Monday Morning Insights

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    Congregations Gone Wild

    Congregations Gone Wild

    A United Church of Christ pastor, G. Jeffrew MacDonald, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times over the weekend that he entitled "Congregations Gone Wild"  Here's part of what he says...

    THE American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

    The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

    As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

    MacDonald then goes on to describe what he considers 'consumer-driven religion' as something that has completely rewritten the job description of many pastors.  He says:  "They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly."

    I clearly don't run in the United Church of Christ circles, abut I find MacDonald's assessment of the 'consumer-driven' church to be a little off-base.

    If anything, I don't find these trends to be 'consumer-driven' but rather 'pastor-driven'.

    Starting back with the old Willow "seeker sensitive' style of worship service, emphasis shifted to make the worship experience more palatable, not necessarily for the believer, but for the unbeliever.  Music, message topics... literally everything was turned upside down in order to reach a target audience.  Some still argue that that in the rush to be more relevant, the gospel was watered down.  Of course, Willow has since changed its strategy because of a number of reasons.  (and we could debate the whole SS movement all day long).  But my point:  this wasn't consumer driven. It was pastor-driven.

    In fact, many of the church's that I have the opportunity to work with that are really kickin' it are FAR from consumer driven.  They are staff and lead pastor driven.  Services are crafted, not by what Jill or Jane in the pew wants to hear; but rather by what the leadership feels will make the greatest impact on their lives; and what will communicate the gospel in the most powerful and dramatic way.

    The pastors of these types of churches, while they have the contemporary (whatever that means) music and flashing lights, do NOT want to lull people with what they want to hear, or to soothe or entertain anyone.  Not by any means.

    MacDonald bases his feelings on an experience that happened to him.  The advisory committee of his small congregation in Massachusetts toldhim  to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

    This may be the norm in his circle of churches, but it's just not something I hear happening often in the churches I'm familiar with.

    In fact, I find most church members to be rather apathetic and complacent.  Unless the sermons are REALLY bad or REALLY long, they don't make much of a fuss on worship content.  They will make a fuss over other miniscule things that allow them power though:  things like finances and facilities.

    I'll be the first to admit... I've seen a few congregations that have gone wild.  But in each and every case I know, it's been because of the pastors or leadership, rather than the congregation.

    You can read all of MacDonald's op-ed here. 

    What do you think?  Are the trends in today's church consumer-driven or pastor-driven?  I'd love to hear your thoughts...



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    1. Matthew Rathbun on Mon, August 09, 2010

      Great insight.  I think it’s a bit of both.  With the hyper-connectivity of the world and easy of transportation it’s become easier to attend churchs that speak “our language”.  Where the worship is what we like and the preaching is challenging and understandable.

      Gone are the days where one attends their church, because mom and dad did and it’s just local.

      Church leadership sets the tone.  If their tone is to create an environment where Gen X/Y and is comfortable than yes, it’s going to be a lot more work.

    2. Peter Hamm on Mon, August 09, 2010

      [The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways]...

      I guess that might be a way to say it, but a pastor’s role is to equip the saints for works of ministry… No reason imho to try and re-cast what Paul says in Ephesians on that.

      And I think you’re right. The good stuff and the problems in the church might indeed be “pastor driven”, whether that’s a pastor training his congregation to be consumers or to be the church.

      Then again… I have to say that I take everything from anybody in the UCC with a grain of salt, as they seem to disagree with me (and I might argue, historic christianity) on more than a few key elements…

    3. Corbett Reeves on Mon, August 09, 2010


      I totally agree.  As I read the quoted section I was already formulating my disagreement with the same thoughts that you’ve shared.  I’ve encountered some churches where the congregants call all the shots, but in my experience that’s only because of very weak leadership from the pulpit.  The phrase “You teach people how to treat you” applies here.


    4. CS on Mon, August 09, 2010

      I can see and understand both parts of this argument.  It is indeed both consumer-driven and pastor-driven.  It’s symbiotic; without one, the other would not exist.  There’s a verse that summarizes this perfectly:

      “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. (2 Timothy 4:3-4).”

      Like MacDonald said, people want to be entertained and placated.  I would also agree that the opposite is true, which is that they do not want to be admonished, taught, or confronted with the hard things of Scripture.

      Consequently, pastors reply in turn by giving them what they want.  Or, the pastors have a, “vision,” for how they want things to go, and subsequently run the church as they so please, even outside the bounds of having accountability.  Flashing back to my last church, several of us once remarked, “You know, the pastors could take all the tithes and run off and do something completely insane and none of us would be able to do anything about it.”


    5. Fred on Mon, August 09, 2010

      It WAS pastor driven, but a lot of the “purpose” was and is to bring in and keep members for financial reasons instead of reaching the lost with the Gospel.

    6. Leonard on Tue, August 10, 2010

      Why Fred, I am so glad you know the hearts of so many pastors.  With insight like that…  Oh never mind.

    7. Brianmpei on Tue, August 10, 2010

      We are immersed in a consumer driven culture.  To suggest that churches are pastor driven rather than consume driven fails you fail to understand our context.  It would be like saying a TV sitcom is writer, producer or director driven rather than consumer driven.  These roles may dictate what goes onto the screen but there’s a vast system that researches what people want and gives them exactly that.  Shows that don’t find their ratings down and they’re soon gone.

      Pastors, like all of us, are so enculturated they can’t help but be consumer driven.

      The nature of consumerism is to be apathetic until someone changes the formula and gives them New Coke.  Then you hear from them, the ratings drop, attendance wanes.

      Willow Creek started with Team Hybels going door to door with a consumer survey.  The main question was, what kind of church WOULD you go to? And then they built it.  I’m all for team Hybels, by the way, but let’s be honest, since the Scopes Monkey Trial when we felt the ratings shift, we’ve been all about consumer driven.

      There’s a fairly generic quality about many mega-churches - maybe formulaic is a better word - and many smaller churches are just imitating the big churches hoping that will get them there.  This is consumer driven even if it comes from pastors getting new franchise ideas at Catalyst and coming home to implement them.  At heart it is all based on consumerism.  That is our culture.

    8. Leonard on Tue, August 10, 2010

      The myth of consumer driven is that everyone is.  It is not as if all of the sudden Hybles did something that created consumer driven models.  He simply identified a new consumer and build a Christ centered approach to impacting their lives.  (AKA - pastor driven) 

      It was the consumers of a more traditional blend of religion that complained he was not serving their flavor.  This group was expert at justifying their consumer driven approach from the bible. 

      Jesus had consumers, the 12 were consumers, the crowds were consumers, the 120 were consumers…  You are a consumer and so am I.  Guess we are what we eat.

    9. CS on Tue, August 10, 2010


      “The myth of consumer driven is that everyone is.  It is not as if all of the sudden Hybles did something that created consumer driven models.”

      No, but what he did was to take this model and prolifically propagate it throughout a wide spectrum of Christianity, which had not happened before.  Between California and Illinois alone, for instance, there are over 600 members of the WCA.

      “He simply identified a new consumer and build a Christ centered approach to impacting their lives.  (AKA - pastor driven)”

      How is it pastor-driven when the focus was on the consumer and what they wanted?  And how is that Christ-centered?

      “It was the consumers of a more traditional blend of religion that complained he was not serving their flavor.  This group was expert at justifying their consumer driven approach from the bible.  “

      Christians are not, “consumers.”  They are part of the body of Christ, which is radically different.  The same goes for any other popular analogy relating to capitalistic business like saying, “God is my CEO.”

      However, when the goal is to market a local church to unbelievers, then it does come down to marketing, branding, and other means of enticement, which was the exact point the author of the article focused on.


    10. Brianmpei on Tue, August 10, 2010

      The thing is, CS, here in North America popular culture IS consumer driven.  We are born and raised in it.  Anyone born since 1950 is well versed in it.  Words like “have it your way” and “you deserve a break today” have become our filters for life.  Becoming a Christian doesn’t suddenly take that away.  Just like the early Christians struggled with their orientation to Nationalism or their proclivity for stoicism or epicurean philosophy we continue to have our consumerism refined out of us.  But it’s a process enacted and enabled by grace.

      The first step is admitting you’ve got a problem.  But we’ve sanctifiied it, codified it and programmed it right into Church Growth.

    11. Peter Hamm on Tue, August 10, 2010

      And the church has been consumer driven since before Hybels and Warren were born.

      As part of the body of Christ, I agree, we are not consumers.

      But in practice, nearly all of us are.

    12. Leonard on Tue, August 10, 2010

      We sure are consumers.  Being a consumer is not a sin, nor is it necessarily selfish or evil.  Being a consumer simple means I have things I prefer and want over other things and in my preference and desire, I choose what to consume. 

      The body of Christ is filled with consumers.  We judge churches on doctrine, music, style, ease, location…  because we are consuming something.  We might even be consuming the right thing, but make no mistake…  ALL People are consumers.  I travel to many parts of the world and guess what… they are there as well. 

      Christians are consumers…  We come to Christ based upon His invitation and His ability to meet a need.  I need forgiveness, I need hope, I need salvation, I need truth,  Christ enters and by the power of God’s Spirit I am drawn and when I am…  I consume.  so do you.

    13. Scott Hobbs on Fri, August 13, 2010

      This is one of the larger discussions for our time as the church.  How do we “do” church and is it making disciples, AND for that matter, what does a disciple look like?

      There are certain practices we should have as believers (i.e. Acts 2:42-47, Luke 10:27, Matthew 28) - we sing, we give, we serve, we teach, we learn, we have community, we should go, etc.  However, how does that translate to a 2010, Sunday morning, one to two hour gathering in American culture?

      For one, I think there is a lot of emphasis on the once a week gathering to be the be all and end all.  Ed Young says, “It’s all about Sunday Morning” (from his book, Creative Pastor).  I would politely disagree and say, “It’s all about Jesus and I need to live like it all week.” However, I know there has to be an intentional process in the body of Christ to love folks, introduce them to Christ, bring the into the family, and begin to walk this thing out.  I don’t think that the presentation matters as long as the Gospel is clearly preached and Jesus is lifted up. (Of course, therein lies the argument, right?)

      I certainly believe that all of us could do with a little less materialistic consumerism and learn to have more of a give and serve mindset.

      My prayer is that those who answer to call to lead will be God driven (Holy Spirit led) and that those who attend will become the same.

    14. David, justopenthebook on Thu, August 26, 2010

      A couple of ideas - first, has the church become so “seeker sensitive” that we miss the point of making disciples?  I think it vaires by church, but Paul and the early church were absolutely uncompromising about the Gospel.  Winning souls is about letting the Spirit convict and attract those called, not watering down Jesus so more people are likely to take Him in.

      Second, pastor burnout is a serious issue.  From what I have seen, the role of pastor includes way too many hats.  Why should someone who is gifted as a speaker also be required be a visionary, chief administrator, personal counselor, chief financial officer, moral authority/enforcer, traveling spokesman, and great husband and dad?  I think envisioning the leadership of the church as a team, of multiple pastors and elders, and dividing duties based on each person’s gifts, could go a long way to help. 

      Ultimately, any church leader should be judged based on one criteria - obedience to God.  Where God guides, He provides.

    15. Aerobics Trainer on Mon, August 30, 2010

      I really loved reading your thoughts.

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