Monday, November 24, 2014

The Hybrid Church: The danger of competition, capitalism, and consumerism to an OPC pastor

Currently, I am reading a book by David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant.  In it, he discusses the market forces that have driven a substantial portion of evangelicalism into the realms of marketing and the emergent church.  This, he attributes to shrinking doctrine and parachurch movements infiltrating historical evangelicalism.  As I read Wells’ description, I began thinking of the effect these forces have upon the church and even an OPC pastor like me.

Now, I would never consider myself a marketer nor anywhere near the postmodernism of the emergent church.  I describe myself as a 17th century guy living in a 21st century world.  I passionately champion the truths of the Reformation.  I love the puritans.  I cherish the depth of the ancient hymns, and cling to the absolute truth of Scripture.  Nevertheless, I know what it is to struggle with the pressures that characterize our modern, capitalist, consumerist, and competitive society.  The problems that these forces generate within the church evolve far beyond their innocuous beginnings.

Before I speak of the dangers of these forces for the church, let me first affirm their utility to the field of business and economics.  All these forces, capitalism, consumerism, and competition, are necessary to the proper functioning of wealth within society.  The Bible never denies these elements as positive within the structure of human endeavor.  The problem emerges when we take these economic factors and attempt to apply them uncritically to the church.

Wells demonstrates how the decline in the importance of doctrine and the growth of spirituality outside the church led to a capitalist view of spiritual life.  I mean by this that the individual began to see churches as a market.  No longer was there an understanding of the church as the gathered people of God, but an occasion for spiritual expression.  Choice defined the spiritual life of the evangelical.  Since doctrine no longer dominated his spiritual existence, secondary elements began directing his choice of spiritual expression.  In short, he chose the church in which he was comfortable rather than that one in which the truth was preached.  Power shifted from the authority of Scripture to the preferences of the individual.

Having choice, the next phase logically followed, consumerism.  Here, churches responded to the new situation by exchanging an old metric for decisions (what would God have us do) with a new metric for decisions (what will please the consumer).  The customer was king.  We will give the customer what he wants from church in order to retain that customer.  How ironic that the service of worship which was the church’s service to God now becomes the service of worship where the church officials serve worship to the audience.  The accommodation of the work of the church to the customer led to the use of means, though often not essentially offensive, yet their use subtly terraformed the truth causing confusion, misunderstanding, and ultimately error.

Finally, within this market, with multiple churches trying to survive on a shrinking pool of potential customers, competition fueled the pursuit of novelty.  Numbers became, not the most important book of the Bible, but the ultimate metric for decisions.  How do we keep the numbers up?  Church A has better seats.  Should we change our seats to be more comfortable?  Church B meets in the cinema.  Should we invest in a larger screen?  With Powerpoint, do we need hymnals?  Do we need Bibles?  How can we present a better image that will draw people to our church from others?  How comfortable can we make it for the newcomer?  How do we make it more comfortable than the other churches?

Church growth methodologies emphasize the marketplace mentality of capitalism, consumerism, and competition.  The dangers involved have insidiously corrupted the broader evangelical church.  The truth-conscious reformed community might think itself exempt from these pressures, but such overconfidence often leads to disaster.  How do these forces influence a small reformed church?

Being a pastor of a small church, you would not imagine that I would struggle with these temptations, but you would be wrong.  In some ways, I struggle more.  Our church needs to grown.  It’s not a preference but a necessity.  The stakes are so much larger.  Our session meetings repeatedly focus on the next evangelism project, the next thing we can do to bring more people to the church.  And you know what?  That’s not a bad thing.  Every church should constantly strive to grow and evangelize.

The problem arises when I desire to become a hybrid church.  A hybrid church mixes the standard of orthodoxy with the means of the marketers.  I rarely face the temptation to become a “seeker sensitive church.”  Most people know my objections to the excesses of the marketers.  Nevertheless, I still struggle with the reality of competition.  Why are we so small when other churches are so big?  I struggle with consumerism.  Can I change the “packaging” of my message to make people comfortable with it?  I struggle with capitalism.  How do  I advertise to that person making a choice of churches?

Pastor’s get depressed.  We often know our failures better than the people in the pews.  We leave the pulpit or walk out of the Sunday School room thinking, “That was the worst thing I ever did.”  In seminary, one teacher suggested that for these times, we develop a “blue file,” a file of encouragement for when we feel blue.  I recently received one comment that went into the permanent “blue file”.  A visitor who came to our church out of another tradition repeatedly told those who brought her that she was amazed by the lesson from Sunday School and the worship service.  This astonished me since I don’t remember saying anything profound.  I only repeated the truth of scripture.  This may seem rather minor, but it reveals a transformative reality within our society.  The truth has become scarce.

As an OPC pastor, I have a monopoly.  I am not competing in the same market as the rest of the churches around me.  I am not competing in the market of the “evangelical” church.  I am not participating in the market of the “traditional” or “mainline” churches.  I am the pastor of a church, an assembly of God’s people.  I feed them with God’s word.  It is as simple as that and yet so different.  I don’t much care if they’re entertained.  I care that they are transformed and edified.  I do not avoid uncomfortable truths.  The “customer” does not define my message.  I will tell all people how the gospel transforms their lives in every possible way.  I do this not because I need to tailor my message to their “felt needs,” but because I am convinced that Scripture provides the answers to every facet of the human condition.  This church has become the new novelty because it departs from the novelty seekers.  Where the marketers have limited the message of the gospel, I have expanded it.  While the emergents have overextended the discussion without providing answers, I affirm the certainty of Scripture and its conclusions.  Within a fifty mile radius, you will not find another church like this.

We, indeed, need the courage to be protestant.  I need the courage to be reformed, orthodox, and presbyterian.  The courage to say, this is the church warts and all.  The courage to tell others, you need gospel certainty in a world with none.  This certainty does not come from any man or group of men, but from the word of God on whose promises none shall be put to shame.  In them, we read, “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  What we need is not a new package, in message or in appearance.  What we need is confidence in the promise of God building His church.

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