David Hayward, also known as the "Naked Pastor," shared a thought-provoking post last week: Are the next "new and improved" church ideas simply means to escape boredom? He says:
There are those who need to experience constant change. They live in a perpetual state of narrowly escaping boredom. Some churches reflect this.
If you are spiritually content then you won’t crave novelty. If you don’t crave novelty then things will be much simpler. Some churches reflect this.
A recent article on the The Oklahoman's website features LifeChurch, a multi-campus megachurch. Their promotional efforts are an example of many churches' constant need for the new and relevant.
I've never attended a LifeChurch service, and I know LifeChurch is an easy target. I don't want to make broad assumptions based on one news article and a handful of the pastor's sermons I heard at church camp. However, I've seen this phenomenon in many other churches. In fact, I saw it last week, in discussions with other student ministry leaders about low summer attendance. One well-meaning suggestion to "get the energy level up" involved imitating another student gathering, which was deemed highly "successful." (I disagree with equating high numbers with success in what it means to be the church and live out the Gospel.) This high-attendance student ministry allows students to "get crazy," jump up and down, etc.
For some reason, the characterization of this ministry as successful simply because the students are entertained and converge in large numbers struck me as misguided. In the same way, that a megachurch would devote 200 volunteers and several days to transform their lobby into a video game world just seems to miss the point and caves in to our culture's need for newer, bigger, better.
The pastor of this particular "campus" said that "summer time is traditionally a season when church attendance dwindles because of school break and family vacations. However, the movie series has gained such popularity that his LifeChurch.tv campus and others generally see attendance increase during that time." Don't tell me this doesn't remind you of a carnival:
Visitors walk first into an area decorated like the movie's Flynn's Arcade, where they may play vintage video games such as the original “Tron” arcade game.
Then they enter the backlit game grid area through a simulated portal.
Then there is the “End of the Line Bar” area where visitors may order sweet tea, coffee or “Tron drinks” — tonic water mixed with Kool-Aid so that they glow in the dark like the drinks ordered at the bar in “Tron.”
Robison said a large tank that shoots out free T-shirts to visitors was created around a golf cart so that it can move.
The campus pastor noted that this extravaganza is "something that's different from a lot of churches."
Hayward's critique of churches who constantly crave novelties and allow us to escape our boredom is spot on. A common response to this critique is that a focus on high attendance and the new, shiny efforts that drive the numbers is not a bad thing, because more people hear the Gospel. I'm sure that the pastors of this church, and many others, really bring it in their sermons, and I'm sure that many experience true change. But the carnival-like, entertainment-driven focus, with numbers as our benchmark for success, is a capitulation to our consumer-driven culture.
Consuming Jesus offers an incisive critique of the American church's love affair with consumerism. Author Paul Louis Metzger points out that catering to what consumers want and creating wants in order to win them over to buying a product is completely acceptable to the church. He says, "In a free-market church culture, those who cater most this consumer force thrive best." (p. 40). Metzger notes that, on the surface, this catering appears to be benign.
I'm finishing up my review of David Fitch's The End of Evangelicalism, but can't help referring here to Fitch's idea that the American church sees absolutely no problem with free-market capitalism. In fact, many have argued that it's the most moral of economic systems. Metzger quotes Don Slater with the idea that consumerism is about accessibility to things that are "new, modish, faddish or fashionable, always improved and improving." (p. 44). Many churches feel they better step it up, especially during the summer, and offer something different from other churches, in order to "win" people to the Gospel. So using consumerism and its emphasis on the new and always improving is viewed as an effective tool.
This is the kicker: with consumerism, all social relations, activities and objects can be exchanged as a commodity. The message of the Gospel runs counter to commodification and the catering to those in the pews, because certain things are not exchangeable. However, entertainment-driven churches frame the Gospel as "an exchange between God and us rooted in satisfying our untrained need." (p. 45). Uncritically assuming the driving forces of capitalism is problematic because it depersonalizes and dehumanizes us, and turns the Gospel into "not enough." When churches have to add on a "something else" to their message, this should trigger concern.
At the same time, consumerism means that, if church members feel that the Gospel being presented is too costly and not meeting their needs, the consumer/church member can simply pack up and move to the church next door. I don't think a church that spends the majority of its focus on the 2,000 Bible verses about the poor would see high attendance numbers. That pill is too hard to swallow for us American Christians. Instead, please make us comfortable and deliver the goods to us. And entertain us, for we are bored.