In missional church circles, it’s taken as received revelation that we are against something called “consumer church.” But what exactly does that mean? The phrase itself doesn’t indicate what is being consumed, and doesn’t the content of the consumption determine whether it’s a good or bad thing?
Say we meet for lunch at the park. You bring a homemade salad and I bring a super-sized “value meal” from Burger King. We’re going to have very different gastro-intestinal results a few hours later, but we’re still both consumers, right?
So it seems to me that the term “consumer church” is too vague to be helpful. It’s overly-simplistic.
I have been thinking about this because a couple of my Ecclesia Network comrades have been talking about this recently. Winn Collier reminds that there is a kind of consuming we need to do if we are to be faithful in mission, and Bob Hyatt argues that the church is, in fact, there to “meet your needs,” but maybe not in the way you thought.
So what are you consuming when you “go to church?” What are you taking in? What are you feeding on? What are you seeking to receive? And pastors, what are you serving up? What kind of environment are you cultivating? What are you really trying to do at that “church service?”
When people disparage “consumer church,” they’re usually talking about the lamentable tendency that we have to cultivate and consume things that are temporarily titillating, but of no ultimate value. And that’s not a new problem. It’s as old as sin. “Why spend your money on what is not bread,” Isaiah grieved, “your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good!” So it’s really all about what (Who) we’re consuming when we gather. We need to be consuming True Bread, That Which Satisfies, That Which Gives Abundant Life.
In our community, every time we gather for worship, we come around the table to partake in the Eucharist, the Communion Meal. We believe this is so much more than just a handy reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection (as if we’d forgotten all about it!). We believe that it is a participation in the life of Christ, and that as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are feeding on Christ in a vital way, receiving grace from him as we partake in faith. The prayer we pray over the elements speaks about a faithful “consuming” that results in transformation by grace.
Come, O Spirit of Christ
and brood over these elements, this bread and this fruit of the vine.
May they be for us the body and blood of Christ;
Vibrant with life, healing, renewing and making us whole.
And draw us into your blazing heart,
that as your gifts are consumed in us,
we might be consumed in transfiguring love
and thus become one with you,
Come and make of your gathered people
the real presence of Christ for the world,
living our prayer and praying our life
till earth and heaven are reconciled,
the powers of evil are thrown down
death itself is destroyed,
and the glory of the Lord covers the earth
as the waters cover the sea.
Then you will have made all things new, O God,
and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
As Winn poignantly put it:
At Jesus’ Table, all we do is come and receive; we gorge on grace. We do not come to Jesus to work. We come to rest. We come to allow grace to work on us. The Christian’s work is what happens when resting people find the free life of the Spirit flowing among them. Work is what we do when the Kingdom has taken root and joyful obedience begins to sprout. But first, we rest. First, we consume.
Adam Krell says
Ben, I'm not really versed on this whole topic, but perhaps what people mean when they talk about a "consumer" church is the tendency for people to come to church to obtain "goods and services" rather than participate in the life of family.
Ben Sternke says
I think that is definitely what they mean, Adam. I just wanted to clarify that, in some sense, when we gather to participate in the life of the family, there is some "consuming" that we do, and in the economy of grace, consuming is first and foremost.
Essentially I was trying to say that there is a "receiving" that happens when the church gathers, so it's an over-simplification to say that we don't "come to church" to receive. We do receive. But we also give.
Perhaps a better thing to say we're against is "transactional church," where the dominant consciousness of the market causes us to calculate things in the life of the church as commodities to be obtained at the lowest possible price.
By contrast, churches ought to function as "gift economies" where the exchanges are gifts given and received that create bonds that draw us closer to one another, as opposed to transactions of goods and services that create distance, cultivate isolation, and demand independence.
Adam Krell says
I like that phrase, "Transactional church." That does seem to capture it. I totally agree that relationships require a giving and receiving. In fact, if there is only giving on one side the relationship ceases to be a personal relationship and becomes manipulative. People like to be benefactors. Receiving requires becoming weak. Only when we refuse to control another do we have the possibility of entering into a relationship of mutual fellowship.
Ben Sternke says
You nailed it, Adam.
Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that" (Luke 22:24-25).
Nice post Ben. And as one who does talk on and on of the problems of the consumer church, I mean that.
Like with most things, we create terms to abbreviate an enormous amount of thought. Of course, the term itself is not able to take into account everyone else's understanding, biases, and overall context and this is one of the many reasons we have 20,000 denominations in American evangelism (and as a fan of plurality, I think we may have gone a bit extreme there. So ironic that even though the last two generations that were so rooted in modernity were able to "accomplish" that" but I digress).
I agree with you, and Winn about the idea of something actually being consumed (As recent as Sunday, I talked about how we must be consumed in our worship of the Lord.) Further, I agree with Bob, that the church (the Kingdom) does need to meet people's needs If Bob is not right, how else would we account for Jesus' ministry and much of the teachings contained in our Scriptures? So no argument there.
I even like your comment here replying to Adam's helpful pushback; yes, "transactional church" vs. "gift economies" is a wonderful concept and an excellent set of terms. But to cut to the chase, I think at some point we would have a fellow blogger posting on the oversimplification of the transactional church because in some sense, the giving of our praise is a response towards God's grace is in some sense a "transaction".
All that said, it is very helpful to continue to explain what we mean we throw around the term "consumer church" as I still see that as one of the greatest threats to suburban Christianity today.
Curious to how you feel about the term "attractional" model versus the obviously overused term, "missional" model?
Ben Sternke says
You're right, Tim. These words are short-hand for larger concepts, which is why I think it's important every once in awhile to talk about what we mean and don't mean by using them.
Great question on "attractional vs. missional" – that was next on my list. I am actually planning another post on that exact issue. I heard Alan Hirsch say that he sort of regretted coining the term, because there is a healthy "attractiveness" that ought to characterize communities of faith. So I'll talk a bit about the difference between "attractional" and "attractive."
It ends up being the same kind of thing as consumer church: it matters what we're consuming (and if that's all we're doing). In the same way, it matters what "outsiders" are being attracted to.
i have been steeping in this eucharist-incarnation-wine-life conversation for a while now – loving the liturgy/prayer you've included. honestly, makes a great supplement to a poem i have just finished entitled 'o wine of yeshua'…anyways.
also – i have been struck by the simple reminder that it is for freedom we have been set free; and where the spirit of the lord is, there is freedom; though we should not use our freedom as a cover up for evil – all of which would be simply and naturally attractive…a breath of fresh air at every turn.
Ben Sternke says
Thanks for commenting Justin!
Sounds good – I look forward to that post.
Good words, Ben. Thank you for putting your voice to the conversation, I happen to think it's an important one. I also think that if one does not see the church sacramentally (the church as a sacrament for the world), then this all goes haywire. On that note, your intro to a liturgical understanding at the last Ecclesia gathering was a great foray into this. Thanks for that.
Ben Sternke says
You're welcome! I'm glad the talk was helpful.