Thursday, 2 October 2014

Loyal customers are not the same as faithful disciples!

Today's content has been written by a guest who brings some challenging words to us regarding the challenges of consumerism in the Church:

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 cafĂ©’ 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?!


Nigel Taylor said...

But is a maitre d' the same as a minister? A good maitre d' sets the tone and culture of the restaurant and takes responsibility for that. how about the minister? This has really challenged me, thank you.

JonG said...

Two confessions: Firstly, I started attending my current church after spending some time trying out a few. Secondly, many years ago, I was the one leaving a church - one that I had been heavily involved in, in a leadership role, including leading services.
I am also conscious of Screwtape's advice about how, if a "patient" cannot be stopped from churchgoing, the next best thing (from Screwtape's perspective, of course) is to make them a connoisseur of churches - a consumer, by this post's phraseology.

But there is a difference between The Church and A (local) church, and I am certain that no local church has the right to continued existence whatever. At my former church, I watched an ageing congregation that seemed unconcerned - at least in the sense of being prepared to consider changing their ways - that the few youngsters seemed to be drifting away, and that some families were leaving specifically Because they wanted to find somewhere that offered more relevance to their teenagers - I wondered what my own younger children would think once they reached that age. And then I read the parable of the barren fig-tree in Luke 13, and wondered how much time is wasted on barren churches by committed Christians, and how much more they could achieve in more fertile soil.
Unfortunately, having explained as gently as I could my reasons for leaving, I then fouled up completely, and didn't get established anywhere else for a long time. By then, my life was very different, and I was acutely aware that I had major needs myself, and that I needed a church where those needs could be addressed. So I admit to being a consumer at that point.
Years ago, I had a friend who admitted to getting very upset with "The Church" when it was not behaving as an army unit, but that he had to keep reminding himself that it also had a role as a hospital. Well, I needed a hospital bed, but having, praise God, found it, I hope that I am beginning to return to active service.

Anonymous said...

My former church is a place full of older people who are growing more desparate as their numbers reduce and although they complain they also do nothing to present a welcoming body to those who are foolish enough to come in, The existence of the church is in peril and they look to the vicar to turn it round.

When I left there was no one under the age of forty left but how long can you put up with being unheard and pushed a side.

Great article - got me passionate and angry.

JonG said...

Snigger. I've just looked more closely at the picture at the bottom of the post. I think it is fair to suggest that Apple is a brand that attracts more than the typical proportion of unthinking fans with the attitude of "If it's Apple it Must be great", whereas I would Hope that that attitude in Christians exists more in the mind of people like Dawkins, and that Christians are in fact More willing to be critical where necessary of the church....