“People are tired of the hypocrisy of the church.” I hear this said a lot. But it is wrong. People are tired of the banality of the church. A recent study by Gallup demonstrates that church membership is claimed by less than half the population in the United States. This is happening in spite of the fact that denominational leaders are feverishly attempting to make churches grow. I believe, after thirty years of living in the problem, I know what’s wrong. Churches are banal, trite, commonplace, and uninteresting.
The Banality of Church Growth
Church growth has been the stated goal ever since I began my ministry career in 1991. America needs strong churches (so we are told). But what does that mean? We need members, attenders, givers, and volunteer workers. How do we get them? We attract them. How?
Church growth became church marketing strategies. Denominational leaders like how-to seminars, conferences, and other educational programs. Essentially, these programs reduce the people we want to reach to ciphers. We want numbers. Pastors are asked to view people this way. The people are numbers in two ways – bodies and dollars. When we look at human beings this way, we have lost the war. We are not interested in people. We are interested in the highest numbers of people.
The pressure in such marketing is to “be all things to all people” (to misquote St. Paul). In other words, be what the greatest number of people think they want. Attempting to provide what is claimed people want means we offer a bland diet of fast food.
The use or churchy words don’t help much. We claim we want to “make disciples for Jesus” while merely wanting more participants. People living in late capitalism know they are always being sold something. They are pretty savvy to marketing tricks. I will say more about this in the next section.
Desires are renamed needs in marketing. People may not need a new car. They merely may want one. But automobiles are advertised in a way to appeal to desires as needs. Most people give in to the redefinition of need when the desire is stimulated enough. People fool each other this way in matters of the Spirit.
“I just don’t feel like I am being fed.” Is an interesting way of saying, “I want something I am not getting.” But food for the spirit is a churchy idea. When we couch desires in these terms, it sounds like the individual has an unmet need. Children learn this trick early when they claim they were given nothing to eat when they did not like the food the parents provided.
The Banality of Manipulation
Church growth strategies are based on people say they want. But do people say what they mean? I once believed the problem was the secular world around us. People did not want to go to church because they wanted to avoid it. Or people chose certain churches because they preferred what was done there.
The people were not the problem. The churches were the problem. Did the pastor decide to wear a Hawaiian shirt because Ric Warren did? Did a church decide on contemporary music because that’s what people seemed to want? Do people
Churches respond to people’s desires for all the wrong reasons. A young girl at a Youth Rally was speaking to an adult about whether she should spend the money her mother gave her on a contemporary Christian music CD. “I don’t know if my mother wants me to spend the money on this?” The adult replied, “I am sure she would rather you spend it on this than some other music?” The banality of the adult was demonstrated in how the child was manipulated. The adult did not know better than the girl what her mother wanted.
Banality Instead of Hypocrisy
The simple truth is the church has always been hypocritical to some degree ever since the times of the Apostles. One cannot read the New Testament without seeing that complaint. It is the reason we think the issue is hypocrisy. The fact is churches refuse to do something other than formula. Pastors approach Christmas and Easter wanting to say something different than what is said every year. But we know what people are expecting.
Church growth strategies ultimately offer marketing tips so churches can attract church people. After awhile, the church people are done with the banality. Churches have become generic. Worship times are as unchallenging as the plot of a Hallmark movie. Religious music is an imitation of secular music. “Christian” movies are benign and predictable. Unfortunately the art we produce is trite and worse than commonplace. It may as well be secular.
The Evil That Grew
Giving people what they said they wanted has not made disciples for Jesus. It has made fans for a religious caricature of Jesus. And that caricature is demonic. It is not challenged. The banality of Jesus fandom has become a new opportunity for the churches to support evil and cruelty. Let’s try reality for a change. Banality only looks like we have integrity. Falsehood grows like bacteria in the rot.