In the late 1970s a young preacher named Rick Warren started going door to door asking people why they didn’t attend church. He then took that data and used it as a basis to start his church. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I’m sure you could learn a lot of value from an exercise like that. “The greeter didn’t look at me when he shook my hand.” “The pastor always seemed angry.” “There was inadequate security in the Sunday school drop off.” Information that could hopefully lead to quick change.
The significance of other comments would be a bit more ambiguous. “The sermons were too long.” “I don’t like the offering getting taken up every Sunday.” “I like more hymns.” Perhaps these concerns could be addressed. But then again, maybe things are just the way they should be.
And then there are comments like these: “I want a more ‘upbeat’ service.” “I want a ‘traditional’ service.” “I want a service tailored to me and my tastes.” How far are we supposed to go in meeting the market demands of the potential church community?
And that’s the tension. How do you market a unique community which exists to call people into a radical life of cruciform discipleship?
With some difficulty.
Consider this homepage for a large church. (I removed the first word in the name because the identity of the church isn’t relevant.) The first thing to note is that while it used to be called “Name Denomination Assembly” it has now been streamlined to “Name Assembly”. I don’t know why the church dropped the reference to the denomination. But I do know that across the board denominational distinctives are receding into the background. And there is often one major reason for this: it is better for marketing. The LDS Church figured this is good for business back in the late 1970s when they started branding themselves as another Christian denomination (with another holy book, and alas, another gospel). Now Baptist, Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches are quickly following suit.
Of course that’s not the first thing you’d notice. I suspect your first observation would be: “Hey, that looks like the website of a home furnishings store.” To be sure you have to look hard to figure out this is a church website. There is no cross. No Christian iconography or terms. Just three different chairs: a traditional wing chair, a sixties retro lounge chair, and a, er, George Jetson pod. And it turns out that each is advertising a separate product.
Upon closer inspection one discovers that those products are actually church services. Although I haven’t attended any of these services (i.e. consumed any of these products), I offer the following descriptions based on past experience with similarly structured churches:
Traditional wing chair, aka “change point 1” = traditional service = place for hymn singing older people.
Sixties retro lounge chair, aka “chainge point 2” = contemporary service = place for chorus singing Gen X, Gen Y and a smattering of hipster forty and fifty somethings
George Jetson pod, aka “The Project” = more intimate, free flowing evening service, perhaps with candles, the occasional Taize liturgy, and general ecclecticism
Needless to say, there isn’t a pew in sight. Every chair is for a single individual, an impression that heightens the anthropocentric marketing focus. Everything is aimed to drive home the core marketing message that this church is, as the tagline on the website declares, a place for you.
But what do you do with those people who are holding out for a chaise lounge service?
Okay, I admit that it is notoriously easy for me as a seminary professor to sit in my ivory tower and pick apart the various ways that churches are seeking to maintain relevance in a changing world. It isn’t an easy job. The church at Corinth didn’t use hard wooden pews, so who says we’re obliged to?
I’m not disputing the fact that we need to keep rethinking what it means to be church. And I’m not claiming churches need to retain their hard wood pews. But it is a lamentable pragmatic tunnel vision which cannot appreciate the inherent tension between the anthropocentric marketing drive and Christ’s call for the church to take up our crosses daily and follow him. Do a range of designer chairs really capture the image of corporate worship and discipleship?
I recognize the place for individual community groups in church which are tailored to specific segments of the church. I can accept the grade six Sunday school class, the ladies’ morning out, the men’s retreat, and the Silver Seniors’ hymn sing. But I find it difficult to conceive of Paul, with his lofty image of the church as Christ’s body, envisioning its corporate meetings being subdivided into individual market segments.
Let’s translate the question into terms for the consumer: what is the benefit of going to church with people that are outside your demographic and your comfort zone?
A memorable lesson comes from C.S. Lewis. If he had his choice of chair, where do you think he would have sat? I suspect it would be something like this black leather smoke chair, the kind that you find in the drawing room of a private club, ideal for cigars, a glass of port, and heady discussions about literature, world politics and theology. In other words, Lewis would have opted for the intelligentsia service.
But Lewis didn’t seek out an intelligentsia service. Rather, he attended his local parish with those hard wooden pews. His initial reaction was negative. Nothing was to his taste, and not a fine leather smoking chair in sight. He grumbled: “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”
Despite that complaint Lewis persevered, passing the private clubs for the modest little congregation every Sunday morning and sitting himself back down on that hard wooden pew. And slowly but surely his perspective began to be transformed:
“But as I went on I saw the great merit of it….I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”
How tragic it would have been if Lewis had chosen the designer service of academics in smoking chairs. He would have missed the lessons of that old saint in elastic-side boots. And the old saint would have missed the lessons of an Oxbridge scholar.
How tragic for us all when we think the corporate expression of church is about targeted marketing to specific demographics in the population. How sad it is when we spend all our time marketing the church as “A place for you.” Perhaps it is time to reread the opening sentence of Rick Warren’s bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life:
“It’s not about you.”