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.