They tell me the Church is dying.
It’s hard to believe for a couple of reasons. Number one, the church I go to is healthy. My personal experience as a ministry leader has been extremely pleasant. We never lack for volunteers. Parents come into our youth worship, not to load their guns of criticism, but because they have a genuine interest in their teenager’s life. Our elders are godly men, never power hungry, full of wisdom and very supportive to my wife and I. The bottom line for me is our church is doing okay. Sure, there are ups and downs, good times and bad, but for the most part, it’s positive.
But they tell me the Church is dying.
The other reason it’s hard to believe is because I don’t believe it’s possible. I do not believe the Church will ever die. I don’t think a particular political party, amendment to the Constitution or catastrophic world event will ever kill the Church. I do not believe the Church will ever cease to exist. If it can never die, then it can’t be dying. Jesus said so, and I believe him. He’s usually right on about stuff like that.
So what do they mean, the Church is dying? Well, I don’t think they mean the Church is dying. I think they mean that church is dying, or our church is dying, or First Faithful of Fruitland is dying. The Church is not dying. It’s alive and well, and everyone knows it.
Yes, thousands of churches close their doors in America every year. That’s horrible. I wish it weren’t true. But the church planting, house church and alterna-church movements are strong and vibrant in our country. Worldwide, the Church is doing pretty good—enough so that America doesn’t boast the largest Christian population by a long shot. That’s OK with me. I think it’s OK with God, too. It bugs a lot of Americans, but that’s only because we thought we were the Promised Land.
We weren’t. We aren’t. We never will be.
If that makes you mad, I apologize. I don’t like it when churches close their doors either, but it’s not a demonstration of a dying Church.
Much of the Church in the United States is steeped in consumerism. That is because about a 100 years ago, society started changing. After the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War, we became very urban and very polarized. Then, something strange started happening. People began moving to the suburbs and looking a lot alike and driving cars and buying televisions. Up until this point, people went to church for different reasons. Mostly it was because it was their denomination or they had a great preacher, etc. But when people started going suburban post-World War II, a certain idea started creeping out. We called it “Keeping Up with the Joneses.” This meant that we were all in a race to be the best. Everyone jumped on board.
Marketers of products got a hold of this and ran with it. To fulfill the “American Dream” as it was called, one needed to own their own home and have a car (maybe two) and certainly have a television instead of a radio. Then color televisions were invented. Better cars were assembled. Bigger houses were framed and thrown up by the thousands nation wide. The pursuit of the big-ticket item was forefront on the American mind. There were the haves and the have-nots, to be sure, but people generally went nuts acquiring things.
Before you knew it, it wasn’t just the big-ticket items that drove everyone crazy; it was the options on them. Cars got power windows. Houses got big yards and multiple bathrooms and shutters and decks. Shopping malls were invented and popped up next to all the subdivisions. Amazingly, you could walk under one roof and have multiple options in clothing stores, furniture stores, specialty shops and restaurants. The shrewdness of marketing executives became more and more refined, and America ate right out of their hands.
It’s only increased more exponentially in recent times. You can go online and design your own automobile, equipped with all your preferable features. Sneakers can be customized on the Internet. Everything is personalized. We dye our hair if we don’t like its color; we crash diet if we don’t like our weight. If that doesn’t work, we can even be made over again with reconstructive surgeries. Everything we want we get—just how we’d like.
We don’t only get it the way we want it, we get it when we want it, too. Food took too long on the stove, so now we cook it in microwaves. Fast food restaurants have timers that we can see right on the registers—a message to us that they know we’re extremely busy and want our food pronto. Televisions were nice innovations, but getting up to change the channel was annoying, so we got remote controls. More to the point, we can turn on our television and navigate hundreds of channels that meet any one of our many entertainment needs. If what we desire is not available, we click a button and search for it “On Demand.” If we miss our favorite show, we can simply visit the Internet and view it online. Movie theatres stunned people at the turn of the century. Now we can just sit at home and order a movie without leaving our recliner.
As a stand-alone issue, this culture of consumerism is interesting. When complicated with the ideas of faith, things get sticky. Many people don’t go to church anymore because of what a particular church believes. A detail of a particular church’s beliefs becomes like one of the products the church sells. Other “features” include the size of the building, the easy-listening of the sermon, the worship production elements and the children’s programming.
Options are important. Families are looking for the biggest and best programs offered. Church hopping is popular, not necessarily because of scandal or heresy, but because Church A “is a better church” than Church B. What this usually means is not that the people are better, but the stuff is better. Prettier foyers, large cafeterias, grandiose worship spaces and colorful, playful youth areas. Men’s groups, ladies groups, support groups, senior’s groups, pre-school mom’s groups: they all play a part in advancing the organization by growing the customer base, and the customer base gladly plays along.
Why? Because they do it everywhere else, too.
Some do not believe this is a bad thing. Some consider the cultural temperature and simply seek to engage the people with whom we work, live and learn. Admittedly, it is not inherently bad to offer useful programs for people. But catering to the consumer will kill a church, we can be sure, because there is one harsh reality we haven’t yet considered.
What if people stop wanting Jesus as we’ve sold him? Churches aren’t closing because Jesus is a bad product; they’re closing because they don’t use a consumer-minded method. Churches that are engaging the consumer with advertising ,and pizzazz do okay, as a rule. But what will happen when the consumer finds something better than what we’re selling? What if the American Legion or the corner bar or the Mom’s Book Club does a better job connecting people? What if the Boy Scouts or the 4-H Club or the Brownies do a better job of engaging people in service? What if the A.A. chapter or the scrap-booking club are superior to the local church when it comes to helping people deal with loneliness and addiction? What if what we’re selling is great, but we’re bad salespeople? What if the consumer-minded church becomes the black and white television set of yesteryear and the rabid purchaser of product in America moves on?
Many churches innovate, but innovation is based on trends. Innovations are fine, but they play to the consumer. Who is it we are trying to please? Could it be that we are obliging the very people that will cause our extinction? Could it be that the methodology we embrace will take us to a place where we are innovated-out and tired of selling?
We’re not on life support yet, as some speculate, but our pulse is weakening. Some churches are sick, and the disease isn’t the Democrats or Muslims or MTV. Some of us are killing ourselves. Someday we’re going to wake up and realize we have cut ourselves off from the world by trying to sell ourselves to it.
This Sunday, there’ll be products flying off the shelves at churches nation wide. Sermon tapes, T-shirts, cappuccinos and worship services will be well-presented, excellent and dynamic. The average American will plop a $20 bill down in the offering plate, gobble up their fair share of the product and head home. Simultaneously, a church across the street from that one will close its doors in defeat. It won’t be alone that day; many others will do the same. They haven’t played the game well. They haven’t reached the consumer like their mega-neighbor. As a result of poor product and poor marketing, people stopped shopping there.
But aren’t we selling Jesus? If He said The Church would not die, then either He’s a liar or we’re doing church wrong. I suspect the second is true. People can stop coming to our church, but it won’t be because we’re not trying to connect them to Jesus. They might demand something else, but we want to keep Jesus as our only hook.
If they’re not buying, I’m not selling.