I was recently asked to be a part of a group blogging project at Said at Southern on David Wells’ new book The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. I volunteered to write a summary and analysis of chapter 2 of the book called “Christianity for Sale.”
The chapter is a critical assessment of the the market-driven direction of many evangelical churches today. Since some of our readers do not read Said at Southern, I thought I would post the article here as well. If you want to comment feel free to do so, but I would prefer that you comment over at S@S so that all the comments are in the same place! Let me know what you think.
I remember the first time I heard the word “evangelical.” I was in high school and had only been a Christian for about a month. I thought the word meant that a church preached the gospel–I was completely naïve to how loaded the term was.
Today the word “evangelical” carries with it a ton of baggage, much of which has very little to do with the gospel. I wish my naïvete had been correct because in today’s market-driven evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel has shifted from the foundation to the periphery. It may or may not be time to throw out the word “evangelical” but evangelical churches certainly cannot hope to bring glory to God if the methods of the market continue to trump those of Scripture.
David Wells calls attention in this chapter to this trajectory and rebukes such evangelical churches for letting the market take precedent over Scripture. What drives the marketers is the idea that “things are stagnating in the evangelical world and the ways of ‘doing’ church in the past won’t work with the newer generation.” Thus, evangelical churches, it is thought, must “change their way of doing business or face extinction.”
Many evangelical churches have turned to the marketing world for answers; it would seem that traditional or liturgical churches have ignored their customers as the way they “do church” has not changed over the years. Marketers, on the other hand, realize that in the business world, the customer is supreme. Indeed, as Wells says, “Customers, after all, are sovereign.” This is why today there are entire conferences for pastors on how to make one’s church more relevant that make almost no mention of doctrine, truth, Scripture, or expositional preaching. Apparently the market is not ripe for truth! Wells’ basic argument is that the “form” of these marketing churches “is actually affecting the content” and when the customer is sovereign, he determines the agenda over and against any other potential sovereign.
Several factors have added to the market-driven climate that much evangelicalism finds itself in. Modernization, the rearrangement of our societies around cities, has contributed along with the rise of the information age in which consumers are confronted with an over-abundance of information. Consumers are buying new products at ever increasing rates and the church has learned to speak the language of the market by offering consumers exactly what they want.
There are so many choices in the market place today that the customer must be treated very delicately–one false move and the customer will take his business elsewhere. This same mindset is taking place in many churches today who are struggling to keep up with the market in fear of losing those who they have marketed the church to. In pandering to the consumer, churches inevitably sacrifice the truth. When churches begin to sweep the hard truths of Scripture under the rug for the sake of getting people into the church doors, these hard truths run the risk of being lost altogether. What use is a seeker-sensitive church that never offers anything of substance for seekers to find?
Wells compares this delicate balance between consumer and customer to parents with disaffected children. These children feel their parents have been cruelly unjust towards them and the parents response is “to back off and take the path that inflicts the least pain.” What these parents fail to see, Wells notes, is that “they are about to be robbed . . . out of their good intentions, space is enlarged around the child, latitude allowed, rules are rescinded, rebukes are stifled except in rare cases, and expectations are lifted.” Despite the parent’s best efforts to give their children space to grow out of such onerous attitudes, the result of such abdication is children who are more onerous and intolerable than ever before.
This is a powerful metaphor because I think Wells is correct–this is exactly what is happening in many churches today. In garnering themselves to the market, churches have actually driven a wedge between the average church member and theology, between doctrine and practice. Wells cites a Barna poll which reports that “in America 45 percent say they are born again but only 9 percent, and maybe only 7 percent, give any evidence of Christian seriousness by way of minimal biblical knowledge for making life’s decisions.” The result of this delicate dance is church members who do not know their Bibles and do not live by them. This is because the world has set the agenda for church over and against the Bible.
Although the emergent church movement represents a significant shift in the evangelical church today, I think that the influence of the market-driven churches are much more widely felt. This can be seen in the vast number of mega churches present today-in America in 2005, there were 1,210 mega churches (churches with more than 2,000 members) as opposed to 16 in 1960. This can be seen in Barnes and Noble and Borders when Your Best Life Now competes for position on the best-sellers shelf with the latest Oprah Book Club title.
This can be seen in the disturbing statistics on how many “Christians” in the evangelical world today actually read their Bibles and apply them to their day-to-day lives. This can be seen in churches that have the most up-to-date facilities, all the best technology, and multiple services based on every genre of music but are clueless about what it means to be a member of a local church.
Wells is absolutely correct when he points out that the needs consumers identify for themselves are not their true needs. The true needs of every man, woman, and child are the needs God identifies for them. Indeed, we suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18) and “are incapable of being obedient to it (Rom. 8:7).” In other words we need the Lord to change us-we need a revival of Biblical Christianity because the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).
Furthermore, Wells cites a study by Thom Rainer on the unchurched in America that indicates that the people are leaving these market-driven churches because they came to church to hear preaching and to learn doctrine! The death knell of market driven churches is the ever-changing nature of the market.
What good are churches doing if they succeed in getting people into the church but fail to give them anything of substance to which they can commit to? I am all for getting seekers to come to church, but not at the expense of minimizing or eliminating doctrine and the commitment implied in Biblical church membership. If we continue to let the market drive our Christianity, it will inevitably cease to be distinctively and historically “Christian.” You know there is a problem in the evangelical church in America when the preacher of the largest church can tell Larry King that he believes Mormons are Christians and yet there is not a mass exodus of people leaving his church!
The stakes are high, if our churches continue to pander to the market they may for some time continue to draw a crowd, but if in doing so they are sacrificing the truth of the Bible then they have utterly failed at their primary objective. The church’s primary objective is to display the glory of God in Christ Jesus. When the preaching of the cross is no longer the church’s firm foundation, the church will inevitably fail-not by the world’s standards but by the Lord’s. I don’t mean to communicate that we cannot learn anything from the marketing world, but when the market drives our Christianity over and against the Word of God, our evangelical Christianity has ceased to be truly Christian or evangelical. I have not decided whether I am ready to search for a new term to replace evangelical, but I am determined more than ever, to join Wells in preaching Christ and him crucified and letting God’s perfect Word set the agenda for my church. Wells makes a compelling case:
It is time to reach back into the Word of God, as we have not done in a generation, and find again a serious faith for undoubtedly serious times. It is now time to close the door on this disastrous experiment in retailing faith, to do so politely but nevertheless firmly. It is time to move on. It is time to become Protestant once again.
Questions for Discussion:
- How has the market-driven model affected Churches you have been a part of? (Please don’t name names, share stories but don’t slander anyone)
- Can we salvage the term evangelical and still distinguish ourselves from the marketers who have essentially made the gospel secondary?
- Am I being too critical? What can we learn from these marketers?
- Wells doesn’t lump all mega churches into the category of marketers, how does a mega church (or any growing church for that matter) avoid the inevitable temptation to pander themselves to the consumer?
- How ought we to seek to grow our churches biblically?