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.