Consumer Christianity

Consumer Christianity
(Adapted from Psd, Flickr)

How was your church service last week? Were the songs good, the pastor polished, the message on-point?

In the name of upping the quality of pastoral work, a new website in Germany now allows parishioners to rate their priest’s performance in several categories, including worship, credibility, work with youth and seniors, and having his “Finger on the Pulse.”

Even without such an app, we often create our personal ad hoc Angie’s Lists, evaluating the service and its various officiants during the drive home from church. And when we get sick of picking nits, we can signal our disapproval by picking another church or dropping out entirely.

We’re reaping the results of ministry decisions made decades ago which turned (and continue to turn) the church’s attention to the experience of the churchgoer. We’re now less worshipers or even participants in ministry. We’re more, as Rachel Daniels put it, “consumers of Christianity.” Should we be surprised then that people act like consumers, that they feel entitled to judge, to rate, to rank, to approve, to critique, to tweet as the pastor finishes his homily, “Sermon today? #Fail,” even if only in our heads?

This is not to say that judgment is not something good or necessary. We will even judge angels someday. And there are definitely some congregations that don’t deserve their congregants, led by shepherds who don’t deserve their sheep.

But how qualified are we to render judgment? How capable are we? After all, says the Proverb, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” And: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” as God says in Isaiah. Do we have a clue what we’re doing or saying? Are the instruments calibrated to God’s standard our just our own culturally-conditioned kneejerks?

Leave aside for a moment our qualifications, and look at it from this angle: It may be bad for us. Passing judgment this way discourages humility and encourages pride and dissatisfaction.

Rather than judge our pastors like critics, customers, and consumers, we would be better served spiritually by turning that squinting eye inward. How are we doing? How faithful are we being? How’s our worship, our credibility, our work with youth and the elderly? But that list is too short, right? Open it up: How’s our prayer life, our thought life, our family life, our … You get the picture.

We can judge all day, but we’ll probably get it wrong and only harm ourselves in the process. Consumer Christianity creates the sense that we are entitled to the perfect worship, teaching, or ministry experience, when the reality is that we should worry more about our own walk than how the pastor carries himself on stage.

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  • Wow, way to hit between the eyes! GREAT post, Joel.

    • Thanks. That rate-your-priest story just got me thinking.

  • Very convicting. Thanks for a timely reminder.

    • Convicting for me too. I’m very given to criticism. I think there are positive aspects of that tendency, but there are also many negative aspects as well.

  • Andrew

    Indeed – timely…and convicting. Thanks, Joel.

    • You bet. Always good for us to remember that we’re really only responsible for own performance, and we probably don’t take that seriously enough. I know I don’t.

  • Ouch. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

    Amazing how easy it is to fall into the trap of judging? As if it were good for us, as if it were our job. Yikes.

    I serve on the Worship Planning team for my church, and it’s a humbling task to plan worship for a gathering of folks. God forbid we ever approach our work by seeking to score with consumers. But I’m afraid it’s easy to stray along a path of wanting a thumbs-up from our congregants. Thank you for flashing a warning sign!

    • I’ve not much considered it from that side of things; thanks. The pressure must be immense. (I once played on a worship team, but I was too focused on getting through my chord progressions without fumbling to notice if anyone saw how well I did it. I didn’t last too long.)

  • As the one delivering the sermons every week, this runs to one of my bigger stresses: am I pleasing both God and man in my work? It leads to a good deal of worry.

    Then I realize that I’m doing much of the same thing: I still wrestle with ‘what am I getting out of this?’ when I think about Sundays, about church life in general. Good things to think about.

    • We get so much out of it that it’s easy to see why we’d think that way. Seems natural.

      I belong to the Orthodox Church and except in moments where directly addressing the congregation, say, for instance, in the sermon, the priest doesn’t even face the people. He faces the altar, same as the congregation. It’s a great reminder that he’s there to minister not to us, but to God.

  • As an employee of the church (specifically, a worship director), my judgment often goes the other direction. Some Sundays, instead of a big loud band, we only have a single guitarist, or we will focus more on prayer and reading instead of music, and only have three songs instead of five. On those Sundays the response is certainly less enthusiastic than when we have an energetic band playing only songs that are the top ten on the local Christian radio station.

    We’ve seen that the 80/20 rule is alive and well in our congregation as well, when it comes to things like trying to get people active in service to their neighbors, or attending small groups, or just engage in any way.

    I can easily look at these things and start judging the entire congregation. It is true that there are plenty of people who merely want to consume spiritual goods, but there are exceptions. There are also other people who just don’t “get it” yet, and with some discipling, they will. I have to be careful not to assume that they’re all consumers and will always be so.

    It’s a struggle to walk the line between trying to use things like music, media, eloquence, etc. as tools to help people engage on one side, and capitulating to the consumer mindset on the other.

  • Tim Wright

    The Saturday Times in the UK have been rating churches on a scale of 1-5 for over ten years. Amazing. How do you rate the presence of God? Churches in the USA do it with bums on seats and bills in collection. No different, just has the appearance of something different!

  • Deborah Claypool

    An audience of One

  • Matt

    So at what point does it become acceptable to change churches? What would be your criterion to make that judgement?

    • That’s a tough question and one that’s probably particular to each person. I changed traditions because I became convinced of the doctrines and practices if the Orthodox Church. Before the change the church I attended was wonderful; it just wasn’t Orthodox. I had to change for that reason.

  • Great thought, Joel.
    I believe the root of this problem (as is the case with EVERY problem) is selfishness. We go to church for what we can GET instead of what we can GIVE.
    That’s why I decided “I’m Not Going to Church Any More”

    Thanks for bringing up a great topic!

  • Joe Schmeo


    Most priests are AWFUL preachers. I certainly have changed parishes when they’ve brought in someone who reads from a page, mumbles, and has little to say.

    Diocesan priests are the worst…in fact, I won’t go to their masses any more. The order priests are a little better, but overall, the state of preaching in the church is atrocious. Perhaps because all the priests are in their 70s…

  • Leigh Hudson

    Great Post!

    I can envisionthe Pharasies doing the same thing to Paul. They sure did question Jesus…and yet I find myself feeling entitled to evaluate the church service I’ve attended as if I am some sort of movie critic, giving it a thumbs up or down.

    Thank you for this insightful opportunity to focus not so much on the messenger, but on The One whom the message is about.