Discipleship or Consumerism?

seedA few days ago, I was at a church retreat.  In response to a question on what challenges the church is facing, a woman remarked that one challenge is how people don’t really want to get involved in church.  They don’t see it as a life, as much as a place where they can get their needs met and be on their way.

I was glad to see someone in the pews notice this.  It’s been a growing frustration of mine over the years.  Pastors are pushed in many ways to try to make their churches appealing to folk, especially the oh-so-important Millenial crowd.  We are told that younger folks are not interested in serving on committees.  We are told they want to do mission.  We are told they want a church that is welcoming to LGBT folk.  So, we try to do everything to try to attract people: we offer more mission opportunities.  We push for our churches to be Open and Affirming.  We try to make our worship experiences more hip.  There is nothing wrong in trying to be hospitable and welcoming.  I’m not saying we don’t engage in mission and I most definitely am not saying churches should not welcome LGBT persons.  But there is a danger in that we start to trade the call to discipleship, the call of Jesus to follow him and replace it with a slick marketing message in order to gain market share among a certain demographic.

Again, nothing wrong with churches doing marketing; that is my trade.  But there is something wrong about replacing the hard message of becoming a disciple of Jesus for an easy message that tries to get people in the pews.

Methodist pastor Ben Godson reminds us that churches need to engage their local communities instead of trying the latest fad:

A biblical mandate says to go into the world preaching, teaching, and baptizing. It says we are to disciple one another in the ways of Jesus. Part of carrying out that mandate is learning the lay of the land and prayerfully discovering how the ways of Jesus can be lived out in a particular context with particular people. Our American, capitalist drive says if certain methods work well in one place, all we need to do is duplicate those methods everywhere and we can franchise the way to be church. In other words, a biblical mandate cares about people first while a franchising mentality cares about methods and results first. Churches of all shapes and sizes can put people first by uniquely and faithfully seeking to engage the communities they are in using the resources they already have. Other peoples’ ideas too often become warmed over leftovers that don’t fit outside of the context they are in. And that’s okay.

Every pastor or church board chair wants to see more people involved in the life of their churches.  We are all desiring some kind of trick to make our congregations grow and thrive.  Of course we need to make sure we aren’t placing barriers that prevents growth, but we need to have faith that God will cause the growth to happen at a church.  What we are called to do is to help those who want to follow Jesus is to help them become better followers of Christ; in short, we need to make disciples.

Discipleship isn’t sexy and it can be slow.  It’s not something that people are going to flock to.  But I have to think the benefits are longer lasting than having the latest, coolest worship service.

Even as Minnesotans await a big snow (in May?), I get excited around this time of year because it means I get to plant flowers.  Now, I am not a great gardener.  Actually, I kinda suck.  I’m getting better at it and the flowers I planted last year are slowly coming up.  This year, I will water the plants, put some more mulch in the garden.  There is no shortcut to a good garden, it just takes time.

The same goes with discipleship.  It will take time.  Some people won’t be interested and that’s okay.  But if we want strong followers of Jesus Christ, we will take the time and not be so uptight.  We are called to make disciples, not consumers.

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66 thoughts on “Discipleship or Consumerism?

  1. It seems you want to remain a genuine church with a focus on helping people and teaching while also attracting younger people to your flock. If I may make a suggestion, why not take on an activist mission or create a church group with the aim of working to help your community’s social needs. Plenty of college students and graduates are looking for jobs that actually help people, so you may be able to attract people to your church if you’re making a huge difference in your community.

    • If we were able to “prove” God actually exists then it wouldn’t really be faith. I know God exists because after placing my trust in Him I grew into a relationship with Him. He wants our love and trust, not a reluctant coming to Him because He’s just been proven real.

    • It’s called faith for a reason. The existence of God cannot be proven by one person to another. It takes a personal experience and an open mind to feel His presence and know He’s real. But one must believe before it is proven.

  2. Awesome post. Totally agree. To many churches are focused on the head count than they are focused on making future leaders for the Kingdom of God. I see how it could be hard to not focus on the head count though, it gets discouraging sometimes. Just have to trust God.

  3. When I joined the Vestry of my Church a few months ago, the senior warden warned us that we might feel compelled to make big changes, but that in Church, things happen “on God’s time.” That made me relax a bit in my Come to the Redeemer! zealotry. Those of us in the pews most Sundays and filling up the seats on every committee are Church-y cheerleaders. I’m probably guilty of fantasizing about some slick gimmick to get everyone to come to my parish, because it’s so beautiful, so inclusive, so welcoming and delightful. However, it’s not up to us to force that “call” to worship, is it?

    Now I engage in what one Southern friend called “soft evangelism.” I carry reusable grocery totes with our Church logo, I invite friends to join us on Sunday, I tell people where I’m going when I’m on my way to Bible Study, and I wear a cross. All of these things have led to conversations which may (or may not) lead to another butt in the pew. But I think there’s God in the conversations. I absolutely agree that we should be careful not to attempt to force discipleship. Your garden metaphor is spot on.

    And now I’m going to read so much more by you!

  4. What a GREAT perspective! Thanks for writing and sharing this. I completely agree, and I think you did a really amazing job balancing the need for organic discipleship with the biblical mandate without making it sound like marketing is a bad thing. Well-said!

  5. As a millennial who grew up in church, I’d say meetings came to be associated with debate about trivial things like rugs (those rugs should only be out for certain activities), chairs (we said we’d never take those chairs out of that room!), and new carpet. (Yes, I’ve actually heard church people say the first two.) We want to get up and help someone or do something useful.

  6. I find this very interesting! And I agree. I’m 21 years old and I attend a Christian university. I am constantly trying to find ways to be a disciple, but I don’t think it should be about how much money you can raise to pay for YOUR mission trip. I believe people should really be on fire for God. I’d like to be a missionary and do the work, but I feel that I can accomplish just that here. And to add to the church trying to appeal to the crowds, I agree as well. I think people should attend a church and want to serve God, without having to have “fun” or receive worldly rewards.

  7. You make some great points here, Dennis. I think authenticity is an important aspect of both discipleship and missional living. Millenials can smell a fake from a mile away and they see right through our methods of attracting them to church. They must be attracted to Jesus… and the best way we can do that is to live like He lived and make disciples.

    Thanks for posting.

  8. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I read your blog like religion..it’s grabs my soul and infuses me with the talents of your writing. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Enjoy your newfound fame…you’ve certainly earned it.
    ~Dennis McHale http://www.dlmchale.com

  9. God gave us free will because he wants us to turn to Him with genuine love in our hearts. I look at joining a church in the same way – an institution that peddles a “trend” will only temporarily attract a floating dandelion seed. A church that offers a seed “…good soil, stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” Our church is large and ever-expanding, but it places an emphasis on weekly community groups where we can build a relationship with and help others in need by community outreach. We also pull together funds for those who get the opportunity to pursue an awesome international mission. There are always other things we can do to improve, but this seems to be working. Thanks for your post!

  10. A really interesting post Dennis. I share your view about consumerism in churches. You can tell that’s happening by how many people complain about the songs/sermon/prayers/position of the lecturn/type of coffee served etc…
    Somehow people have forgotten that church is about worshipping God not entertainment. I am currently training in a church whose service and style of worship is so vastly different from what I’m used to and would not be what I would choose. However, the challenge is for me – how can I meet with God in a different way? God is still there, he is still wanting for me to engage with him. If I can’t do it because I don’t like the hymns then its my issue not God’s or the church’s.

  11. Christian funding is important to fallow you missions and develop with the displines we have to conquer in life. And improve how we as Christians develop our trust in God..

  12. Alas! To follow the message of Christ, has never been easy, yesterday, today, and very likely tomorrow will be neither…

  13. The unfortunate catch-22 to this is how the present-pew culture often tries to use the marketing “gimmick” as an excuse to continue pew-sitting, rather than engaging a changing culture. I agree with you, in full, though. It’s interesting to me that, after reading a “growth, culture changing, marketing-type, churchy-help” book, then attempting to contact those represented in the study, what was written/suggested versus what had occurred in reality were two very contrasting statements – that boil down to exactly what you’ve addressed here. Though I can stick a bunch of new plants in the ground, strong gardens don’t thrive overnight. It takes time and nurturing for them to become deep-rooted and to produce new blooms (and some of them may not even be all that fragrant).

  14. I’m concerned at the idea expressed by Ben Godson that churches should put people first. Doesn’t that ignore someone who should be even more important to churches than people?

  15. “Discipleship isn’t sexy” I love that line! It wasn’t meant to be about what is cool. Discipleship is about transformation and teaching others how to truly follow after Christ, which isn’t always pretty by the worlds standards!

  16. Congrats on being “Freshly Pressed.” I agree with your sentiments on discipleship, and have struggled for a long time with the imbalance in the modern church between marketing and disciplemaking. The church I attend is trying to make a strong move toward disciplemaking, but there are too many charts and graphs and metrics. Discipleship is not math. It’s relational.

  17. I remember that the first disciples left their businesses and homes and families just because Jesus called them. Today most want the same life as before, just in a different environment.

    As church we can try as hard as we want, we will not measure up with Hollywood or TV. And it is not our business to do so. But they should not be able to measure up to our business: giving life meaning by building a relationship to our heavenly father and relationships with each other.

  18. How true. There is no short cut in actually taking the time to get to know people. young people are no different to any other age group, they appreciate being listened to and not treated as invisible.

  19. Interesting post! We must never become so concerned with the growth of a church over the value of an authentic relationship with Christ. The church is not the building, not the board, and sometimes not the whole congregation…. where 2 people engage with Christ, there be there church. Paul used the culture of the day in a way to communicate Christ to the gentiles and Pagans. Discipleship is important, yes, but the first part of that never has to do with the body of believers, it has to do with the heart to heart building of a relationship with the Lord. The Lord then leads us to our calling. Churches that are making efforts that aren’t working may need to realize that they are trying to build something on their own power, and that will fail, it is Christ who does it all and will lead.

  20. Sounds like you are engaging in missional thinking! The more we act like Kirby, trying to suck everyone into the church, the worse off we are–church is not where people are brought in, but from where they are sent out as disciples. And Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  21. The church will always be full a vast majority of members. Those who see their church as their mission and calling, those who need fellowship, for some the only word they are exposed to. We need them all. The disciples are the few and further between. The disciples you may find are not even in your church as they could very well be going into all the world preaching the gospel somewhere. If we want to be a church full of disciples then the leader must lead and stay out front not talking about discipleship but taking his scythe and leading the way.

    • A quote from the King James Bible states:
      1John 1:7, “but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
      Fellowship goes beyond the church in most cases and brings people together for the common good of the ministry of the word of God. Having the feeling of belonging to the larger group of members with the same goal in serving God and each other with the Fruit of the Spirit, Love, Grace, Charity and Companionship is the real reason the Church should continue to grow. The Preacher feeds the sheep and the sheep multiply by ministering to others of how the word of God has changed their lives. Your testimony of salvation and how you became saved and were forgiven of your sins can be a very powerful way to express your love of both Jesus Christ and the Church.

      • That is so true God’s true grace and love has made us all disciples, if we live a christ like life, we should mlive and let our light shine so that others can see our good works and glorify the Father in heaven. Our lives is someone else salvation.

  22. I think you have a lot of good points I think churches every were need to stop trying to fit into todays culture because that’s not where they belong. I strongly believe todays modern culture go’s against what all religion teaches us about life and how we should live.

  23. As a Quaker, it’s interesting to hear this voiced from a pastor’s perspective. In hiring a professional ministry — rather than a lay-based ministry found among most of the old-order Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, and silent Friends — there’s a tendency to “let the preacher do it” rather than continuing a priesthood of all believers. That’s not to say there’s not work for a pastor; rather, it might be something quite different from what we usually see today.
    To put an emphasis on discipleship, on the other hand, restores the circle where everyone participates — it’s not a top-down structure, as too many churches have become. But it’s also a scary venture in which each of us becomes vulnerable.

  24. Just a note to say I totally agree, and appreciate what you said. I have been a pastor for 17+ years, called to leave full-time ministry to write, speak, and teach on that exact issue.

  25. In the Church today, there is a waning of emphasis on Christ and the Cross. The oldest and most essential doctrine is the doctrine of the Cross. Although churches across America and the world can employ diverse strategies for reaching those who feel hopeless and the lost, there should never be a sacrificing of a focus on Christ and the Cross at the expense of profitable marketing. If Christ and the Cross are properly marketed, then Christ will see to it that the marketing is successful.

    • I disagree–not with the need to reemphasize Christ and Cross, because you are absolutely right; we need to remember why it is we are here. I disagree that Christ and the Cross need to be “marketed”. Marketing techniques are about attracting people, drawing them in, and providing them with a product that they (may or may not) need. I still think that’s backward thinking. Our call is not to bring people in to us, but to go out and be among them. It’s a question of goals–if the goal is to be God’s mission in the world and to bring the good news of Christ’s liberating power to the world, and people want to join us in the mission and process, great! But if the goal itself is to bring people in, then we are focusing on the wrong things.

      • Is not witnessing a form of marketing? If you don’t market Christ, then how are you going to reach the lost? Marketing does not have to be limited to the capitalist, profit-driven notions of the term we have grown accustomed to in business.

      • That -is- what marketing is to me–it’s advertising a product to consumers for our own gain. Markets are about transactions and benefits. That is not the church. We should never have been about how many people we can get in the doors, and we have the opportunity to leave that thinking behind for good.

        Witness is not marketing, in my opinion, because of those associations. Witnessing is telling the story, sharing the truly good news, and living into the coming reign of God. It is shared for its own sake and for the sake of those who need to hear it most, not for our sake.

  26. Nice post. You raised some interesting questions. I’m not a devout follower of Jesus but I know enough that his message is universal. In order to get his message out he went to places and talked with people that people of the more traditional faith didn’t necessarily agree with. Times have changed and so have peoples attitudes towards organized religion. I think if Jesus was alive today he would find a way to recruit more followers by incorporating tactics that would spread his message even more. You can market yourself without losing your message.

  27. The message of Jesus is simple: Love one another. As a church, the challenge is to spread that message and draw people in using it, which is much more difficult than it feels like it should be. As you pointed out, with excellent support, a powerful metaphor for this process is that of planting a garden. It is impossible to plant a seed and have a flower magically appear instantly, just as a flower will not flourish if not given both constant care and room to grow and spread its own seeds. The church’s mission then should be to provide the soil, water, light, and room to grow– by creating an environment that is affirming, welcoming, instructive without judging, encouraging without overbearing. In this way, a few “plants” in the beginning will continue to yield and plant new “seeds”, allowing a congregation to grow organically and share the love of one another, for one another, because the church provided a “garden” for this to take place. A “church” at its best is built on the love of its leaders and members for one another, and the love of that congregation for those outside itself. It seeks to show others the path of love that they have chosen to follow even as it acknowledges the inherent worth of each person, regardless of their past or circumstances. May God bless your attempts to grow such a community rather than “selling” a shiny, but far less impactful, ideal!

  28. Congrats on being Freshly pressed for starters and what a great post. Following Jesus is never easy, nor is it P.C. nor is it always just fun and sorrowfree existence. I love the sinner hate the sin as well and that is especially tough in a world where things pointed directly to in the Bible are becoming so common that we tend to start accepting that more and more. Great post. I enjoyed visiting.

  29. Many people are looking for volunteering opportunities in college, or other young adult settings. Churches and religion (with exception to extremism) should be more social media friendly. That is where the young folks are.

  30. I think parishioners need to have their Pastor’s engaged in their communities.
    Go to the local soccer practice, baseball practice, watch a game say a prayer for your team.
    Go to community events, like the fair or the parade.
    Listen to where your parishioners are going and what they are doing.
    When I was growing up in the 50’s it was always nice to see our priest attending our community functions.
    The world is out there, outside, beyond the walls of a church.
    To be seen is to be heard. I have not seen a priest (of any denomination) in public for a long time. I have not even bumped into one. Why is that?

  31. Hm, interesting points in the post and in the comments. I am 26 and part of the LGBT community and I go to church. I think there is a genuine spiritual hunger in my generation – a seeking after something MUCH bigger than going to church once a week. Churches may need to resort to certain “tactics” to attract certain “groups” of people, but the point is, where do you go from there? People come to church for a while and leave because, while the worship might be great, it doesn’t seem to go beyond the walls of the church building. Someone made a point above about committees being frustrating because they are not about going into the community but about “which hymn book” or something. If you are from an unchurched background this just doesn’t make any sense…and if you are from a churched background it doesn’t neccesarily either. Being a Christian is sometimes hard work and selling people a version of Jesus in which you go to meet him once a week and you end up needing to “feel” a spiritual high does not work in the long run because what happens on the weeks when you’re blocked and don’t “feel” it? You end up concluding either that God isn’t really there (or isn’t interested), or that you as a person are “doing something wrong”, or that the church you are attending isn’t “Spirit filled” enough…

    • This is exactly the problem with the Church Growth movement. The theory was that if you went out of your way to attract people and get them in the doors, then spiritual growth and formation will naturally follow. This was proven false. You -can- foster spiritual growth and formation once people are in the doors, but simply bringing them in is not enough to suddenly cause that growth. A church that puts all of their attention on analyzing their surrounding and catering their product to the consumer cannot put the same amount of energy into actually bringing people closer to God.

  32. I believe that if we want to get around the idea that the church is like a business, we need to show genuine love and care for others. There are people out there who are looking for God but don’t know where to look. Instead of having an agenda to share the gospel, rehearse a schtick to convert, or put on a mask and pretend we have all the answers, we need to get in touch with someone on a level that is more than superficial. It’s hard (I’m living proof it’s hard) but it is only by the Spirit that we’re able to do this. Christians shouldn’t be marketing executives; we need to be family.

  33. Great Post. Interesting actually monastic communities despised wealth and consumerism until because of their hard work and multiple trades they began to accumulate great wealth. They had to take another look at scripture to adapt to the principle that its not money that is evil but the love of money and the consumer attitude. This lead these monastic communities to be the first to develop a capitalist ‘firm’ so to speak. Instead of being consumers they became investors in locals who they trusted to generate their own profits. Christians and Money can go together, and can work for building the kingdom of God by attracting people who care about what gets down with ‘the money”. Do Christians just keep it for themselves, buy big buildings, and new projects and line pockets? Or do they invest in ways the build communities for the glory of God?

  34. Back to the basics. Care about the people and SHOW God’s love and everything will fall into place. Who doesn’t want grace, mercy, and love?! I know I need it and I willingly accept it, and it is so neat that no matter how little I deserve it, he give it freely.

    GOD IS GOOD!

  35. Part of what you are saying is why I became heavily involved in online ministry. At the onset of my disability, I found that even though I had been in active ministry, teaching and preaching, when I couldn’t always attend the “brick and mortar” church, I was abandoned, by the very people I tried to serve.
    It was then that I had just gotten my first computer and found a great body of believers who still wanted sound fundamental teaching, but was also neglected by their local churches.
    The Holy Spirit opened up a network that literally spanned the globe and that was when forums became the media of choice. After a medial hiatus, I started back doing what the Holy Spirit lead me to do and low and behold, the BLOG appeared!!
    I am new to this blogging and still learning, but my website is still up and I am finding new brothers and sisters all OVER this thing we call the “Net” and it is awesome!
    I am glad I found you as I will love to follow and read your past posts as well!!!
    God bless you and yours so richly!

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