Church growth experts [and ministers] in all forms of church are aware of the effect of consumerism on church attendance. We live in a society that is used to choice and being able to get ‘what I want, when I want, where I want’. Sundays are no longer a holy or special day, but instead are as busy with as many options as any other day: shopping, leisure, sports, family activities etc. Modern church has woken up to this and, more and more, is providing alternatives to the traditional Sunday service in order to try to be accessible. Styles of service have also benefitted from this need for variety with café’ style church, Messy (craft-based) church, and specially targets Fresh Expressions of church. All are designed to be available when and where the target group are most likely to respond to their invitation. Within this effort to remain ‘relevant’ and accessible, new forms of church stand alongside the traditional: the mixed economy of old and new, where more established forms of church continue to provide for those for whom conventional works.
However, I have recently become aware of another consequence of the consumer mind-set that prevails even within more the traditional church. It concerns the attitude of those who consider themselves to be members of a particular church or fellowship. Let’s consider church to be like a local restaurant, with a core of loyal patrons. They have chosen to frequent this restaurant because they find it enjoyable; the food, the atmosphere, the prices, everything is pleasing and encourages return visits. It becomes a regular haunt; their dining experience of choice. They become known to the proprietor and to other regular customers. The maitre d’ will ensure that a table is always available for them and that their favourite dishes are on the menu; occasionally he might suggest something new for them to try, broadening their horizons within a very safe framework of the familiar.
Suppose the restaurant experiences some financial difficulties, perhaps the chef leaves, or other trusted members of staff. Some of the regular clientele will fall away; others might stay loyal, but only as long as their dining experience is satisfying. Although they would be sad should the restaurant close, ultimately, the customers feel no obligation to ensure the continuation of the restaurant; that is the sole responsibility of the owner and staff. After all, there are plenty more restaurants that could become their new favourite.
So it often seems to be with church. Regular attendees have exercised their right of choice to select this particular church or fellowship. They come because they find the experience pleasant: the music, prayers, and length of service etc. appeal. They get to know the minister and others regulars and start to become comfortable. Any changes in the accepted style or method will be greeted with some concern. Perhaps the church comes under financial pressure from the Diocese to pay Parish Share. Quietly, some of the members drift away. The church isn’t what it used to be; it is no longer a satisfying experience. There are other churches that offer a more enjoyable alternative. Those who stay look on with dismay at the falling numbers, but feel little or no obligation to engage with the difficulty; that is the sole responsibility of the minister – after all, this is his enterprise, They are just consumers; they are happy to support him but have no accountability for the health or continuation of the church. Should it close, they can always find another one. The consumer culture in which we live today has created an indolence that has robbed the church of any sense of dependability:
loyal customers are not the same as faithful disciples.
How different is the model of church we find in the New Testament. There we see shared responsibility, shared vision, shared workload. The church of Acts 2 were not consumers coming to be gratified, but were co-workers in the Kingdom, as passionate and engaged as their leaders in the life and activity of the church. Perhaps that’s why three thousand were added to their number in one day?!