Saturday, August 14, 2010

Consumers in the pews (Part 1)

I received links and referrals to the Op-Ed essay by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, "Congregations Gone Wild," that appeared in The New York Times recently.  It is compelling stuff and I have pasted it below. 

The pressure for congregations to grow numerically results in some fairly amazing and disappointing realities.  When church-goers are seen as consumers, everything changes, and I would say for the worse. 

Churches that decide to go a different way, to take a more difficult pathway leading into the brokenness and pain of the world may not grow numerically, but they can play a significant role in growing their communities and in the people who wrestle with life who live in them. 

And, over the long haul, a congregation determined to engage the world transparently, boldly, faithfully and radically may find itself growing in more sustainable ways than those groups that settle for fluff and the slick marketing of so-called "mission."

What do you think?

Congregations Gone Wild
August 7, 2010

THE American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

The trend toward consumer-driven religion has been gaining momentum for half a century. Consider that in 1955 only 15 percent of Americans said they no longer adhered to the faith of their childhood, according to a Gallup poll. By 2008, 44 percent had switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found. Americans now sample, dabble and move on when a religious leader fails to satisfy for any reason.

In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

Congregations that make such demands seem not to realize that most clergy don’t sign up to be soothsayers or entertainers. Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult. When they’re being true to their calling, pastors urge Christians to do the hard work of reconciliation with one another before receiving communion. They lead people to share in the suffering of others, including people they would rather ignore, by experiencing tough circumstances — say, in a shelter, a prison or a nursing home — and seeking relief together with those in need. At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.

Ministry is a profession in which the greatest rewards include meaningfulness and integrity. When those fade under pressure from churchgoers who don’t want to be challenged or edified, pastors become candidates for stress and depression.

Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries.

When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ, is the author of “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.”


Eric Livingston said...


But the situation is not quite as black and white as MacDonald portrays it. He suggests a false dichotomy between churches that engage the hurting world and churches who have theater style seating and projection screens. Pastors don't choose between placating their parishioners and challenging them to grow towards Christ likeness.

I would say in most cases a middle way plays out. Pastors live within the tension of the two competing stories of consumerism and selfless servanthood. It is certainly difficult to navigate, and the challenge of keeping one's eyes fixed on the life of Christ can even lead to burnout as MacDonald suggests.

While I lean towards agreeing with MacDonald, I can't overlook the needed (but absent) caveat in his piece, that leaves room for churches who use their screens to scale back paper waste during their worship services, thereby protecting God's creation. There must be allowances for people who sit in theater style seating and listen to former homeless people offer testimony of how God provided redemption of life for them in the form of generosity and help from faithful Christians.

I guess I'm saying that, yes, MacDonald is right that churches should not become a cafeteria of religious goods and services available to be purchased according to church goers' tastes. But the measurements by which a church determines whether it is becoming too consumeristic are identified amongst shades of gray.

As in so many other facets of this difficult journey of following Jesus, the answer to the question of 'consumerism vs. mission' is found in the heart. It is difficult to judge the hearts of churches who are trying to follow Jesus the best way they know how.

Eric Livingston said...

P.S. It would be an interesting exercise to think about who might be at fault for the rampant immaturity among these consumerist parishioners. Maybe clergy have not effectively demonstrated the call to take up one's cross.

Topher said...

My wife and I have been part of a church which chose to stay in urban Houston while other churches escaped to the suburbs. The church is close-knit and diverse. When our son was born last year, we were surrounded in the hospital by people of all races and incomes. It was a beautiful experience we cherish.

The church is small and not growing in numbers. But, it is a family. We shared meals in each other's homes regularly. And, we took care of each other. Neighborhood kids were functionally adopted by older members. Football games and graduations were attended, college tuitions paid, and clothes for first job interviews provided.

We recently moved to San Antonio and miss our Houston family dearly. We have been visiting churches, and we still haven't found a family like we had in Houston. We recently visited a mega-church which happens to be the closest church to our new home. They started the service by saying they have 'radical' plans for their church. We were getting excited thinking maybe we could get involved in some serious work in the San Antonio community. But we were disappointed when they 'unleashed' their 'radical' plan which included: more regular church attendance (instead of online streaming), bringing your Bible every Sunday, visiting one of their new satellite campuses, and if you were really brave becoming a greeter on Sunday mornings. There was no mention of the poor, widows, or orphans.

Any suggestions for San Antonio churches?

Larry James said...

Not sure about a church in SA, but you do need to check out Urban Connection San Antonio and meet Leslie Grubbs. Google it and see what I mean.

Eric Livingston said...

Topher - I'll put in a word for Northside Church of Christ. It's not a fully urban and missional church as you describe in Houston, but they have many ministries that work with aliens, poor, orphans, and widows. You'll find Donna Hoyack worshiping there as well. Donna works for UCSA as Larry mentioned. The church is very much a family and works toward figuring out how to be Jesus to their community. Check it out.

Full disclosure: I grew up at NSCOC and love the people there, so I'm completely biased.

Anonymous said...

You asked what I think and here it is.
First its from the NY Times, which automatically places a lefty activist connotation on the article
Second social justice and liberation theology either implied or expressed in this garbage have no place in "AUTHENTIC" (to borrow one of Britt's favorite words) Christianity, as they are lefty inventions to manipulate the uneducated and ignorant toward a particular political persuasion.

All in all a pretty disgusting piece without merit.

Saul said to say hey!

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:28: Do you even read what's been posted before spewing your ideological venom? Do you find something wrong with the notion that "the pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways"? Is it really best for any congregation to send its preacher the message "give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else"? Seriously, please stop posting if all you can do is rant. It's really not helpful.