The following was adapted from a my old blog that I posted on May 24, 2006.
A few years ago, Os Guinness wrote a book on the modern church growth movement entitled, Dining with the Devil. It comes from the expression, “If you are going to dine with the Devil, then you must use a very long spoon.” In our pursuit of relevance, I wonder if our spoon has been long enough.
In a nutshell, here is the problem: in our desire to be culturally relevant and reach lost people, we have worked hard to grab their attention and speak with relevance. Much of the results of this have been good. In many “contemporary” churches, we have seen many people come to church and eventually to Christ that never would have gone to church before. The truth of the Bible has not been veiled behind unintelligible cultural practices. Lives truly have been changed by the gospel.
However, churches have not just grown by attracting non-Christians, but by attracting Christians. People now crave relevance more and more. In reality, they want a church that entertains them and puts on a good show. We have created a church that values entertainment over doctrine. I heard a pastor of one of the largest churches in my denomination (a true megachurch) say, "If we changed our theology, a few people might leave. If we changed our music, half the church would be gone by next Sunday." I know many traditional church pastors who would say the same thing.
I agree that church should not be boring. God isn’t boring. It is the equivalent of a modern miracle how we preachers can talk about our amazing God in such a way that puts people to sleep. However, the danger is, when you build your church on having a good “show,” you now have created an appetite for entertainment that constantly needs to be fed.
While the contemporary church has been far more successful in reaching lost people than the traditional church (look at the PCA’s statistics on those joining by profession of faith and this is apparent), it also has grown by attracting people who are bored with their old church. If people come to your church because yours is more exciting than their old church, then they will leave when they find another church that is more exciting than yours.
This has created a consumer mindset in church members. The members of the church no longer see themselves as owners/ministers, but as consumers. Just as they will leave Safeway to shop at Wal-Mart, they will leave one church for another if it provides a better show or better services for their family. (For more on this, see http://www.faithworks.com/archives/church_hopping.htm)
We are seeing this all over the country. I can cite a number of examples in my own denomination where a church was once “the hot church” in its community, but now is experiencing decline because some other church has come that puts on a better production. The drive for cultural relevance has resulted in consumerism. Consumerism will eventually bite the church. It is a beast that cannot be contained.
Leadership Magazine published an article entitled iChurch: All We Like Sheep that illustrates this growing problem. It is long on diagnosis and short on prescription. However, that in itself may not be a bad thing. The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging that there is one. This article moves us toward that end.
So, now that we have seen the dangers of cultural relevance, do we return to cultural irrelevance? Of course not. That is unbiblical. We must continue to work to contextualize the gospel without compromising the gospel.
I do not know what the whole answer is, but part of it is that we must call people to radical discipleship. If people are living for the glory of God, living with a sense of mission, then they cannot live as consumers as well. So, we need to challenge people to see that their calling in Christ is not merely to pursue their own comfort, but to pursue the glory of God and the good of others.
Will this solve the problem? It depends on what you see as the problem. It won’t solve the problem of the church having a revolving door. Most people will always be consumers. They are fully enculturated and, until the gospel takes root, they will not be disenculturated. However, it will solve the problem for some because some will get it. If we help people to see that part of the message of the gospel is “Take up your cross and follow me”, the Holy Spirit will empower many to do just that.
I am not optimistic about reversing the consumerism trend. However, I am extremely optimistic that, if we focus as much energy on calling people to radical discipleship as we do on being culturally relevant, that we will see a new generation of disciples who will joyfully answer Christ’s call to live for Christ and His mission. When the traditionalist is willing to give up his tradition and the “contemporary” Christian is willing to give up his craving for personal fulfillment, then the church will once again be a powerful force in our world.