The Church as a Christian Nordstrom?

It's time to rethink the role and nature of the local church, particularly the full-service, "one stop shopping" larger church. In my opinion, one of the problems with a large program church is that it's easy for a culture of consumerism to penetrate its walls. Often this is subtle and unintentional. Let me explain: Large, well-maintained, highly professional, and well-organized churches can send off what I might call a "spiritualized Nordstrom" vibe. The staff and leaders of the church may strive to develop an attractive facility with high quality goods and services. The church becomes an oasis of respite from the world (we can almost hear the tinkling of the piano greet us in the lobby!). Polite professional people offer to help us and they present a high quality ministry designed to meet our needs. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But there can be a shadow side: for those not deeply vested in the church, for those who mainly visit it for its services, they may be tempted to default to an unconscious Christian consumerism. As with their purchasing habits in other areas, they can become discerning church consumers looking for the best deal on the dollar. When the quality of goods and services dips, they may look elsewhere.

Interestingly, in this consumerist paradigm, a curious co-dependence can form between leaders and church members: the more professionalized, on-top-of-things, and in-control the leadership of the church appears, the more the membership may be tempted to retreat into the role of savvy spenders, carefully weighing the quality of services and programs in the free market economy of churches in the area. The more active and professional the leadership presents itself, the more passive and consumerist the congregation becomes. Not always, thank goodness, but sometimes.

Times of change and upheaval in a church (just like an uncertain economy for a high-end department store) challenge the paradigm and poke holes in it. What's occurred to me recently, is that the bigger church is not so much like a spiritual Nordstrom, but more like a big family. Like all of our families the church can be a place of successful nurture and celebration, safety, and predictability. But, like our very real families, sometimes the church, even the large one, is a place of brokenness and dysfunction, struggle and sin, uncertainty, vulnerability, and weakness. This is no reason to leave it for a better deal elsewhere--think what happens to families when family members do that! No, the church as family, as opposed to the church as Nordstrom, is the place of deepened commitment and growth. When challenges come, we re-commit, we work together, we try to communicate more effectively, we even call for outside help as needed. Church as family? Or church as department store? If it's the latter, "buyer beware!"

8 comments:

Ann said...

I have personally always felt uncomfortable in the big, carefully presented and splashy mega-churches. Maybe it's just me, but I find they lack authenticity and seem to be putting on a show rather than living as a community. One reason I like First Pres, is that we have "dirt under our fingernails" - an imperfect kitchen, weeds in the garden and perhaps a leak in the roof. And that's o.k. because its home and having a perfect church isn't something we can achieve on our own anyway.

I would also add "the more professionalized, on-top-of-things, and in-control the leadership of the church appears," the less real, human and approachable the leadership of the church seems. An attitude of "I've got all the answers" from the pulpit both lulls the congregants into turning off their brains and discourages deep dialogue among parishioners.

Thanks for the great post.
Merry Christmas.
Ann in Bratislava, Slovakia

Carl Hofmann said...

Ann,
What insightful comments--thank you! Yes, we're a far-from-perfect church, thank goodness, but I must say, our new kitchen is quite an improvement!

In this season of transition at First Pres, as we feel "thin" in reduced staff, we have opportunity to experience God's thickness as a community. I'm glad you're a part of us, even from Slovakia!

Blessings this season,
Carl

Allan Harvey said...

Carl, I think you have diagnosed a significant malady of our church (and many others) in recent years. An important aspect of that is the symbiosis where, when people start viewing themselves as consumers of ministry, church staff and leadership tends to see itself more and more as the providers (and marketers!) of this product being consumed, reinforcing the consumer mentality in the pews. When a church (both staff and laity) sees itself as having professionals who do the "real" ministry and then the rest who are consumers of the ministry, we are not being the interdependent Body of Christ we are intended to be.

The question now becomes, "How do we break this vicious circle?" The "consumer" mentality is deeply ingrained in modern American culture, including Evangelical Christian culture. And in each of us individually, myself certainly included. Somehow the church has to become counter-cultural, but there are many obstacles in the way of such a revolution.

Carl Hofmann said...

Allan,
"How do we break this vicious cycle?" is indeed the question. I'm tempted to say, "With difficulty." If a proportion of church members/attenders comes to church to consume goods and services, when said items diminish in quality or frequency, many will opt for better deals elsewhere. Those who are left may be teachable and dig in with greater commitment resulting in greater transformation. Additionally, those who are plugged into meaningful places of community and/or service may remain and deepen in their discipleship. Short of these two ties, which can transform, many are left consuming--and shopping around.

My thoughts for now. Happy Boxing Day!
Carl

Allan Harvey said...

Before this drops off the front page ...

It sounds like you are saying part of breaking the "vicious cycle" of consumer church is for the church leadership to cease positioning itself as providers of something to be consumed. And I agree.

But I think another part is for leadership (including prophetic preaching) to actively (with grace!) oppose our consumer culture. What would happen if the preacher some Sunday told the congregation that they were letting Jesus down if they were passive consumers of church (and of worldly marketing outside church)? Or if the preacher named "the American dream" as an idol to be deposed?

I remember reading about a large church pastor in Minnesota a few years ago who preached a series along related lines, and maybe 1/4 of the congregation thought he was being un-American and left the church. But I bet what was left was a more faithful remnant ...

Susan Hildebrecht said...

I've got a question for you. What does it say about believers when you feel as if they are looking for the ecclesiological equivalent of Nordstrom? You know - multiple programs to choose from for each member of the family not unlike hats, scarves and mittens in all colors of the rainbow. When they don't like the programs being offered, they switch churches not unlike a shopper switching from Nordstrom to Bloomingdale's.

Ed said...

I am extremely curious of this topic. After finishing off "Jim & Casper Go To Church" I have taken a keen interest in the definition of Church. What is it? A weekly respite, a place of community, a place to "be seen", a place to serve, a place to learn, a place I've grown up with. Likely a mix of all these. Nonetheless, as the book suggests in the Introduction, I'm afraid that Church culture has created alot of religionists..."insincere and/or fake followers" as the book suggests. People that follow a religion rather than Jesus. Why can't we, as Christians, be more honest and authentic with our faith and our brokenness?! My fav part of the book was "Big Church or Church Big" the descript of Lawndale Community Church. Talk about the hands and feet of Jesus integrated into the Church community. Awesome!!

Carl said...

Allan, Susan, and Ed--
Thanks for sharing your thoughts in response to this post. I think what's needed in this discussion about church is reframing: to shift the paradigm from "where" and "what" to "who." If we default to church as "place" (the "where"), we lapse into comparing it to other places (auditoriums, a mall, a department store, or a business, for example) and then our focus is on the "contents" or "goods"/"activities" provided in that place (in other words, the "what"). My feeling, and I'm trying to think biblically here, is to redefine church as "who"--that is, to see Church as a living entity, the body of Christ, a vital, engaging community of believers sent on a mission from God. This is counter-cultural and essentially anti-institutional. I wonder how re-framing "church" this way can affect our thinking and activity? I'm not suggesting we jettison the building or our programs--but that we re-conceptualize them along these organic (not organizational) lines.
Thanks for your thoughts and engagement!
Carl