Felt needs. Life-tips. Entertainment.
These have been the buzzwords informing the past 2 decades American Church existence. As the fundamentalist church of the first half of the 20th century lost influence in the midst of a rapidly changing culture in the mid-late 1970s, the church began to think deeply about how to reach a culture that was shifting readily beneath their feet.
Out of this missiological shift, the seeker-sensitive church was born. The idea was simple: Design church worship services, facilities and programs aimed at evangelistically reaching non-Christians in the culture. Being close friends with pastors who adopted this model to some degree or another, often with much numeric success, I believe that in the vast majority of cases, the pastors and churches who adopted this approach did so with the earnest desire to see the lost come to know Jesus. As a church planter, 6 years in, I have watched many members of my theological tribe (Gospel-Centered, Young, Restless and Reformed, Whatever you want to call us…) privately bash and publicly sneer in disgust at the seeker-sensitive church. Our conversations with this tribe usually consist of too many social media posts, drive-by-hit-job-blog-posts and too few cups of coffee together. I certainly think it’s fair to ask difficult questions of the seeker-sensitive church movement and its influence.
I have my own honest concerns about the movement, but I have to say, it is easy for the Gospel-centered tribe to stand on our high horses, condemning the “mile wide/inch deep” seeker church down the road, for its overt catering to modern consumeristic impulses, while all the while missing this all too inconvenient truth: The Gospel-Centered Church is not immune to the plague of consumerism.
What I’m suggesting is this: it is possible to enjoy listening to theologically rich, expositional sermons each week with a heart posture of consumerism and man-centeredness. Checking all of your liturgical boxes each week doesn’t necessarily create immunity to the human desire to make the local church about us and not Jesus. My concern for the Gospel-Centered Church movement is this: We are consumers too, we just have a more expensive theological taste. My tribe is just as obsessed with the celebrity pastor as the seeker church was. The names are different but the heart posture is similar. Of course, I am not suggesting that the seeker sensitive church and the Gospel-Centered Church are one and the same or equally dangerous. My concern is merely this: Caring about the right things in church doesn’t remove the human heart posture of consumerism. Just because a church preaches the Gospel regularly and emphasizes church health functionally doesn’t mean that the church can afford to drop its guard or fail to pay attention to a slow drift toward man-centeredness and consumerism.
How can you tell when a church is drifting toward consumerism?
#1 Attendance remains steady but the number of volunteers declines
Consumerism can be hard for the casual Sunday church-goer to notice because it is not immediately reflected in attendance. In some cases, attendance even continues to increase. The problem is beneath the surface, however, as the gap between the number of people to minister to and the number of people willing to serve widens. Lots of young families joining but fewer volunteers in childcare is a warning sign.
#2 Generosity Flat-lines
One way a church can diagnose a growing trend of consumerism is by examining the percentage of members and attendees who are actively giving to support the work of the church. Where the people are content to show up, enjoy a Gospel-service, go home and let someone else pay to sustain the church consumerism is already lurking.
These are two of probably 2 million warning signs that consumerism is lurking in your local church but here is the truth. The only reason consumerism lurks in our churches is because it lurks in our hearts. And the only way to slowly choke-out the spirit of consumerism in our hearts is to apply the Gospel of grace. A Gospel, with a Savior at its center who had every right to consume the glories of Heaven and instead laid down that right to save people who often settle for the lesser glories of the American Dream like you and me.