Cheapening the Church

Culture works on church like a cancer.  Popularity is the new standard of excellence.  Having a slogan or a sound bite or a brand is so much more important than being relevant or having integrity.  Our get-’em-in-the-doors-by-any-means mentality has done more to kill the church than almost anything else, but it gives the false impression of success.  I saw a man set a record for cramming over three hundred french fries in his mouth at one time, but the caption along the bottom of the television screen read Highlands Assemblies of God Church — and I thought, what a perfect metaphor!  Super Size UMC.  It’s no wonder that the rest of the world looks at what has become of the church and walks away shaking their collective head.  They simply know a sell-out when they see one — reducing the gospel of Jesus Christ to slogans.  I got news for you, slapping it on a bumper sticker ain’t evangelism — it’s the path of least resistance.  It is what we do when we choose not to do the hard work of actually getting to know people and sharing with them the beliefs and values that give our lives meaning.  It’s letting McDonald’s and Wal-Mart teach us how to set up a money-changers franchise in the temple.  We have been doing it constantly since the 1960s.  How’s that workin’ out for us…?

Oh, I know the argument of those who are doing it — you need to get them in the door, you’ve got to start somewhere, you need to catch their attention, yada, yada, yada.  But the problem is, there simply isn’t any substance below the surface.  Our symbols have all been subjugated and subsumed.  I watched a mom get out of her car with little junior in tow — her minivan was coated with fish symbols and crosses and religious bumper stickers and a big WWJD in her back window.  She waltzed junior into the liquor store for an obvious refill — this woman was in no condition to have been out driving — and as they returned to the car she lost her temper with her little one, jerking his arm repeatedly, then swinging wildly at him when she put her package down.  Three college kids were sitting close by and one muttered, “she goes to my mom’s church,” and his friend snickered and said, “You go to church?”  Shocked, the first boy snorted and said, “Nah, man, people like her go to church.”  I couldn’t resist.  I caught the kid’s eye and said, “So, you think everybody who goes to church is like that?”, referring to the woman.  He looked at her for a minute, then he looked at me and replied, “Not exactly like her, but like her, you know?  They act like everybody else but they pretend they’re better ’cause they go to church.  You peel off all the stickers and there’s nothing there.”

You peel off the stickers and there’s nothing there.  Okay, maybe this is the opinion of just one young man — but don’t count on it.  Our superficial spirituality isn’t fooling anyone but us.  Oh, and don’t we hate it when young people — the very people we say we want to reach and include — are the one’s to point it out to us?  I wanted so much to defend the church and to tell this trio of young men not to judge the whole church by this one woman (or me, for that matter) but I couldn’t in good faith say it.  They weren’t judging based on this woman; they merely saw this woman as a confirmation of their own personal experiences.

The integration of outward appearances and inward orientation is the crux of faith-filled living.  Being who we say we are is a lifelong endeavor and the church exists to help us bring our real selves in line with the ideal selves God creates us to be.  For too many people, church is a safe place that never challenges them to be anything other than what they already are.  In this culture, being a Christian has nothing to do with integrity, but with attending a church, carrying a Bible, and putting a decal on the car.  Any time the church panders to such low expectations and behaviors, shame on us.  And many of our clergy and laity leaders are the primary culprits.  A handful of churches whose leaders have no clue what is really happening draw bigger numbers, and like lemmings to the cliff-edge others blindly flock, seeking to learn the great wisdom of these minority churches.  There is no wisdom for easy growth.  Fundamentally, growth is about context and chemistry and being in the right place at the right time.  The vast majority of our “successful” pastors are one-hit-wonders who are popular in one place, then never able to repeat their success anywhere else in their ministry.  These are the pastors that write the books and teach the seminars.  And generally their only claim to fame is they came to a small church and made it big.

I am being overly caustic and provocative because I am frustrated.  Can you tell?  As a denomination, we are enamored with image and confuse it with identity.  We fail at prayer but devote inordinate amounts of time, energy and money to popularity.  Getting people to “like” the church is more important than getting people to live as church.  And we are paying a dear price.  If we do not break from the numbers-game mentality we will die — at the hands of the people who keep using statistics to terrorize the church to action.  If I hear one more idiot/expert scream “decline/decline/decline” thinking he (they are pretty much all white privileged males…) is being prophetic I will lose my lunch.  These people are not visionary, they are not insightful, they are not helpful — they are simply the lamest form of fear-mongering.  Anyone who thinks our future is dependent on our past is simplistic.  What we aren’t is poor motivation for what we should be.  But we have so cheapened the church that even a fear-induced call to mediocrity seems like a Promised Land.  But let’s face it, we can do a lot better.  We have the gifts and passions and abilities to do great things and be a great witness, and when all is said and done, that’s what God expects from us.

33 replies

  1. What happened to service with a smile……instead of chasing membership lets focus on the roots of gods mission assigned to us…serve the poor and helpless in our communities and let it radiate throughout the world!

  2. I’ve been reading a lot of/about John Wesley of late and what finally struck me, was his primary focius was the transformation/conversion/salvation of each person which resulted in a change of heart. Serving the poor and the helpless was the result of a change of heart but at the same time it was a way to “excercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace”.

    The United Methodist Church has lost the focus of salvation of the individual first. I know, I’ve been in the UMC for 50+ years. I finally went looking on my own and achieved that “Blessed Assurance” that has eluded me all my life. However, it took encountering someone who had been “practicing their faith” for many years to show me it was indeed “doable and realistic”–something I had never been able to understand or encounter in all my years of United Methodist Church going.

    In my reading of/about John Wesley, the light finally came on that I could have written the descriptions of his faith and the frustrations he experienced pre-Aldersgate. I was also stunned to learn that Aldesgate just did not “happen out of the blue”–at that point he was “looking/expecting” a change because of his conversations with the Moravians. He also took his previous mentor to task for not telling him about that part of it. All my life I struggled with the concept of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”–it felt like it was for those “Holy roller types”. And that is exactly what John Wesley discovered was missing! I am unable to describe the frustration that has produced–especially since I ended up in a “crash and burn” three years ago–learning that John Wesley had already tread the ground I treaded, learned from it and created a revival that was wildly successful in it practicality of method and message of grace upon grace and the UMC has now come full circle in the losing of that method and message. I do not beleive the current resurgence of Wesleyan thought can be stopped. My current mantra is “The United Methodist Church can not be anything other than what it was called to be: the embodiment of the Wesleyan method and message–that is why it is in existence!”

    I have finally reached the point that I can say I was not put here to serve or save a denomination, I was put here to live a life centered in God through Jesus Christ and the Wesleyan method and mesage make that very doable. And wherever that takes me, so be it. It’s not clear whether the UMC is to be my mission field.

    I couldn’t help but smile when I came across this quote from John Wesley dealing with what happened after his change in focus post Aldersgate and I thought of the current state of the UMC: “From 1738 to this time [1746]–speaking continually of Jesus Christ; laying Him only for the foundation of the whole building, making Him all in all, the first and the last; preaching only on this plan, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the gospel’;–the ‘word of God ran’ as fire among the stubble.” Seems like Paul says something similar in the Bible–about Jesus being the foundation–and the early church was also wildldy successful!

    • This paragraph hits the nail on the head for me in that it brings things to the center purpose of our lives. Something to think about.

      “I have finally reached the point that I can say I was not put here to serve or save a denomination, I was put here to live a life centered in God through Jesus Christ and the Wesleyan method and mesage make that very doable. And wherever that takes me, so be it. It’s not clear whether the UMC is to be my mission field.”

    • Betsy, You shared my story, too. Thank you. Many years ago, as a young adult, I left the Methodist Church. After years of trying to re-invent the wheel, of seeking and searching, only to find a crumb here and there, John Wesley put the pieces together for me. He was real, he shared his life, warts and all, failures and successes… and a tried and true method of connecting with God through Jesus Christ and experiencing the ever growing, unconditional Grace of God. As a Wesleyan Christian, I hope and pray, John Wesley’s Prodigal Church remembers what IS Essential and returns home!

  3. I get that McDonald’s doesn’t have mostly healthy food and some people feel that Wal-Mart is unfair to their employees.
    I’m not defending everything they do. I do see them as knowing how to reach most people with something that they do value.
    By contrast, churches seem to say we have this product and if you don’t like it, too bad, we’re not going to change it. I know that religion isn’t a product but people do exercise choice and that is why our churches usually lose out to newr, larger churches when they’re close by.
    If we followed the demographic trends, we would build or rent space in places where population is increasing. We would make the buildings as attractive and comfortable as possible. I am not arguing for a total cookie cutter approach (there is room for different styles of decor and architecture) but something more like minimum standards in the key areas of program and building functioning.
    That’s where the drivers from the UMC studies come in: contemporary and traditional worship; good sermons; active laity and kids programs. We can and should try to meet those goals in our existing churches. They are still subject to the limitations of the buildings and the parking however.
    It might be easier to build or rent spaces that already have decent bathrooms, air conditioning, open space in the front of the sancytuary for bands and video screens, than it is to retrofit our older buildings that were clearly designed for a much older way of doing worship and education and fellowship. I haven’t even mentioned handicap accessibility but that is extremely difficult to do in older buildings.
    My main point is that just as the supermarket replaced the corner store and the multiplex replaced the tiny neighborhood theater, so the larger modern church building with contemporary music will eventually replace what we’re doing now. Unless we go extinct first.

    • You can’t be serious. You seem to think the solution to the problem is to rent space in a strip mall that has room for a praise band and video screens?

      Jeff, I understand many people enjoy and come to churches for their contemporary worship service, but I assure you that not everyone is looking for praise bands and video screens when they go to worship. The church I attend has three services…an early traditional but shorter service, a contemporary service, and a traditional service. I have been to all, but I assure you I would not be attending that church if they didn’t have a traditional sanctuary and a traditional service, and I know a lot of others who feel the same way.

      Also, being big does not equate to successful. That was the whole point of this article, and you even made the point yourself…MacDonald’s food isn’t that great, and Walmart screws it employees, and offers cheap stuff made in China. Are they successful? Well, they make a lot of money, but do they do a lot of good? It sounds like you’re OK with unhealthy grace and cheap faith.

      • You’re insulting me, bjohnm. Who said i was talking about cheap grace? I said nothing about the message or the expectations of disciples. I was talking about the delivery system.. I realize that many people like traditional worship in traditional buildings. We are doing an okay job of reaching those people. The large group we are missing are the people who don’t know hymns and who are used to attending events in buildings with parking, air conditioning, comfortable seating, handicap accessibility, etc. And yes, recognizable, familiar musical styles. Organ music hasn’t been popular for a long time. That’s why people don’t write hymns anymore, they write praiuse type ballads and high energy choruses.
        We are sort of like a boutique store as opposed to a supermarket. Some people are comfortable buying products from small speciality store but to really undertna d the potential of a product, it has to be mass marketed in low cost retail outlets.
        I think the business world has probably known this for a half century.
        Evangelical churches have figured it out. The mainline has not and we are payiong the price for our inaccessibliity. We are becoming a specialty item or a specialty store and the market for those is rather small.
        John wesley was not an elitist and he didn’t privilege methods because they had a long history behind them. he adapted himself to the times.

  4. Reblogged this on UM Youth Worker and commented:
    A lot of truth here. What if we took away all of the fish bumper stickers & tshirts and had to show we were Christians by how we live our life?

  5. Dan, you write in part:

    “The integration of outward appearances and inward orientation is the crux of faith-filled living. Being who we say we are is a lifelong endeavor and the church exists to help us bring our real selves in line with the ideal selves God creates us to be.”

    i’m pretty much with you until the last few words. For me, “getting myself together” or sanctification or going on to perfection is important, but for me the target is not so much an ideal (getting back to Eden?) as much as it is an ongoing process of moving into an increasingly complex wholeness (New Jerusalem with the gates always open, no temple, and the leaves of the trees for the healing of the nations?).

    Vital congregations are for me, at least in part, places where persons cooperate with one another and with God in moving creation toward a wholeness that embodies the unity we have in Christ. If there is not that critical mass of resources in a single congregation, then perhaps congregations can and ought to cooperate with one another across denominational lines to provide opportunities within our villages and towns and cities for as many ways as possible toward the unity that lives ahead of us–and within us and among us.

    • If you have followed my writings for very long you know that the “ideal selves” I refer to can only be attained in community. The individual — especially the sense of entitled consumer — is the downfall of authentic spiritual fulfillment, not its primary path. Were we ever to truly put the needs of “Me” secondary to the needs of “We” perhaps we could finally understand what it means to be the body of Christ…

  6. Dave,

    What a great thought –

    “Vital congregations are for me, at least in part, places where persons cooperate with one another and with God in moving creation toward a wholeness that embodies the unity we have in Christ. If there is not that critical mass of resources in a single congregation, then perhaps congregations can and ought to cooperate with one another across denominational lines to provide opportunities within our villages and towns and cities for as many ways as possible toward the unity that lives ahead of us–and within us and among us.”

    I wonder if this is a reason why we see such “success” blossoming in nondenominational congregations…groups of people choosing Christ over denominational affiliations…groups of people deciding that loving God and loving each other isn’t about any specific tradition, but is about relationship, and that unity can only come about through relationship.

    You mention the New Jerusalem – no temple.

    22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. (Rev. 21:22-23)

    This makes me wonder…what if we took the bumper sticker example further? What happens if you strip the church of its buildings…what are we left with?

    Intriguing thoughts, all.

  7. I think this is an exceptionally well written and insightful blog. I wonder how Mark 6:1-13 might apply to the conversation you had with the 3 young adults while sitting outside of the liquor store.

    I like to think that if I had been beside you and we had positioned ourselves in this strategic place in the community seeking to enter into life changing conversations and relationships with persons who may not yet be believers, both of us would have approached the mother and asked her, “Is there any way we can be of assistance?”

    I cannot speak for you but I have discovered that I am much more likely to act as an instrument of Christ when I team up with another believer. When I am out “1 on 1” I am more likely to do more talking than acting.
    I

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