The Consumer-Driven Church Model, Part Three

Note: this is part three of a three part series. Part One is here; Part Two is here.

Three Things to Keep in Mind

First: not all growth is good growth.  When effectiveness is measured only by numerical growth, we make the fatal mistake of assuming that just because something grows rapidly, it is doing so under the blessing of God.  All gardeners and physicians know this:  rapid growth doesn’t necessarily mean good, healthy or desired growth.

Second:  the process of making disciples is a long, slow, and often painful one.  A disciple is one who is actually willing to walk the path of the Teacher, in this case, Jesus.  That path leads to the cross, a place of utter aloneness and excruciating pain.

It is at the cross that the question must be asked and answered:  Will I be a person of forgiveness and reconciliation, no matter what the cost, so I can go all the way to the resurrection?

Most will say no.  It’s not fun anymore at that point.  It’s no longer bells and whistles and loud music and video screens and constant movement and distraction.

Discipleship takes place in those moments when we are called to be still, to know that God is God, and to be able to say with the great man of old, that poor, beat up Job, “Even though He slay me, yet I will praise Him.”

Third, unless we address the deep and expensive structure of The United Methodist Church, we are doomed to follow the consumerist model.  But the cost to maintain our current structure leads us to think we have no choice.  And a place of no choice opens the door to the sin-compromised state where the ends are worth the means.

If we are going to go forth and do what we are called to do, then it is time to completely re-examine what holds us together.

When I entered into this church, I was drawn to two primary areas:  the expansive, inclusive, wide grace-infused theology and the power of being a connectional church.  Our theology turns us toward God and showers us with grace. Our connection turns us toward one another in covenant relationship.  In covenant, we may pass that grace around, support one another as necessary and together live out the daily challenges of being disciples of Jesus.

A consumer-driven model is rarely grace-filled and is fundamentally competitive, not covenant or connectional, in nature. Others must fall for us to stand.

Consumerism means that those who know little of grace, little of deep sacrifice, little of the challenges of picking up our crosses daily, call the shots.

I look at the money that was spent to pull off the show we call “General Conference” this past year and weep.  Every need had to be catered to.  It appeared on occasion that the least gracious hijacked the floor and engineered the direction of the Conference.  The displeased consumers, i.e., delegates, kept threatening in one way or another to take their business elsewhere.

The administrative arm of the church, which should be there to enhance the work of the local discipling community, instead pulls giant amounts of money out of the offering plates each week and month.  It loads upon local clergy and congregations, that place where the work of discipleship takes place, impossible-to-decipher forms and strangling requirements for minutely detailed reports that are never looked at except to determine how much money to squeeze from them the next year.

The world laughs and says, “You have nothing useful to say.”

But we do.  Yes, we do.  We have the Gospel.

And yes, we must address the crisis.  But it is much deeper than numbers and noses.

Let us answer the primary question first:  “What IS a disciple of Jesus Christ?”

Then we can ask: “How can our forms of worship, gathering, instruction, connection and structure actually aid in the process of shaping those disciples?”

12 thoughts on “The Consumer-Driven Church Model, Part Three

  1. I have a shallow understanding of grace. You get it for free, but it comes with a cost. What is the cost?

    It strikes me that while the Gospel is transformational and freeing, there is a confrontation within it. Ever since I made the decision to return to my Christian heritage, I’ve struggled with a sense of mysterious confrontation with the sacred. It’s like Christ is guiding me to see something. Open my eyes. Something is burning in my life that can be so disruptive that I feel a little wild.

    I feel broken, but called to serve the holy and the children of God. Am I too broken? And I know rejection is part of it. Discipleship is deep; It will address my brokenness and sharpen talents. Now I have to show up with open hands.

    What’s holding me back?

    Cindy Breeding
    Krum UMC member


    1. I’m not sure we can be too broken to serve but we can insist that we are too unworthy of grace to serve. I remember writing about this several years ago after conversation with a friend of mine who insisted she could teach grace to others but saw herself as unworthy of it and outside of it. I think you cannot give what you do not have. We have it–and therefore we must also give it away.

      But it does cost everything ultimately.


  2. Christy — Once again, all I can say is “Wow!” You are so right on with your reflection on the quantity game we are playing in the UMC. I’m so tired of having to fill out the dashboard (actually thought we were the only conference doing it) and feeling threatened because my urban congregation isn’t growing by leaps and bounds. We are being very faithful in our ministry and mission, but all we hear about are the numbers.

    I have begun a group here at my church for those who are tired of or have been put off by or hurt by organized religion. It’s been wonderful as church members from 20 – 78 have shared their thoughts, their spirituality and their hurts. Our discussion has often focused on how boxed it the “church” has made us, how we need titles, and definitions and dogmas in order to be “religious.” We’re using “Christianity after Religion” as a resource. If you haven’t read it, please do.

    I’ll be retiring in July, partly because of my conflict with the noses and nickels policy of my beloved church, which is not what I grew up in or committed to serve. I’ll be fulfilling my call to ministry in a secular setting, reaching the least and the lost without having to ask them for money or anything else but the desire to be empowered and “healed” if you will.

    So glad someone turned me on to your blog. I read it with great anticipation each time and have not been disappointed yet.

    Blessings on you this Advent season. Stay out of the stores — give alternatives.



  3. hmmm… Regarding St. Andrews initiative… i think it’s what Wesley would do …in that neighborhood. He made it a point to be with the people wherever the people happened to be. The critical issue for much of the United Methodist church is that we are unwilling to continue to offer the millennia-old message of grace, forgiveness and love in current language, format and context. It may not reach some of us in our late 50’s, but if high-def audio/video communicates the Gospel to 20-somethings, we are being more than hard-headed to refuse to do so – we are being unfaithful to the call to make disciples.

    I agree about the structure of the denomination: we don’t have a connection – we have a civil service system with huge chunks of administrative overhead directed to (1) useless information gathering of meaningless statistics (2) preservation of bygone and bypassed social structures and (3) economic preservation of highly paid church and agency employees, regardless of their functional necessity.

    I long for pastors to speak passionately and prophetically instead of parsed and politically correctly. It is one reason why I enjoy your writing and that of Eric Folkerth (and I don’t agree with either of you all of the time, that is certain…).

    I believe the discipleship process begins when pastors start educating their congregation that “WORSHIP IS A ONE-WAY STREET”. The beginning of a disciple relationship is that it is about The Great I AM, not me. I need Him (sorry to offend universal language-istas…). I am willing to submit to His will because He is God…and I am not. When pastors can stand and say we are all here because we are all in need of God… and He has given us the two gifts of (1) His Son our Savior, and (2) each other so that we might experience the love of Christ through our relationships in Him… we will move away from catering to consumers who look for what they got “out” of worship and a church relationship to disciples who are seeking to … follow.


  4. This is not just a problem for the UMC. My own church, the ELCA, suffers from exactly the same delusion. All of the mainlines do. The evangelicals don’t suffer it, they embrace it gladly, which is why they grow so quickly (yet lose just as many out the back door).

    I’ve made a conscious note in my head to be explicit in the call process that bringing people in the doors and increasing church membership is not a priority of mine. Preaching the Gospel, sharing the good news, and empowering people to do their theology and mission outside of the church doors is what I am called to do.

    Of course, I have no idea if that idea will work.


    1. I guess it depends on how we define “will that idea work.” If the focus stays on nickels and noses, probably not. If, however, we really do want to send people into the world to make disciples, just maybe it will. The problem is measuring it, and those “metrics” have taken on a life of their own.


  5. I hope you will answer your last question in your next post. This is the question I have been wrestling with for years: how might a congregation be structured and what processes being tended to that strengthen how our people live as disciples in the world?


    1. Patrick, I have been working on this for quite a while: both defining a disciple and sorting out a person is shaped into discipleship. What i have is not yet ready to be published, but as soon as I’ve got some decent ideas to float, I’ll put them out here. Thanks for reading and commenting.


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