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Is the Church Falling Prey to Consumerism?

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - Is the Christian Church falling prey to consumerism?  In a desperate attempt to bolster membership rolls, it believed that some ministers have begun to treat their churches more like companies, and their congregants as customers.*

Author and journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald believes that many churches have sacrificed their moral authority in a quest to increase their flock.*

In his new book, “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul”, MacDonald takes an incisive look at today's movement away from true religion and shows how desperately America needs a new religious reformation.* Program Director Chris Carpenter recently sat down with McDonald to discuss changes in the Church over the last five decades, whether consumer marketing practices are hurting the Church’s moral foundations, and how the Church’s core mission can be revitalized in the 21st Century.

In reading “Thieves in the Temple”, I got the strong impression that you are someone who has been affected directly by the evolution of the traditional church into a more consumer-driven church. What’s been your experience as a pastor?

Yes, I did pastor a church, a small church of about 75 members in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Pastored there from 2000 to 2004. And, yes, in my experience, I was a bit surprised when I got to the church just how much a consumer ethos was present and was really kind of hindering some of what I and others in the church were wanting to accomplish and wanting to see in the growth of the community, the growth of individuals, the raising of children in the faith. And it was a stumbling block.

Pushing this out to a broader perspective, what do you think has happened to the Christian church over the last, let’s say, 30 to 40 years?

Over the past 30 to 40 years, there has been an acceleration of this consumer dynamic in the life of the Church. The way I understand it, what seems to have happened is going back a little farther to 1955, a Gallup poll found that only four percent of Americans had ever switched religious affiliations in their lifetimes. And by 1986, it was 33 percent.  By 2008, it was 44 percent. And so there’s been this 1,000 percent increase in religious mobility in America over the past half century. So there’s really been this sea change in the way Americans do religion. It’s much more consumerist, and it comes out our post-war culture. We have learned to be consumers in every area of life and have been conditioned to make our wish lists and go out and shop for that which is going to give us pleasure and minimize discomfort and do that in every area of life. And it has saturated the Church culture. And it’s been accelerating in the past couple of decades as people have learned that, yes, some of these sensibilities can apply in church and people can get up and leave. And there’s not a huge stigma to saying, “This church isn’t working for me anymore. I’m going to go to this other one that is more comfortable, because it affirms my preexisting lifestyle or my preconceived political orientation,” or whatever it may be. And churches are responding to this, realizing that if they don’t cater and, indeed, pander, they might not be around tomorrow.

I see poll after poll, survey after survey, saying that overall church attendance is going down. Yet, I’m seeing more and more consumer-driven mega churches rising up all over the place.  It seems that there’s some sort of parallel here. What are your thoughts on this?

There is a parallel. Certainly mega-churches are getting a larger share of the total church-going population. And as much as we’d like to think that mega-churches are growing because they’re attracting all of these folks who have no church experience otherwise, the truth in many cases is that people are just switching from one church to another. And so growing the Christian community is not exactly what’s happening here. Yes, the mega-churches are giving people what they want. And I’m not sort of categorically opposed to the idea of mega-churches on this scale or any of that, but I’m concerned with the fact that churches are growing in many cases by serving up something that people seem to want, but something that’s not holding fast to the calling of the Gospel. And an example of this is, as affinity groups, as churches roll out small groups, they increasingly roll out affinity groups. And so, yes, people go to a big church that may be a diverse mega-church community, but the folks they come to get to know and trust are folks who are very much like themselves: young mothers of kids of a certain age, or mid-career professionals in a certain industry who share an interest in golf or jogging or whatever it may be. This is an increasingly narrow slice of the Christian world, and something terrible is lost.

It seems that everything today, including church, is an on-demand type experience. Do you see it as wrong for a church to use consumer marketing practices to attract people their congregation?

It’s a tricky area, I think, because on the one hand, I recognize that the Church needs to attract people and needs to provide something appealing. Otherwise people won’t come at all. I mean, as a basic principle, there’s got to be something there. And yet, it’s very insidious, because it really does kind of put the church into a package where it looks very much like the movie theater.

And I think it’s very easy as a churchgoer to sort of not see that much distinction between what the theater is offering and what the Church is offering. I think the Church needs to be careful with this and might do well to consider some of the other things that only the Church can offer and focus on those, instead of trying to provide as pleasing a media, a visual and audio experience, as the theater down the street. I mean, the Church is never going to win that entertainment game, and is better off to offer and focus on those things that it can do, which is to create an environment where people challenge each other and grow in the knowledge and love and God and the love of neighbor that just transforms lives.

Do these troubling patterns lie with the parishioners or with the pastors?

This is a good question. I think there’s some culpability, if I may say it that way, on both sides. I think that our problem is we have this religious marketplace that is engaged in a race to the bottom. In a marketplace you need both buyers and sellers for it to happen, and so I think that it’s on both sides. I think there’s pastors who are serving up what they think people are going to want in a packaging that’s not always helpful, and then there’s parishioners who are responding to it. And in some cases there are parishioners who are asking for certain things, and pastors are serving them up. So I think there’s both. And I put a lot of emphasis in the book that lay-people can be instrumental in rectifying this situation. And I think that’s really important, because if we have this religious marketplace, if I’m right that consumer dynamics and marketplace dynamics are just exploding on our religious landscape, then it follows that our institutions are listening, they’re doing consumer research, they’re wanting to respond to the demands of the marketplace. And so we have an opportunity in this time for the marketplace, for the religious consumers of our country, to step up and reclaim the tradition, to ask for the challenges that will bring out the best in one another. And so I really think that there’s a lot of opportunity there to reclaim dimensions of our tradition that may have not seen the light of day for decades. And I think also some of the solution lies with pastors to make available experiences, make available, for instance, small groups that very intentionally provide for challenge. Maybe it’s in a form of accountability groups that are not just for recovering addicts of one kind of another, but for a cross range of people to challenge each other, to make available ministries like prison ministries in comfortable suburbs where people may not have the slightest interest in spending any time in a jail on a Saturday afternoon.

Do you see that as the way to revitalize the church’s core mission in the 21st century, or has the horse left the barn so to speak?

No. I do see a lot of opportunity here. I think that it’s definitely not too late. On the contrary, there’s a new set of dynamics in religious life in America, and they’ve come upon us pretty quickly, relatively speaking, in just a couple of decades, and I don’t think that we’ve caught up with that. I think we’ve sort of let this consumer sensibility kind of wash over us, but the challenge now is to step back and say, “Now, wait a minute. How is my engagement of the church different from any other institution in my life? How might I call upon this institution and its people to challenge me and to ask them to make me a little bit uncomfortable sometimes? Because that’s where spiritual growth happens. That’s the ethic. I believe we need a new consumer ethic for this new religious marketplace. And in some ways it’s akin to physical fitness. It’s spiritual fitness that we’re talking about. And if we go back 75 years in America, there were no gym memberships, people were not living the way they do now in a way of trying to—or even 50 years, in the 50s, that didn’t exist. Even though sitting on the couch is every bit as comfortable as it was in 1950, and we have our challenges with obesity in this country, still, somewhere the desire to be fit has enabled a lot of people to strap on their gym clothes and made working out a part of their life. I think we have a chance to nudge our church communities to become less like spiritual Cineplex’s and more like spiritual gymnasiums, and I think that’s really for the taking. With the right heart and enough guidance from folks who have seen how the Christian life can be challenging and edifying at the same time, I really think that there is a wide open opportunity here for the church to be a tremendously influential and blessing institution again. But a final point on that, though, is that it’s far from forgone conclusion. The destiny of the Church, what it becomes in the next 50 years, is entirely up for grabs.

To purchase "Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the Amerian Soul"

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*Text courtesy of Basic Books.

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