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.

Consumerism

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 Present: Part Two

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, present, and future might say to those of us who follow Jesus.  Last week I looked into the revelations from the ghost of church past (see the links at the end of this post).  And this week we’ll hear from the ghost of church present (here’s Part One).

Nemo / Pixabay

A Non-Missional Response

The ghost of church present already revealed that the U.S. is a mission field.  So, how has the church responded?

By and large, the church hasn’t responded all that well.  Here are two statistics that I originally saw in Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay:

  • “Roughly half of all churches in America did not add one new person through conversion growth last year.” (Lost in America by Tom Clegg and Warren Bird, page 27)
  • “In America, it takes the combined effort of eighty-five Christians working over an entire year to produce one convert.” (Lost in America, page 29)

I think we need to let those stats sink in for a minutes and not rush past them.

First, half of the churches in the US don’t see any conversions in a year.  There should be some disclaimers, of course.  Many of these churches are small, rural, and in Christianized communities.  But not all of them.  And of the half that did have new converts, I wonder how many of those are really just biological growth, that is, the children of Christian parents.  Are we reaching out into our communities to the unchurched, dechurched, and antichurch?

Second, it takes 85 people working for 365 days to lead one person to Christ!  Firstly, this paints a funny picture.  It’s hard not to imagine a large and cumbersome committee of stodgy Christians trying to work together to save one soul!  Secondly, and more to the point, this isn’t saying that 85 people intentionally worked together for the conversion of one person.  The researchers simply took the total number of believers and divided them by the total number of new converts in a given year.  Thus we are left with the rather shocking fact that the vast majority of us are not actively engaged in making new disciples.

Here’s the point: there’s a massive mission field right outside the walls of our comfortable church.  Right. Outside. The. Walls.  And we aren’t responding.

Well, that’s actually not true.  We are doing some things.

  • We’re preaching sermons.  This is a good thing.  In the New Testament we see a repeated call for folks to proclaim the good news.  So, yay us!  Often we preach sermons that challenge our people to be a witness where the live, work, and play.  Again, yay us!
  • We’re running programs.  We have courses on evangelism that we either create ourselves or buy from an expert.  We have programs like Alpha, which are awesome!  People have come to know Jesus as savior through Alpha and programs like it for decades now.
  • We’re supporting explicitly missional efforts.  A few of our churches are realizing that we’re not doing a great job, so a few of us start funding missionaries who work right here in the US.  It could be through church planting or through an organization like InterVarsity, but some of us are investing in missional efforts.
  • We’re actually engaged in missional activity ourselves.  I use the “we” in that statement very loosely.  Why?  Because my guess is that so very few of us, myself included, live missionally on a day-to-day basis.  In fact, many of us are so insulated by our Christian sub-culture that we may have to try really, really hard just to have contact with a person who does not know Jesus yet.  But there are a few rogues out there living like Jesus did.

The truth is that the statistics show that what we’re doing isn’t really working.  Why not?  Well, in my humble opinion we’ve focused too much on preaching and programs and not enough of funding missional efforts and being missional ourselves.  Our hearts are right but our actions are a bit skewed.

What do you think?  How do you see the church responding to the reality that America is a mission field?

 

The Ghost of Church Past (Part OnePart TwoPart Three)

The Ghost of Church Present: Part One

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, present, and future might say to those of us who follow Jesus.  Last week I looked into the revelations from the ghost of church past (see the links at the end of this post).  And this week we’ll hear from the ghost of church present.

A Missional Reality

danfador / Pixabay

There’s a new era dawning.  The West in the twenty-first century is a mission field, no matter how you’d like to define that term.  The power of Christendom once reigned supreme in the West, but now things are changing.  Whereas at one time the wider culture shared basic values with those who follow Jesus, today living a gospel-centered life makes a follower of Jesus really stand out.  There are more and more people who are unchurched, de-churched, and/or anti-church.

Where’s the evidence for these claims?  I need stats!

Okay, okay.  Here are a few:

  •  There are 50.5 million religiously unaffiliated people in the U.S.  —  According to the PewResearch, 16.1% of people in the U.S. identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or not particularly religious.  There are 313.9 million people in the U.S. right now, and 16.1% of that total equals 50.5 million.  That’s a ton!
  • There are 14.75 million people in the U.S. affiliated with religions other than Christianity — Again, according to PewResearch, 4.7% of Americans are affiliated with a religious group that isn’t self-identified as Christian, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, New Age, etc.
  • There are 7.5 millions Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. — PewResearch has found that 2.4% of Americans identify themselves as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • That means that there are 72.75 million people who explicitly need the gospel! — If you add the three categories above up this is the total you get.  And this total makes up 23.18% of our total population.  The good news, of course, is that 76.82% are part various Christian groups (Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, etc.).
  • There’s a huge number of “Casual Christians” — George Barna, in his book The Seven Faith Tribes, highlights a massive group of people he calls “Casual Christians.”  This tribe, according to an interview posted on the Barna Group’s website, “are defined by the desire to please God, family, and other people while extracting as much enjoyment and comfort from the world as possible.”  In other words, these are consumer Christians par excellence!  How many of these “Casual Christians” are there out there?  According to Barna, 66% of the American population is made up of “Casual Christians”!  That’s 207.17 million people!  I think almost any missionally-minded person would agree that these folks need to be evangelized or re-evangelized!
  • So, that brings the total number of people who need a fresh encounter of the gospel up to 279.92 million people. — Friends, that’s massive!  If that number holds true, then that means that only 10.83% of the American population is living a life, as Barna put it, “defined by their [Christian] faith.”
  • But of those 10.83% of Americans, how are involved in making disciples? — We can’t say for sure.  There are some studies that indicate that more than half of Evangelicals share their faith at least once a year, but this data is based on self-reporting.  I find it hard to believe that we have such a large percentage of people out there sharing their faith!  My guess is that very few people do this.  What’s the point?  There aren’t that many people actively engaged in reaching those who need to be reached in the U.S.

Jesus said it best in Luke 10.2: “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”  So that’s the bare minimum of our call, to pray for more workers for the mission field in the U.S.  But if we all could begin to adopt missional postures and incarnational lifestyles, then we could actually become those workers!  That’s my prayer, namely that God would turn you and I into missionaries right here in the U.S.!

What do you think of this picture?  Let me know in the comments below.

 

The Ghost of Church Past (Part One, Part Two, Part Three)