The Ghost of Church Future: Part Two (Consumerism)

My wife, parents, and I recently watched a stage production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  As I watched it I couldn’t help but imagine what the ghosts of church past (Part OnePart Two, and Part Three), present (Part OnePart Two, and Part Three), and future (Part One) might say to those of us who follow Jesus.  This week we’ll look at what the future holds.


So, as we’ve seen in previous posts in this series, those who live lives authentically marked by faith in Jesus are a declining species.  One response could be to go all in with regard to American culture.  We, as the Church, could attempt to absolutely immerse ourselves into the consumerism around us, attempting to redeem it and use it for the kingdom of God.

I first encountered this idea in Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways.  Here’s how he introduced it:

We try to redeem the rhythms and structures of consumerism as Pete Ward suggests in his excellent book on missional ecclesiology.  He advises that, rather than reject or denounce consumerism, we should see it as an oppportunity for the church to rediscover her missional and redemptive nature.  He maintains that in consumerism there is a massive search going on, and that the church cannot miss out on meaningfully communicating from within this context.  He suggests, therefore that the church must radically reorganize around consumerist principles but maintain its missional edge. (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 111-112).

The book from Pete Ward that Hirsch is referring to is called Liquid Church.  While there is much to like about Ward’s ideas in this book, such as the church being a flexible network instead of a rigid structure, the idea of trying to redeem consumerism seems entirely too risky.  I love the way that Hirsch responds to Ward’s idea: “However, my warning is that if we are going to sup with the devil, we had better have a very long spoon, because we are dealing with a deeply entrenched alternative religious system to which Jesus’s disciples need to model an alternative reality” (The Forgotten Ways, 112).

In fact, some of the missional writers, thinkers, and practitioners argue that being a consumer runs counter to what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the first place.  For instance, Hugh Halter, in And: The Gathered and Scattered Church, says this: “A disciple is not a consumer and a consumer is not a disciple!” (emphasis original, 75).  Halter’s argument is that at its base consumerism is just selfishness in a different package; and Jesus explicitly calls people away from only looking out for number one.

So why will going all in with consumerism not work as a model moving forward?

  1. At its core, consumerism is selfish. — Consumerism has been defined as the attempt to acquire as many goods and services as possible at the lowest prices possible.  Vance Packard’s pioneering work on consumerism called Waste Makers highlights the truth that all this selfishness and consumption is ultimately harmful in many ways.  I think it’s pretty clear that we as followers of Jesus should avoid such things!  We’re already tempted to view God like a cosmic vending machine, and going all in with consumerism would make that tendency even worse!
  2. Consumerism will push the church to maintain the professionalization of ministry. — In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul says that we’re all ambassadors of the ministry of reconciliation.  But if we really want to imbibe consumerism then folks are going to demand that those who have the most training and skill at ministry be the ones to do it, ignoring the fact that God has given gifts to all of the church for the common good, not just some of it (1 Corinthians 11-13)!  Again, we’re already having issues in the church with folks sitting on the sidelines; why would we want to make that problem more prominent?
  3. It will simply be too expensive. — In the end, how could the church afford to be an entity totally defined by consumerism?  We’d be competing against Bud Light, the NFL, reality TV, and Hollywood.  We don’t have the resources to compete in that market!  We barely have the resources to maintain our paltry budgets now!  The cost of competing against the big boys of consumerism is simply too high, which makes this idea for addressing America as a mission field completely untenable.

What do you think?  Is it possible for the church to redeem consumerism?  If so, why?  If not, why?  Let me know below.

The Ghost of Church Future: Part One (Continued Decline)

My wife, parents, and I recently watched a stage production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  As I watched it I couldn’t help but imagine what the ghosts of church past (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), present (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), and future might say to those of us who follow Jesus.  This week we’ll look at what the future holds.


geralt / Pixabay

A Continued Decline

For quite some time now the church, as we know it, has been in decline.  Numerous studies and surveys support this statement (David Olson’s book The American Church in Crisis and John Dickerson’s book The Great Evangelical Recession provide a ton of evidence).

What do we do?  I think there are three primary options: 1) keep doing what we’ve always done; 2) try to baptize American individualism, consumerism, and materialism; or 3) go down the missional-incarnational path.

This post will focus on the first option — more of the same.

If we keep doing what we’ve always done, what will be the results?

Famously, it has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again but always expecting different results (attributed to Albert Einstein).  And while this may be “the most overused cliche of all time,” it does help us think about why following the same strategies in the church won’t work going forward.

So, what have we been doing that we could keep doing (even though it most likely wouldn’t work)?

  1. Follow the Attractional Model — “If you build it, he will come.”  This is probably the most-often quoted line from the movie Field of Dreams and it serves to illustrate the attractional model like no other string of words can!  The thought is that if we have slick weekend services, engaging sermons, awesome music, fun programs for kids, thought-provoking adult classes, and great small groups, then people will just show up at the campuses of our churches to partake of all these things.  The research, however, is showing that this model isn’t working.  People simply are not coming to churches anymore, at least not like they once did.  Our buildings, programs, and services just aren’t all that attractive to the wider American culture these days.  So, if we continue with this model, then we will have shrinking congregations, which will lead to church buildings being abandoned (and possibly being transformed into homes, libraries, or nightclubs).
  2.  Limit Discipleship to the Classroom — Almost always when talking to Christians about discipleship they seem to think that it is a program, a ministry, or an event that the church should host and facilitate.  In my experience this has been true of folks everywhere throughout America, from Los Angeles to Atlanta.  There are some shining examples of leaders and churches who don’t view discipleship this way, but my educated guess would be that most American Christians think of it as a cognitive-based learning experience.  The simple truth is that this method of discipleship doesn’t work.  It has helped lead to 66% of Americans being what George Barna calls “casual Christians.”  That’s an astonishing number!  And if we continue doing discipleship this way, that number isn’t going to change in the positive direction.
  3. Protect the Christian Bubble — I was thinking the other day about how many friends I have who do not know Jesus yet.  The number is really pretty low.  Why?  Because I’m pretty consistently encouraged to completely inundate myself into the Christian subculture.  When I do so all my friends are Christians, my closest family members are all Christians, and all my neighbors are Christians.  Then I start reading Christians books, listening to Christian music, going to Christian websites, and even freshening my breath with Christian mints!  This cloistering-off of American Christians into our own little bubble has created a ton of unintentional problems.  If you’ve ever tried to share your faith with someone you know what I’m talking about.  Folks say that Christians are hypocrites, that we’re judgmental, and that we’re by and large detached from reality.  Our Christian bubble helped create space for these descriptions to come to fruition.  So if we protect our bubble going forward, then we’ll continue to erode our potential impact with folks who do not yet know Jesus.

To put it simply, the future of the church is pretty bleak if we keep going like we’ve been going!

Do you agree?  Let me know in the comments below.

Living the Future into the Present

One of the hardest things about seminary was reading Jürgen Moltmann.  His works are dense and complex — well, they were for me at least!  However, Moltmann has been a major, shaping influence on my thinking and on how I live as well.  By trudging through his book Theology of HopeI came to a better and more complete understanding of eschatology, the study of how human history will end.

Up until I read Theology of HopeI was convinced that eschatology was something that got me through some boring sermons as a teenager (the book of Revelation reads an awful lot like the fantasy novels I loved then!), or an interest that only complete wingnuts had, or it was just an addendum slapped onto the end of a systematic theology.  I certainly knew that you didn’t preach about it since I had heard so few sermons covering eschatology growing up attending church services.

Suffice it to say, my understanding of eschatology was seriously limited!

But then I read Theology of Hope.  Moltmann helped me better understand why what we believe about the end matters.  He helped me better understand the future-orientation of both Jesus and Paul.  And Moltmann gave me an interpretative lense through which to understand the eschatology I read in the Bible and to apply it to my very own life in the here and now.

I want to share with you the passage that turned the light on for me:

From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. (Theology of Hope, page 16)

Let that sink in for a minute.  Really.  Go back and read it again.  And then again.  Let it marinate with you for a little bit.  Then read it again.


Okay, here’s how I understand what Moltmann is getting at: He’s saying that the future, namely Christ’s glorious return and God’s remaking all things new, is real.  It’s so real that it has the power to change the present.  The future can change the now.

Here’s one more way of saying the same thing: God is calling us to live the future into the present, just as Jesus prayed, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The future realities that we read about in Revelation 4-5, 7, and 21-22 can begin to be realized now.

We can participate in God’s will to bring all people groups together, tearing down all the walls of separation.

We can work with God in order to bring real peace and reconciliation in our world.

We can join in God’s work of recreation in our own lives, in the lives of others, and in our world.

Now we cannot do these things in our own power.  It’s only through the working and empowering of the Holy Spirit within our communities!

The future is coming.  It’s not a maybe kind of thing.  The future reality is the real reality…and God is calling us to live that future reality into our present.

But how?  How can we do this within a missional context (or any context for that matter!)?

  1. We can live in Christian community with people very different from us.  The picture painted in Revelation 5 and 7 of those who will be present to worship God at the end is beautiful — there will be every sort of person there!  Why then do we syphon our selves off into little affinity groups where everyone looks like us and thinks like us?  The call of the Bible is as clear as the crystal sea: We are to be in community with those different from us.
  2. We can be workers of peace and reconciliation in our lives.  As we look forward to the future reality that is being brought to fruition, it is obvious that Jesus created peace and reconciliation by offering his whole self up.  We can follow suit.  Peace and reconciliation are tough and costly, but not to pursue them is disobedience and, ultimately, sinful.  So as we see brokenness, we must leverage all the power and influence we have to bring healing.  When we see strife, we must work tirelessly to bring resolution.
  3. We can utilize our talents and gifts to bring new life to a dead world.  Death is all around us.  It’s in us.  Our present reality is really pretty bleak if you think about it.  We’re hurtling through space on this tiny spec of dirt…and then we die.  Where is hope in that?  Nowhere, that’s where!  Our only hope must come from outside the system, from God himself.  And God brought hope to us in the person of Jesus.  As we follow him he will lead us into ways that bring life to our dying world.  He’ll lead us to hydrate the thirsty trees that are desperate to bear fruit.  And he’ll pour his refreshing water over our lives too, cleansing us and preparing us for our next steps.

How else can we live the future reality of God’s ultimate victory into our lives today?  Let me know in the comments below!