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An Open Letter To Christian Leaders Of All Kinds and Throughout the United States (Part 3)

Posted by: John Schroeder at 12:17 pm, December 6th 2012     —    4 Comments »

In Part 1 of this series of posts, we looked at the fact that perhaps the most disappointing issue in the outcome of election 2012 was that people seemed to be motivated out of a deep selfishness.  In Part 2 we examined the fact that such is a result of our culture, that culture in fact shapes politics and not the other way around.  We also looked at the fact that Christianity was the societal/cultural force best suited to creating a culture of sacrifice for the greater good rather than the simple selfishness we saw displayed.  We argued that it was Christianity, in its many expressions, that in fact made this nation’s experiment with democracy successful, and that is was the sacrificial ethos established by Christianity that defined this as a “Christian nation” as opposed to theological or governmental concerns.

That left us with a  the third proposition that I laid out last post in this series before we turn our attention to how to improve.  That third proposition was:

c) Finally, I have asserted that religion in American has abandoned it’s culture shaping role and the creation of a sacrificial ethos.

This should be obvious simply because the the sacrificial ethos is so apparently missing.  But how, and to some extent why has this occurred?

The roots and influences on this change are many and myriad and go back far into history.  I am sure there are some that would contend it all started when Henry VIII declared himself the head of the church in England, displacing the Pope.  This could be expanded to say that the Reformation generally harmed the authority of the church and therefore is responsible.  These same people would, I am sure, bring up Vatican II somewhere in the discussion.  Protestants like me might have a hard time with that; however.  Not to mention that America functioned pretty well with religion up until recent times.

Theologically, the answer is straightforward – the change is simply an expression of sin.  But then if sin is winning the church generally is failing somehow, which is what we have already established.

Some might say that “science” has shoved religion out of the way in modern times.  To this I say simply, “Give me a break.”  Such thought is born only of an inadequate understanding of both religion and science.  Don’t want to have the fight now, but people have simply held up a religious devotion to science , scientism, as an alternative to religion and it has slipped into cracks that religion has allowed to appear in its armor.

All these things and more matter, but I think the heart of the issue lies in two expressions of one simple thought -

Practically, the church abandoned leadership for marketing. Theologically, the church abandoned the shaping of people for simply gaining their identification.

Practically, the church abandoned leadership for marketing.  Theologically, the church abandoned the shaping of people for simply gaining their identification.

I think we need to talk a little about what I mean when I say “the church.”  There are lots of congregations, denominations, conventions and organizations that are “Christian” in some fashion.  You put them altogether and you get what I am here calling “the church.”  There are many within that definition that would be quick to tell me that some other group over there does not belong in the club.  Theologically, I might even agree with them, but we are discussing influence on culture here and unless the culture is distinctly and wholly Christian it is not going to care about those little theological differences, so this is a fair definition for the discussion at hand.

How these forces I am blaming for the changes have played out is different in every one of the sub-groups within the church that you can identify.  In this post I will examine them primarily in the Evangelical/Protestant traditions since that is where I live and what I know.  I am sure that anyone coming from even a slightly different place will contend that one thing or another does not apply to them.  Maybe, maybe not.  What is clear is that Evangelicalism/Protestantism is the majority Christian expression in the nation and therefore the expression most responsible for shaping the ethos of the nation.  Thus, even if some of the points I make here do not apply in the entirety of what I have defined as the church, they apply sufficiently to be operative.

The effects are largely in my lifetime from the mid – 50′s to now.  Demographically they are marked by a large shift of church-goers from denominational Protestantism to evangelical Protestantism.  For most that has been a shift from a denominational congregation to a congregation that is either independent, or affiliated with a convention.  Conventions are groups of churches that band together for some affiliation purposes but which have no real hierarchical structure.  So, for example, Presbyterians have a well defined, in not always well-operating, hierarchical structure of governance.  Baptists on the other hand come together in a convention periodically but that convention has no power or authority over the individual congregations – it is simply an association wherein its membership may decide to participate in some common cause, say build a seminary.

This demographic shift has; however, represented a bit of a reordering of the deck chairs.  While there are successes out there – the so-called megachurches – their growth has generally been at the expense of other churches in their area (kinda like when Wal-Mart moves into a small town) and this shift is happening while the the percentage of the general population that is regular, church-attending has been in a slight but increasing decline.  Therefore, while the number of people that self-identify as Christian remains roughly the same, those that are active about it, as measured by church attendance, are lesser in number and when they do attend, they do so in a very different kind of place.  The Wal-Mart analogy is most useful and we will return to it again.

The shift from denominationalism to independence/convention forms of organization has been driven to a reasonably large extent by the liberalization of the denominations.  What is the strength of those denominations in terms of affecting culture is also a weakness.  One of the reasons Christianity has lost much cultural influence is that it is no longer well organized.  It takes a big organization to have a big cultural effect.  Independent congregations, whether affiliated with a convention or not, simply are not large enough to have a major cultural impact.  Even the largest of megachurches measure their affiliations in the tens of thousands.  In their heyday, denominations counted their members in the tens of millions.

But those same organization strengths create a hierarchy that can be attacked and therefore change the organization as a whole.  When one attacks a nation, one does not attack every single citizen, one seeks to take over or destroy the key places in the structure of the nation.  Thus liberals did not have to change the mind of every Presbyterian to change the church, they just had to work themselves into key positions in the structure, which they were able to accomplish because the conservatives were too busy doing the business of the church and not trying to control it.  Conservatism survives in the independent circuits because there is no crucial place to attack.  But the decentralization leaves it greatly weakened in terms of cultural affect.

Furthermore, the move from denomination to independence is marked heavily by inter-church competition.  No longer are there three or four flavors of church in the neighborhood and you simply chose your flavor and go.  Now there are dozens of churches in the area that compete with each other.  In this competition they have borrowed heavily from modern marketing techniques.  This exacerbates the deck chairs issue.

Like conservatives believe of the economy, church growth is not a zero sum game.  There are not only so many Christians out there for the churches to compete over.  Churches should be growing through making new Christians.  Marketing on the other hand is designed to increase market share, not create a market.  Most marketing systems assume a fixed market place – there are X number of potential customers for product Y.  Christianity should have an entirely different viewpoint – the potential market is EVERYONE.  Thus there are severe limits to how much marketing can help a church grow, and the growth it can help a church achieve is at the expense of other churches.

Everybody complains about Wal-Mart moving into a community.  It kills the local retailers.  There are only so many watches to be sold in a community of 10,000 people.  If Wal-Mart sells them all, then nobody is going to buy from Joe’s Jeweler’s and thus Joe retires to a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart.  But what Wal-Mart does not do is help create new customers for watches.  In the old days, if you went to Joe’s and asked him what time it was, Joe would tell you and then suggest you might want to look at a time piece, eventually someone had a new watch and did not need to ask for the time anymore.  When was the last time you had a conversation that lengthy with a clerk at Wal-Mart?

The Wal-Mart situation has happened because many, many consumer items in this nation have reached what is called “market maturity.”  Everybody knows the products and they just want one at the lowest price.  In Christianity, the marketplace can never mature until EVERYONE is a Christian, which will never really happen because we keep making new people.  Nope, we need to always be in market creation mode.  That takes leadership, not marketing.

Marketing assume people know what they want and entices them to your particular provision of that thing.  With leadership you are teaching people something new that may, even hopefully, create in them a desire for your product.  It is both riskier and it harder.  Leadership is a whole different ballgame.

Such leadership involves forming people, not merely having them identify with your product.  A leader is part teacher, part motivational speaker and part friend – not merely a supplier of religious and other services.  I will resist the temptation to get into this on a theological level – that’s for a different blog and time.

And thus, with this marketing approach to church growth, what cultural effect the independents could have in their decentralized form is sacrificed, save for the very small efforts of some of the individuals in the church.

This post has already grown longer than intended.  In the next post in this series we will brainstorm some ideas about how the church can start to regain its cultural influence.

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