The Consumer-Driven Church

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2016 28 Oct

A recent survey (August 2016) by the Pew Research Center reveals that American churches have produced a generation of spiritual consumers who want little more from their religious community than a good pulpiteer, a satisfying worship service, and a congregation filled with nice, friendly members.

esearching the habits of U.S. Christians, Pew found that nearly one-half have changed their church membership at some time as adults. Of those, only about one-third changed because of relocation—the rest did so for things like “social reasons,” “practical reasons,” and “problems with old church.”

Pew also found that the top four factors Christians consider in shopping for a church are: quality of sermons (83 percent), feeling welcomed by leaders (79 percent), style of services (74 percent), and location (70 percent). The remaining factors are: education for kids (56 percent), having friends/family in congregation (48 percent), availability of volunteer opportunities (42 percent), and “other factors” (29 percent).

A Troubling Omission
I suspect many—if not, most—churches will respond to the survey in one of two ways: churches providing the things that shoppers are seeking will be pleased that their thumb is on the spiritual pulse of the culture; those that aren’t will be anxious to catch up to the demands of the market.

However, for discerning churches, the findings will be a wake up call. For absent is anything suggesting the desire for personal spiritual growth in a gospel-centered, mission-driven, discipleship-oriented church. The possible exceptions are “volunteer opportunities” and the “quality of sermons.” However, the former is available in any number of civic organizations and the latter can mean vastly different things to different people.

I was once contacted by a pastoral search committee about a former pastor who listed me as a reference. The first criterion on the list was, “Are his sermons uplifting?” To which, I replied, “Uplifting is not the word that comes to mind. Rather, biblically sound, spiritually challenging, and sometimes downright uncomfortable are how I remember them, much like the letters of Paul.”

At best, the question betrays the notion that an essential, if not the essential, need of members is a pastor who can deliver a soul-soothing message week after week. At worst, it is indicative of a market-savvy church, responding to the desires of the consumer.

A Perfectly Designed Result
This is not to suggest that such things are unimportant in the hunt for a church. But it’s a bit like job hunting and elevating the rhetoric of the CEO, affability of the managers, feng shui of the office, and commute time to work over a company’s vision, mission, strategic goals, business model, employee development program, and industry track record.

Nor do I want to imply that their felt importance is primarily the fault of church members, but of the Church itself.

A common adage in the marketplace is, “your system is perfectly designed to produce the results you are getting.”

Take the Hostess Cupcake Company, for example. If every tenth Hostess Twinkie comes off the line without cream filling, then the production process of the Hostess Company is perfectly designed to get that result. To get a different result—every cake produced with cream filling—the company must change the process.

Likewise, Christians, whose desires for church have little to no bearing on the objectives of discipleship found in Sacred Scripture, are products of a church’s spiritual formation process. To get a different result—Christians whose priorities are spiritual development and discipleship—a church will have to change its process. To find out how, click here.