Close this search box.

Ulterior Motives in the Fight against Church Consumerism

Ulterior Motives in the Fight against Church Consumerism

There are two routes pastors can go down when urging congregants not to be church consumers:

1.  “Ask not what your church can do for you; ask what you can do for your church

Phrases you’re likely to hear from church leaders making this argument against consumerism:

  • “Church is not here to serve you…be a servant”
  • “Don’t just show up and slip out the back door on Sundays…get involved”
  • “If you’ve been attending for a while, come to a membership class”
  • “God gifted you with skills and talents…use them here”
  • “We want to provide you and this community a great experience and first-rate programs…but we need your help”

This case against consumerism presumes:

  • an Exchange of Value – Appeals to congregants to focus less on the value they’re receiving and bring more value to the church, further cementing consumerism by implicitly linking value provided to value returned.
  • an Expectation of Performance – Implies a debt is owed to the church for services rendered, creating a sense of entitlement and higher expectations (e.g. for recognition and programs) as they serve and give more.
  • an Expression of Allegiance – A commitment to serve and build the church can increase dependence on the institution and decrease reliance on Jesus, causing the faith of some to suffer when scandals or splits rock the congregation.

2. “Ask not what your church can do for you; ask why in the world you see church that way”

Phrases you’re likely to hear from church leaders making this argument against consumerism:

  • “The church is you…be the hands and feet of Christ”
  • “Get involved in what God is doing all around you every day”
  • “If all you do to live out your faith is serve and give to church, then maybe you haven’t surrendered your life to Jesus”
  • “God has gifted you to build His Kingdom within this church and outside these 4 walls”
  • “Wherever and whenever the Lord calls you to give…give generously”

This case against consumerism presumes:

  • a Conviction to Surrender – If someone is searching for a church based on the quality of the facilities, sermons, music and programs then there’s a heart issue. If they are consuming those services without pouring back into the church, then they’re likely not in an intimate love relationship with Jesus.
  • a Command to Go – No matter how much a pastor focuses members on their responsibilities inside the church, the Lord’s expectations for compassion, evangelism and discipleship are far greater in other aspects of their lives – their families, work, neighborhoods and world.
  • a Commitment to Discipleship – A heart surrendered to Jesus understands and obeys His command to make disciples and His math of multiplication.

In summary, #1 assumes there’s a doing problem.  #2 assumes there’s a loving problem.  Doing is a result of loving.  Doing typically doesn’t solve a loving problem.  Loving can be a result of doing (see Matthew 6:21), but we know all too well that love for a church (religion) does not always translate into love for Jesus (relationship).  Many sermons combating consumerism propose #1 because the most pressing need for a pastor most interested in building a sustainable organization is more “doing” (volunteering, membership, giving), whereas the most pressing need for a pastor most interested in advancing the Kingdom is more loving (discipleship, intimacy, missions).

Motives Drive Sequencing

The question is not whether #1 above is true or good.  It’s important to serve and get involved in a local church.  The question is the chicken or the egg.  Which comes first, church engagement or discipleship?

Disciples of Jesus undoubtedly will bless a church body in countless ways.  But they’ll also do much more to advance the Kingdom outside of their local church.  However, the average churchgoer today rarely shares the Gospel with non-believers.  Even former church consumers who’ve been convinced by pastors subscribing to #1 (to invest time, talents and treasures back into the church) are not more likely to live out the Great Commission between Sundays.  In fact, they may be less inclined to evangelize and make disciples if they’ve been told simply to invite people to church and let the “professionals” handle the conversion and disciple-making responsibilities.  Not coincidentally, pastors who teach “ask what you can do for your church” typically also stress “invite your friends to church next weekend”.

Whether pastors see discipleship or church engagement as the starting point for curing consumerism depends upon their intentions.  If the primary concern is to ensure the viability and growth of the organization, then he will tend to recommend “stop being a church consumer” by “becoming a (church) servant”.  If the driver is to build disciples (the definition of “Church”), then he will tend to recommend “stop being a church consumer” by “getting right with the Lord”.

Ironically, as a result of discipleship efforts, churches obtain more servants as well.  In contrast, preaching against consumerism in an effort to increase church engagement often results in having fewer of both – disciples and servants.  In other words, make disciples and you’ll have servants (and so much more) – but try to get servants and you won’t get disciples (the ultimate biblical objective of church).  The latter may even lose the servants they do have (if they’re not disciples) because their motives will be questionable, expecting a fair exchange of value for their services, such as acknowledgement or favoritism.

Jumping Through Church Hoops

In practical terms, the following scenario plays out in countless churches across the country every week:

  1. Staff is overwhelmed and the pastor is burned out
  2. Despite leadership-driven initiatives and activities, not seeing much numerical growth or transformational spiritual growth
  3. Lack of member/attender involvement and growth misdiagnosed simply as consumerism
  4. Therefore, campaigns organized to combat consumerism through greater engagement, such as membership drives and messages geared toward attendance, volunteering and giving
  5. Closer tracking of church engagement, seeking to categorize into Core, Community and Crowd tiers based on participation in church activities, events and drives
  6. Inserting church “hoops” for individuals to jump through (e.g. membership, giving) before accessing discipleship or leadership opportunities reserved for Core members
  7. Measuring spiritual growth according to the number of church hurdles cleared (i.e. degree of church involvement)

Whereas the corresponding biblical path involves:

  1. Staff is overwhelmed and the pastor is burned out
  2. Despite leadership-driven initiatives and activities, not seeing much numerical growth or transformational spiritual growth
  3. Lack of member/attender involvement and growth correctly diagnosed as not having intimate love relationships with Jesus
  4. Therefore, campaigns planned to lead congregants closer to the Lord through 1-on-1 and triad discipleship
  5. Defining the Core tier based on those who have been through discipleship training and are ready to disciple others
  6. Remove any impediments to accessing discipleship opportunities that could address the “heart problem” behind consumerism, ensuring no church “hoops” prevent anyone from being discipled
  7. Measuring spiritual growth according to the impact (evangelism, discipleship and Christ-centered compassion) each person is having within their circles of influence inside and outside the “4 walls”

As a side-effect of the biblical process, church attendance, membership, volunteering and giving will all increase.  Discipleship must always be a higher priority than membership.  An analogy is asking someone to get married on a first date.  Instead, let them fall in love first (with Jesus, not the church) and then get married.  A renewed relationship with the Lord lights a fire for church involvement rather than vice versa.  The order of that sequence is critical.

A Gateway or an Impediment

There is also an inverse correlation between the rate of spiritual growth of churchgoers and the degree of emphasis on church membership by pastors.  Most argue that those two goals always work in concert, but in most churches today they work against one another.  If a church that is more concerned about growing membership than making disciples, then its focus will be on providing a great experience and asking little of people besides a few “church chores”.  That church may grow numerically but at the expense of the Kingdom.

All churches are part of the Kingdom of God but not all advance the Kingdom.  Kingdom focus risks challenging people to endure the hard work of becoming and making disciples – which could lead some down a path that lands them in another church.  A local church is a family but it’s also part of the larger family of God.  A local church family may grow but the family of believers suffers if that local church didn’t prepare people well to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  Likewise, local churches have splits and some close their doors, but God’s family of believers doesn’t suffer when a local church shuts down as long as its members were equipped well for the Great Commission.

In other words, requiring that people get involved in church activities first is an impediment and not a gateway to discipleship.  These days, believers and non-believers (Americans in general) are less willing to make commitments to a church (less loyal to institutions in general and more leery of churches) before they’ve committed to Jesus.  Therefore, churches may be blocking individuals from getting to know the Lord more intimately by routing them through participation in church-sponsored group activities, events and membership classes – partially rebuilding the veil that Jesus tore at His crucifixion.

It’s Your Turn…

What is your answer to church consumerism?  Are Christians more likely to put aside self-interested “church shopping” through an appeal to unselfishly serve the church or to personally die to self?


4 Responses

  1. Brother, this sounds like a complicated question, and perhaps it is. But, being simple minded as I am, I see it simply as another shift away from the Model Jesus gave us for Church.

    I see the ‘growing church’ offering talented professional musicians who have no personal passion for the faith, Churchgoers looking forward to group trips to restaurants, day trips, concerts, square-dancing classes, and card-playing evenings, mother’s mornings out, men’s fishing trips and more, TO THE EXCLUSION OF the practice regular devotions, giving money and time to charities, and serving alongside poor neighbors.all that have nothing to do with Christianity.

    Religious mobility has become a way of life in America. In 1955, only 4 percent of Americans had switched religious affiliations in their lifetimes. By 1985, it was one in three. By 2008, the number had reached a whopping 44 percent. Among Protestants, including former Catholics, most people who have changed their religious affiliations have done so because they found a spiritual pathway or community that they liked better. These patterns herald the arrival of a new religious marketplace, where churches overtly compete for customers and unsatisfied souls dabble to a degree that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. (excerpt from a book, “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the selling of the American Soul” by G. Jeffrey MacDonald.)

    Thus, the new and growing religious consumer mindset. “I give my money here and I expect something in return for my money”.

    We are called to die to the flesh, walk in the Spirit, love and serve one another, preach and teach the Gospel, make disciples who do the same.

    Frances Chan (Pastor and Verge Network participant/contributor) puts it this way, “consumerism in the church is pastoral malpractice and they (pastors and church leaders) are actually ruining people by making them consumers”.

    Churches now openly compete for your business. Church is selling itself. The Body of Christ being sold on the open religious market. And we all know what you call it when someone sells their body for money.


    Keep up your good work, Brother Jim. It is desperately needed.

  2. I left my church because the pastor hammered and hammered on us making disciples. He never let up on that. It felt like I was being yelled at every week. The thing is, I was making disciples, I still am.

    I’ve tried other churches since then, but they all seem the same. I am looking for a leader who will teach me and equip me to go out in the world and do what Christ wants me to do. I’ve found that to a degree with the radio pastors that I listen to on Bott Radio Network.

    I miss my church “family”, but they weren’t really that much like a family, anyway. I think we should either stop calling it our church family or start acting like we are really family.

    I don’t know if this is helpful. I enjoyed your article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

16 − eleven =

The 5 Steps to Revitalize Your Church

Subscribe to the Blog and Get the Free eBook!

The 5 Steps to Revitalize Your Church

Subscribe to the Blog and Get the Free eBook!

Root cause for the Church's decline & its path to Revitalization

“Any organization not focused on its customers, or focused on the wrong customers, cannot succeed.” – Jim Morgan