The contemporary church has undergone a revolution in worship styles unprecedented since the Protestant Reformation. Ministry has married marketing philosophy, and this is the monstrous offspring. There has been a studied effort to change the way the world perceives the church; church ministry is being completely revamped in an attempt to make it more appealing to unbelievers.
The experts tell pastors to concentrate their energies in this new direction if they want to be successful. Provide non-Christians with an agreeable, inoffensive environment. Give them freedom, tolerance, and anonymity. Always be positive and benevolent. If you must have a sermon, keep it brief and amusing. Don’t be preachy or authoritative. Above all, keep everyone entertained. Churches following this pattern will see numerical growth, we’re assured; those that ignore it are doomed to decline.
The kinds of innovation that have been tried are extraordinary, even radical. Churches offer their largest services on Friday or Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. These services are usually heavy on music and entertainment, offering people an alternative to the theater or social circuit. Church members can “get church out of the way” early, then have the rest of the weekend to use as they wish. One Saturday churchgoer explained why these alternative services are so important: “If you go to Sunday school at 9:00 A.M., then to the 11 A.M. service and leave about 1 P.M., your day is pretty well shot.”Cited in John Dart, “Protestant Churches Join the Fold, Fill Pews with Saturday Services,” Los Angeles Times (15 September 1991), B3.
Judging from attendance figures, lots of church members feel spending the Lord’s Day in church is tantamount to blowing the whole day. Non-Sunday alternative services in some churches are more heavily attended than traditional Sunday worship services.
That’s not all. Many church services offer no preaching whatsoever, relying, instead, on various forms of congenial entertainment. “This is the generation that grew up on television,” one pastor told Time magazine. “You have to present religion to them in a creative and visual way.”Barbara Dolan, “Full House at Willow Creek,” Time (March 6, 1989), 60.
The whole point is to make the church “user-friendly.” That is a term borrowed from the computer industry. It was first employed to describe software and hardware that is easy for the novice to operate. Applied to the church, it usually describes a ministry that is benign and utterly non-challenging. In practice, it has become an excuse for importing worldly amusements into the church in an attempt to try to attract non-Christian “seekers” or the “unchurched” by appealing to their fleshly interests. The obvious fallout of this preoccupation with the unchurched is a corresponding de-emphasis on those who are the true church. The spiritual needs of believers are often neglected to the hurt of the body.
Pounding the Pulpit?
Not that preaching has been entirely abandoned. Some of the user-friendly churches offer at least one service a week (often a midweek service) where a spoken message is the centerpiece. But even in those meetings the style is frequently psychological and motivational rather than biblical. Above all, the emphasis is on user-friendliness.
The rules may be summed up as follows: Be clever, informal, positive, brief, and friendly. Ditch the necktie. Never let them see you sweat. And never, never use the H-word.
Many pastors would vehemently deny that they downplay or deny any point of evangelical doctrine. In fact, George Barna’s bestselling book User-Friendly Churches includes this disclaimer twice: “None of the successful churches described in this book is interested in being user friendly in the sense of compromising the gospel or the historic faith of the church just to make friends with the age.”George Barna, User-Friendly Churches (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1991), 1, 15–16.
But in fact the truth of Scripture is being compromised when it is relegated to a footnote in someone’s sermon. The historic Christian faith has been abandoned when—in order to forge a friendship with the world—hard truths are avoided, vapid amusements are set in place of sound teaching, and semantic gymnastics are employed to avoid mention of the difficult truths of Scripture. If the design is to make the seeker comfortable, isn’t that rather incompatible with the biblical teaching on sin, judgment, hell, and several other important topics? So the biblical message is inevitably distorted by the philosophy. And what about the believer who should be fed?
Please understand, I’m not suggesting preachers ought to be sweaty, unkempt ranters and ravers who scream, yell, pound the pulpit, and thump the Bible. But let’s face it, except in very narrow, hyper-fundamentalist sects, such preachers are hardly in abundance these days. The imagery of the Bible-thumper has become an easy stereotype that is often used against those who simply believe straightforward proclamation of truth is more important than making the unbeliever comfortable.
The weakness of the pulpit today does not stem from frantic cranks who harangue about hell; it is the result of men who compromise and who fear to speak God’s Word powerfully, with conviction. The church is certainly not suffering from an overabundance of forthright preachers; rather, it seems glutted with men-pleasers (cf. Galatians 1:10).
The Customer Is Sovereign
At the heart of the market-driven, user-friendly church is the goal of giving people what they want. Advocates of the philosophy are quite candid about this. Consumer satisfaction is the stated goal of this philosophy. One key resource on market-driven ministry says, “This is what marketing the church is all about: providing our product (relationships) as a solution to people’s felt need.”George Barna, Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988), 51.
“Felt needs” thus determine the road map for the modern church marketing plan. The idea is a basic selling principle: You satisfy an existing desire rather than trying to persuade people to buy something they don’t want.
Accurately assessing people’s felt needs is therefore one of the keys to modern church-growth theory. Church leaders are advised to poll potential “customers” and find out what they are looking for in a church—then offer that. Demographic information, community surveys, door-to-door polls, and congregational questionnaires are the new tools. Information drawn from such sources is considered essential to building a workable marketing plan. Ministers today are told they cannot reach people effectively without it.
Worst of all, it seems people’s emotional “felt needs” are taken more seriously than the real but unfelt spiritual deficiencies Scripture addresses. “Felt needs” include issues like loneliness, fear of failure, “codependency,” a poor self-image, depression, anger, resentment, and similar inward-focused inadequacies. Some of these are real, and some are fabricated by the psychological sales pitch. These problems, we are told, are behind drug addiction, sex addiction, and several dozen other syndromes. The real problem—the root of all such troubles—is human depravity, an issue that is carefully skirted (though seldom overtly denied) in the teaching of the typical user-friendly church.
No longer are pastors trained to declare to people what God demands of them. Instead, they are counseled to find out what the people’s demands are, then do whatever is necessary to meet them. The audience is regarded as “sovereign,” and the wise preacher will “shape his communications according to their needs in order to receive the response he [seeks].”Ibid., 33.
The effect of such a philosophy is apparent; more and more people-pleasers fill the pulpits of our churches. Moreover, Scripture is overruled by the marketing plan as the authoritative guide for ministry. One textbook on church marketing includes this statement: “The marketing plan is the Bible of the marketing game; everything that happens in the life of the product occurs because the plan wills it.”Ibid., 45. Applied to church ministry, that means a human strategy—not the Word of God—becomes the fountain of all church activity, and the standard by which ministry is measured.
That approach to ministry is so obviously convoluted and so grossly unbiblical that I am amazed so many pastors are influenced by it. But it has become an extremely influential philosophy. Thousands of churches have overhauled their entire ministry and are now attempting to cater to the masses.
In fact, the user-friendly-church movement has become so large that many secular newspapers have noted the trend. One article in the Los Angeles Times described how a megachurch grew out of a door-to-door survey conducted for a “marketing study” when this church was not yet formed. “Customer Poll Shapes a Church” was the title of the article—and it is fitting. The story described how the pastor “tailored the church’s program to the needs and gripes people registered in his door-to-door survey.”Russell Chandler, (11 December 1989), A1. Of course, the article said, his messages are brief, low-key, upbeat, and topical, with titles like “The Changing American Dream.” He spices his sermonettes with quotations from news and financial magazines.
Another Southern California newspaper ran an article entitled, “Marketing the Maker.” It described several local churches that employed the market-driven philosophy—and seemed to be booming. One church “bought time on classic rock stations for an ad that sounded more like a pitch for a social club than an invitation to join a church. And newspaper ads were placed in the entertainment section, not the religion section.”Mike McIntyre, The San Diego Union (6 November 1988), D8.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with a church placing ads in the entertainment section. But it is wrong for a church to promise—and deliver—a “church service” that is merely a form of entertainment. And that is precisely what many of these churches are doing. “A celebration—not a service” is how this particular church promoted its meetings, held, appropriately, in a movie theater.
In the 1990s, one “church” took the concept to its logical conclusion—“a church service created for the medium of television. Our sanctuary has no pews . . . our sanctuary is [the] viewers’ television set.” “Designed by the Holy Spirit to Forever Change Christian Television” (advertisement), Religious Broadcasting (October 1992), 4–5. Created by the founder of the Home Shopping Network, “Worship” was a 24-hour “non-stop Christian church service.” How can a “church” like that offer meaningful fellowship? you ask. The founders of “Worship” felt they had that covered. “At Worship, fellowship is a significant part of each service, but this, too, is handled in a unique way through modern tools of communication. . . . Worship employs the latest technology in digital telephone equipment to enable viewers from around the country to quickly connect to a Fellowship partner.” “In Spirit and in Truth,” Religious Broadcasting (December 1992), 12.
This phenomenon was an early portend of today’s ubiquitous livestreams, multisite churches, and virtual “churches.” The trend has now reached the point where “online pastors” are hired to shepherd a nebulous Internet flock which tunes in to a church’s livestreams. As for fellowship, instant messaging has made that even easier than could have been imagined in the 90s.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with livestreaming or telecasting a church worship service for those who physically cannot be there. But the ease of those kinds of communications means that pastors must begin to stress more than ever the importance of fellowship, accountability, and participation in the body of Christ at the local level. Streaming an Internet worship service is not an adequate way “to get connected” with Christ’s body. People who are inclined to duck personal involvement in the church now have a smorgasbord of online alternatives. They can salve their consciences with the impression of church participation but not the reality.
With so many options, the most casual customer has achieved ultimate sovereignty. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he can simply close the computer window. If he doesn’t enjoy the “fellowship,” he can log out.
What used to be true only of business has made its way into the church—the customer is always right, the user experience is the top priority. So in the name of getting people in the door (and keeping them there), evangelicals bend over backward to satisfy their every wish. What once existed to glorify God, now exists to appease man. That is the monstrous offspring of pragmatism.
But the Lord has always had a better way. Next time we will look at His means for building His church.
(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel.)