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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Ask Not What Your Church Can Do For You…

Written by: on February 4, 2020

A young couple decided to take a trip together. It was a journey they had been talking about for a long time. Arrangements were carefully made. The couple were thorough in their search, making sure that the carrier they selected could get them to their destination as comfortably and conveniently as possible. They studied several options and considered the investment each would require. They solicited the input of others, people they knew as well as strangers on the internet via online reviews. When they finally made their selection, they looked forward to embarking on their journey.

The trip was a success. Everything fell into place just exactly as they had hoped. They were pleased with their decision as the experience drew to a close. They considered making a similar trip again at a future time. Their discerning tastes were affirmed, even celebrated, as the organization’s representative spoke words before sending them on their way. She said, “We appreciate your attendance in worship today and want to thank you for choosing our church. We know you have a choice when it comes to where you get your spiritual needs met. We look forward to serving you again very soon.”

I have spent my career in professional ministry wrestling with why the Church puzzles me so. As the son of a pastor, my whole life has been spent in and around churches. Church buildings were my second homes. Church functions were my primary social activities. Church people were my dominant community. I had thought perhaps it was this familiarity that was the source of my frustration. I think maybe it is something more profound and problematic. Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion may have finally helped name it for me. The anecdote above describes some of the challenges of “Church” today.

Church programming is more market-driven. Marketing budgets are increasing. Churches are learning to navigate the cyberworld. Pastors are engaging congregants via social media to determine sermon topics. Ministry is being tailored for a consumer society. Churches are operating with a mindset similar to what a flight attendant might say to passengers on an airplane at the end of a flight.

Miller’s central thesis is that “consumerism has so conditioned individuals in contemporary Western culture that they approach religion as just one more consumer product.”[1] In many ways, church life today feels like a never-ending cycle of identifying needs, creating means by which those needs are met, and evaluating effective in meeting the needs. Miller writes, “as people were being trained to find fulfillment in consumption, they were also, in effect, being trained to bring the habits and dispositions of the realm of consumption to more traditional sources of meaning, including religion.”[2]

Jason Clark writes “consuming has taken the place of producing well-being.”[3] The primary motivations for people are less about personal salvation or the community’s quest for justice, but instead church members have developed an insatiable appetite for experiences that provide a vague and individualized good feeling.

Still, a primary function of religion in society comes back to making meaning- of this life, of this world. Math and science help us understand aspects of how the world functions. Humanities and the arts can help deepen our awareness and perspective of the world. Theology and religion still help us piece it all together- answering the bigger question of “what is this all about?” As leaders, how do we help people in today’s culture move beyond a mindset of consumption and a personalized gospel in order to find the deeper meaning of life?

Thankfully, Miller does not just define the problem, but he also offers some possibilities. His book ends with the idea that theology, liturgy, and organizational structure of religious institutions might still reverse the trend of commodification of the Church. While Miller was writing in the early part of the 21st century, indications today are that many Christians, especially younger and newer Christians, are rejecting the commercialized and modern expressions of church in favor of ones that look and feel older. In his review of Winfield Bevin’s book, Ever Ancient, Ever New, Michael Milton writes, “There is an increasing hunger for the beauty, simplicity, transcendence, and confessional unity of historic liturgical Christianity.”[4]

For years, churches have tried to adapt to the culture under the auspices of “relevance.” Becoming, being, or staying relevant, or the fear of irrelevance, inspired church leaders to adopt branding, programming, worship styles, music, refreshment options, and clothing choices that look like what is trending in popular culture. Instead of being “in the world, but not of the world,” and not “conformed to the patterns of this world,” the modern Church went all in. And yet, many today are looking for an experience of Church that looks different than this world.

It might be fair to argue that by trying to attract and reaching millennials by returning to an emphasis on sacrament, theology, and liturgy, churches are just following the latest trend and still operating from a consumer-driven mindset. On the other hand, it may be possible that an authentic expression of faith is exactly what resonates with people today. In a world where facts are subjective and personal preferences are catered to, perhaps is it refreshing to encounter a church community that is unashamedly true to its identity.

Ultimately, the way of Jesus is not something one chooses to do because it is fun, or cool, or trending. When Christians stop asking what the Church can do for them and begin living authentically in Christ, they will discover a new meaning in life. They will discover that in God’s economy, one is fed by feeding others and one’s needs are met in meeting the needs of another. This idea runs counter to every consumeristic ideal and seems to run counter to how to grow a church. Growing an authentic community of faith is both countercultural and counterintuitive. But it is the way we will find meaning in this life and the way we will get to where we really need to go.

[1] Phyllis Zagano, review of “Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture,” by Vincent Miller, Spiritus, Spring 2005, 119, ProQuest Central.

[2] Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2003,) 88.

[3] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (PhD diss, Middlesex University, 2018,) 182.

[4] Michael Milton, “Why Are So Many Turning to the Liturgical Worship,” Crosswalk.com, July 19, 2019. https://www.crosswalk.com/church/pastors-or-leadership/why-so-many-are-turning-to-the-liturgical-worship.html.

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

9 responses to “Ask Not What Your Church Can Do For You…”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    John,
    As I read your words, I’m reminded of a scene in the Hobbit where Thorin Oakenshield remarks he’d rather have a few faithful ones who answered the call to come and follow him into battle, then an army of soldiers who don’t really care. It always reminds me of how Jesus only called the few. Do you think Jesus was modeling what His Church would look like? As a pastor, have you approached discipleship in a similar way? If so, in what ways does it counter the consumerist desires that permeate church congregations?

    On a side note- I’ve been attending a small ELCA congregation that is unashamedly themselves. In that space I feel grounded and connected to the saints of the past. I feel the generosity of the Gospel in a beautiful way. The simplicity of worship and the selfless service of the people for the community are a rare find. A diamond in the rough. There’s hope. There’s always hope.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I long for a church in which everyone is “all in” and “on fire” for their faith and their desire to “live and love like Jesus” as my previous church used to say. I also long for a full sanctuary every Sunday. Most days, I’m frustrated that I can’t seem to have both. On my more sanctified days, I try to remember that Jesus himself never tried to pastor a culturally-relevant, fast-growing, trendy megachurch. He built his ministry on relationships, compassion, and challenging teaching about the counter-cultural nature of God’s realm. But then, Jesus never had an annual budget to raise either!

  2. mm Jer Swigart says:

    John.

    As a leader of a church in today’s consumer world, how often do you have to set aside what you discern the congregation needs for what it wants (or, perhaps, for what you think they could palate/tolerate)? Not saying that you don’t, but what do you think would happen if you spent 100% of your leadership discerning what your staff and congregation needed and determining how you (& your staff) were going to tend to that?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      At its best, it’s both. We do listen to the congregation (and our community) to see if we can discern the deep needs that we might be able to deal with or talk about. We seek to discern God’s Spirit in knowing what to do. But then we also talk about how to effectively pique people’s interest and whether or not they will “buy what we’re selling,” so to speak. When I was planting a church, our team was guided by these questions- “Why do people need Jesus? Why do people need the church? Why do people need THIS church?” Those questions were genuine and our desire to answer them were authentic, but they were also driven by our desire for the church plant to be effective and successful. Maybe that’s part of the rub. In our commodification of religions, we’ve so successfully blurred the lines between wants and needs that they’re one in the same.

  3. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Dr. Clark also talks about how a social imaginary can be formed quickly or more pervasively with the rise of technology. I imagine the expectations for the experience of church is heightened due to access online and beyond. The best preachers are a click away, the level of cinematography for a weeknight show far surpasses a film 20 years ago, and entertainment expectations are framed by Disney. That puts unrealistic pressure on the parish pastor to meet the needs of those in his/her congregation.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I’m in a constant wrestling match between my desire to want great presentation and “production value” versus my desire to simply “offer them Christ” as John Wesley once said. I’m convinced that the gospel is powerful and persuasive enough to stand on its own, but I’m also well aware that we (the Church) compete for people’s time and attention with everything else- other churches/pastors, streaming services, youth sports, etc.

  4. mm Steve Wingate says:

    Jason Clark writes “consuming has taken the place of producing well-being.”

    when we talk about well-being I am concerned that we do not address the idea of personal salvation instead of adjoining this to the restoration of our neighborhoods. In Hebrews, we learn Jesus prayed to be saved, yet in John’s narration we learn about salvation of communities through disciples knowing the truth. There is a sense in the community I serve that personal salvation has not included the mandate in Matthew 28:19-20

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I definitely think that the idea of personal salvation is now understood (and manifested) in an individual’s “feeling” about God and themselves. The thought that salvation is intended to move one to deeper relationship with their neighbor for the purpose of building community and transforming the world is lost, if not downright offensive. We’re a “me-first” culture that seems to have no idea how to get along together as a people.

  5. mm Dylan Branson says:

    “Church programming is more market-driven.”

    During my discovery session, this was one of the key themes my group picked out in terms of obstacles the church needs to overcome in order to promote community. When the focus is on promoting the church itself rather than the relationships within the church (and outside as it may be), it’s easy to lose sight of what makes the church the church. I think I mentioned this in a comment on someone’s post a few weeks ago (or maybe it was in one of my posts; who knows), but I had a conversation with my friend about why his church does certain things. He mentioned they don’t typically expand out of that comfort zone because the worship in particular is what the church is known for; it’s part of their branding so to speak. People come and they expect one thing to happen; when those expectations are subverted, it often causes discomfort which means people may not come back. When we make our focus solely on bringing people in and appeasing them, we can lose the focus of our worship.

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