In many American churches, consumerism is being used as a vehicle for the gospel. With lessons gleaned from the entertainment industry and the world of marketing, these churches present the gospel using forms of communication familiar to every American. Many people hear the gospel through this type of church. It’s effective. But should they being doing this? And what do we mean when we say it’s effective?
[For any theology/missiology nerds reading this, what I’m seeking to address here is an issue that involves contextualization and syncretism. If you care to explore that connection, view this footnote: ]
So let’s consider the consumerist model of doing church. Consumerism is all about creating products that will appeal to consumers. In the church, this can look like anything from performance-oriented bands to entertaining sermons to polished programs. I can sense many of you preparing to throw stones at other churches at this point, so before you do that, consider: all of our churches do this to some extent. I have yet to encounter a church in North America that avoids all elements of the consumerist model. I want to be clear that the enemy is not entertainment, programs, or “being relevant.”
It’s easy to be superficial in our dismissal of consumerism in churches: “Their worship is so showing…they’re so ‘seeker sensitive’…people are only going to that church because the children’s ministry is a huge production…” But the problem is actually far deeper than all that.
It’s not wrong for people to be entertained. It’s not wrong for pastors to carefully craft their sermons so their congregation will be entertained so they will stay engaged so they will take another step on their spiritual journey. Skill, professionalism, excellence—these are not the problem.
The problem with consumerist models of doing church is the way this approach shapes us. And it does shape us—deeply.
Visit the mall regularly and you will be shaped. You won’t notice the shaping, of course. You think you’re going to the mall to complete your errands, or perhaps just to enjoy the atmosphere. But you’re being trained to view life in a certain way. You’re imbibing an embodied vision of “the good life.” You are “listening” to powerful “sermons” about the way your life could be if you’d only shop here, if you’d only adopt this lifestyle, if you’d just give this product a try.
Why are so many people going to quickly purchase the new iPhone 6s when it releases? (Or the Android equivalent.) No one is actually eager to buy it for the two or three things it can do slightly better than the previous version. People are going to quickly adopt the newest iPhone because the advertisers are masters at training our desires. They know how to bypass the head and go for the gut. The malls, the commercials, the coffee shops, the auto dealers, the layout of our cities—all of it pushes us towards a specific version of the good life: have this, live this way, and you’ll be happy.
Now mentally walk into an American suburban church. The service is carefully tailored to appeal to you. Programs are designed to meet your needs. You choose which church activities you want to sign up for. The church staff is the production company and you are the consumer.
“It’s different,” you might say. “I’m not being offered a ‘product,’ I’m being offered Jesus. I’m being drawn into worship.” Yes and yes. And this is why I’m not accusing the consumerist mentality of being evil. People do come to know Jesus through this approach—often!
I am arguing, however, that this approach subtly shapes our view of the gospel, its purpose, and our role in the mission of God. For the first Christians, church was anything but consumeristic. They didn’t need to advertise programs to meet one another’s needs. Their lives were intertwined enough that they just knew where the needs were and did what they could to meet them.
When church is set up in such a way that every aspect of our spiritual life is presented like a sales pitch, wrapped in entertainment value, and tailored to catch our fancy, we’re bound to misunderstand the purpose of it all. We’re bound to miss the reality that we don’t go to church or volunteer at church, we are the church. When we embrace the consumerist mentality, we get the impression that all God expects of us is to sit in on services and attend programs.
But there’s more to the Christian life than this. And the tragedy of the consumerist model is that we’ll never allow our people to experience how much more there is until we stop marketing to them. The gospel calls us to self-denial, not savvy shopping. We have to find a way to view the people in our churches as members of a body rather than costumers, attendees, or even volunteers.
So instead of assuming that attracting large groups and gathering loads of signups for our programs is a neutral way of communicating the gospel, what if we all stopped to consider how our approach to “doing church” shapes the people we’re reaching out to? What if we asked if there is a better way to do what we’re doing, a way that will communicate the gospel effectively without unintentionally validating the consumeristic mentality of the shopping mall? The reality is that many of our churches are doing pretty well in this respect, but we could all afford to do better.
 In my missiology classes, we talk about principles of missions: how to best present the gospel in a certain culture. One important concept we discuss is “contextualization.” How do we take the cultural forms we encounter in a given society and accurately express the gospel in terms that are familiar and compelling to that group of people? For example, when you enter a Middle Eastern society, you’ll want to start by presenting the gospel in the local language. That much is easy. Other questions are more difficult: Should we refer to “God” (a generic English term for the Divine Being) as “Allah” (a generic Arabic term for the Divine Being)? Or does that go beyond contextualization and enter the realm of “syncretism,” which is missions-talk for mixing two religions together? The goal is to find the cultural forms that can best express the gospel and to avoid those that might distort the gospel. It’s not easy to do, but it’s an important concept. Missionaries and missiologists are careful to think through these questions as they bring the gospel to new cultures. Yet few in America have ever considered how the cultural forms they utilize affect the gospel message they are trying to communicate. Specific to this post, how can we contextualize the gospel in North American cultural forms while avoiding syncretistically distorting the gospel? My argument is basically that utilizing the consumeristic methods of the shopping mall have led us past contextualization and into syncretism.