Consumers vs. Disciples
This morning I was involved in a conversation about “consumer-driven” models of church. Especially in a cultural context where churches find themselves competing for “market-share” with other churches, it becomes quite easy for churches to come to see themselves as “service-providers” in some form or another. People come to us to have their “religious” needs met and we are expected to accommodate them by providing a package that is uplifting, inspiring, intellectually stimulating, or some other desirable adjective along with a whole host of articulated and unarticulated social needs. If we don’t meet these needs appropriately or enthusiastically or sensitively or “relevantly” enough, well, there’s a whole host of other churches that will (or will claim to). That’s what churches are for, after all.
Or maybe not. William Willimon’s is a pastoral voice that I have grown to appreciate over the last little while and I was pleased to recently discover that he has entered the blogosphere. I’ve spent the last day or so chewing on his most recent post which deals with this very topic. For Willimon, churches that understand themselves as service providers for religious consumers have fundamentally misunderstood their reason for being:
[T]his understanding has misplaced the true purpose of the church and distorted its nature. The point is not membership. The church does not have clients, members, or consumers of goods and services. The point is discipleship. The church exists to form and sustain individuals and a people who are followers of Jesus Christ, who are his disciples. Rather than buying into a consumer model of the church, where the customer is king and the church simply meets customers’ needs, the church does more; the church redefines our true needs. The church transforms people according to the life and pattern revealed by God in Jesus Christ. It unites them with others who are committed to this way of life.
Like Willimon, I have no interest in being a service provider of religious goods. I have no desire to meet needs just for the sake of meeting needs. Needs, as it turns out, are limitless and, as Willimon points out, the legitimacy of some needs ought to be challenged. They need to be shaped and reoriented. The job of the church is not to take whatever vague socio-religious sentiment/demand happens to be drifting about and set about to satisfying it in a “Christian” manner. We must be sensitive to human need in all its forms, but we must also go beyond this to interpret and reshape these needs in light of a definite pattern and goal. This, as Willimon points out, is what discipleship is all about.
I should be clear. It’s not as though I think needs are unimportant or that the church shouldn’t be interested in them. If I claim to believe (and I do) that the gospel is addressed to the deepest and most profound point of human need, then it makes sense that how we “do church” should reflect this. But the church is not (or at least should not be) a market-driven organization that caters to the religious tastes of its consumers. In fact, if we’re doing our job, the consumers should always be a little restless, a little unsettled, perhaps even a little confused, disoriented, provoked, or annoyed.
So are we, as churches, producing disciples or consumers? It’s a tough question to wrestle with. I fear that too often it is the latter. We want to survive, after all. As churches, we occupy space in a decidedly post-Christian cultural context where the we are often perceived to be antiquated and irrelevant at best. And one way to survive in this context is to give people what they want. To market ourselves to the “religious” segment of the population and make sure we keep our “share” of this (shrinking) demographic. To meet people’s needs. But if we do this, we end up as little more than a social club or charitable organization that happens to have a vaguely Christian veneer.
This isn’t useless. But it also isn’t church.