In our society everything is marketed, everything sells. Things as benign as cotton balls or power tools require sexy advertising to beat out their competitors and claim the majority market share.
Unfortunately, this is also the case with the American church. There are endless options, a multitude of denominations, countless styles, service times and programs. We live in a spiritual marketplace.
One of the things this has done is create segregation and isolation between people on many levels. The famous statement that 11 o’clock is the most segregated hour in America is not just true about races, but also about people of different socioeconomic classes, ages and even general personality preferences. And much of this has to do with the relentless pressure of marketing spirituality. Because churches cannot be all things to everyone and because people rarely attend church simply because they live near one (and even if they did, neighborhoods tend to be segregated as well), churches must decide what niche group they will appeal to in order to generate demand among a certain market segment. You like high church, lots of liturgy and cerebral preaching? We’re the church for you. You like charismatic worship, emotional preaching and excellent children’s ministry? We gotcha covered. You’re a young person looking for a date? We’re where all the potential spouses are. Your church shopping experience has more options than the peanut butter section of your local supermarket.
So, tragically and ironically, the attempt to reach people effectively has also become a way that the church inadvertently segregates communities. The church, rather than breaking down barriers between people and thus demonstrating the power of the gospel, actually intensifies barriers. (This is the thesis of the hugely important book, Divided By Faith, by Michael Emerson).
So what can you do to resist this? I’d like to offer a few simple suggestions.
- Correct Your Posture. Almost all of us, simply by nature of our cultural experience, live our lives in the posture of a consumer. In almost every situation we ask ourselves how our personal preferences can be met. So, naturally, we do this with the church. If you don’t like the preaching or the music is lame, just peace out and find a better product. We must deliberately change our posture from that of a consumer to that of a creator. From that of a taker to that of a giver. In your church experience, stop asking, “what I am getting out of it?” and start asking “how can I contribute to the work of God in this community?” How can I join with God and others in creating something good and beautiful in this place?
- When searching for a church, look for Kingdom Expression, not Personal Affinity. The number one thing that leads us to a church is that we feel comfortable in it because there are people like us. That makes sense in a spiritual marketplace. But this is not a Kingdom value. While we often ask, “do I feel good and feel like I fit in here?”Kingdom calls us to ask, “what foretastes of the Kingdom of God do I see present here?” That leads you to very different results. In fact, it may lead you to choose to be in a place with others that are not like you, but in which you recognize something that has the fragrance of the Kingdom. This is why, for example, churches with many ages and generations have a stronger and stronger scent of the Kingdom in a society that is becoming increasingly age segregated.
- Commit to a church, no matter what. This is hard, I know. Joining a church is not as serious as a marriage. However, it’s way more serious than choosing a gym. Can you decide that once you settle into a church, you will stay there through the ups and downs, when the preaching is great and when it’s not, when the music is awesome and when it’s not, when your needs are being met and when they aren’t? There are, of course, good reasons to leave a church. But many times, the reasons we state as good actually aren’t. To stay put, no matter what comes, is not just an ingredient for a healthy relationship, it’s also makes for very healthy churches that can weather the storms and glorify Jesus Christ.
Corey Widmer is Associate Pastor at Third Presbyterian Church and Co-Pastor of East End Fellowship, a multi-ethnic congregation in an inner city neighborhood of Richmond, VA. Corey, his wife Sarah and their four daughters live in North Church Hill and have been part of a community development effort there for the last 8 years. Corey is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Princeton Seminary, and is currently pursuing a PhD in theology. He loves the outdoors, especially biking and birdwatching.