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The Death Rattle of Consumer Christianity

July 20, 2020 by Matt Reynolds

Photo by Rachel Lynette French on Unsplash

The time for reckoning has come. The consumer oriented version of Christianity that has dominated much of North America is finally seeing a needful death. Declining worship attendance, church closures, warring megachurch personalities, constant scandal, and other factors have sounded as a death rattle in recent years. Our current moment, in which we find ourselves in the midst of  a global pandemic and significant racial unrest, has hammered the nail into the coffin.

The consumeristic approach we've taken to church life in the United States is collapsing because it lacks a foundation. We have favored pragmatism over theology, crowds over disciples, marketing over evangelism, coffee bars over catechism. We have shown greater commitment to manufacturing celebrity pastors than lifting up unseen, humble, and sacrificial shepherds.

While many started this year with sermon series about having “20/20 vision” (read: church growth or new program initiatives), 2020 has proved to offer vision correction in a way different than we originally desired. It's been an eye exam that feels more like a punch in the gut.

When a global pandemic stripped away all of our typical attractional techniques, we were left with questions about the essence of true Christian community. When appropriate outrage over the needless killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery swept our nation, most of our churches were ill prepared to deal with the cultural grief and trauma. Churches filled with people who have shown up primarily to meet their own felt needs, and who have been “discipled” to believe that is indeed the church’s role, are malformed to deal with our current reality. 

It’s clear that something is broken in the American church. We have more megachurches than ever in history (see Ed Stetzer and others), and yet by almost all standards overall church involvement in the U.S. has dropped precipitously. For several years now I have believed that the church growth movement did more harm than good in the American church. While motivated by noble intentions of reaching the lost, in reality  the movement that has dominated "best practices" in the church for at least a few decades has stunted the multiplication of reproducing disciples. I have heard many suggest that our typical church growth attractional methods simply do not work anymore in a post-Christendom context where church attendance is no longer the cultural norm. It doesn’t matter how good your product is if no one is shopping for it in the first place. But this assessment doesn’t go far enough. It’s not just that attractional methods stopped working. They specifically helped to create the reality of malformed discipleship we now live in as a church.

Even if we did not vocalize it, we  have implicitly taught people by our methodology that the church exists to scratch their spiritual itch. "We have what you want. We have what your family will like. Stuff for your kids! Sports stuff! All the self help studies you could ever desire! We have cappuccino, music that you won't hate, services that won’t impose on your Sunday schedule, language that will make you feel just like you're hanging out with your dudes, trendy pastors to make you feel cooler than you really are. Come and get it at our church!" Our method is our message, and that message forms people. We try our best to bait and switch. Get them in the door and hope they catch some Jesus along the way. But it doesn't work that way. As Kyle Idleman says, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” People won over by coffee, cool, and a better youth group haven't been formed in virtue in the ways required when dealing with global catastrophe or racial injustice. If the call of Christ is, as Bonhoeffer says, “a call to come and die,” we have explicitly undermined our stated goal of making disciples by the very way we got folks in the door.

Average worship attendance is not a bad metric, but when it becomes the driving metric it undermines the Great Commission. Why does the American church like to separate Jesus' message from his method? No doubt there are cultural differences, but perhaps the Son of God knew something about how to make disciples. Jesus invested in the few to reach the many. We clamor for the many and see true transformation in very few. As Robert Coleman writes in The Master Plan of Evangelism, “[Jesus’] concern was not with programs to reach multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow.”

Christian movements tend to grow by raising the bar of expectation, not by reducing the cost to join. Whether looking at the current house church movement in communist China, the rapidly growing church in Iran, or to historical movements like our own Wesleyan revival, there are plentiful examples of places where Christianity flourishes when the cost of commitment is clear. People are fundamentally longing for something more than mildly religious entertainment and self-help. They are yearning to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want their lives to count for something. I think this is evidenced by the way various cultural movements like Black Lives Matter have gained dramatic appeal among younger generations. It is no coincidence that the majority of the places where Christianity is growing also happen to be places where choosing Jesus requires real sacrifice. Costly discipleship is the essence of Jesus’ way. When Jesus left the earth, he did not have a big church, but he did have women and men who were willing to die for his vision.

I do not grieve the death of consumeristic Christianity in the West. I think dramatic cultural shifts are helping to remove more swiftly any remaining illusion of Christendom. I believe those that stand for orthodox Christian belief will face increasing scrutiny and perhaps even true persecution in the coming days. But in a strange way I am almost grateful. It allows us to see ourselves as we really are.

The Kingdom of God has never expanded by way of power, prestige, or allegiance with cultural elites. Jesus taught us to think about the Kingdom like a mustard seed, or a little yeast, that looks small and unassuming and yet over time grows to affect all the rest. And so, in all of this, I am actually full of great hope, first because the church of Jesus Christ will prevail in the end, and second because God is stirring up his people in a new way.

In Spirit & Truth, the ministry I helped to birth and currently lead, I am seeing a rising movement of pastors, leaders, and everyday church members who are yearning for something more than they have received in our consumer-minded churches of recent decades. I am seeing more and more people who are dissatisfied with a simple exchange of religious goods and services on Sunday morning, and it makes me hopeful. The church in the U.S. may be numerically smaller for the foreseeable future, but within this pruned tree there is an opportunity for vibrant life again.

So where do we go from here? What is our response as the people of God in this time of reckoning and stirring? What we need is not something new, but something old. I feel a rising compulsion to get back to the basics, to pursue a vision that Wesley might have called “the Primitive Church.”

Here are three ways we are sensing God’s move within Spirit & Truth, which have helped shape our vision. We are:

  1. Empowered by the Spirit. This is a time when God’s people are realizing that human answers are not enough. Evil is too real. Brokenness is too pervasive. Spiritual forces are too heavy. The manifest truth that no amount of human striving can fix our world leads to an increased yearning for more of the supernatural power only available through the Holy Spirit. Even from folks who have not been classically labeled “charismatic” or “pentecostal” we are seeing a new thirst for and openness to the Spirit. The death of self-help approaches to Christianity make more room for Spirit-filled empowerment, seeking God for more than we can manufacture on our own.

  2. Rooted in the Truth. Some renewal movements have pursued more of the Spirit but have become too easily untethered from the theological anchor of the historic Church. I believe the coming revival will have deep theological roots. People are tired of “lowest common denominator” Christianity. We are seeing more and more people who are dead set on moving forward by looking back. We need robust theological formation that is rooted in the Biblical canon and historic apostolic witness. Christianity has substance. Perhaps fewer consumers looking for quick fixes means we can lead people to feast on the fullness of our ancient faith. This in turn will allow us to wrestle in deep ways with modern issues.

  3. Mobilized for the Mission. Consumer Christianity has created a class system for ministry. We have handed over the job of evangelism and discipleship to trained professionals. Consumers don’t produce themselves. They just consume what the experts are selling. Throughout history, significant moves of God, like the Wesleyan revival, always included a mobilized laity, everyday Christians who see themselves as everyday missionaries. At Spirit & Truth we are seeing a renewed hunger among laity for the work of ministry. Christians formed as real disciples are intrinsically compelled to reproduce their faith in the life of others. Evangelism and discipleship are the basic call of all disciples, not a select few employed on a church staff. Empowering more Christians to move beyond pew-sitting consumption, not merely in service roles within the church or community but actively engaging in the Great Commission, will be vital in this new season of post-Christendom  in the West.

The best part of any sort of death in the Church is that we serve a God who specializes in raising the dead. Death before life: that’s the way of the cross and the heart of our faith. In these trying times I see signs of death for a certain way of being the church all around me. But thanks be to God, he gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. The consumer church is being burned up by our God who is a consuming fire. Harder yet better days lie ahead. Matt Reynolds is the Founder and President of Spirit & Truth, a Wesleyan-minded equipping ministry that offers hands-on training, online resources, a ministry leaders network, and opportunities for partnership with the global church. Firebrand Magazine is a ministry of Spirit & Truth. Prior to launching Spirit & Truth, Matt served in pastoral ministry with the United Methodist Church for about 13 years.

Matt ReynoldsJuly 20, 2020


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