Consumers or Committed Christians?

Paul Downey

These days one can find on the shelves of any Christian bookstore all manner of volumes offering to explain how to build larger churches. Depending on the author, churches are urged to employ various techniques to entice believers and unbelievers (often referred to as “seekers”) to fill their pews. Marketing the church has become a hot topic, usually emphasizing some appeal to the tastes and interests of the Baby-boomers, the Generation X-ers, or some other demographic group.

In order to develop this user-friendly atmosphere, a more casual approach to worship is being encouraged, with emphasis on activities and programs and an accompanying de-emphasis on expositional preaching of the Word of God. However, this is producing a generation of professing believers who practice what could be thought of as “Lite Christianity,” a nominal form of Christianity that approximates the flavor of the genuine, but has little of the substance. We see churches filled with people who have no Biblical understanding of what constitutes true worship of a holy God and who see no Biblical imperative for their own personal holiness. It is this attitude that Paul described as “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5).

Shifting Emphases

Due to the visibility of high-profile Christian speakers, writers, and entertainers, the average Christian has begun to question the relevance of the ministry of his local church. Too often the local church is perceived as little more than a social club whose purpose is to provide a forum for its members to meet to discuss the latest recording by their favorite musician, the newest trend in church growth, the currently popular ideas of their favorite Christian spokesperson, or to organize trips to the next big rally. It’s a valid observation that, while the postmodern church in America has become quite adept at creating celebrities, it has forgotten how to make saints. This movement is even evident in popular terminology as people are called to celebrate God rather than to worship Him.

In many circles the focus of local church ministry has shifted. A great deal of money and effort is being expended to attract and keep church members by entertaining them as opposed to training them. For example, concerts and drama have replaced preaching services. Literal Bible study, where the goal is to discover the actual meaning of a Biblical passage in order to apply it to personal Christian growth, has been displaced. Instead, what passes for Bible study in many churches is little more than speculative commentary, in which people gather to express personal impressions about what any particular passage “means to me.” This exchanging of Biblical exegesis for practical existentialism has elevated feeling close to God higher than knowing the truth of God. For many Christians, the authority of the Word of God has been usurped, with personal experience becoming the primary measure of truth.

Shifting Loyalties

Another problem is that the potential effectiveness of the local church pastor is being eroded. Any pastor who dares to challenge the views or the methods of an especially popular radio or television preacher or of an admired writer may well find himself without a pulpit. Unintentional though it may be, celebrity-status Christians have become the modern equivalent of Absalom to the local church’s David. They are charming the local congregation’s loyalty and support away from their duly appointed and God-ordained leader.

Also, far too many professing believers are opting to be church goers rather than church members. The trend seems to be for people to shop around for a church that pleases them, rather than to search out a sound church in which they can serve.

Regaining Perspective

Part of the solution to these growing problems is for pastors to guard against the temptation to adopt a consumer mentality to market their church. When a church’s primary purpose becomes the development of programs targeted at the perceived needs of a community, we make our practical theology man-centered rather than God-centered. However, Christ did not found the church for the purpose of entertaining believers. The commission of the church is to glorify God by evangelizing the lost and discipling believers by the proclamation of the truth, “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

In the church where I pastor, I decided that I needed to remind my congregation of the promises they had made to one another and to God when they joined the church. Therefore, I spent several months preaching a series of messages on the themes addressed in our church membership covenant:

Having been led, as we believe by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.

We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this church in knowledge, holiness, and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.

We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions; to religiously educate our children; to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger; to abstain from the sale of, and use of, intoxicating drinks as a beverage; to be zealous in our efforts to advance the kingdom of our Savior.

We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and Christian courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation and mindful of the rules of our Savior to seek it without delay.

We moreover engage that when we remove from this place we will, as soon as possible, unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.

I believe it was crucial for my congregation to consider carefully the Biblical basis for who we are as a church and to examine our obedience to the Biblical model. The crying need of the church is not more celebrities, more activities, or more programs to entertain us. What we need are more saints committed to obeying their Lord, whatever the cost. We will not develop righteousness in the lives of believers by pandering to their every desire, as if that were the Biblical meaning of the exercise of “Christian liberty.” If we want the righteousness of Christ to be seen in us, we must emphasize Christian responsibilities.

This article is adapted from the introduction to the book More Than Spectators: Fulfilling Your Role in the Local Church, Greenville, S.C.: Ambassador-Emerald International, 2002.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September / October 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)