It has become rather en vogue in our time for churches to change their name from what once identified their denominational affiliation to that which has a more generic and independent church feel. We’ve moved from First Presbyterian Church to names like the Rock, the Movement, Energy Church, Fusion Church, etc. Changing a name is no little matter for a church. A name, at least historically speaking, identifies what a church stands for—its conviction, history, creed and more. Years ago, the lines were clearly demarcated. There were mainstream denominations and then some independent Bible churches, but you knew where they stood. A Baptist was a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Presbyterian and so on. Churches, for the most part, were consistent with their convictions and they were not ashamed about where they stood in name, practice and conviction.
Why this shift to make everything generic when it comes to church? Are we hiding something, maybe embarrassed? This new marketing approach assumes, of course, that the consumer has a certain familiarity with the church and should try out the new product that is far more promising than the old. Super-sizing is only attractive to those who have familiarity with what used to be “regular” or small. To say it another way, if a church pitches itself based on stylistic preferences, programs, relevant music, alive worship, that is more of a targeted marketing approach upon the “reached” who are stuck in churches which are perceived to be dead than it is to those who have never heard the gospel. The lost don’t have the same reference point.
The assumption being made today is that the way to build the church is to make the consumer sovereign in determining what he needs. This is business 101. For something to be desired, it has to be packaged well. The means being used today to build the church are no different than what the great American entrepreneurs have used to build their empires. Church growth gurus have been producing studies and surveys every year to help pastors learn how best to tap into their particular demographics and begin building.
Learn the business well, and you can put together a labor force unlike anything the traditional church has ever seen. It’s no wonder churches have purchased and transformed shopping malls with every kind of ministry room under the sun. Getting spirituality can be as easy as going to the mall, it doesn’t have to be any different or challenging. If the young people want it, they can even have their own personal play area. The church is given the appearance of mall with a CEO who understands how to vision cast under the guise of fulfilling the great commission.
Ever since the mega church movement came on the scene, the shelf life for churches trying to stay on top through marketing is not very long. Without a robust theology, clearance happens a lot quicker to make way for the new generic on the shelf that has the fancier label. The personality of the pastor becomes the selling point so long as he is able to creatively give quick fixes to people’s daily problems. But all this is extremely fluid.
From a seeker’s perspective, the moms and pops seeker churches don’t hold a candle to the strip-mall churches. If someone offers a better packaged product next door, the consumer is willing to take the leap and try the “brand new” product. Whoever packages their product the most creatively at the moment, gets the greatest demand. A church trying to be contemporary with twenty-year old praise music on an organ will not even be in market when the church next door has a hundred thousand dollar sound system with the most current praise songs and hip band.
As Os Guiness states in “The Last Christian on Earth,”Thus for ordinary people, the consumption of celebrities is like psychological fast food. For Christians, it is not only non-nourishing but also a slow and deadly poison. Those who live by the image die by it too. And those who worship them are like them.”
The church with the most money, the best name, the best facility, the finest programs, the greatest attraction for the youth, and the strongest influence gains the greatest following, all until the consumer realizes he is not really being offered anything substantial of the historic Christian faith.
A Much Better Way
The apostle Paul severely admonished the church in Corinth for adopting the conventional wisdom of the culture to do ministry. In other words, they were being tempted to abandon the materials God chose for them to build his church. I Cor. 2:1-5 states,
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
We should repeat this over and over in the church today. God chose to save people “through the ‘foolishness’ of the message preached.” The Spirit chose a means that has absolutely no outward glory humanly speaking, no pizazz, no appearance of power, no earthly wisdom, no marketing, so that when people are saved, all the glory goes to God alone.
The church is not a business and God is not a product for our consumption. If the customer is sovereign over what he is “buying” when it comes to the church, anything formal, serious, structured, churchy, are things viewed as hindrances to the perception of God that has already been recreated. In other words, if God has been made only into a God of love, you cannot have practices that conform to any of those attributes of God that you dislike. This would create a perceived inconsistency between what you are trying to sell and what your product looks like. So what goes? Humility, formality, seriousness, reverence, awe, fear, trembling, even formal dress, are all viewed as hindrances to the way you have refashioned God in your imagination. All of this is gone in much of the American church.
In this scenario, it’s no wonder worship services are turned into sheer silliness, it corresponds to the God we have created in our own imagination. If you have ridded God of those attributes that you dislike, what becomes of his fear and holiness, or trembling before him? The only way the Christian gospel has any real meaning is when there is a proper appreciation for God’s holiness and justice.
The solution will only be as radical as the problem. The greatest need of the hour is not dancing or silliness, but rather a serious return to the means God has promised to bless in the building of his church for his glory and not our own. Giving ourselves to the preaching of Christ and him crucified is the solution and God’s chosen power to save all who believe. The best thing we can do at moment is refused to be ashamed of who we are.