John Parker on Churches That Give You What You Want, But Not What You Need
With fifteen movies playing at the local multiplex cinema, each playing six times during the day, I have ninety options. One chosen, ticket purchased, I enter the building and am directed to Theater 14, on the right past the concession stand. The concession stand is like a food court; I might as well have arrived an hour earlier and eaten dinner here. Gone are the days when popcorn, soda, and Mike-and-Ikes were about the only options.
Every conceivable genre of movie, every conceivable type of food. Every hour of the day and evening. Who would ever have thought that churches might take this as their model for operation?
I once served at a church that wanted to buy an old theater, positioned perfectly along the main thoroughfare in our town. The rector was a keen student of pop culture. He had read every George Barna book published. He went to conferences on church growth. He even loaded up our staff of nine in a rental van early one weekday morning for a road trip to a distant city for a Barna church growth conference.
The cinema concept was already in place at the church on Sundays: early-morning “traditional” Communion service with no music in the neo-gothic historic chapel, with the celebrant in cassock and surplice; a 9:00 “contemporary” Communion service in the parish hall, complete with praise band and torchiere lighting to set the mood, and the service projected on the wall; a concurrent 9:30 prayer service for children and their families in the old church, with the celebrant only in an alb; an 11:00 traditional Eucharist with full, vested choir in the chapel, with the celebrant in chasuble; and a concurrent free-flowing 11:15 service, which went beyond contemporary, with bands, skits, and so forth, and definitely no vestments. The concept was this: We’ve got something for everyone, and at every standard Sunday morning hour.
So it was a natural conclusion that our parish should pursue buying the old Cineplex. It would give us more space and more options. It would give us more visibility. It would give us a space that “didn’t look like church,” so those who were not comfortable with “organized religion” would feel comfortable coming through the doors.
Add to this picture another local church, which purchased and refurbished a dilapidated old restaurant and opened its doors to the town. This church spent thousands of dollars direct-mailing local residents three or four times. Their most common mailer listed the top ten reasons why someone should attend their church.
Among them were the standard church-growth enticements: You can dress however you want; we won’t ask you for money, because giving is for members, not for visitors; we will treat you like family. Near the top was this surprise: “We serve great coffee at the coffee bar, which opens fifteen minutes before the service. Come a bit early, get a cup o’ joe, find a seat, and enjoy the music and the message.”
No Suitable Place
Consider a third local church. For years, they have worshipped in their gigantic auditorium. It is already a theater, though not a multiplex (though it has multiple local “campuses” where a variety of different demographics—youth, gen-x, etc.—have their services). They pop popcorn in the lobby. This is not surprising, given the genre of church. But the reason is shocking: because studies show that the smell of popcorn pleases people—it puts them in a good mood.
Until now, this church has never had a place “suitable” for “that special day.” Who wants to get married on a stage? In a warehouse? In a theater? So few, if any, that even secular wedding chapels are shaped like neo-gothic churches, only without the hindrances, “baggage,” and “trappings” (like a pastor or priest) of a church. Folks are willing to worship in a big metal building, but for that special day, they want a church.
Thus, this church is building a “traditional wedding chapel” next to their auditorium. It is described in the online video update as having “a center aisle,” “traditional architecture” and seating for 250—“perfect for that special day.” The video update concludes with chamber music and the gonging of church bells, two sounds never heard in the history of that place.
This church also has a Sunday evening service at 5:00, “for families.” Presumably, these folks have soccer, baseball, or football games that preclude Sunday morning attendance. Another local congregation holds a Sunday evening service of Communion marketed towards twenty- and thirty-somethings. One wonders about the reason: Is Sunday “my only day to sleep in”? Or is it that late night partying has taken its toll on the Lord’s morning? Other local churches offer Saturday night services to give their congregants the option of having all of Sunday free.
A Wanting Church
What force is driving these four churches? It is the market. They are market-driven churches. Now, a good pastor must know “the market.” Indeed, St. Paul taught that we should become all things to all people, that by all means we may save some. To the Jews as a Jew in order to save the Jews, to the Gentiles as a Gentile to save the Gentiles, to the Romans as a Roman . . . (cf. 1 Cor. 9:20–22).
But he was speaking of evangelism, not catechism, and certainly not worship. In these churches, Sunday morning has at once a very distinct audience and none at all. The gathered are at once considered faithful and seeker, saved and lost. It is evident in the preaching, and more evident in the growing numbers of churches that invite “anyone who loves God and is drawn to Jesus” to Communion—baptized or not, believer or not.
The marketed church offers just what everyone wants: the music I want (or don’t), the time I want, the length of service I want, the type of language I want, the style of music I want, the amount of intimacy and responsibility I want, and in some cases, even the pastor I want. But is the gospel a message about the satisfaction of wants?
The marketed church confuses Sunday worship and catechism with evangelism and outreach. What is the difference? Mere Christian Sunday worship has always been for the Christian community (the baptized) to offer thanks to God, to sing his praise, and to feed on the Word. Evangelism has been done by conversation in the marketplace, preaching in the public square, but even more, simply by the witness of increasingly holy lives.
In the Orthodox tradition in some parts of the world, even the catechumens preparing to be baptized are still dismissed before the Nicene Creed is said. As it was in the early Church, they are not permitted to be in the church during the Eucharist. This may be seen as extreme today (and is, even within the Orthodox tradition), but it makes clear who is the “audience” of Sunday morning services: God, not the gathered. The baptized faithful come to offer their thanks to him, to be transformed by him, not to be convinced that he is Lord.
The market-driven theater church can ultimately pit Christians against Christians and Christians against seekers. It pits Christians against Christians by dividing the body on Sundays. Rather than worshipping one Lord, in one Faith, by one Baptism at one Table, they choose based on desires: Do I want loud music today or a quiet meditative atmosphere? Do I want to hear pastor A or pastor B preach today? Or they choose according to schedules: What time is the soccer tournament Sunday morning? Am I going golfing or surfing early—or should I attend at eight o’clock so I can hit the beach at 11, nearer to high tide?
Likewise, which group of the many “wins” on a church retreat where there will be just one service? Whose desires get served and whose do not when the reduced summer schedule is introduced? Whenever a decision has to be made, who gets what they want and who doesn’t?
Resentment builds when services are perpetually dumbed down—when many services, even the most common and regular, become like talk shows (“Hey, I’m Pastor Mike and I am going to be your celebrant today!”) or instructional videos (“Now we are going to sing. Please open the blue hymnal and turn to 304”). Every moment of every service every Sunday becomes a repetitive catechism, and it is assumed that no one ever learns.
The Church needs, indeed, to have many outlets, ways, and means to share the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But the Church universal, until very, very recently in a small section of Western Christianity, has always distinguished between Sunday worship and welcoming newcomers or visitors.
What may have been an innocent, unstudied effort to “bring in more people” has turned into an institution (and market) of its own. “Baptized believers” now make their desires known about what they do and do not want in churches.
The Church from its inception has never been “market driven.” By divine institution, it cannot change according to the whims of society, the drive of the market, the desires of the people. Indeed, it would be spiritually dangerous to do so. The Church is gathered to worship together as a community of faith, and to go forth into the world to present the gospel to all who will hear, that on the last day, we each may enter and be seated at that Great Heavenly Banquet on the Never-Ending Day of his Kingdom.
John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, a mission parish of the Orthodox Church in America, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. He earned his MDiv (2001) at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and his MTh (2004) at St. Vladimir?s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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