Mom and Pop vs. Big Box Church

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Why do you shop where you shop? Why do you work out at the gym you use? Why do you hire a certain plumber? For most of us, these days, the questions I’ve just asked can be answered in a few different ways. Many of us choose to shop where we do because of the prices the store offers, or the selection, or the convenience. Sometimes we choose to shop somewhere for ideological reasons: the store sells local products or organic foods, or we prefer to support local businesses instead of large multi-nationals.

More rarely, I think, we do business with certain places out of a sense of customer loyalty. We’ve done business with them for what feels like a billion years, and we know the people who work there and the owners, and we choose to work with them because we are loyal to them — it has very little to do with their prices, or their ideology (though those things might have brought us there in the first place). When we do business with a company out of a sense of loyalty, our relationship changes with that company.

I believe this is true about our congregations, too. We tend to think about churches as “service organizations.” Many people go to a particular church because they have the best programs, or the most dynamic (or traditional) worship, or the best preaching. Many of us also go to a particular church for ideological reasons: the church’s theology lines up best with mine, or their community involvement falls along the same lines as my values. But whichever of these reasons is valid for us, our perspective on the church is that it is an organization designed to meet needs, and we are among those who are to be served by the church — hence, the church is perceived as a service organization.

One symptom of this kind of thinking, I believe, is the disappearing member. You know the one I mean: the person who attends the church, and may even be a seemingly vibrant contributor to the life of the church, but then, one day, this person (or family) disappears. A few weeks go by, and the leadership notices the absence, but chalks it up to vacation. But then a few more weeks go by, and the leadership starts to be concerned. They don’t say anything then, though, because they don’t want to come across as “checking up” on people in the way that one might be “called in to the principal’s office”. Unfortunately more time passes, and the person/family still doesn’t show up. Some individuals from the church may have connected with the “missing” family, but no one “official” has connected with them. Nor have they connected “officially” with the church’s leadership.

Finally, “official” leaders connect with the family in question, amidst mounting concern. The connection is made, and the Elder says, “We’ve missed you for a while.” And the family member responds, “Yeah, for 6 months!”

Do you see what’s happened here? The members see the church as a service organization — one that should be “serving” them. Why, in that case, should the family be obligated to say anything to the church about their absence? It’s the institution’s obligation to chase down the people that they are to serve, right? And if they don’t? Well, they’re clearly not a very good church, right?

But is that really what the church is to be? I would say no. The church is a missionary family, not a service organization. It would be incredibly rude to just stop talking to your family without at least informing them why you’re not going to talk to them anymore. In the same way, it is wrong for people to just disappear from their church family in the same way. But what do you think? Do you have experiences like this at church? How can we change this part of the culture we have?

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Participant

You make very good points that the church is not just a service organization, and I totally agree, BUT too many in the church treat it like it is a service club. How does the church minister to people witth that mind set? Far too many in the North American church are content to sit in the pew, listen to a great worship band, hear an engaging sermon, have a nice visit with their frinds after church, then act the rest of the week like nothing happened at church. If the band isn't good enough or the pastor is boring, then they look for a church that has those things. I live in a small town with just one CRC, so we can't church hop when ever we want. That is a good thing I believe, because it forces us to work together with all generations, we do not always get what we want, but the strength of our church becomes our community. 

 

Community Builder

Thanks for your comments, Ray. You also bring up something very interesting. In the days when the interstate highway system was being made in the U.S., there was a concerted effort by various business and government interests, not to mention pressure from consumers, to expand the availability of automobiles, accessible highway infrastructure, and homes that lined up with the proverbial "American dream". That pressure lead to the ballooning of our suburbs, and to far greater individual mobility. 

One could argue (see the fantastic book, "Sidewalks in the Kingdom") that this movement lead pretty directly to "big box" stores, shopping malls with acres of parking lots and, arguably, the whole concept of "church shopping". If none of us owns a vehicle, then we are limited to being able to go to only the churches we can walk to.

Add in to that the increased notoriety of "superstar" preachers through increased access to television, and the ubiquity of advertising that lauded the individuals right to choose, and it's sometimes a wonder to me that anyone is loyal to a local congregation.

your questions about how we can minister to people who are in this mode of thinking/living is an excellent one. As near as I can tell, a huge part if a potential solution is discipleship--intentially apprenticing people in the ways of the gospels and not the world. That being said, I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this. These are big questions for Christ-followers in North America. 

Participant

Lived through it.  Have the T-shirt.  It seems to me like there is an absence of the Spirit.  I don't know how else to explain why it is that the local congregation most often acts like a service organization and the congregants act like consumers. 

Yes, but . . . not only is it a sign of community and courtesy for people to let the church know they are thinking about leaving, but isn’t it a sign of mutual community when the church “chases down” the missing member sooner rather than later, even if it may not make a difference to their staying? It may leave the door open for their returning.

Also, it’s not only an issue of discipleship but isn't it also a sign of the need to find ways to develop community?  If people feel that they belong they may be less apt to leave.  In this individualistic age, how can we encourage greater “stick to each other” community?

Community Builder

There are some underlying issues here - Of course we would like people to be loyal to their CRC church - but that should certainly not be the only reason they attend! The goal must not be to have a group of people who come to church out of a dutiful sense of loyaly, or because they've always attended that church. The goal is a vital community with the Lord (including the Spirit) and with one another.

If the reason a church leader would contact a non-attending member is to "check up" on them because they are concerned about keeping the church's numbers up; that's a serious problem. People enjoy being genuinely cared for - and even missed. A call to say we missed you on Sunday, showing concern for a person including their spiritual health is apprecicated - I don't see how that's anything like being called into a principle's office - unless of course the only reason the person is attending is out of a sense of loyal duty.