By Dr. Nancy Going, Director of the CYF Distributed Learning Program at Luther Seminary
Last week, Terri Elton and I were at a conference about the future of the church. It was great conversation, but my brain is still stuck on some of the realities that were laid out about the state of the current church. One of the ideas that really caught my ear and my heart came from a ministry leader named Mike Breen, who asserts that the three reasons the institutional church is dying in America are: Celebrity, Consumerism, and Competition. I quoted him last week as well, and wrote about competition, which has SO driven youth and family ministry reality.
And I promised myself that I would enter into the conversation about Consumerism and Celebrity in coming weeks. So here we are. Consumerism. There is lots and lots out there about the consumerism of American Christians in their approach to church. There is less written about how the church has structured itself for consumption rather than discipleship.
So what about how we encourage consumption of church? And in fact, isn't this kind of consumerism really at the core of Derek Tronsgard's great blog the other week about youth ministry and the rise of the "nones"? Derek wonders if youth ministry isn't somehow responsible for the rise of the "nones." I wonder if the problem isn't youth ministry itself but rather, is the consumer nature of HOW we've done youth ministry, which was then adopted by the rest of the church. It looks as though it is now coming around to bite the church by the nature of all the ways that a consumer church teaches a gospel that is pretty much the opposite of the Christian gospel?
I can already hear the pushback, "It's the world we live in, America is a consumer culture. period." "But we need to accept and engage the culture" or "Its a broken and sinful world, and the church just reflects that." All are true. And in many ways, the church has a long history of engaging people by providing religious goods and services--now just expressed in "church shopping" or attracting people by our programs.
But then there is now. A now where (and many of you are experiencing this unfolding before your eyes on Sunday morning) we are looking at a time when more and more your consumers aren't buying! Or are buying less.
And our default reaction seems to be to try to make ourselves more attractive, so that they will want to consume again.
At Luther, we have put all our eggs in the basket of the framework of the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study. It was based on identifying congregations who were developing greater numbers of maturing Christian Young people. These were all American churches of various sizes and denominations who of course, had consumers in their pews. But the focus of their ministry and their structures were on something quite different--Disciples. In some ways, consumer church is so ingrained into the our structures of doing and even more funding church, that it's hard to wrap our heads around what is means to focus on discipling instead. What's one way that you can stop creating consumers, and focus on discipling?
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Nancy Going is a life-long youth minister, who loves Jesus, other people learning to love Jesus, her husband Art Going, and the two new families that are her kids and grandkids.
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