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

In the Market for a New Church

Written by: on February 10, 2020

At the beginning of his dissertation, Evangelicalism and Capitalism, Dr. Jason Clark asks this question: “Has my church, and my Evangelical kin, become captive to a mode of ‘dispensing religious goods and services’ to consuming participants?”[1]  Recently I have had several conversations with my housemates about what we have been studying in regards to capitalism and Evangelicalism.  While on the train with one of them, we began to discuss the consumeristic nature we have seen within the church.  Both of us have struggled in the last several years to find a church that we feel like we truly belong to, but have settled on the respective churches we attend (for better or worse; almost as if it’s the best of a group of not so good options).  However, it is how we arrived at our respective churches that has caused me to reflect on how we choose a church.

Whether we realize it or not, the church tries to sell Jesus.  If the church is often run as a business –with the pastor as the CEO – Jesus is the product it is selling.  We do this through programs, through outreaches, etc.  Different denominations/people try to market Jesus in different ways: Jesus as Lord, Jesus as the ticket to heaven, Jesus as your friend, Jesus would smoke weed with you, etc.  The question I ask is whether or not our “market Jesus” is true to the accounts of Jesus within Scripture.  Do we make or portray Jesus in our image?  Or do we echo Jesus’ words in John 1:39: “Come and you will see?”

Perhaps one of the biggest metaphors we hear within the Christian context is the notion of “church shopping.”  By “church shopping,” I am talking about the process by which people will visit various churches in order to find one that suits their needs/wants/desires.  What I find interesting is how the church itself has become a commodity.  We want the next best thing when it comes to our churches.  Have an old, tired out pastor?  “Well, if we get some fiery young blood behind the pulpit, we’ll increase our attendance!”  This church just has an old pipe organ.  “Well, the church next door has a fog machine, strobe lights, and full band!”  What we tend to find is that there are bits and pieces of different churches that we like and those that we dislike.  More often than not, we choose a church based on what we perceive we need or where we feel we may not be noticed and can consume what is being offered there.

For myself, when I first moved to Hong Kong I was attending Church A (I’ll remit the names of the various churches).  I attended Church A because, at the time, my housemates all attended this church, so it made sense to go there as well.  Here I found a strong community among the young adults and was quickly brought into the fold.  However, the church itself had many issues that would ultimately lead the small group I attended to migrate to Church B.[2]  At Church B, I still had a strong community and the music was great, but in regards to preaching I found it did not stimulate me.  After discussing this with my mentor, he suggested a third church.  As Church B met on Saturday nights, it wasn’t an issue to attend Church C on Sunday mornings, where I found the preaching to be something that spoke to my soul.  Add to this that I was still serving with the youth group at Church A once a month, I had a full church rotation.

To summarize, there were specific things each church produced that I was picking and choosing for the “best church experience”:

  • Church A: Serving
  • Church B: Community and Worship
  • Church C: Preaching

Following my fallouts with Church B and C, I cut my losses and ended up back at Church A, where I have found once again a community in addition to my service with the youth group (although the church still has many issues, there is also the fact that no church is “perfect”).  When my housemate asks me how things are going at Church A, my reaction is rarely positive.  The question that typically follows is, “Well, when are you leaving?” to which I shrug and say, “I don’t know.  There isn’t really a better choice.  I can’t go to Church B and C for reason XYZ.  I could check out Church D, but then there’s also this problem or that problem.”

I share this story because there’s a competing sense of individualism that drives our consumeristic tendencies within the church.  The mindset is “I want what’s best for me.”  In reflecting on Polanyi we buy into the fictitious commodities[3] that the church offers (i.e.,, community, preaching, faith, worship, service).  And yet, we do this as a means of finding some sort of assurance to our faith.  I cannot count the amount of times I have heard a sermon that talks about how the mark of a Christian life is service and volunteering on a team within the church.  And while I agree that it is important for people to be involved within the local church, it should be done out of a sense of love and obedience for Christ and not out of a sense of forced obligation.

With all of this said, what does it take to not necessarily combat consumeristic tendencies or its relationship with capitalism, but rather to redeem it?  Perhaps one of the first steps is simply to reimagine our relationship to the church and with other people.  Perhaps it begins by moving away from our Western individualism where we think our choices only affect us and toward a more communal nature.  Perhaps it means putting away our own selfish desires and putting others above ourselves.  What will it take?

 

[1] Jason Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism,” PhD diss., (University of Middlesex, 2018), 1.

[2] My first Sunday at this particular church was the day that the senior pastor announced his resignation after a series of conflicts with the elder board.

[3] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, (Boston: Beacon Press).

About the Author

mm

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

13 responses to “In the Market for a New Church”

  1. mm Joe Castillo says:

    The church is a living body that is subject to all the avatar of history and, as it’s logical, goes through processes of realization, crisis and improvement. The key to continuing the dynamism of the mission is not to sound with a situation outside these human dependencies but to never separate from the source of their vitality the Word, the Sacrament, the Mission, the Ecclesial Communion, that is, the Spirit of Jesus present in the People of God

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Definitely. Sometimes we have to go through crisis before we can actually move forward toward a path of redemption. One thing that is interesting in this is the account of Brother Yun regarding the communist party in China. He’s made the argument before that before Mao took power, the Chinese church was stagnant, but the crisis that followed purified it in a way. Especially during times of crisis it’s important to stay connected to Christ as our source of strength.

  2. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Dylan,
    I can relate with your struggle and that of your peers. I visited 20 churches over the past 18 months. My husband and I have settled into one not because its “just right,” but actually because it’s not. It is opposite of the megachurch we were part of for many years. But in that space, we both feel settled, accepted, and loved.I wonder if that isn’t part of the process? Finding that place where we can be ourselves, worship God freely, and partake of the goodness that is Christ’s Body, the Church? And while that does sound individualistic, I think it has to lead to a healthier relationship with the Divine when we can both give and take, rather than just take, grumble, or judge because we are in a space that we feel is not looking much like Jesus? There are churches out there that look more like Jesus than others. The problem is it takes a long time to find them.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      One of my mentors told me once, “Every church is run by idiots. You just have to find an idiot you can grow under.” For me the tension is constantly battling my own spiritual pride of, “Oh, that doesn’t really mean XYZ” or “I would have phrased it this way” etc. Even during my small group, I have to consciously take a step back and let people have their say or I can dominate the conversation, or it’s the opposite and they rely on me for my knowledge. I don’t think there will ever be a church I find that is “just right,” but like you said it’s about recognizing where our cynicisms are and not being ultra critical to what’s being done and taking steps to work through my past hurts with church leadership.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Dylan,
    I feel your sense of confusion and concern. I am amazed at our attempt to market Jesus as if we can play the Holy Spirit in the salvation process.
    I love your question concerning whether the market Jesus looks anything like the scripture Jesus. I don’t often see a lot of similarities.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Yeah. I think there’s just enough “Scripture Jesus” to justify it still being “Jesus”, but past that the similarities tend to disappear rather quickly. I think the image in John of Jesus simply saying, “Come and see” is very powerful. “Come and see” what it is to be loved. “Come and see” what it is to be transformed by grace. “Come and see” who Jesus really is apart from our marketing ploys. But who do they see when they come?

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    The church shopping idea is certainly a challenge. And we church leaders often get caught in the game, whether we want to or not. What I appreciated most from Jason this week was the hope we might have in simply reclaiming our core identity and living authentically in that. We may have to help our people ignore the “scoreboard” or the most visible indicators of “success” and learn to be content with who we are. I’m reminded of a phrase I heard once- “If I ever found the perfect church, I wouldn’t join it. I would just mess it up!”

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Right. The question for me is, “How do we actually cultivate an environment where we can actually reclaim that core identity?” So much of what we say and do is inherently tied to our identity and the narrative that we tell ourselves. Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of the True Narrative and integrated many false narratives into our identity. The process of untangling that is messy, but it’s a needed step.

  5. mm Steve Wingate says:

    While on the train with one of them, we began to discuss the consumeristic nature we have seen within the church.

    I confess that looking for the church that “fit” me was a defensive mechanism at one time. It’s kind of like a child might say if they found just the right vegetable then they might it, but in reality, my early search- after experiencing my first pastor choosing to walk away from faith- that I whined there just wasn’t a good enough one on this planet. Therefore, I just didn’t partake.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      It’s easy to let our past pains and struggles get in the way. What’s more is that this often breeds into cynicism, which adds another road block to our journey. When I had my own fallouts with various churches, I wanted nothing to do with the communities I was part of; my cynicism became more and more aggressive. If it weren’t for my community’s patience and love, who knows where that cynicism would have taken me in the end.

  6. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Dylan, I think it was Keller that helped differentiate most churches as (over)emphasizing one of Christ’s roles as prophet, priest, and king, which seem to line up with your churches A-C. Priestly churches emphasize the justice and mercy service: Prophet, the preaching, and kingly, the leadership and multiplication. Where it doesn’t negate the ultimate choice of the individual, I do think it helps normalize how difficult it is to equally embody all three roles.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Very much so. That’s a good distinction I think and one that needs to be brought into balance somehow or another. Have you been part of a church/experienced somewhere a balance of these roles?

      Also, if/when you get a chance, send me a link or the title of the book/article to where Keller talks about it. Would be interested in checking that out.

  7. mm Chris Pollock says:

    A semblance of Jesus remains in our ‘branding’. We still have the word ‘church’ in our brand.

    Has Jesus been commodified? Our precious commodity. It feels so uncomfortable considering our Saviour and Church in such ways. And, we are commodities. Are there conversations (as in any for-profit industry, based on production and accumulation) that regards the relative need of the customer/consumer. Unfortunately, the same goes for non-profit charities learning of ‘what floats the boat’ for potential donors and sponsors. What ‘works’ and what doesn’t ‘work’? Is this really how things are being worked out? God forbid.

    How do we maintain-restore integrity in view of either the reality of the situation (the struggle to not compromise yet, the pressure to keep up and develop respectable acumen) or in view of the perceived reality of compromise by those looking in from the outside (considering the One we profess to represent, One who stood up to oppression caused by church and state)?

    Dylan, appreciate that you ended up back at the Church where you started! Sweetest community struggles together and builds resilience together; always growing. Family-stuff; real. Perhaps, in this movement, recalling the attitude of ‘I am my brother’s (+ sister’s) keeper’ and to ‘love one another’ exemplifying surprising oneness in a world of ‘only’ individuals? In a world of plastic, there is a search for something ‘real’. How disappointing it could be to find that something ‘real’, it commodified and offered in another plastic place.

    Thank you for sharing your journey. Community bro!

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