Nothing is truly ordinary

Here’s Your Sign

Baptist sign

I saw this church sign yesterday.  It simply asked, “What could this sign say to get you here Sunday?”

My first thought was, “Free Beer.”  (Laugh, but it would probably work).

Joking aside, the sign left me with an uneasy feeling – not about that church in particular, but about our church culture in general.  Have we really gotten to the point that we believe that putting up the right words will be the magic key to getting unchurched people through our front doors?  That all we have to do is “market” ourselves correctly to reach those that are lost?

I worry that so much of what we do in churches is so absorbed in consumerism that we can barely see past it.  We market ourselves like any other corporation trying to sell a product (or worse – like a prostitute on a corner advertising her “career” by the way she acts and dresses.  Sound harsh?  Wait – I’ll come back to it).

Marketing.

It’s our light shows.  Our choirs.  Our big Christmas programs.  Our big Easter services.  Our building designs.  Our coffee bars.  Our rockin’ bands.  Our bookstores.  Our VBS programs.  Our sermon series.  And, yes, even our church signs.

It’s not about worship “style” either.  I see just as many churches marketing the traditional experience as there are those that market something new and contemporary.

It’s as if churches have become like restaurants.  You can go and connect with whichever one has the right “menu” for what you’re searching for.  And – even with the best intentions – we reinforce the “seeker’s” consumerism by attempting to offer the very things they want to consume.

Is there anything wrong with “attractional” ministry?  In and of itself, I will say a qualified “no” – but only if it’s not everything a church is about.  I believe we can leverage the many things I just mentioned to grab people’s attention.  But I believe we are often so caught up in “attracting” people by marketing ourselves in a consumer culture, that we often forget to open the doors, go outside, and engage that culture on their turf.  At some point our faith demands us to not be consumers, but become servants.

When we do NOT do that, we become obsessed with ourselves and how churches can meet OUR needs.  And here’s what happens:

  • You get that member that loves the church, but then questions why you don’t have a dedicated women’s ministry…and she eventually leaves.
  • You get that first-time guest that loves the church, but won’t join because you don’t have a VBS her children can attend.
  • You get that member that loves the church, but quits coming because you don’t have a physical altar at which they can kneel at during services.

These are real stories, too.  I haven’t made them up.  Ask ANY pastor to tell you a story of how someone’s left the church because it didn’t cater to that person’s specific needs.

Even touting a “vision” – to love people, love God, serve both (or some variant – it’s popping up on more and more websites and church signs) – can cater to the consumer mindset when we’re not looking, because people can even consume “purpose” (especially if they have a hard time finding it for themselves).

***

I have become obsessed lately with how consumerism has permeated our church culture.  Before I continue, I must first make it clear where I am coming from.  I’ve poured my life into developing “attractional” ministry.  That’s generally the role of a creative arts pastor – to design services that tug at the consumer’s hearts and minds to draw them in.  This way of thinking about ministry has literally been the core of my career and how I have chosen to serve God.  So know that the things I’m about to say are as hard for me to hear as anyone.

I’ve seen attractional ministry at it’s best.  I’ve seen creative elements grab people’s attention to the point that they “stuck” with the church after their first visit and made life-altering decisions for Christ.  In fact, many churches have seen great success with attractional ministry.  This past weekend, I read that a big, attractional church in South Carolina baptized nearly 3000 people on ONE Sunday across their campuses.  And I praise God for that!  It’s amazing how it can work.

And to some degree, it’s supposed to work that way.  There’s nothing wrong with marketing in and of itself.  In fact, I would argue we are supposed to market our message.  Jesus and his disciples performed many signs and wonders that could draw a crowd.  “God publicly endorsed Jesus the Nazarene by doing powerful miracles, wondersand signs through him” (Acts 2:22).  “A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders” (Acts 2:43).  Jesus and His disciples knew how to draw in and enthrall a crowd.  God knows we are consumers and his very Word describes how his Son and his disciples leveraged that to grab people’s attention and share the Gospel with them.

So, all the “show” that we put on is not without merit.  It is a great attempt to fulfill the Spirit of the following verse:

“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15)

But here’s the problem with “attractional” ministry:  In many cases, it stops there – with attraction.  There’s nothing beyond that.  Sure, there may be Sunday school classes and/or life groups and Lottie Moon offerings and small groups of people who serve in soup kitchens somewhere (all good things).  Maybe we even fast track people into membership with 101, 201, and 301 membership classes.  But by and large, most of our energy – our resources, our budgets, our manpower – goes into making our churches increasingly attractive to those that don’t attend church.

The problem is that when being attractional is our goal, we risk becoming “attractive” without any substance.  We become complicit in the cycle of consumerism, and our beauty becomes skin deep.  Sure, we throw some Bible studies around, plug people into volunteering, and label it as “discipleship.”  But even then, we don’t realize how much we’re just perpetuating the mechanism of attraction.  Let me explain:  We plug people in to serving so that they can help us repeat the process all over again.  And when you read about thousands being baptized in big, attractional churches, you’d be tempted to ask, “What the heck is wrong with that?  Why NOT reproduce what we’re already doing?”

The problem is that there’s more to being “light” than merely being attractive.  Being the light unto the world is to “let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14).  At some point, we have to break the cycle of consumerism and begin serving the world around us – through our good deeds.  This is not optional.  It is critical.  It’s why in the very same paragraph, Jesus also challenges us not only to be “light,” but “salt” as well:

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.  (Matthew 5:13).

Though I’ve heard many preachers expound various interpretations of this verse over the years, I’ve come to believe that it means this:  Salt is a seasoning.  It is applied to something that is bland.  It preserves.  It adds something that was not there before.  In the context Jesus was speaking, I believe it means we are to “season” the world around us by serving it.  By engaging it.  By applying ourselves to it.  By pouring our love out onto a world that desperately needs it.

We cannot merely be content to be “attractional.”  If we are content merely to invite people IN and not go OUT to serve, then we are not salt.  And what does Jesus say about that?  “What good is salt if it has lost its flavor? It will be THROWN OUT and trampled underfoot as worthless.”

Doesn’t that describe the frustration of the church today?  Do we not often feel thrown out and viewed as completely irrelevant by the culture around us?  Are we not deemed worthless by our secular peers?  It’s not persecution we face.  It’s obsolescence.  We are supposed to be the body of Christ, yet we often present an image of Christ who never comes out of his own house to help the neighbor next door.  We may talk a big game, but we have to face the reality that fewer and fewer people are looking to the church for answers.  More and more churches are closing their doors for good, and many others are in decline.  We have forgotten what it means to be “salt and light.”

You think this would drive us to rediscover what the church is supposed to be (and to be completely fair, I think many churches/leaders are attempting to do just that).  But many just press harder to feed their particular flock of consumers.  They increase the rhetoric of “traditional only” or “edgy to make a difference.”  They double-down on what they are already doing.

So we don’t break the cycle of consumerism.   Instead – like prostitutes – we set up shop on the corners of our neighborhoods dressed as seductively as possible, doing all we can to attract people to what it is we have to offer and cater to what the people might want.  Our particular brand of attractiveness (style, method, even mission) has become our idol.  And while we may not expect payment for our services, we expect a return.  We expect connection.  We expect decisions.  We expect repeat customers.  Yet, by perpetuating the idolatry of consumerism instead of breaking it, we whore ourselves out to the very culture we are supposed to be serving – and transforming.

***

As I’ve been re-reading this post over and over before publishing it, I can’t help but wonder if I’m overreacting or being too harsh.  How can one simple church sign unleash such a tirade?  So I saved the draft with the intention of “shelving” it until maybe I could think of a better metaphor than likening the perpetuation-of-consumerism-through-attractional-ministry to idolatry and prostitution.  Then I read this, and my world was rocked:

I gave you expensive clothing of fine linen and silk, beautifully embroidered, and sandals made of fine goatskin leather.  I gave you lovely jewelry, bracelets, beautiful necklaces, a ring for your nose, earrings for your ears, and a lovely crown for your head.  And so you were adorned with gold and silver. Your clothes were made of fine linen and were beautifully embroidered. You ate the finest foods—choice flour, honey, and olive oil—and became more beautiful than ever. You looked like a queen, and so you were!  Your fame soon spread throughout the world because of your beauty. I dressed you in my splendor and perfected your beauty, says the Sovereign Lord.

“But you thought your fame and beauty were your own. So you gave yourself as a prostitute to every man who came along. Your beauty was theirs for the asking. You used the lovely things I gave you to make shrines for idols, where you played the prostitute. Unbelievable! How could such a thing ever happen?

– Ezekiel 16:10-16

This was God’s message not to a woman, but Jerusalem – to HIS people.  And we would be wise to consider it.  There is nothing wrong with being attractive – in fact, God desires His people to be just that.  It is a GOOD thing.  But that is not all we are to be as God’s people – as the body of Christ.  Even if we leverage our marketing and “attractiveness” to grab the attention of the consumer, we also have to work to break the cycle of consumerism.  We have to tear down the idolatry we have perpetuated.  We have to become givers and servants to those outside of our walls.  We need engage people where they already are and share with them the love of Christ in very real, tangible ways.  We not only need attractive, “well-dressed” churches; we also need churches whose hands and knees are dirty from having served “the least of these.”

And what…WHAT…is more attractive than that?

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