In the Gospel of John, we read of a story that many of us are familiar with: The cleansing of the temple by Jesus. John writes:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:13-16).
The notion of the nature of the church is a question that has been burning in my heart since moving to Hong Kong. The year before I moved, I remember having a strange feeling that something was off about my experience in church. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, this feeling followed me across the world to the various churches I attended in Hong Kong. There was a gradual discontent that grew into a cynicism of the church, but what bothered me most was that I still could not put to words what was bothering me. All I knew was that something felt shallow every time I sat through a church service.
My revelation finally came on Easter 2017. As the pastor began his sermon, I realized that this was the first time in years where it sounded like the Gospel was being preached in a church service. The more I listened, the more I reflected on what “church” had become in many of the other churches I had attended. My thoughts drifted to Jesus’ words: “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
Church has become a business and a marketplace.
The communal nature of the churches I attended (many of which ironically carried the word “community” in their titles) had been superseded by a programmatic drive that ultimately created a congregation of consumers. I began to pay more attention to the announcements at churches as they marketed their divorce care groups (“Need help navigating the murky waters of your divorce? Come join us!”), their prayer classes (“Want to pray with the fervor of David? We can teach you!”), their retreats (“For $500 HKD, sign up and we’ll give you the time and space to refresh your soul!”), etc. It was as if the churches were trying to cater themselves to people so that they could keep the “customers” coming back week after week. This can cause competition among churches in order to see who can attract the most people.
Polanyi talks about how the fictitious commodities of labor, land, and money were the driving forces of the establishing the self-regulating market. These are considered fictitious commodities because they were not produced for the market, yet they are still bought and sold on the market. This notion of fictitious commodities is important because in many ways, the church itself markets other fictitious commodities.
When we look at a church website, what are the first things that we see? A lot of the photos that one can find in the gallery sections offer a window into the experience of that church. When we peruse these sites, what are we ultimately looking for? We want to know what we will get out of the service. Who is the pastor (the more famous he/she is, the better)? What do they believe? Is there a small group ministry for me? Is there a ministry for my kids? What about the youth? Are there mission trips that I can go on through this church? While it is important to know these things about a church, how does a church use these to get people in the door?
At the same time, do the churches see its congregation members as commodities? During my undergraduate studies, one of my professors used the term “sheep stealing” when we were discussing church growth. He defined it as churches targeting the members of other churches to get them in their door. We measure the success of a church by how many people are there, by how many souls are saved, by how many programs the church has, by how many volunteers are active in serving, etc. Whenever I go back to Kentucky, I ask my family how things are at the church I grew up attending. The first thing they comment on is how many people are there, who isn’t coming to church anymore, who has passed away, or who had a baby. The conversation usually stops there, as that’s all they think that’s important to comment on. To view people as a commodity is an affront to the imago dei in which humankind was created.
The programmatic focus that I’ve seen in churches has been disheartening. As I reflect on the nature of church in this regard, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like for the church to move beyond the consumeristic nature of programs and into a world of community that seeks to give into the life of other people:
- How do we move beyond the traditional measures of success within churches (i.e., the attendance, the amount of souls saved, etc.) and stop seeing our congregation members as a commodity?
- At what point will we turn over the tables of the money changers in our churches and return it to a house of worship?
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, (Boston: Beacon Press), 75.