This post originally appeared on DocDisc--an list serve for the Disciples of Christ. It is written by Darrell McGowan, a Disciples of Christ pastor in Fullerton, CA, to a Disciple audience, but transcends this denomination of which I'm also an ordained minister. I hope to have Darrell write more about this in a future issue of Sharing the Practice, but I think this will get the conversation going.
I've been doing some writing on these issues recently, and I offer you a few of my preliminary thoughts. If they are helpful, share them. If they are not, toss them. If you want to dialogue around them, I would love to hear from you personally or carry on the conversation in this forum.
Let me preface my thoughts by saying I think generational differences factor into the realities of what works and what doesn't in any context, but I am becoming more and more convinced that cultural differences that do not necessarily conform neatly to generational ones may be even more important. By cultural differences, I am not referring so much to cultures tied to ethnicity or national origin, but more to the way one looks at one's relationship to society.
We live in a consumeristic culture, and that reality needs to be addressed. One way to address this reality is to buy into the consumeristic culture and try to meet the needs of religious consumers. Under this approach, every time we identify another "felt need" amongst those we hope to attract to the church, we create or adapt a program or ministry to address that need. Churches that take this approach spend most of their resources meeting the needs of their members in different styles of worship, children's programs, new and remodeled facilities, and other accommodations. Many megachurches take this approach. They have a program for every group and a ministry aimed at every need. Most mainline churches that attempt this approach soon find they cannot compete with the megachurches. No matter how much they do, someone else is doing more and doing it more grandly.
Another way to address the consumeristic culture is to publicly stand in opposition to that culture. Many in the peace and justice movement take this approach, and they thrive as small groups with a very specific cause. They challenge people to relate to the world as something more than objects to be consumed and to relate to each other and to the stranger as something other than commodities. They tend to be driven by specific issues, whether the "open and affirming" movement, anti-war or peace movement, equal opportunity, racism, or some other issue. This approach usually has a short life- cycle unless the energy generated to address a particular issue can be continually regenerated or transferred to other issues as passion and enthusiasm wanes in relationship to the original issue.
A third way we can relate to the consumeristic culture is to create a countercultural environment where people can begin to question the dominant paradigm, experience freedom from the addictive patterns of a consumeristic culture and strive to live in life-giving relationship to each other and to the world. This model is deeply mission-focused and open to change. It meets people where they are at and ministers from the talents and gifts offered by the members of the church. A countercultural church models Jesus' command to love one another as we love ourselves. It actively works to free people from addictions to substances, unhealthy relationships, and self- destructive behavior patterns.
This third way is one that we, as Disciples, can be very good at if we choose. It can be embraced whether we worship in a more traditional style, a more contemporary one, or a cutting-edge style more meaningful to younger generations. It is not dependent on amassing large financial resources to pay professional musicians, administrators, technicians, or ministers. It fits well with our historical desire to seek unity in the midst of diversity.
I judge the first approach to be antithetical to the gospel, and although it has led to some very large churches with seemingly successful ministries, I believe it undermines the message of Jesus and perverts the public witness of the faith. When a church loses its focus on caring for the least amongst us and pours its resources into meeting the needs of its members, it is no longer proclaiming the gospel. Many of our churches have fallen into this trap as they tried to emulate what they perceived as successful models of church.
Unfortunately, most Disciples churches that have taken this path have ended up worse off as they poured financial resources into contemporary worship and other ministries only to find they still could not attract the religious consumers streaming to the megachurches. This approach further reinforces the narcissistic tendencies of a consumer culture and suggests that church should be a place where your needs are met, rather than a place where you are challenged, outfitted, and empowered to meet the needs of others.
Most of our churches have a strong mission focus unless they have declined to the point where they are just trying to survive. They could develop alternative worship services, build state-of-the-art children's facilities, and higher professionals in every leadership position if they would abandon their outward focus, but they are unwilling to do so. The good news is they do not need to abandon their outward focus, they need to proclaim it!
They also need to empower everyone in their church to share their gifts. If they have middle-aged and younger adults with the talent to create and staff a contemporary service, they should start such a service. On the other hand, if their members love singing in a choir and listening to the organ, they should work to expand the choir and invite new folks into it. Churches can grow and revitalize their ministries by welcoming middle-aged and older adults as easily as they can by attracting the young families most churches are targeting.
The religious consumers, who are likely to be younger than average, but can be any age, will look for churches that are focused on meeting their members' needs. They will be very comfortable in the megachurches. We are wasting our time trying to attract them and we may even be jeopardizing our ability to proclaim the gospel.
The folks who have tired of consumerism and are desperately seeking another way need to know that another way exists. They are the target audience of our message. They need to be of service in a meaningful way, learn the value and reward of stewardship, and experience the joy of living the gospel. We are ideally positioned to welcome people into a counter-cultural experience. That experience can be expressed in the context of any worship style and through any number of ministries that address the needs of others.
I hope we will find ways to explore this issue at Assemblies, Regional gatherings, district meetings, and congregational meetings. This can be a very exciting time, but we need to consciously choose to embrace our mission focus, let go of those who want us to be self- contained and inwardly focused, and welcome people desperate for freedom from the oppressive weight of a consumer society.
First Christian Church of Fullerton
Fullerton, CA, USA