May 3, 2006
Spencer Burke on the Church that Consumerism Built--and Why I Fled
The upcoming issue of Leadership deals with "Consumerism and the Church It Creates." We asked Spencer Burke to write about his journey from being a megachurch pastor to spiritual guide of an online community (TheOOZE.com). Below is a brief excerpt. The full article will appear in Leadership's July issue, along with some of the best of your comments about how we live out the nature of the church today.
When I gave up being a teaching pastor at a Southern California megachurch eight years ago, people around me were perplexed. After all, as jobs in professional ministry go, working at Mariners was a dream--big building, big budget, big salary. What wasn't to like?
Maybe I was burned out, they reasoned, but I'd be back. I was bound to get over my ministry midlife crisis eventually, right? But when months turned into years and I still hadn't been added to anyone's payroll, more than a few eyebrows went up. I kept talking about this online community, TheOoze.com. Sure, it was an interesting idea, but hardly a career move.
When I was leaving Mariners, the buzzword was relevant. It's what every church was striving to be, by changing their music, their marketing, even their ministry philosophy. Today, church leaders are still pursuing relevancy in order to reach more people. When those efforts don't pan out as expected, church leaders are quick to blame "consumerism." The problem? People. They want too much, and they're never satisfied.
But is that really it?
Is the problem that people in the pews keep upping the ante on their demands, or is it that church leaders don't comprehend the real source of their discontent? Is it that people want too much, or that they just don't want what the church is currently selling?
Right now churches are focusing on one product to the exclusion of others. Most often, it's teaching, a 60- to 90-minute event held at a particular time, at a particular physical address. It's basically the same product we've been selling since the Renaissance. People sit in a room and listen to someone talk.
But here's the thing: back then, it made sense for people to travel miles to hear someone talk about God. After all, people were mostly illiterate, Bibles were expensive, and Sunday morning was often the only time people could expand their horizons. Teaching was a rare commodity.
That's no longer true today. Teaching is available everywhere - on television, radio, online. The local church no longer has the corner on the market.
The situation reminds of the banking industry. At one time, if you wanted to deposit or withdraw money, you had to go to the bank and stand in line. You had to fill out a slip and wait for someone to serve you. Today, there are independent ATMs capable of instantly dispensing cash everywhere - from grocery stores and restaurants, to sports stadiums and bars. I can't remember the last time I actually "went to the bank." It's not that I've stopped needing money; it's just that I choose to get it in other ways.
But the church seems largely oblivious to this trend toward flexible, on-demand service in our culture. We still expect people to come to us, at our buildings, to do transactions with God or make deposits in their spiritual account. When congregants complain about pastors and churches not fitting their lifestyle, the church cries foul in the form of "consumer!" But does anyone ask whether the church is delivering what the market needs?
Imagine if people were encouraged to do their spiritual banking in ways that fit their lifestyle. They could watch some of the world's best speakers on TiVo, DVDs or download resources for their iPod, then gather in smaller groups to discuss and apply what they've heard. A church wouldn't necessarily need its own teaching pastor on the payroll anymore, and people wouldn't need to leave their community in search of better teaching.
We need to see teaching not as our core product, but as one part of a line of products that also includes community, service, and worship.
Let's move beyond the blame game and look at the church with a fresh perspective. Let's start our conversation with the mission of the church, not about any particular tools or methods. Let's let function drive form, and be willing to follow Jesus even if it means re-tooling everything we do.