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.

When Walls Speak (from H. Asburry)

Read this ridiculously good blog from Hillary Asbury who writes for Jagged Word…

 

I used to love spending time at my friends’ houses as a kid. It was a new environment, one that was different from my own. The smells were different, the furniture and color schemes were different, and many times the rules were different too. It fascinated me.

I think you can tell a lot about a person or family simply by walking into their house.

Some houses feel sterile and controlled, others are homey and lived in. Some feel chaotic and neglected, others are warm and cared for. A lot of this has to do with how the family simply exists within the house, how they interact, the words and tones they use to communicate with each other. Some of it has to do with the way the house is physically cared for, and a lot of it is affected by the atmosphere created by decorations, heirlooms, nick knacks, or trinkets. Is the house essentially a large display case for Start Trek memorabilia, or are the walls bare except for a few pieces of modern art? Are the shelves lined with pictures of family and loved ones, or are they stocked with treasures from past travels? When you walk into another person’s house, you can get a pretty clear snapshot of who they are and what is important to them.

It’s quite an intimate experience if you think about it.

I don’t think churches are any different. Every church has its own feel, its own architecture and set-up. The pews may be made of solid wood or softly cushioned. The chapel my be designed to face the pulpit and lectern face-on, or curve around the cross. A baptismal font may be found at the entrance to the sanctuary or at the front of the chapel. You can walk into a church and immediately get a feel for what is important there.

Just like every family has its own story, every congregation has its own history, and the houses in which each live become a reflection of those histories.

There is one big difference I have noticed lately, though. No one ever questions the importance of maintaining the comfort and beauty of a house. Wallpaper starts to peel and we replace it with new paint. We hire plumbers and electricians to keep our houses running efficiently. Our color schemes or décor become outdated and we update or replace them without question. We provide safe and attractive toys and equipment for our children. We decorate with enthusiasm.

When we move to do the very same things in our churches, however, it is often scoffed at or ridiculed.

Many believe we should be doing other things with the Church’s money- feeding the poor or ending homelessness. Some say that by beautifying and updating our churches we are putting our priorities in the wrong place, in superficial, worldly matters. Some worry that when the world sees our beautiful, well maintained facilities we will be judged as being selfish with our resources. I really can’t blame those who see it this way, the Church does have a history of existing in extravagance while the surrounding people suffered- stealing from the poor and enjoying the spoils. I don’t think that is really what we are talking about here, though. We are talking about being good stewards, being trusted with a little (ensuring that a church and its congregants are healthy and flourishing) so that we may be trusted with a lot (doing the same for the surrounding community).

A house is a place in which a family is nurtured and cared for so that they will have the strength and energy to go out into the world and do their work.

A church is very much the same. We need to ensure that we are building a nurturing place in which to feed people’s souls and speak the Gospel- a place where congregants can find rest, be strengthened and fortified, so that they can then go out into the world and serve their neighbors.

We sometimes forget that spending time and money on our churches does serve the greater community.

We forget that the surrounding neighborhood benefited from my church’s playground, that artwork in a sanctuary can be viewed for free by anyone on a Sunday morning. Not only do these things inherently serve our community, but they create more opportunities to speak the Word of God to those that need to hear it.

They also show our community, and potential future congregants, that we can be trusted to take care of what has been given to us, that we take those gifts seriously, and that we have the capacity to give them the support and nurturing they need.

We must keep in mind that the way we care for and maintain our churches not only reflects our history and identity as a congregation but it also speaks to who we are as God’s children, as stewards of His gifts. Most of all, though, we must keep in mind that it reflects our theology and affects the ways in which we are able to present the Gospel.

By Hillary Asbury –

A Mighty Fortress

Circuit Reformation Service
10/27, 4:00pm at Grace Lutheran Church (1155 N. Highland Ave NE in Atlanta)

The celebrant will be Rev. Adam Ellsworth.

The preacher will be Rev. Jacob Berlinski.

There will be a sausage supper to follow (with beer).
Please RSVP for your congregation to Grace Lutheran and please bring a side to share.

Psalm 46 – God Is Our Fortress

To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.

1God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

2Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

3though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble at its swelling. 

4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

the holy habitation of the Most High.

5God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;

God will help her when morning dawns.

6The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;

he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress. 

8Come, behold the works of the Lord,

how he has brought desolations on the earth.

9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;

he burns the chariots with fire.

10“Be still, and know that I am God.

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!”

11The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress.

 

Kairos Network Meeting (October 2018)

Saints of God, only through the atoning blood of the Son of God,

The next Kairos Network mission meeting will be at Rivercliff Lutheran Church in Sandy Springs, GA on October 13 at 9:30 AM.

Coupled with the Circuit Forum for our Atlanta North congregations, we will be discussing the mission and direction of our newest church plant – Trinity Lutheran Church.  We can’t wait for you to come and hear about it!

The schedule for the dual meetings are below.

9:30 – 10:00    Fellowship and Devotion
10:00 – 10:30   Elections / Business
10:30 – 11:30   Outreach in the North Atlanta Circuit
                                – Kairos update
                                – District initiative
                                – Outreach opportunities: A time of brainstorming ideas
11:30                   Close with prayer

 

+Soli Deo Gloria

Hebrew & Greek Study Update

September 4 is the day we commemorate the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, Moses.  How appropriate it is for us to provide you with an update on the ongoing study of the very words the Lord’s gave him to write down on Mt. Sainai!  When Adam and Eve were overwhelmed by sin and terror after the fall (Genesis 3), the complete record given by the Holy Spirit to faithful Moses point us to Christ, our Deliverer, Who placed Himself between God and Man, as our Divine Mediator.  For all those around us hemmed in by their doubts, internal struggle, and self condemnation, our God has shown the world His compassion and fatherly disposition through the finished work of His Son on the Cross.  All glory to God for His grace!

There is now a permanent adjustment to the location of the Biblical Hebrew and Greek Study.  For the sake of traffic and accesibility, the study will take place each Tuesday, 10 AM, at Grace Lutheran Church on 1155 North Highland Avenue NE, here in Atlanta.  All are welcome to come and attend!  This should pretty much be the pattern for those who come from here on out.

August 2018 Update

IMG_8912 (1)
Rev. Min Soo Kim with his faithful family on the day of his ordination!

1. The August Kairos Network meeting is getting moved to October since there are a couple of important decisions needing to be made. We will keep you posted and get out word as soon as it is lined up. We look forward to seeing each of you there as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ continue to be made through Baptizing and Teaching everything our Lord commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20).

2. Trinity Lutheran Church is expanding its Word and Sacrament ministry to the Norcross or Duluth area by adding an English Worship service to go alongside the Divine Service in Korean. Please keep this important mission of our Lord Jesus Christ in your prayers and support! A careful search is being made right now for a better location. Pastoral Candidate David Kang will be coming alonside of Rev. Min Soo Kim to expand ministry to the surrounding communities of Norcross and Duluth. Glory to our gracious God for the revealed mercy of His finished salvation in Christ! Today is the day to make it known!
Here is a video of David Kang’s recent Tae Kwon Do Bible Camp!

Part 2 to Droege Boys Dropped!

In Part 2 of Droege Boys Dropped!, the boys get sick and there is no food. A decision is made about whether or not they will go on.

Thanks to everyone’s generosity in the Gospel!  The results of what the Lord did through you went way beyond our expectations.  Glory to God and Salvation to man (Ephesians 2:8-10)!

Part 1 to Droege Boys Dropped!

Here is Part 1 to the 50 hour survival challenge to support Stepping Stone Mission in Atlanta, Georgia.

In the first 25 hours, Isaac, Luke, Tim, and Jay have to make a crude shelter in the rain with no fire before night fall.  Part 2 is coming soon…

 

“I Say To You, Arise!”

We are sharing with you a sermon that was very meaningful from our brother in Christ, Rev. Chang Soo Kim, presently serving at Living Faith Korean Lutheran Church.  This gives you an example of the fine preaching and pastoral care that comes forth from one of Christ’s undershepherds here in North Georgia.  It is a very beautiful and full treatment of Luke 7:11-17.  What is shared here is actually only a portion of the sermon, but here it is!  For any of you shedding tears for any reason, it will point you to clear and certain hope.

In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s text explains Jesus’ actions that day.  Jesus went to Capernaum early in the morning to meet the centurion, heard the confession of his precious faith, and healed the servant under his command.  Then, a journey to Nain becomes his next destination.  Nain is one of the small towns of Galilee.  It has the meaning of being lovely or beautiful in Greek.  As its name implies, this place called Nain is scenic, peaceful, and a climate friendly place to live. For a woman who lived there, though, it was not at all.  In verse 12, the Bible explains about the situation of the woman.  The husband of the woman died early, and she had only one son, and lived hard.  Now, when her son grew up and she thought she could depend upon him, had died suddenly.  At that time, what would life have been like for her? Who can comfort her?  Who knows her thoughts?  Can you recognize her disastrous feelings?  She felt desperate and unable to live in real life.

The fact that a widow lives alone means that she cannot escape being a beggar.  The death of her son is a terrible thing, but her own situation is now miserable, and she goes after him crying as she goes to the burial of her son’s body.  At that time, the body of the deceased was uncovered by the pallbearer.  She cannot let go, seeing the cold body of her son going to the burial ground, crying, crying, and following.  The villagers who followed the procession were so sad and nobody opened their mouths.  There was only crying and following in sadness.

Then, according to that day, our Lord came toward Nain with His disciples, and sees the bizarre parade of death.  Our Lord in a compassionate heart, stopped the procession and says to the woman “do not weep.”  The exhortation not to cry here is imperative now.  Do not cry anymore, but stop right now.  Jesus commanded that when the Lord saw her who was grieved, weeping, and crying, His heart went out to her and He said, “Don’t cry.”  To us, this is a really ridiculous command.  This woman is crying because her only son has died and she must go to bury him.  Crying is all she could do.

In Korean proverbs, it is said that when a husband or wife dies, they are buried at the far mountain.  When the child dies, the child is buried in the parents’ heart.  The death of a child is a great shock and pain.  There is nobody here on earth who can comfort such a woman’s heart and cure her sorrow.  So, when people Jesus ordered her to stop crying right now, everyone could have been embarrassed and all thought it very strange. What does He do to make it happen?  If you are not a lost man, you will say a word of comfort to a woman in sorrow, but to say “do not cry” is sure to make you hailed as a lunatic.  Everyone is now alert watching the Lord.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.  Why is Jesus so sad and even tearful as He says “do not weep?”  At that time, the Lord’s heart was full of mercy for the pain of those who followed Him, along with the woman who lost her son.  This means that Jesus not only shared some emotion, but actually felt sick with them, feeling deeply the pain in their hearts. 

Jesus feels even the pain of those who have never seen Him in faith and up until this point still have nothing to do with Him.  He knows and senses the sorrow that you are experiencing, feeling of pain like they had, and the sting of the bitterness of all people.  How can He do this, even though He has no connection even to some of them?

It is because Jesus, Who has love and mercy for all, has forsaken the heavenly throne, has received the suffering that we must receive from the moment He came to this earth in His sinless human body, and suffered the sorrow that we must suffer.  Jesus also has tried all of the tests given to us.  He is the only perfect human being, but also, at the same time, is perfect God Who can do all things.  So the Lord’s words to not weep were full of love for the woman and beyond what we consider deep.  Jesus saw a woman losing her child and falling into grief and weeping, and our Lord was nothing but sadness and tears.  The heart of the Lord was so strong, though, that the dead would come to life.

In verse 14, we read together today, Jesus went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still.  He said “young man, I say to you get up!”  Here, we need to pay attention to the fact that once again the woman who was there, as well as everyone else, did not ask Jesus to do anything.  In fact, there is nothing they can ask in this situation … No one there was able to imagine that the dead would live only through this Lord … the family is heading to the cemetery to bury the boy who has already died.  It was already over.

But Who is Jesus Christ?  Today, as Luke says, He is the Savior of the Gentiles, the King of life and death.  He is the God Who holds the keys of death and the grave.  He is true God with all power Who can turn despair into hope when we are lost in our hearts.  He is the eternal Savior who can solve any problem we may have when it is His will … He would give life to a corpse that was already dead and rot … He Himself would live from death … this Jesus is our Lord.  Jesus is the Messiah promised through the Old Testament.  He is the only begotten Son of God.  He is the only Savior Who will save man who is forced to die because of sin and transgression.  We rebelled, betrayed, ignored, and despised as He was crucified on the cross.  Yet … He did not stand over you to blame or rage in anger, but gave you His great and wonderful love that cannot be repaid. 

Indeed, Jesus knew what they needed … this is not an example of the law.  Anyone who is going to be dead or who has died was considered unclean.  People were even reluctant to go to a funeral unless they were a close relative.  Nevertheless, Jesus, despite knowing the warning of this law, came to the coffin where the body was lying, not hesitating or hesitant, laying His blessed hand down on the foulness of death.  If He keeps His hand free, He stays clean.  If He puts it down, He is thought to have become unclean.  But, at the moment His hand goes down and His Word comes forth, the work of life begins.  This is our Lord’s love for us …. Jesus put forth His hand to the young man who died, wielding His mighty life-giving weapon, and raised the dead in a word.  The power of death shrivels before the Lord of life.  He gave life to Him and with His word has given life to you.  Sorrow is turned to joy.  Sadness is changed to comfort.  His cleanliness changes the unclean.  This is grace alone for all who are children living in the cold reality of death, for the people who are now all in the wrong, for all who have thrown up their hands.  The Lord’s command, which cannot be denied, fell.  Everything was immediately done and recovered.  Thus, the word of the Lord is powerful and complete.  As God’s children buried and raised with Jesus in Baptism, this is our confidence on the final day.

Everyone in the world has a reason to cry for one thing or another.  God comes to wash away the tears that flow in the eyes of His beloved children.  Above all, God has promised us through the prophet Isaiah that He will wash away tears from all faces and will remove the shame of His people all over the world (Isaiah 25:8).  Do not weep!

In the name of Jesus,

Rev. Chang Soo Kim