Posted by: Andrew Webb | October 25, 2007

The End of the Consumer Driven Church

erasing-the-church.jpgINTRODUCTION: At the Building Old School Churches Blog our primary desire is to help people who want to plant or build Old School Presbyterian (OSP) churches, and our primary reason for doing so is that we believe that this is the biblical model for the church and that God will bless these churches. We acknowledge that these OSP churches are counter-cultural – they are neither the “traditional churches” that developed as a protestant reflection of American culture as it existed 50 to 100 years ago and they also go against the consumer driven church model that has sought to replace the “traditional” model and now prevails in most portions of American evangelicalism (sometimes called “seeker-sensitive”.) It is our belief that because OSP churches have a solid rock foundation, they will be able to stand in the midst of all the tempests of our culture.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering where the seeker-sensitive movement is going. We are already seeing in some seeker churches an acknowledgment that the culture has moved on since the 1980s and that their worship is becoming obsolete and irrelevant to modern youth and young adults. If seeker-sensitive worship is to continue to reflect the popular culture, then it will need to mimic the current pop-culture, not the pop-culture of two decades ago. Therefore several churches have begun to move towards an updated even trendier version of seeker-sensitive worship giving it names like “Alternative” that reflect it’s desire to be truly cutting edge. Then of course there are reactions against the mega-church and seeker sensitive movements such as the current Celtic and Emergent church movements. It is worth noting that while both of these movements are reactions against the pop-culture nature of seeker sensitive worship, they still enshrine the idea that the consumer, and not the bible, should determine how God is to be worshipped.

But perhaps the end-game of consumer driven church model is best seen in the new movement being spurred on by George Barna, one of the original creators and promoters of the original sensitive church model. This new movement, which is a logical outgrowth of the consumer driven model, would eliminate the church entirely.

George Barna’s Latest Revolution

As many of you are no doubt already aware, Christian pollster George Barna recently published a new book called “Revolution” in which he takes statistics indicating that upwards of 20 million American evangelicals have left the church and now practice being “spiritual” either at home or in small groups as the wave of the future. Barna openly promotes this “unchurching” movement as a good thing, even when it involves replacing attending church with “golf fellowships” made up of Christian men who glorify god by spending Sunday playing 18 holes. In short, the book advocates the end of the institutional church and seeks to sell apostasy as a popular option for disgruntled evangelicals.

At one time George Barna and his ilk told us that the wave of the future was that all churches would have to become seeker-sensitive and culturally relevant in order to survive in the next millennium, via books like Barna’s User Friendly Churches (1991) they helped drive a revolution that has virtually wiped out the traditional church model in evangelicalism. Now that the mega-church seeker-sensitive model they once supported so vociferously is proving to be a failure, increasingly rejected by the very culture it strove so hard to please, they are producing books like Barna’s latest entitled Revolution which pushes “house churches” or simply being “spiritual” at home and work as the next wave of the future, a movement which if it succeeds will help to destroy many of America’s struggling fellowships to replace them with a rudderless, leaderless, “do whatever seems good in your own eyes” conglomeration of extended bible studies.

Why is that?

Barna lives straddling two worlds. He is a modern American evangelical and a pollster and his ecclesiology is driven by these two facets of his life. Many Reformed believers assume that the theology of modern American evangelicals has been primarily influenced by the long term effects of revivalism in the 19th century, but what they fail to take into consideration was that the theology of 19th century revivalists like Charles Finney was actually molded in the crucible of American culture with all of its assumptions. For instance, if we want to know what shaped Finney’s assumptions regarding salvation all we have to look to is the psyche of the American society of the time; it’s not surprising therefore to hear him speak of saving souls in the same way that the average American would speak of how one should farm or successfully run a business: “the connection between the right use of means for a revival, and a revival, is as philosophically sure as between the right use of means to raise grain, and a crop of wheat.” We tend to think of the “corporate” or “consumer” model of the church as a 20th century invention, but it really is a creation of the 19th. What the church came to value in the 19th century was the same thing the culture valued – success – and a success that could be categorized and most importantly quantified. If we have an increase in the number of consumers of our product, we are doing well, if not then we are failing and either our marketing or perhaps even the product itself need to change in order to make them more appealing.

As a Pollster, Barna is even more sensitive than the average evangelical to the importance of popularity. In large measure, modern American evangelicalism has been shaped by men like Barna, with an eye to being as popular and appealing as possible. However, the church that they have created is failing on several fronts. Ironically, the very drive to make the church as popular as possible has also made it as shallow, transient, and as disposable as any modern American plastic consumer product. The fact that around 88%* of the youth raised in these churches will abandon the faith by their first year of college, is a reflection that the product itself has little impact or value. It has also made for churches that are, in large measure, indistinguishable from the pop culture they are trying to mimic. Not surprisingly, the abomination of the yesterday’s-pop-culture worldly church that Barna and his co-laborers helped to birth now repulses them and they are increasingly rejecting it. A lot of “emergents” also fall into this category. Above all, they are beginning to recognize that the seeker church has become an obsolete product now only frequented, by and large, by the people who grew up using it and are consequently “brand loyal” (newsflash – the only people who really demand “seeker-sensitive” worship aren’t seekers, they are the Christian boomers and gen-Xers who have frequented these churches for years – this has become their traditional comfort zone).

So, what do you do now that the “seeker” model churches are failing to do what they were created to do, namely attract new consumers, or even to keep the children of the old consumers? Well, if quantifiable success continues to be our aim, we don’t have much other choice but to change the product. The “house church model” or vague spirituality is simply an appeal to what they think consumers in this generation want and what could be easier in an already isolated society than to sell people on something they already want to do, namely avoid church entirely by staying home.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this scenario is that the biblical model for a church will never be an option for the advocates of consumer driven religion. They simply don’t feel it will “succeed” according to the polls, and with the Finney’s of the 19th century all they really trust are human means and methods. If you can’t plot it on a poll, it doesn’t exist. The idea that God might actually bless a simple, apostolic, model for his church, and bring people to faith through it, and cause it to thrive – even under persecution – doesn’t even register with them. And because such a church model doesn’t support growth beyond say the 200 member mark, it doesn’t fit the modern consumer criterion for success. They are all about reaching everyone in the culture with the “product” and as a result they are always failing.

Were they to realize that the work of the church involves the ingathering and building up of the elect, that the church in every age is made up of a faithful remnant, that the church is supposed to be as profoundly different from the culture as light is to darkness, and that the direction of scripture alone really is sufficient for the task of building the church, things might change profoundly. As it is, men like Barna are setting themselves up for a continuous cycle of failure that will only do greater and greater harm to the body of Christ, especially as their methods become more and more desperate and unscriptural.

If anyone were to ask me what the church needs most about now is not Barna’s newest “revolution” its a REFORMATION that returns us to the simple, biblical, church of the Scripture, regardless of what the culture thinks of those churches. It is for that reason that we are promoting the Old School Presbyterian model.

* A recent SBC poll indicated that 88% of the youth raised in evangelical churches stop attending church by the first year of college.

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Responses

  1. Andy,

    I’m familiar with the emerging/Emergent church movement. What I’m not acquainted with is this ‘Celtic’ church revival you mentioned. Can you tell me more?

    cheers,
    Jeremiah

  2. Hi Jeremiah,

    There are a lot of different permutations of the “celtic” fad in new churches and a lot of people associate it with the emergent movement – they use a lot of the same vocabulary, (for instance I’m thoroughly sick of reading and hearing the buzzword “missional”). Additionally, many Emerging/Emergent churches try to integrate bogus Celtic spirituality into their own smorgasboard of traditions.

    Here are just a few different permutations of the “Celtic” church:

    http://www.celticchristianchurch.org/
    http://independentcelticepiscopalchurch.org/
    http://www.aidantrust.org/
    http://www.celtic-catholic-church.org/

    Basically, if you are a Scottish Wannabee, played D&D for way to long as a kid, are a member of the society for creative anachronism, and have your own kilts even though you aren’t legitimately a member of any clan, there is a strong possibility you’ll want to play at being a Celt in church as well.

    PS: There are several other varieties of theme churches for grown-up children such as the increasingly popular “cowboy church.” Bleargh.

  3. Andy,

    There are a lot of things to dislike in the EmergenT movement. But some of the emerginG folks aren’t nearly as bad.. guys like Mark Driscoll, who quotes John Murray(!) in his books. What do you think of that strain of the movement?

    Thanks for the links. I own and wore a kilt to my wedding.. however, I am legitimately descended from a Scottish clan.

    cheers,
    Jeremiah

  4. Hi there, great site. What denomination would you feel would be the best place to start and grow an OSP church?

  5. It depends SJM. There really is no “ideal fit” denomination, rather there are some denominations were it is easier than others and others were it is going to be close to impossible.

    For instance, I found it possible to plant an OSP church in the PCA, but that doesn’t mean that the PCA is in favor of planting OSP churches, rather it would be more accurate to say “they aren’t opposed.” I know it is possible to plant Old School churches in the PCA, OPC, ARP, Free Church, and many of the other Presbyterian “micros.” It is even possible to plant an “Old School” church in some of the Continentally Reformed denoms in the USA. As for “best”? I dunno, its hard wherever you do it, and there are advantages and disadvantages to all of the denoms where its possible, but unless we see the formation of a large and well-grounded explicitly OLD SCHOOL Presbyterian denomination, we aren’t going to have an ideal option. Therefore to perspective church planters, I’d say unless it’s constitutionally impossible (denoms that ordain women come to mind), strive to work in the denomination where God has placed you.


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