I once lived in a geographic area in which there was always one “cool” or trendy church. It was the church that everyone and their mother– literally– went to for worship. No matter where you were in town, you heard about what was going on at this church.
The interesting part is that every few years the “cool” church lost its trendy status. As in, the church that was the “cool” church was no longer cool for some reason, and a different church in the area would become the “cool” church. And most of the people who went to the previous “cool” church were now going to the new “cool” church.
I began to call each trendy church the “church du jour.” People would be on fire about their congregation– until they weren’t. Then they started going to the new congregation… and the cycle repeated itself every 2-5 years.
The people who kept church hopping from one trendy church to the next were, in essence, church consumers. They saw church as something to consume– once it no longer held its luster, they lost interest and moved on to consume somewhere else. They were serial church shopper consumers.
The practice of church shopping has slowly made its way into our experience as Christians, spurred on by Western consumer culture. It perpetuates a cycle of constantly rotating churches based on preferences and personal “needs” rather than settling into a congregation for the long haul, getting involved, and building relationships.
When I talk about church shopping, I don’t mean the folks who just moved to a new area and are looking for a congregation to call home. That is a normal aspect to moving and finding a new church community.
By church shopping, I mean the many of us (and those we know and love) who are constantly looking for their perfect church and shop around every few years. Church shoppers approach finding a church in the same way they approach finding a new pair of pants– looking around at all the options, choosing one that fits their preferences, “buying” it, and then discarding it when it no longer suits them.
Church shopping illustrates some of the biggest themes consumerism perpetuates in our culture today. Here are three major ones:
Focus on Me
“Treat yo’self.” “You’re worth it.” “You deserve it.” These are constant statements we hear from advertisements in order to get us to buy more stuff. Having good self worth is a decent thing in itself– but when it gets exploited to make a buck, problems occur.
We have internalized consumerism’s focus on self so much that we now do it when we look for a church home. Sermon not to our liking? Didn’t sing your favorite song? Pastor/worship leader/congregants not wearing skinny jeans and a plaid shirt? If the worship service isn’t 100% what we want, we move on. Or, we complain tirelessly to leaders to MAKE it what we want. And when that doesn’t happen, we move on.
Corey Widmer has a great theory on worship preferences he calls The 75% Rule. We should never like/be happy with more than 75% of what’s going on in worship. Why? Because worship is not for you. I mean, it is– but it’s also for everyone else. It’s not ONLY for you. It’s for the person sitting next to you, and the person in the back who’s there twice a month, and the person who always sits in front, and even the person who isn’t even there yet. Community worship should not be an expression of your personal piety. Worship is for everyone.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.Mark 12:31
Jesus reminds us that, even back when he walked the earth, humans had the tendency to always think of ourselves before others. But Jesus invites us to love others as much as we love ourselves. We can stop living into consumer culture by expecting churches to be they way WE want them to be, and enjoy the fact that worship is for everyone.
Consumer culture teaches us that everything is expendable. We are encouraged to consume something only as long as it suits us, and then discard it without a second thought (and then buy more!). This is why landfills are overflowing, and we get rid of things so quickly.
We have begun looking at churches the same way we look at our stuff– expendable, discard-able. The minute something is not to our liking, or we just simply lose interest, we pull our tithes and offerings and/or leave. Congregations– which should be mission stations devoted to loving and serving God and others– have become consumable products that we can chuck whenever we want.
The thing is, the Church isn’t a consumable product. It’s not something to experience and then toss aside like yesterday’s lunch. It’s a faith community built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.Ephesians 2:19-22
The Church is the community of the people of God, where people can connect with God, each other, and the world. We are in need of people who do not look at the Church as their own personal product to be consumed and discarded, but as a community in Christ called to share Jesus’ unconditional love with everyone.
Confusing Wants with Needs
Consumer culture is predicated on confusing our wants with our needs. Ads attempt to convince us that we NEED this product in order to get us to buy it. But 95% of the time, that product fills a WANT rather than an actual need.
Because we are so used to living in a consumer culture, we are constantly mixing up needs versus wants. We actually need a lot less than we think we do.
When we church shop, we typically confuse needs with wants, and we look for a church that “meets our needs.” This is basic church consumption. We shop for church the way we shop for anything else.
But what’s really happening when we look for a church that “meets our needs” is that we are confusing needs and wants. What we think we need in a congregation is almost always a want. Do we really NEED the pastor to look the way we personally think a pastor should look? Do we NEED the worship music to 100% reflect exactly how we think the music should be? No, of course not.
Our actual spiritual needs are that the Church is Jesus’ beacon of light and hope, that the Good News is proclaimed and people gather together to read the Bible, pray, and worship together– and that they are sent out to share the Good News with others. Almost everything else is a want.
And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:19
Being Church in a Consumer Culture
As followers of Jesus, we are called to live out our faith in love and by focusing on what’s most important. Our consumer culture has twisted our understanding of ourselves, expendability, and our needs. Jesus invites us to a different path:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:2
May we, with God’s help, resist conforming to consumer culture and be transformed and renewed in Christ Jesus. Amen?
Nicholas CarrollJanuary 27, 2020 - 8:41 am
I love this article! You addressed one of my favorite things to rant about. I was once told by a departing church member that they were leaving because they weren’t being “fed” to which I said, “Well we do have communion every week”. They did of course move to the “cool” church of the time. In my opinion as a church musician “church shopping” is also a product of the “worship wars”. When we decided worship music should be commercialized it bled into everything else. For a time it was music that determined what was the cool church and the more commercial rock star-type worship the “cooler”. After all no one is making much money from writing regular congregational hymns.
I think what bothers me most about the “church shopping” concept is the same thing that bothers me about that style of music… how little theology matters to the shoppers. The teachings of Jesus and how well a specific church tries to follow them is not even considered. I’m seeing a trend in my area where even beyond just “church shopping” new churches are being created all the time to fit someone’s specific taste. It seems that even the many different churches out there aren’t enough and even more new churches need to be made in our image, to suit us. I pray about this a lot. Thanks for article I wish there was more we could do about it.
Ava NorbergJanuary 27, 2020 - 10:23 am
Amen! Thank you for your insights!