Consumer Church, pt. 2

Here is are some reflections about David Johnson’s criticism of the “consumer church” (see the previous post):

David Johnson’s passion for righteousness resonates with me. I’m in. I don’t want to have any part of a “consumer church” as he described it. Instead, I want to hunger, really hunger, for restorative righteousness, exactly has he described it. I applaud that kind of passion and Jesus’ call for restorative justice above and beyond personal morality. We need more of that at New Life Church. Count me in.

For the past few days I’ve waded with fear and hesitation back into the cesspool of church critics. It was harder than I thought it would be. I found relatively little material about “consumer church,” but other terms such as “market driven” unlocked a familiar barrage of material. I didn’t bother reading most of it, but I skimmed enough to feel the heat. I’m not even going to attempt rebuttals. It would be a waste of time. And it would poison my soul.

One of my weaknesses is that I’m a little like Rodney King, who became famous a generation ago for posing a simple question, “Can’t we all just get along?” Apparently we can’t get along. We can’t even define our areas of disagreement.

On one level, Johnson’s criticism of the consumer church confuses me. I’m not sure exactly what or whom he’s addressing. I don’t know anybody who wants to create or be part of a “consumer church” the way Johnson described it. I don’t know anyone who is wringing their hands, hoping their congregation is satisfied. I don’t know anyone for whom the goal of the church is consumer satisfaction. Nor have I ever heard anyone promoting a goal like that. None. Zilch. Nada. Zero.

They may be out there. There may be sad churches whose goal is to satisfy consumers. Imitators rarely have the authenticity of the original innovator. Any methodology without the Spirit is dead. No doubt there have been abuses and failures by copycats. A fair evaluation addresses the best model, not the worst models. It’s not fair to judge Ford models on the basis of a few cars which are broken down along the highway. All kinds of cars have breakdowns. So do all kinds of churches.

I think God can use different kinds of churches, all of which are imperfect. I grew up as a Methodist. That’s where my faith was grounded. My parents still attend the same Methodist church they did fifty years ago. I love the Methodists. We all get along fine whenever I visit. But I really think the Presbyterians are right.

Sometimes I think these church fights are like arguing which wing of an airplane is more essential, the left wing or the right wing. Both wings are required for flight. Sometimes when I’m reading book reviews, I wonder if we even read the same book. When a critic paints with a brush dipped in judgment and sarcasm, it’s a safe bet his picture is distorted.

Distortion leads to misinformation. Just a few minutes ago somebody walked into my office and confidently handed me a report that the Affordable Care Act contains an exemption for Muslims, but not Christians. It took only about three minutes of online research to show him this was false. He was a victim (and spreader) of misinformation. Somehow we’re attracted to bad information because it can be sensational and it can reinforce our entrenched biases.

Two weeks ago a highly respected medical missionary sat in my living room and commented that entertainment is prevalent in the American church. He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask, but now I would like to know what he meant. I don’t get to see other churches since I’m nearly always at New Life Church in Clarkfield on Sundays. Maybe he was referring to strobe lights and fog machines. Such gadgets don’t do much for me. But I’ll use them if they help communicate the Gospel.

Maybe he was referring to preaching. I’m very sensitive to preaching. I have high standards and I rarely attain them in my sermons. It’s crucial to preach the text and nothing else. (That’s the left wing.) I’m extremely sensitive to moralizing or spiritualizing the text, which actually is very common. Much of what passes for good preaching today butchers the text. But I’m also sensitive to connecting with the congregation. (That’s the right wing.) There needs to be application, which is where most of us average preachers fall woefully short.

Howard Hendricks used to tell us it’s a sin to bore people with the Bible. Unfortunately, I sin a lot. I work very hard at preaching, but I’m not a great natural communicator. Maybe that’s why I appreciate speakers who can carry their audience along with them and plant biblical truth even when the hearer isn’t aware of it. Call it “entertainment” if you must, but I think communication is one of our greatest needs today.

The people who have complained to me the most about consumers in the church have usually turned out to be the biggest church consumers themselves. They want what they want and they’ll go somewhere else if they don’t get it. On the other hand, some of the so-called “consumer churches” surrender their comforts and do restorative justice far better than the rest of the pack. If you want restorative justice, the consumer church might end up leading the way.

E. M. Bounds wrote, “The world is looking for better methods. God is looking for better men.” The Spirit makes the men. Spirit-filled men make the methods. Methods are not worth fighting over unless you want a spiritual harvest. A farmer may plant and water, but God causes the increase. Nonetheless, farming methods matter. They directly affect the yield.

In one sense, I don’t care how we do it. I just want to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Therefore, methods really do matter if we want a spiritual harvest.


Consumer Church – pt. 1

Usually I ignore the denunciation of market-driven, consumer churches by self-appointed critics and internet trolls who fashion themselves as discernment ministries. It’s not a matter of personal preference. I’m forced to avoid such ugly, mean-spirited poison because I’m easily sucked into self-righteousness sparring against it. I can spend hours fighting Pharisaical windmills online. Over the years I’ve learned how to play the discernment ministry game a little bit. Usually there’s not much real discernment involved. It’s more about posturing than about understanding. I’ve come to hate the routine because attempting to expose a speck in a critic’s eye invariably reveals a log in my own eye. Several times I’ve had to quit while I was behind because constructive dialogue was proving to be impossible. I never feel spiritually clean after an encounter with a wild-eyed church critic.

I’ve always been impressed by the way God’ s change agents in cutting edge ministry are able to resist kicking against the cacophony of shrill, often angry, voices of people they’ve never met. Perhaps critics help them stay humble… and honest. I’m amazed how God’s choice servants almost never defend themselves against the distortions which are so often a part of the process. Some leaders have a God-given ability to create a climate for change without becoming defensive toward those who oppose them.

Occasionally someone sends me an article by a so-called “discernment ministry.” Then I’m forced to deal with it. Recently one even came to me from a former pastor of this church. I usually ignore rants about “consumer church” is because it’s almost always hurled as a pejorative misrepresentation of something genuine. The phrase has seemed to me to be heat without light, meaningless in a serious dialogue, summarily dismissed… until I heard it used by a speaker I highly respect two days ago. Not all church critics are low-life trolls. Sometimes we need to give careful attention to criticism, especially when it comes from mature, godly leaders. Despite the abysmal track record of discernment ministries, we still need discernment in ministry. We all need trusted voices to speak warnings and wisdom in our ears and draw us back to center.

David Johnson is the Senior Pastor at Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota. The past three weeks I’ve been listening to his audio series on The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). I’ve replayed the opening sermon in the series five times. It’s very, very powerful preaching. I played it for our men’s discipleship group just last Saturday morning. It’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever heard. Here’s the point: I have a high trust in David Johnson. He has earned the right to speak into many pastors’ ears.

On Easter afternoon while I was returning from a hospital call, the tenth sermon in the series (I think) was playing from Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” It was another great sermon. At the very end of the message, Johnson added something off the cuff which I’m struggling to unpack. I’ll put the quote below and follow up with some reflections in the next post. The close of the sermon was a very emotional moment for Johnson. His vocal expression is extreme;  it can’t be reproduced here. This is dramatic communication with broken sentences. It doesn’t transcribe well into writing, even though the audio was easy to follow. I’ve edited it slightly for clarity. Here is what David Johnson said:

I’m in a lot of conversations… about a phenomenon in many churches in our day, most notably, a characteristic of megachurches, like our church, called the “consumer church.” Have you ever heard that phrase? Consumer Christians, consumer churches, where people come, primarily, to consume religious goods and services. And if we all buy into that, it makes the ministry of the church, the goal of the church, therefore, is consumer… satisfaction. So we’re just kind of wringing our hands hoping  you’re satisfied [mocking voice here] with everything we do. [Long pause, subtle agitation.] What if, what if, what if, what if, what if, it wasn’t about being satisfied. What if it wasn’t—not at all—about that. What if that wasn’t the goal, you all being satisfied? What if the goal was being hungry, really, really hungry? For more moral virtue? Absolutely, the kind of moral virtue that surpasses the baloney of the scribes and Pharisees, who just polish the outside of the cup. Keep it home with you. Go home with it now. But if you’re willing to look at your robbery and self indulgence and the stuff on the inside so the outside could become clean as well, we might actually be a light around here. [We are] not satisfied [with mere moral virtue], [rather, be] hungry for restorative justice that is marked by an unquenchable thirst to see people who are excluded, included; [and those who are] far off, brought near. This is the gospel. Pastor David Johnson, Church of the Open Door, Maple Grove, MN, November 25, 2007.

Next time I’ll wrestle with this scathing criticism of the consumer church from a godly, highly esteemed pastor.


Studies in the Gospel of Mark: Resurrection

The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the focal point of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus came as the consummate servant “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Indeed the cross of Christ is core of the metanarrative (big story) of the entire New Testament.

But the cross is not the end of the story. It’s not even the climax. The greatest reversal theme of all history is the resurrection of Jesus from the grave on what we now know as Easter Sunday. Death, which is final and utterly irreversible to all human experience and reason, has been defeated and swallowed up by life in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Death is reverted to life. Despair is changed to hope. Night is turned back to day. The triumph of evil is toppled by an even greater triumph of good.

The reliability of our faith hinges on the unparalleled events of the third day following the crucifixion. Fortunately, the events of that day are attested by four separate writers, making Easter Sunday the most documented eye-witness event in all ancient history. It’s not even close.

The Gospel accounts of the Easter story are messy. The resurrection of Jesus is not a neat and tidy story. But the disarray may be a sign of authenticity. Let’s look at it tomorrow at New Life!