For thousands of years, the Church was everything for communities. People not only went to church for worship and Christian fellowship but for connection to information and the community around them. Church was a major weekly event in people’s lives, because there wasn’t much to rival it. This was the time before a plethora of leisure activities, TV, movie theatres, radio, Internet, telephones and massive amounts of publishing on every subject imaginable.
We look to the media for everything in the West; including influences on theology. The amount of messages competing out there for our attention and acceptance are so varied that it’s nothing short of overwhelming. The Church is no longer seen as the sole proprietor of truth and spirituality. Church attendance continues to drop. But just listen to songs on the radio, dialogue on TV and in movies. Theological messages—veiled and not so veiled—are everywhere, creating a swamp of spirituality. And so the Church struggles to have its voice heard.
The problem is that the Church believes it must compete with commercial enterprises, mass marketing and the entertainment industry to reach and influence people. Our society is bombarded by hidden messages and subtle imperatives as never before in history. These powerful messages come to us through ads, entertainment and even company logos (icons of identity). These messages imply that to succeed, to be loved, to be beautiful, to be influential, we must conform to or buy into something. And so we do. It is absurd.
Many western churches are using these worldly methods in hope of attracting listeners, converts and members—as if to say somehow it will be our arts, programs and entertainment that attract people to the Gospel. The question has become, how can we make Christianity and church look cool? Or, at least, how do we keep Christianity and church from looking uncool? How do we market God to a world of consumers? These are entirely the wrong questions. These questions lead us into a paradigm of unbiblical values.
I know a pastor that calls Sunday morning “show-time.” How does calling church “show-time” impact theology and our message? Most ministers I know spend much of their time event planning and advertising for things like movie nights, sporting events, meals, band rehearsals, marketing schemes and special effects for Sunday morning service. If these things are paramount, then seminaries should be giving MBA’s instead of MDiv’s.
I am not saying that having sports programs, videos, special lighting, dramas, rock bands and marketing is evil and without merit. But when these things become the focus, they pull us off track. When the majority of a minister’s time is spent on all these cool tools, there is a problem. I realize there will always be different kinds of churches. That is not just a fact, but a necessity. Diversity is essential. The Reformation taught us that.
The question is, where is the focus? And you can easily answer that by looking at how time and money is spent. Many churches are focused on what is called the A, B, Cs: attendance, building and cash. Many churches spend 90 percent of their time and resources on preparing for Sunday mornings and 10 percent on discipleship. You value most what you measure. I am measuring the disconnected status and lack of spiritual depth among many Christians in the Church. I am calling for a shift in focus.
We want people to have this enriching spiritual life, but we communicate on Sunday mornings that most of it is fluff: i.e. flashy music, videos, dramas, dances, cool lighting, announcements, ads for upcoming events and multiple transitions. Many times, we create spectators rather than participators. I am not saying there are not good results with the model that we have. Many people have come to know Christ and have matured. But just because I can use a wrench instead of a hammer to drive nails doesn’t make it the best tool for the job.
The problem is many ministers of our time believe that the Gospel and Christian community is not enough to pull in the masses. Instead they try and attract people with marketing methods because the world has persuaded them that this is how to reach people. The result is that many churches have forgotten how to preach the Gospel. The Gospel has been marginalized in all our motivational sermons, programs, busyness and fun. The focus and trust is not on the power of the Gospel but in our powers of persuasion. What did Paul say in 1 Corinthians 2:4? “ My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (TNIV).
Unfortunately, the power of God in the proclamation and revelation of the Gospel has been minimized. Our trust in church growth theory, imported and translated from corporate America, has shifted our focus. The non-Christians are now called the “un-churched” or in other words, the “un-institutionalized.” Is that our goal, to “church” people? And so we wonder why people are feeling dry and disconnected from God even though they are active in their church. It’s a vicious cycle.
Nevertheless, I believe the Church is still vital. We are relevant, but not as a show, product or media. Church is not in that worldly category. It’s when you try and put church in that category that things go wrong, like trying to fit a square peg in a circular hole. Church is a sanctuary, an alternative from all the shows, products and media. Church should be simple in preparation, presentation and participation. Church should be a time of undistracted prayer and worship—a time of learning and fellowship. But we have corrupted these virtues for the sake of competing with a multimedia and commercialized world. The simple is subversive today. That’s why you hear statements like “simplify and intensify.” Simple is counter-cultural. I recommend that we take the same time and money used to make church what it is now into a simpler form. I dare say most have no idea what that would even look like.
Once again, we need a change in focus. The Western Church has tried hard to remain relevant to the modern world around it by trusting worldly methods and simultaneously but futilely rejecting those methods true values of consumerism; which creates total confusion.
Churches are not tooled for such simplicity, nor do they have a vision for it. They have multiple full time and part time staff members to help create and maintain all the programs and methods; to keep the church running like a YMCA or Broadway production. It’s not easy to change. People’s livelihoods are at stake to one degree or another. But change is never easy and some changes are impossible with men. But nothing is impossible with God. God can change His Church and use us to reach more people if we shift our trust onto him and away from the methods of the world.