Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Christianity for sale

This week, we come to chapter two of David Wells' book The Courage to Be Protestant. This chapter is titled "Christianity for Sale." Having given a basic overview of evangelicalism in chapter one, Wells now hones in on the "marketer" or "seeker-sensitive" church movement.

Wells says that marketers try to operate the church much like a corporation runs its business. In this case, the church is the supplier, attenders are the consumers, and the gospel is the product for sale. Traditional ways of "doing church" are proving to be no longer effective, so like any other business, we must be willing to adapt our image and repackage our product to regain consumer confidence. In a rapidly-changing, image-driven culture, that means adopting new methods like upbeat music, entertaining videos, therapeutic chats, inspiring drama, relaxing coffee houses, slick advertisements, and an open and affirming atmosphere to reach a whole new generation. Some of the more bizarre examples Wells gives are a pastor's Superman costume (p. 23-24), sacred graffiti (p. 29), and play-doh sculptures to express one's feelings (p. 29).

Wells pauses his critique briefly on pp. 42-44 to identify two good motives that guide some marketers. First, many churches are rightly concerned that the evangelical faith has stagnated, if not declined, in America over the past thirty years. Many surveys by Gallup and Barna confirm this. (As does the 2007 ACP.) Second, churches are called by God to engage their culture; it would be insensitive to disregard the felt needs and perceptions of first-time visitors. But after this short "cease-fire," Wells reloads his weapon and says "despite these two main virtues," the seeker-church model is built on "naivete" that is "breathtakingly unrealistic and untrue" (p. 44).

It seems to me there are two great problems with the market-driven church:

  • First, this model gives authority to the consumer rather than to Holy Scripture. Wells says, "All consumers, we need to remember, are sovereign, and the consuming impulse, once it enters a church, makes individual preferences the deciding factor, the driving factor in what that church becomes. These preferences become the standard by which the church is measured" (p. 38). No longer is success measured by God's Word. No longer are decisions made by a plurality of wise and godly leaders. Everything is dictated by the felt needs and fickle demands of the people in the pew. This is the exact opposite of what Paul instructed Timothy in 2 Tim. 4:2-3.
  • Second, this model de-emphasizes the importance of doctrinal truth and a biblical worldview. "What we have here are churches reconfigured around evangelism that abandon much of the fabric of biblical faith to succeed...Here is a methodology for success that can succeed with very little truth; indeed, its success seems to depend on not showing much truth" (pp. 51-52). And why is this such a problem? Because the gospel is not a product to be consumed, but a command to be obeyed. "The gospel calls us not to use it but to submit to the God of the universe through his Son. A methodology for success that circumvents issues of truth is one that will rapidly emancipate itself from biblical Christianity or, to put it differently, will rapidly eviscerate biblical faith" (p. 52). We cannot downplay doctrine without compromising the gospel message itself.
For next Wednesday, please read chapter three, "Truth." In the mean time, please share your thoughts and impressions about chapter two by leaving a comment below. I really enjoyed those of you who left comments last week. This is a great iron-sharpening process.


Phamilyof6 said...

Thank you for the summary of the book. The author makes a great observation when he calls church-shoppers "consumers". The scary thing is, since people are shopping for things that appeal to them in the service and church, like music, they also tend to shop for sermon topics. And if a pastor preaches the Truth, which convicts, they go shopping somewhere else for less uncomfortable "truth". This leads to "shopping" around in the Bible for what they want to hear for their lives, and don't "shop" in the parts of the Bible that would call them to surrender their lives, rights, comforts and take up the cross with Jesus.
Thanks again. John

David said...

I wonder how Jeremiah would have faired among the church shoppers. Hosea? Isaiah?

The only mega-successful prophet by today's standards was Jonah -- and he was mad when the crowd repented!

I committed this year to preaching primarily the Old Testament. This forced me to address books I hadn't previously and topics that were new.