a resource to use, enrich, and replenish?

By rating themselves on each of these on a scale from one to ten, members can gain a sense of how they are developing in “fruits of the kingdom” and identify areas for needed improvement.

A Matter of Faith
Turning a consumer-drive church into a disciple-making church will involve the “costs” of development, promotion, implementation, and even the loss of members who feel it is more than they “signed up” for. For churches heavily invested in facilities, programs, and salaried staff, those are valid concerns.

But if Jesus’s promise is true about putting first the kingdom, we can trust that our short-term investment will generate long-term dividends. That’s because disciples are people transitioning from ministry consumers to ministry providers, freeing up clergy to devote their energies to the spiritual vision and direction of the church.

In the end, it is a matter of faith. Churches can put their faith in the status quo, doing what they’ve always done and getting what they’ve always gotten—spiritual consumers in churches dying by attrition; or they can put their faith in God, trusting that the branches that wither away or are cut off, will be replaced ten, twenty, a hundred fold.

Editor’s note: The image above is the statue of St. Paul in front of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.

Regis Nicoll

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Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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