Smoke and mirrors… Or why the church is losing ground

Forever (or at least the recent past) the church has assumed the following:

Get as many people as you can in the door so as many as possible hear the gospel…. So as many as possible raise their hand, or sign a card, or whatever, and secure their “ticket” to heaven. This is the goal.

And recently that has meant put on the best show as possible to get them in the door. Best lights, videos, smoke, etc. Because while few would say it this way, it has been a numbers game… A pecentages game where a higher volume of people in the seats equals a higher percentage getting “saved”.

And we “reward” with pronouncements of the “successful ministry” label those who run the best numbers… Almost like the All Star game.

And we have learned that it works… Flash and Bang fill seats. Wow factor fills seats. Our cultural church has succeeded at this mission… To death.

Because we have also discoved that we have gotten so good at the “church machine” of filling buildings we have failed to re-orient ourselves around the goal. We found that attracting people with a wow and getting them to say a prayer doesn’t necessarily create a transformed follower of Jesus – with a life that is forever re-oriented around this new Kingdom way of life that Jesus describes and lives.

That instead we have built a culture of people who wear the label “Christian” but have been lured into our buildings with an unapologetic consumeristic approach and are living consumeristic spiritual lives. Church is something we go to, not something we are, to “get our needs met”, be it “getting fed”, having the right programs, music etc.

We awaken to find that church has become all about the delivery of goods and services just like any other service industry (“but they are Christian goods and services” is the cry). And the goal is to gain as many new customers as possible why minimizing the loss of your current customers to another brand/church… Just like every other business. With consumer christians switching loyalties with each new song or change in minsitry programs, it is not a surprise that many churches focus more time on protecting the “brand” of the church or lead pastor than any other activity. We even call it “church shopping” when consumers comparison shop one church with another to see which one “meets our family’s needs the best”.

And the cost has been significant: a generation that has rejected the consumeristic church and decided that it won’t shop for church anymore… It will instead simply abandon what it sees as an outmoded and selfish approach to spirituality. And the flash and bang crowd doesn’t understand why that generation isn’t responding… So they ramp up marketing efforts to find the “trigger” that will get the lost generation to respond.

Another cost has been sustainability. Church “A” spends $40,000 on an electronic sign (it’s worth it! It gets people in the door, which is the goal, right?) so church “B” down the street spends double that… For a color LCD. More and bigger buildings, lights, media, etc. Which even a toddler can see is unsustainable at best, and acutely negligent at worst in a world where many die without water, freedom, or medical care.

And what has it all bought? Best case scenario: More people in the seats (even though overall Church attendance is declining rapidly), saying a prayer for a ticket to heaven… But who are repulsed by a call to the 24/7 upside down Kingdom life of Jesus. How can a church that spends and attracts consumeristicaly then call a people to a simpler lifestyle of reduction and generosity? We shouldn’t wonder why the culture walks away shaking it’s head.

The ray of hope in all of this are the communities of faith that have awoken to this smoke and mirrors game and are trying to be authentic in reversing the consumeristic approach. They are small (generally), they look radically different than church of the last fifty years, but a lot more like gatherings in the first, second, and third century. And they are calling people to reexamine the meaning of Jesus, the gospel, and the church as bigger and more important than getting people in the door of a church building to say a prayer. They are calling people to a Jesus-Kingdom way of life. And they are often completely confusing/threatening/misunderstood to churches stuck in consumeristic smoke and mirrors.

It is definitely an exciting, confusing, opportunity-filled time to be a follower of Jesus. So glad God is still in charge!

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