Monday, January 29, 2007

Sanctified Consumerism…the disgust with buying church.

I was sitting in worship recently when I realized that I had heard the message before. I had seen the graphics before. I picked up the bulletin and it dawned on me, I had seen the design before. I had seen it hundreds of miles away in another church. Same message series, same topics, same graphics, same bulletin covers…another case of buying church. I have noticed that many congregations, of all sizes, are practicing the copycat syndrome of purchasing an entire worship series and importing it into their church. To be honest, when I was serving a local church I, too, did the Purpose Driven Life series, but normally I developed and designed the service, the music and the metaphors based upon the needs and concerns of the people I served and community I lived in.

All ministry is indigenous. It is only done well within the context of where we served. The practice of actually listening to the people is disappearing. The discipline learning the environment and studying the circumstances seems to be quickly being replaced by four point pithy messages downloaded from a favorite sermon site along with slides, bulletin covers, skits and metaphpor support material. The only thing missing is having the pastor who actually did the intellectual and theological work actually present the sermon on video (which is also available for some markets/circumstances).

The first cause of this syndrome that I will call Sanctified Consumerism is the professionalization of ministry. By paying ministry staff we place upon them the expectations of leader, visionary, administrator, manager, servant, counselor, teacher and administrator. I have known a lot of pastors and none of them can do all of those tasks equally well. Some are amazing communicators but cannot administrate. They may be visionaries but not able to manage staff. The professionalization also serves to excuse those in attendance from any responsibility to do ministry. It makes we who sit in the sanctuary “giving units’ or simply consumers.

The second cause of Sanctified Consumerism is closely related to the first. The “professionals” think that in all cases they know best. That nobody can preach better than they can. No one can organize, perform music, arrange worship or create an environment better than they can. How could they? They are the paid professionals. They are the resident experts who are the keepers of the knowledge. This is a place of insecurity because what is really going on is that they are afraid that an “amateur” may have talents and skills that surpass those of the professional. They don’t want to be proven to be less than the best by somebody who is not the professional.

Lastly, the pressure to perform drives Sanctified Consumerism. These three are all closely related but this one is often self-imposed. The “professional ministers” go to a great seminar or workshop and see something that is awesome. They wonder to themselves “ why can’t I do something as cool as that?” They are pushed to produce by their church but are given little in the way of creative time or resources. The easy thing to do is to simply purchase the “new and improved” version of “church in a box” and bring it back and implement it carte blanche. They feel pressured to perform by the audience, which has lost its cohesion as a congregation and become a gathering of spectators with the “let’s see what you got” mentality. So the professionals, with no time to prepare and no desire to do the hard work of ministry, open the box o’church and roll out the pre-packaged program, never taking time to do the theological and intellectual reflection necessary to determine whether this product fits the need of the people being served.

Faith…Packaged for your Convenience

I hate microwave pizza! It isn’t really pizza. It is cardboard covered with “cheese product” and pre-cooked to mediocrity. I like my pizza done New York style buy some guy named Al who makes the dough every morning, then when I walk in he pulls it out, kneads it, throws it up in the air and then spreads it out on a pan. He takes real pepperoni, thick tomato sauce and unhealthy handfuls of mozzarella cheese and creates a masterpiece that he then fires in a brick oven for twelve to fifteen minutes. When it comes out, it is messy, cheesy and delicious. That’s pizza!

My son loves microwave pizza. You know why? Because he hasn’t really grown to have the experience of delight that a real pizza brings. Of course, he also things peanut butter is a gourmet food, like all seven year olds do. There will come a day when he “gets it” and realizes that one good pizza is better than a hundred microwave specials.

That is what is happening to church. We are forgetting what authentic church is supposed to be about. It is supposed to be messy but real. Churches are resorting to buying the package rather than building the ministry from scratch. Why don’t they do the work? There are several reasons:
• It is hard work! It takes time, effort and energy to produce a solid, theologically sound product each week. Exegesis (intensive Bible study) is laborious and means you have to understand more than three pithy points that all rhyme or start with the same letter.
• It takes reflection. When was the last time you just stopped to think and reflect? We do not value reflection in our culture, we value productivity. Building an authentic worship experience requires reflection, setting aside time to listen to God and God’s people as well as the mission field outside of your door.
• It requires the practitioners to think theologically. Theological reflection is lost when pre-packaged material is purchased. There is the assumption that the person or persons who developed the material did good, sound theological reflection. Their work, however, does not excuse us from our work!
• It requires the practitioners to think practically. Will this work in the community I serve? Will it work in the space that I utilize? Does it make sense? If the sermon was designed for a thousand listeners and we have a hundred, some things just won’t translate. Get real.
• It requires an understanding of the total environment. All ministry is indigenous. Pre-packaged ministry does not take into account who is in the seat in the local church or the unique community the local church serves.

It is easier to buy that to build. There is no doubt about it. Our culture encourages us to buy rather than to build. Evern homes are not “modular” so that they require little assembly by the carpenter. They are just giant puzzles, screwed together and placed on a foundation. We like things packaged four our convenience, I’m am just not convinced faith is one of those things that is best served from the microwave.

How to Build…steps to indigenous ministry.
1. Know who you are. That sounds obvious, but it is not. This takes personal reflection and time alone with God. It begins with the practitioner, a process of self-discovery is undertaken. Then it moves to the church and community. Who is actually in the pew, not assumptions but actual data? Who lives in the community? Where is the disconnect? Where can bridges be built?
2. Know where you are. Every community is unique. Do research to understand the congregation’s and the community’s history. How are they woven together?
3. Know who your mission file is. You cannot reach everyone in the community. You must determine who you are best suited and uniquely gifted by God to reach. That is not to say you can’t reach beyond that point, but you have to start where you are most likely to connect and move from there.
4. Determine your direction. Planning is the most neglected discipline of the church. Create a map with checkpoints along the way where you can make course corrections.
5. Listen to the Holy Spirit. There are people in your congregation that are gifted and crying out to do ministry. Listen to the hurts and concerns, the burdens God has placed upon their hearts, then equip them and get out of the way. God uses those who aren’t on staff.

My prayer is that we will move away from Sanctified Consumerism to authentic ministry, even if it isn’t as polished and pre-packaged. I hope it is as messy as a good New York pizza! I remain:

Consumed by the Call,

Gracious God, call us back to your heart. Help us lay aside ease for effort, lay aside convenience for connection and let us be the Church again. In the name of the one who chose the path of difficulty rather than the path of ease, Jesus, we pray. Amen

My new terms for this type of church:
Plug and Play Christianity
Sanctified Consumerism
Faith…Packaged for your Convenience
Buying Church

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