The sovereign Stick up Artist

A quote sent from a friend…

“The evangelical church, or at least a good slice of it, is nervous, twitchy, and touchy about consumer desire, ready to change in a nanosecond at the slightest hint that tastes and interests have changed. Why? Because consumer appetite reigns. And consumer appetite and consumer rights go hand in hand. These rights and appetites are very much alive in what used to be called the pew. Those who attend churches are now like any other customers you might meet in the mall. Displease them in any way and they will take their business elsewhere. That is the fear that lurks in many a church leader’s soul because they know that is how the marketplace works.
Like customers everywhere, those who show up in these churches are sovereign. Let us make no mistake about that. They rule. Accepting this fact has become the key to becoming cutting-edge in cultural terms. A mailer from a church in Mesa, Arizona, in 2006, for example, read: “Is your life everything you want it to be? You hear all kinds of offers of ways to improve your life, but do they work? God is offering you a way to make your life everything you truly want it to be.” So, there it is! The difference between this offer and the others is that this one works. Here the customer can match self-perceived need with a product. And bingo! Success!
With this kind of thinking in the air, we in the church today are leery of speaking of a Christian faith that is too demanding because of the prospect of offending our market(s). We take care not to cross these lines when speaking from our barstools, or from behind our Plexiglas stands if they have not yet been replaced.
This is a curious thing, is it not? It brings to mind the haplessness of parents in a home where the children have, amidst sullen moods and a creeping sense of the cruel injustice that has been inflicted on them, decided they will take it no longer. It begins with thoughts, the rebellious mists that shroud the mind and hold off the sun’s light and warmth. But soon the thoughts become seeds, and the seeds, finding fertile soil in the internal wounds suffered during the journey to adulthood, begin to germinate. The parents, sensing something is amiss, scour their minds to think of what they have done wrong and, understanding little of the labyrinthine coils of the adolescent psyche, decide to back off and take the path that inflicts the least pain. Poor things. They are only trying to do the best they can, but unfortunately they do not quite understand that they are staring down the gun barrel of a stickup artist. They are about to be robbed. Out of their good intentions, space is enlarged around the child, latitude is allowed, rules are rescinded, rebukes are stifled except in rare cases, and expectations are lifted. However, parents being parents, they are never entirely out of the woods with these children because, try as they might, they are never fully successful in setting their children free.
What is interesting about this painful tango of parent and child is that the more the demands and expectations of the parents are moderated, the more onerous and intolerable do the children find those that remain! In fact, the few that remain become more objectionable than the many, taken together, that once were there. Parental moderation only excites fresh cries of outrage and pain. Even more disaffection follows. Murderous glances, defiant behavior, black moods follow each other like clouds shifting across a stormy front. The parents, baffled at this unreasonable behavior, retreat even more. But the further they retreat, the more intense becomes the resentment! Nothing less than their total, abject surrender is acceptable. And when they do yield and hold aloft their white flag of surrender, they are despised even more deeply!

Am I being unreasonable in thinking that there are some parallels to the contemporary church here? Not, of course, that the pastors are the parents and the congregations are the children. That is a Catholic idea. The parallel, though, does seem to hold at the point of who has the psychological edge.

It would be quite wrong to suggest that pastors and other leaders in a local church have an authority that operates with near certain infallibility, or that what they think should be beyond question, or that their teaching, if they still offer such in church, cannot be questioned. All should be held to account before the same standard that is the Word of God.

By the same token, no congregation can take to itself this authority, and that is what is happening implicitly as consumer impulses take root in the evangelical psyche. 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.

The moment disaffection with the church’s music, message, style, ethos, amenities, programs, or parking lot(s) begins to take root in a congregation, these new market-savvy pastors fear, they can anticipate dark glances directed toward the front of the church signaling consumer dissatisfaction. The glances will then mature into displeasure, the displeasure will become a seed, the seed will germinate in the internal soil that is ready to receive it, and the decision to walk away will be made. That is the (post)modern version of damnation, at least from a pastor’s point of view!

Market-savvy pastors, sensing this, back off. They lift demands and expectations, making Christianity light and easy. They hire new staff who specialize in knowing how to make worship fun, not to mention funny. Polls and soundings are taken each week, just as they are by the major retailers, to see if things are “on target:’ Poor things. If only they knew that their congregations, too, have become stickup artists! Or, to change the picture, what is happening here is that the individual has invested his or her desires with a kind of sovereign authority that runs roughshod over everything else, including the Word of God.

Never mind. Is it not better to have these people in the church on their own terms than not at all? Is it not possible that they will hear something there that might “click” with them? Why offend them, then, and guarantee that their weekends will be spent away from church? So, make it all as simple as an advertisement, as pleasing as an ice cream in the heat of summer. Make it as easy on the mind as a relaxing show on television. Only give something that works. Do not talk doctrine. Do not hold forth about anything that takes serious effort to follow. Do not sound churchy.”

David F. Wells. The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Kindle Locations 528-535). Kindle Edition.

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