The Glitzy Church?

So, I'm sitting here on a Saturday morning sipping a fabulous mug of Peet's coffee, and thinking some big thoughts - specifically, thoughts about church. That may seem kinda', well, obvious since church leadership is my career! But I mean more than just thinking about next Sunday's sermon, or the needs of our particular congregation at the moment, or the many activities that constitute the church calendar. I mean thinking about church: ho we do church, and why we do it the way we do it.

When it comes to "doing" church, the dominant paradigm in evangelicalism today is the Marketing model. Following the lead of the Willow Creeks and the Saddlebacks of the world, thousands of evangelical churches today are consumed with building little empires of programs and media-driven glitz that will draw a crowd in, ostensibly so they can hear about Jesus. The idea is not all bad: usually the motive is to "speak the language of the culture" as we communicate Christ. But in practice this usually leads to burnt-out pastors and volunteers who desperately try to outdo other churches with music, media, and family programs. Worse yet, this model fundamentally changes the church's mission. For if the goal is to be appealing to "unchurched" people, then one might expect that the less appealing aspects of the Christian faith would be downplayed. And this is precisely what is happening in many "Bible-believing" churches today.

Think about it: what aspects of Christian doctrine are most likely to be unappealing to a postmodern, individualistic culture like ours? The same aspects that have been unappealing to every culture in every time: ideas like sin, guilt, judgment, and the authority of God in the lives of men, just to name a few. Consider:

  • is Jesus our maker, deserving of our submission and graciously offering us forgiveness of our rebellious nature against him, as the gospel has declared for the past two thousand years? Or...
  • is Jesus the world's best self-help guru; a chummy chap who stands by ready to enhance our dreams, ameliorate our disappointments, and enable us to achieve our personal goals?
Which picture of Jesus do evangelical churches most commonly paint today? When you consider that in many churches you're more likely to hear a sermon series outlining how Jesus wants to make you successful, to help you conquer your personal doubts and fears, or explaining the seven habits of highly effective people, rather than a series on the doctrine of God or a serious study of a Biblical book in its own context, you be the judge.

But this is about more than just preaching - it's about how we understand the church's entire mission. And it touches every facet of church life, from how funds are allocated to how the pastoral staff spends its time to what the participation of individual members looks like. If the goal is to market the gospel as a product, everything will be affected.

So why have I been thinking about all this lately? Well, two responses come to mind. First, the big picture always come to the fore when you're about to hire new staff, as Harvest is preparing to do. As our modestly sized church begins the process of seeking a full time associate pastor to work with worship & arts as well as other responsibilities, the "Marketing question" becomes important: how much of this person's time will be devoted to building performance-oriented programs and activities vs. supporting the church's core functions of biblical community, truth-based personal transformation, and serving our community as conduits of grace?

But second, the truth is I haven't been just thinking about these things lately. In fact, I've never stopped thinking about them since I first came to pastor at Harvest. As I told the church at that time, God impressed upon me a burden to help build the church in the mode of serious engagement with the Bible, and with the deep questions of life. I came here with the deep-seated conviction that the church marketing experiment of the past couple decades, though begun with admirable goals, has gone largely awry. And it's time to shut 'er down. It's time to get back to a deep, rich, and delightfully counter-cultural Christianity. A Christianity that challenges our natural perspective, and gives a greater meaning to all of human life. In other words, time to get back to historic Biblical Christianity.

So says this one man anyway. But enough of my musings. I'm wanting to hear from all of you too, because I want to engender a discussion here. Please consider posting up a response to this question: what church experience in your own past caused you to grow most notably as a Christian?


Kimberly said...

I do not necessarily think it's fair to boil it down to what caused me to grow most notably as a Christian. I have a very easy answer to that one. Since we as women at Harvest have been participating in the Beth Moore studies, I have fallen in love with studying God's Word for myself in a way I never knew I could. This has led to me falling more deeply in love with my Savior. However, without the fellowship of the women in study with me, I wouldn't have grown nearly as much. I need to be able to have iron sharpening my iron and never let myself get too far into my own head. I need women to cry with and laugh with and feel lifted up by. I need to be able to lift up other women (it's God's favorite way of shifting my focus off of myself). And some of those women might not be there if we didn't have activities available to them that attracted them to Harvest in the first place.

I guess my point is that while I think your bottom line is absolutely right and that if we are focused so much on activity and "projects" (and on growing our own renown as a church rather than HIS renown) that we have watered down the Relationship and the Truth, that we've gone in the ditch and need to back up. But I also see the value in prayerfully considered, correctly motivated activities as a means to get people there in the first place. Not necessarily to get people to Harvest in the first place. To get people to a place where they can learn about Jesus (and I mean that more in terms of a state of heart than a location).

My family might not be believers today had the kid who sat next to me in 4th grade not invited me to AWANA (it's one of the reasons my parent's love it so much). I have a couple of wonderful, godly girlfriends who did not grow up in church homes, but eventually impacted their familes for the Lord and it all started with an invite to Youth Group. As an adult I have found it such a blessing to have "fun" things to invite friends and family to as a means of "breaking the ice" between them and the church. God has even allowed me the blessing of leading a few of them to the Lord. I know with 100% certainty that those are not the events that are going to grow people most notably as Christians, but they have to be exposed to it before they can accept it and start growing.

So while our Thursday morning studies have been the greatest catalyst for growth for me, I know that without AWANA, Son City, Raft Rally, and some women's teas that I attended with my mom during a season that I had drifted away from the Lord, I might not even be at that Bible study in the first place.

Wow....have I rambled or what?! Hopefully you get my point.

Matt Guerino said...

I think I do, and it's not really much different than what I'm getting at. That's the problem with tackling big issues: one blog post is not enough space to say everything! I'm definitely not setting up a false dichotomy between church activities and "true spirituality." A church can't be a church without activities.

The question is the nature of the activities. Are they glitzy programs designed to draw people in, to impress, entertain, or otherwise "wow" them into coming back? Or are they intentionally designed to advance the God-given purposes of the church? It's interesting to me that the two things you mention benefiting from the most (Bible study and community) are two of the three core elements of Harvest's mission.

Kimberly said...

I wrote and re-wrote that last comment for exactly the reason you just mentioned. I was trying to say too much in too little space and ended up muddling my points intstead of making them. I actually agree with everything you said in your post. I was just trying to answer your question and realized that for me, the two things go hand in hand to some degree. The "glitzy-ness" of my youth group and church camp was what kept me going back when my faith was shallow. Now that my faith is no longer shallow, I don't require the "glitz", but I can see the value of it as long as the "glitz" is accompanied by pure truth, which I was fortunate to grow up with. So while I was sticking around for the "glitz", the message was sinking in and the Holy Spirit was working, I just didn't know it. I can't imagine I'm the only one who has had an experience similar to that.

I'm sorry if I've been confusing. I actually regretted my previous comment once I posted it because I realized I hadn't ended up saying what I meant to.

For sure, the most concentrated growth for me has been in Bible study. But for many years, my foundation was being built while I attended the "glitz". Hopefully I came across more clearly this time!

Tim KC6QLV said...

In my youth I was raised a Roman Catholic, Saw the changes take place within the catholic Church growing up in the early to mid 70's from the results of Vatican II. I guess if there was a time my Christian experience revitalized while in High School, St. Anthony's Seminary. Let's look at the Life of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis founder of the Franciscan order in the 12th Century lived a life of poverty, chasity and obedientcy. That's the Christian Life I grew up in high school, feeding the poor, taking care of the elderly, visiting the imprisioned, THE SIMPLE LIFE.
Of course my life took a drastic turn in the late 90's, I feel out of the Church, lived a life of Alcoholism, lost friends, and whatever else.
I guess what I am trying to say Matt, God is always with us, Jesus Christ Died for us to forgive sins, with that belief I put my past behind. I am able to forgive as well as accept forgiveness from God. READ Philippians 3:13-14. This month Feb 15th marks 8 months of my Sobriety, I am actively involved in Small groups including a co leader in a Men's dependency group. I read the bible on a daily basis. I don't think I can never get burned out from Church, because there so much need for service.


Coolprof said...

I teach courses in a university that are primarily centered around management and organizational design. My emphasis in all the courses is that management, design, operation, marketing, etc. must be subservient to the vision and mission of the organization. I believe this is absolutely essential for the church.

If we frenetically run about, looking for the latest marketing ploy, gimmick, or glitzy program and try to cram the vision and mission of the church into that, we end up with an empty shell called the church building, populated by club members. That is not the church.

The sovereignty of God, the doctrine of the Trinity, the wonder of salvation, the working of the Holy Spirit in the believer, the mission of the church, maturity of the believer, etc.--these are the "stuff" of the church. The organizational things are important, for sure, but they should not drive the mission of the church.

The numbers game in the church is relatively new phenomona, and largely a western thing. It is misguided and dangerous, though it may be a more pure underlying agenda in the hearts of those who go along with it.

I guess the bottom line is the question, "How does the church effectively use methodologies for kingdom growth based upon its vision and mission?" I've seen it time and time again--present the truth in a clear, concise way, assist the seeker in finding applications for that truth, and nurture the individual into seeking maturity. Numbers without substance are just that.

Randolph Koch said...

Although there is no “silver bullet” to growth, there have been several things that have influenced my growth over the last, almost 20 years:

1. Strong Bible Teaching: Being a part of and under the teaching of a church where there is strong Bible Teaching from the pulpit especially in the Expository preaching style. Also, since this addresses Pastoral Leadership or style in part, I would also say that having Pastors that actively care for and shepherd the flock is another tremendous encouragement and equally has spurred me on in growth and service.

2. Strong Home Bible Studies: This is where I have personally grown in relationships with others in the Body of Christ. Also, being involved in these has contributed to growth in the wisdom and knowledge of Him as I’ve lead and participated in these groups which keeps me grounded in His Word.

3. Serving God in His Church and in the Community: This is another area of growth as it’s kept me “others” focused and focused on the mission and commission He’s set for us to fulfill for His Kingdom and Glory. I’ve also grown in relationships with others in the Body as we’ve served together.

4. Personal Bible Study, Teaching in Adult Sunday School Classes, and Devotional Writing: I lump all these together simply because they’ve all helped me grow as they keep me and have kept me grounded in the Word.

5. Discipleship Relationships: This and the areas noted in point 4 have also been where God has brought a few people into my life that have believed in me and want to see God’s best for my life as well as I want the best for their life. This has been another vital thing as we should be built up and not torn down by others.

In Sum, although this isn’t necessarily a definitive list the above listed items are the areas or things that come to mind that have contributed to my growth and continued desire to bring Glory to God, Help others grow, and be a servant to others.

Matt Guerino said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments! It strikes me that most everything that's been said here about what's made us grow as Christians relates to a few fundamental things: increasing knowledge of God and his word, the community of other serious Christians, and engaging in service in his name. Exactly the kinds of things our church is focusing on moving forward.

Anonymous said...

Well, I know I'm late on this blog, but I thought I'd put a comment in from a "glitz" person. First, to answer your question: Church has obviously helped me to grow, but no church experience in particular has. I've read the bible, I know who God is, I know who I am to be... ah, there in is my problem: doing what I know I should do. And what helps me to do what I should do, and be who God made me to be is to have a better understanding of who He is with people to help me. That's where all kinds of church facets help. Big and small. Glittery and plain. But obviously, it must be grounded in truth. So here's where the "glitz" comes in: drama. I know that some believe drama has no place in church. That's okay. But they're going to hell. Just kidding. Relax. Just Pergatory. Contrary to what some might think, I don't think drama should be used all the time. But at times it makes sense. For a sermon, so people can perhaps get a better or visual understanding of what the pastor is trying to communicate. For worship, to help people focus on God rather than the chores that need to be done after church. And with special programs, to show us who we really are, and how we need God. When someone says, "That was great," I appreciate it, but that's not why I do what I do. What brings me joy is when I hear how someone gave their life to Christ because of something I wrote (I know, I know, it's God who saves. But He made me to tell stories. And I like it when He uses me). Or when someone stops being a jerk because they saw themselves in a play, and it wasn't pretty. Lastly, sometimes it is just for fun. Because I believe it's good to get together as friends and family once in a while, have a laugh, and enjoy each other's company. Drama and programs or events or whatever, can communicate truth in a way that people understand (remember, Jesus taught often using stories). At the least, it can draw some fence sitters in and, hopefully, they see Christ in us. There. That's my late two cents. Oh, and if you haven't guessed... this is Dana. Duh.

Aaron said...

I think what this post and these comments are getting at (from my perspective) is a program or activity that falls short of intentionally trying to serve the church body's needs because it is focusing instead on wowing, impressing, entertaining, or even keeping people coming back... that's glitz, which has no place in the church.

On that same note but in a different direction, that can actually be a measure of some sorts as to whether or not your church's programs and activities are falling into the glitzy category: do they meet people's deepest spiritual and relational needs? Ultimately, that's the goal of the church, because that was Jesus' reason for coming - to forgive sins and offer eternal life. Those other "needs," like hunger or entertainment (for example), could've easily fallen into the glitzy category with acts like feeding the 5k or healing the sick if Jesus' true intentions were only to impress people.

Anyway, now I'm rambling.... I guess my bottom line is this: I've always been turned off to glitzy stuff because it seems showy and inauthentic. When Harvest does deep and challenging stuff, sometimes it really hurts but that feeling is so genuine that I know it's from God. That stuff really gets to my needs, as raw and uncomfortable as it may be.

Matt Guerino said...

Aaron: bingo! Because it's doing what you describe in your 1st paragraph, the Marketing church paradigm actually changes the gospel because it "sells" Jesus as the answer to your felt needs in the same way that companies sell HDTVs. Your hunger to have the church address real needs (as defined by God, who should know) is an encouragement to me.

Dana: First off I'm relieved that drama non-fans only have a few centuries of Purgatory to endure rather than a total loss of salvation. Second, I think you're actually making my point. Everything you wrote about the value of drama from your perspective, which I also know from our many conversations on the subject, supports a serious engagement with truth, and the reason Jesus invented church in the first place. That's the total opposite of the Marketing model I described in this post.

In fact, your comment raises an important distinction: art is not what I'm calling "glitz." In fact... this point is big enough that I think it deserves its own post. Look at that: you inspired me! You inspiring fella you... well, except when you're wearing a dress and a pink wig.


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