Challenging Consumerism

Essay from John J. Bombaro

For the better part of four decades, pollster and prolific author George Barna has influenced the trajectory of North American evangelicalism. His 1984 founding of the Barna Research Group (now the Barna Group), more than fifty books, and now presidency of Metaformation (a faith development organization) has made him perhaps the most quoted person in Protestantism today. His genius has been to interpret evangelical churches, parachurches, and associations in marketing categories and to think of parishioners along with unchurched persons as consumers.

Barna understands our times. Barna understands the modern person as well. Consumerism shapes, even begets, our basic identity. Here Barna approaches an insight that requires more penetrating analysis; namely the idea that consumerism drives secularism, not the other way around. If this is in fact the case, then our understanding of the context into which we preach should be that we live in a consumeristic society in which secularism is a byproduct. Consumerism would then be more basic to our belief formation and the formation of our habits and rituals than secularism or nationalism or (and here is Barna’s point) Christianity. Christianity, at least as we find it throughout the US and Canada, has been enveloped by consumerist thinking and practice.

So, if evangelical churches are going to be “successful” in our present milieu, argues Barna in many of his publications, then it needs to reorient its thinking about what is foundational to our culture and identity: consumption. It is neither the holy faith, nor the constitution that binds together “we the people”. Instead, it is consumerism. This is an important insight. However, Barna took things into a direction that steered American evangelicalism deeper into the problem, rather than challenging consumeristic ideology in ways that Alan Noble and James K. A. Smith presently are doing.[1] Stated differently, Barna encouraged embracing consumerism as a paradigm; for the church and in the church. Furthermore, reflecting on the evidence of his polling data, Barna came to understand that if the church is not necessarily defined in the confessional categories of the local assembly gathered around the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administered according to that Gospel (such as we find in the Augsburg Confession, VII.1 http://bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php#article7), but rather reconceived as a voluntary organization that provides resources for personal enrichment, spirituality, and felt needs, then the church attains the potential to compete in the marketplace of religious experiences.

Barna’s economic reconception of the church in light of market forces helped to legitimize the shift from the institutional church to “alternative faith communities.” In 2005 he wrote, “Whether you examine the changes in broadcasting, clothing, music, investing, or automobiles, producers of such consumables realize that Americans want control over their lives. The result has been the ‘niching’ of America—creating highly refined categories that serve smaller numbers of people but can command greater loyalty (and profits).”[2] Niche churches, vying for shelf space in the religious marketplace, have been the result.

During the past four decades local churches have seen the need to embrace niche strategies and market themselves as appeal-boutiques. Barna continues:

With the advent of the church’s design for every generation, some congregations offer divergent styles of worship music or emphasize ministries of interest to specialized populations and so forth. The church landscape now offers these boutique churches alongside the “something for everybody” megachurches. In the religious marketplace, the churches that have suffered most are those who have stuck with the one size fits all approach; typically proving that one size fits nobody. Furthermore, consumers are demanding practical faith experiences over doctrine. They seek novelty and creativity rather than predictability in religious experiences, and the need for time shifting rather than inflexibility in the scheduling of religious events.[3]

In other words, traditional faith that is committed to traditionary ecclesiology and manifest through traditional liturgy to form and inform heirs of the Gospel tradition calls for far too much costly discipleship, inconvenient conformity, and unity (if not uniformity) in an age of self-expression, personal preferences, and individualism. Stated plainly, the old way of doing church will not sell. There is no market for it, so do not preach to that end, advises Barna. Western culture, through the marketing medium of pop-culture, engenders auditors (both inside and outside the church) who believe they deserve this and that, that they, “could have it [their] way.” The value is the consumer is always right and, indeed, the customer is king. Hence, Barna’s advice for contemporary Christianity:

It is… critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign. If our advertising is going to stop people in the midst of hectic schedules and cause them to think about what we’re saying, our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience. When we produce advertising that is based on the take-it-or-leave-it proposition, rather than on a sensitivity and response to people’s needs, people will invariably reject our message.[4]

The questions for the preacher who subscribes to Barna’s credentialed, researched, and substantiated theses then are these: What is my sovereign’s bidding? What do they want to hear and how will they like it? Or, put differently, how do I market a niche with the branding and content with which target consumers are familiar and comfortable and would keep them coming back for more?

But while George Barna was convincingly opining about the need for new methods in these new times due to new market forces, Tenth Presbyterian Church’s Senior Pastor, James Montgomery Boice (esteemed voice of the “Bible Study Hour” and master expositor), cautioned that whatever you use to get them into the church is what you have to use to keep them in it. If it was preaching as the church of “what’s-happening-now” that was your curb appeal, then the expectation will be a givenness to what is trending. The problem is, warns Boice, that is not the commissioned message or means for making and sanctifying disciples.

Boice was making an appeal to integrity: don’t bait and switch. That would be deceptive advertising and akin to bearing false testimony. Instead, Boice admonishes staying true to our pastoral mandate to proclaim the full counsel of God in His two words: Law and Gospel. Boice was concerned to say that preaching and gospel evangelism is not about techniques. It is about faithfulness and a reliance upon the Holy Spirit to convict and convert. Preach the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ. After all, the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit, not the marketeer or salesman. It is, “Christ Jesus who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). We preach a message already stipulated, already defined, already packaged… in weakness. And preaching faithfully the King’s message, his two words of Law and Gospel albeit ever so weak and feeble in the ears of the world, requires courage and integrity from the outset.

Yet, there is a more basic issue at play. If the customer or, better, the consumer receives allegiance as king, then Christ Jesus does not. If the audience’s sovereignty marks the starting point for preaching, then the message, the means, and the results are all going to be aberrations. Nothing is real. It is an alternative, bastardized kingdom, and that is where Barna failed evangelicalism. He capitulated to an economic Zeitgeist rather than calling for preachers to plow up the soil of consumerism in order to plant the Word deeply. Plow, then plant. That is how the King said it would be in the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13). The two always go together: plowing the earth as you find it (consumerist) in order to plant the kind of seed that brings forth the fruit the Sower intends.

Preachers are called to proclaim Christ as King over-and-against the sovereignty of the consumer (or even the sovereign voter). And just like a naval ship in which there cannot be two captains, so too for the Christian there cannot be but one Sovereign Lord, and that Lord is Jesus. Jesus came to inaugurate His kingdom, not to sell a product. He came to save sinners and make them coheirs of His kingdom, not to satisfy consumers with happiness because they deserve it. That will take preaching that breaks up the comfortable and expectant soil of consumers. That will take some consistent and persistent explaining from the pulpit. That will take no small amount of courage and faithfulness.

——————————————————————————

[1] See Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018) and Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

[2] Barna, Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 62-63.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Barna, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You About Church Growth (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988), 145.

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