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!"