Why are many churches more like the Love Boat (10 percent serving the 90 percent) rather than being like an aircraft carrier (everyone on board is vital to the mission)? How did we become so contrary to our Lord Jesus' example when He said, “I came not to be served, but to serve and to give my life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28)?
Perhaps, one major cause could be that our churches have conformed to the spirit of our technological age, the age of the customer. Like nearly every segment of our society, have Christians become perennial shoppers? Has the church and its ministries become commodities that we shop for? Have we become Christian consumers? Has Christian consumerism saturated our churches like a virus?
Researcher George Barna remarked, “Most churchgoers have not adopted a biblical worldview, they have simply added a Jesus fish on the bumper of their unregenerate consumer identities.” Ouch!
Webster defines consumerism as “the promotion of the consumer’s interests.”
You might be a Christian consumer if. . .
10. .....you view yourself as a customer who is to be served.
“May I take your order?” Such is the greeting at our local fast-food drive-through. Why not at our church? I mean most of us check out the amenities list for hotels we are considering before we book, don’t we? Pool? Breakfast? Exercise room? Wi-Fi? Bed bugs? Christian consumers come to church primarily looking to get something as well. That “something” might be inspiration, entertainment, programs for their children, affirming messages, etc. The consistent benedictory question from Christian consumers following a church gathering is, “What did you get from church today?” And it’s not just the members. This mindset causes pastors to be tempted to try to offer better services than their competitors.
9. .....you regularly compare your church with other churches and ministries.
In his excellent book, The Age of the Customer, Jim Blasingame suggests that a major paradigm shift took place from the age of the seller to the age of the customer. He traces the beginning of this new era to April 30, 1993, when the internet became commercially available to the general public. (Thanks, Al Gore! :-) ) With access to the World Wide Web, the customer overtook a major advantage that the seller had for millennia previously: product information and user-generated content. Have you noticed how much we rely on customer reviews? How many stars (****) did they receive? It is so fingertip easy to Google any product, person, or business with our tablet or smart phone. Sometimes, a customer can actually know more about the product through user-generated comments than the seller. Christian consumers equally have employed these powerful search engines in comparing and contrasting their church with the one across town, or ones across the country. The Christian consumer has the ability to compare and contrast goods and services offered by other churches without ever even being a guest of those ministries.
8. .....you allow other activities to compete equally with the Lord’s Day.
Can you remember “blue laws”? That time in our country’s history when the government actually encouraged our culture to, if nothing else, alter their normal daily rat race? Those days are long gone. Our society is no friend of grace. A Christian consumer allows the Lord’s Day when the church-gathered celebrates Jesus’ victorious resurrection to be rivaled with other cultural activities. Cultural consumption that is scheduled on the Lord’s Day like athletic events, optional vocational time (overtime), family events, and other entertainment activities are legitimate competitors to worship for the church consumer. Christian consumers attend church a lot less frequently than they use to. Thomas Rainer comments, “stated simply, the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is that members attend with less frequency than they did just a few years ago.” If some of us actually rehearsed how many Lord’s Day services we have missed in the last 52 Sundays, we would probably be shocked. While many of us used to average missing 3-4 Sundays for vacation, work-related travel and sickness, we are now averaging more like 10-12 Sundays missed. That increase is mainly due the competitors we have allowed to go up against the best day of the week. Imagine that! We consider ourselves committed members of a local church when we have missed over a quarter of her collective gatherings! Unashamed consumerism.
7. ....you habitually critique your church’s ministry and ministers.
I have seriously considered becoming a “mystery shopper” (those privileged “employees” who get free meals, and certain department store items if they will visit certain business establishments and act like a simple customer). Actually, they are evaluating the service, product, and atmosphere. They fill out surveys about their experience after every shopping experience. That is also the time that they turn in their receipts. Church consumers are like “mystery shoppers,” only they are not compensated. Church consumers are in survey mode from the prelude to the postlude and everything in between. Critiquing the music, the message, other attendees, and the leadership’s management style are considered to be their ministry gifts.
6. .....you never really let your roots go deep in church commitment.
One of the main reasons that small New England towns have resisted large department stores like Walmart from coming to their towns is because these large, corporate, one-stop shops often dismantle those faithful and beloved “Mom and Pop” stores that have become such a vital part of the culture of these quaint New England villages. Customer loyalty is an entire branch of business theory. Keeping your customers when everyone is trying to win their business is a significant skirmish. But, I guess that is the beauty of capitalism. Yet, this type of consumerism shows up in the church by Christians resisting the accountability and commitment of church membership. Christian consumerism reveals itself when a regular attendee or member suddenly, without warning, stops gathering with their local body and suddenly emerges with another.
5. .....you leave your church over preferences.
Are you a Target or a Walmart person? McDonald’s or Burger King? Coke or Pepsi? Would you ever consider divorcing your spouse over a difference of opinion in one of those preferences? Hopefully you answered, “Of course not! I am committed to my spouse, and such petty differences could never divide us.” Consumers, however, are driven and divided by preferences. Whatever product and business will cater to their tastes and preferences, will get their business. Christian consumers do the same thing. They will leave their church family where they have attended for a decade or more over a preference—music styles, children’s ministries, dress, preaching methods, preferred translation of the Bible, etc. Yep, a church consumer, who agrees with 97 percent of their church’s initiatives, mission, and methods, will divorce their church family over the 3 percent of preferences.
4. .....if you tend to be focused on instant gratification.
Consumerism often dodges arenas that require discipline. After all, the thinking goes, “Why would I work and wait for something that I can purchase and have right now?” We live in the “age of instant.” If we need a book, we can download the ebook immediately. We have K-cups for our coffee and OnStar in our vehicles. And our cable televisions are set up with “on demand.” We want it, now! When Christian consumers reflect this “on-demand” spirit of the age, they, too, avoid those areas of church life that require discipline and waiting. For instance, Christian consumers would be more inclined to attend a Christian movie or concert than they would to attend a prayer meeting with their church family or sit under a Bible book series that would increase their doctrinal depth.
3. .....if you are always on the lookout for the cost-to-benefit ratio.
The saying “bang for your buck” actually referred to actual explosives. It has come to mean getting a fair return, or better, on your investment. Economically, this is wise. Spiritually, such thinking leads to a “keeping-of-score” attitude. It is the tit-for-tat mentality. “You scratch my back and I will scratch yours.” Christian consumers also keep score. They have a balance sheet. Christian consumers know how much they have invested with their money, talents, and time. Like every good investor, they want to see it come back to them, with interest. If they visit a person who is sick, they expect a visit when they are sick. If they give generously, they expect recognition and influence—the cost-to-benefit ratio.
2. .....you regularly turn down opportunities to serve.
How awkward it would be if I were asked to mop the floor of a restaurant I was dining in. Everyone knows that customers get served; they don’t serve. Christian consumers don’t serve much either. They have a lengthy list of reasons why they are not serving or why they are “under-serving.” Excuses like “I’m just too busy,” or “I need time with my family,” or “I am working through some things” are offered. The truth is, the very nature of a consumer is to evaluate every opportunity by asking “How will this benefit me?”
1. .....you rarely share the Gospel.
Owners take the mission of the company to heart. Christian owners take the mission of the church seriously as well. Christian consumers, however, don’t gather with their church family in order to be equipped for mission. They gather to consume and leave with certain desired commodities. A very simple test to evaluate our possible consumer Christian mind-set is to ask ourselves how focused are we really on sharing the Gospel?
“When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing our faith as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity….the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather a perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences.” –Skye Jethani