Church shoppers. They’re derided as fickle, self-centered customers caught up in the toxic
fever of consumerism.
“People treat church and church programs like the mall,” said a
church leader. “All they want is the latest shiny object and
‘what’s in it for me.'”
As church memberships decline and more people slip out the back
door to try the church across town, church leaders look for someone
or something to blame. And there may be some truth to the charge
that consumerism is contributing to sagging church commitment.
But I suspect that the church itself has played right in to this
sense of consumerism. If people are treating churches like stores
in the mall, maybe it’s because churches are acting like stores in
the mall. A consumer mindset is driven by a merchant mentality. And
many of our churches have adopted the very consumeristic tactics
they say they despise.
CONSUMPTION. The objective of the consumer
is to receive. And most churches have designed their
main product, the worship service, as a spectator event. The pew
sitters come to receive. They passively listen to the
well-rehearsed preachers and the professional musicians. It’s a
scripted hour. Just like what consumers expect when they buy a
ticket to a show. They pay the professionals to perform, while they
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COMPETITION. Merchants compete with one
another. They boast about being the best in town. They don’t do any
favors for the competition down the street. Increasingly, churches
have adopted competitive postures, vying for the shrinking number
of people who are browsing the commodities under the steeples.
ACCOUNTING. Consumer businesses measure
their success by the numbers. And so do most churches. The bottom
line that gets the prime attention is numerical-attendance,
offerings, and square footage.
TRANSACTION. Merchants push to get you in
the door. Make the sale. Close the deal. And many churches emulate
the transactional model with altar calls, membership drives, and
pledge campaigns. Staffers quietly refer to families as “giving
Though some may try to rationalize these methods, many churches
unwittingly portray faith as a product to be pitched. But faith is
not a consumer product. Faith is a relationship.
Church leaders often describe our faith as a “personal
relationship with Christ.” If that’s really true, perhaps it’s time
to take seriously the essence of relationship. How does one pursue
any good relationship? Is it a consumeristic shopping experience?
Is it an academic exercise? The public might think so, based on how
churches typically promote the faith.
How does a relationship-oriented approach look different for the
Rather than emphasizing a consumption model for worship, the
relational church becomes more participatory,
allowing for some dialog, conversation, and music that encourages
congregational involvement. Congregants need to see that
worship-and ministry-are everybody’s job. The paid professionals
are there to empower and energize the people, not to perform for
passive spectators. Relationships grow through two-way
communication and shared involvement.
Rather than seeding competition and comparisons, the relational
church looks to cooperatewith all who share
our common desire to see people grow in relationship with the Lord.
The public, weary of churches’ competitive spirits, find any open
cooperation among Christians to be inspiring and attractive. It’s a
display of the true Body of Christ. Relationships grow through a
spirit of cooperation.
Rather than calculating numbers, relational churches
relate narratives. Rather than citing
statistics, they tell stories. Rather than touting the number of
butts in seats, they relate how God is moving in the lives of the
members. Relationships grow through telling one another the
extraordinary stories of our ordinary lives.
Rather than pressing for quick transactions and arm-twisting,
relational churches focus on
the process of relationship-building.
Good relationships (including relationships with Jesus) usually
grow gradually, over time, through trust and patience and love.
Sick of consumerism? Maybe it’s time to tone down the
consumer-styled trappings of the contemporary church and reclaim
the pursuit of a relationship with Christ-by acting like people
pursuing a quality relationship.