I kept running into these heartfelt evangelical condemnations of consumer Christianity. Eventually, I couldn’t help myself. I had to learn more about yet another attempt by Christians to judge and out-Jesus their competition. Definitions can vary, and so can solutions to solve what many evangelicals view as a deep systemic problem. Of course, it’s not a problem within their particular interpretation of Christianity. No, it’s everyone else who is wrong.
(This first appeared on Patreon on 5/18/2023. Its audio cast lives there too, and both should be available now! <3)
The early history of consumer Christianity
I was not surprised to learn that this slam didn’t become common until Americans began to move around the country—and gained enough freedom to reject Christian affiliation. Indeed, the earliest mentions of consumer Christianity that I could find date back to 1988 and 1989.
In Varieties of Southern Religious Experiences (1988), we find the first use of the term. Here, the writer, William Martin uses it to describe to “electronic churches,” meaning those conducting services via television and radio (the pre-internet version of online churches). These appear to be largely mainline churches. Martin laments that “the electronic church” might have (mainline) pastors who have better educations than “their evangelical counterparts.” However, he asserts that their sermons tend to be “anecdotal sermons” with very superficial, feel-good elements. Obviously, he utterly disapproves of this idea.
Likewise, Supernatural Energy for Your Daily Race (1989) defines consumer Christianity as “looking for what I can get instead of what I can give.” It, along with other similarly selfish and un-Jesus-y motivations, forms what author Charles Mylander calls the “rotting counterparts” of unacceptably un-Jesus-y Christianity.
In 1992, author Aubrey Malphurs complained in a book about church-planting about what he called “specialist churches.” He felt that they “contribute to a consumer mindset that, in turn, produces a consumer Christianity. Christians in these situations develop a ‘shop-around’ mentality.”
It’s very clear that at this time, evangelicals in particular really didn’t like the idea that their potential recruits could easily be choosy and selective about which, if any, churches they’d join—and how long they’d be staying.
But they hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. Between then and now, the concept of consumer Christianity has exploded across the evangelical world.
Consumer Christianity: A quick definition
Evangelicals have no shortage of things to say about what they call consumer Christianity. It’s one of their favorite ways to sneer at competing Christian churches and flavors of Christianity, along with all the Christians who like those churches and flavors.
A pastor leading a consumer-Christian church doesn’t issue threats of Hell or calls to salvation, nor preach for hours on end; instead, he (or she!) makes placid, gentle, easy, funny, and most of all short sermons that make congregations smile and nod along. Such a pastor makes no demands on their congregation.
Consumer Christians pick their churches according to the perks those churches offer to members, how nice the sermons are, and a variety of other feel-good perks. They leave if a competing church opens up nearby with programs and preaching that they like better.
If you’ve noticed an immediate problem with evangelicals’ definitions, you’re right. And we’re getting to that.
A definition in the wild
In 2005, a very evangelical website called The Berean Call published a post about consumer Christianity. Their writer, T.A. McMahon, linked it to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Yes, really. The serpent, (mis-)identified here as Satan, gets remade into a slick salesperson seeking to poach Yahweh’s rightful customers.
After weaving that fascinatingly-daffy metaphor, McMahon tells us what’s so bad about consumer Christianity:
Consumer Christianity is a mentality or methodology that attempts to enrich Christians both temporally and spiritually, as well as to attract converts to the faith, through ways and means that are true neither to the Word of God nor the work of the Holy Spirit. Whether introduced subtly or overtly, wittingly or unwittingly, it always involves what appeals to humanity’s fallen nature. Furthermore, consumer Christianity ultimately indulges and glorifies self rather than God. [. . .]
Consumer Christianity, whether manifested in the early churches or in today’s assemblies (from mega-churches to home fellowships), is simply doing things man’s way rather than God’s way.
McMahon fretted that even evangelical churches were falling into this thoroughly demonic state of affairs. Uh oh!
A year later, Tomorrow’s World ran a post blaming liberals for corrupting seminaries, not a snake in the Garden of Eden. These corrupted seminaries produced pastors who didn’t take the Bible as literal, inerrant truth from top to bottom, and that in turn created a consumer-friendly version of Christianity that Jesus didn’t like at all.
Have you noticed that same problem here?
Consumer Christianity: First contact
But my first brush with a mainstream source online discussing consumer Christianity was a 2009 editorial from Christianity Today. In it, they advertised a contest to define consumer Christianity either in photos or 100-word essays. Submissions that best exemplified the theme would win a new book that’d just come out by Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity. Its blurb defines what must have seemed like a pressing problem even then:
A growing number of people are disturbed by the values exhibited by the contemporary church. Worship has become entertainment, the church has become a shopping mall, and God has become a consumable product. Many sense that something is wrong, but they cannot imagine an alternative way. The Divine Commodity finally articulates what so many have been feeling and offers hope for the future of a post-consumer Christianity. [. . .]
Each chapter shows how our formation as consumers has distorted an element of our faith. For example, the way churches have become corporations and how branding makes us more focused on image than reality. It then energizes an alternative vision for those seeking a more meaningful faith. Before we can hope to live differently, we must have our minds released from consumerism’s grip and captivated once again by Christ.
So here, we get an inkling that churches caught up in consumer Christianity have forgotten how to Jesus. They’re too fixated on branding, reputation, and entertaining audiences who are customers rather than congregants.
I’m sure you remember this book coming out and absolutely remaking Christianity across the land into ultra-Jesus-y churches that were full of ultra-committed Jesus-ers. Oh wait. No, it just got forgotten, just like all the other helpful evangelical books that have ever been written.
And if you noticed that problem again, hang on.
We’re getting there.
Have I ever left you hanging? Today won’t be the day I start.
No no, consumer Christianity is all Millennials’ fault
Scooting ahead to 2015, we find a post from Christ and Cascadia discussing who Christians should blame for consumer Christianity. Considering the year, it probably won’t surprise anyone that they land squarely on Millennials. Or more to the point, they blame pastors who get too intent on trying to retain them as congregants:
These dire headlines describe the reality of faith and church for today’s young adults, often referred to as “millennials.” The hasty exit of millennials from the church is well documented, with Cascadia’s young adults often leading the way. The future of the church is literally disappearing right before our eyes.
But in many ways the church actually creates the problem of decreasing engagement. In particular, the church’s response to millennials is often overly reactionary and thus incomplete. Focusing too narrowly on retention, churches don’t foster mature faith, let alone actually retain millennials.
Adding to this dire problem, Millennials themselves weren’t Jesus-ing correctly at all:
Millennials are embracing what Cascadia commentator Douglas Todd describes as a “secular but spiritual” worldview – low commitment to religious affiliation with a lingering desire for spirituality. [. . .] Spirituality is a means towards personal fulfillment, with religious devotion left at the whims of a consuming generation. The result is the sharp decline in participation with a seemingly irrelevant church.
Tsk, tsk! So churches emphasized experiences and community, which apparently just aren’t enough to keep those darned wandering Millennials’ butts in the pews.
And yes, this post also suffers from that same problem. So does another 2015 post from Ministry Matters that refers to consumer Christianity as an infection.
Evangelicals just can’t eradicate consumer Christianity
Now, let’s scoot ahead to 2019. By now, consumer Christianity has been a known enemy for over thirty years. And evangelicals have not only failed to trample it to death, but it has completely overtaken their own flavor of the religion.
You and I already know why, of course. Americans were moving around the country more than they ever had. They had more freedom to reject Christianity than they’d ever had, too. Of course Christians were becoming even more choosy about where to spend their dwindling resources of time and money. But evangelicals can’t accept that.
We start off the year with a January 2019 interview over at The Gospel Coalition (TGC), a hard-right Calvinist culture-warrior site. Brett McCracken, a big name over there, has just published a book a couple of years earlier about how important it is for Christians to join a church community. The interview covers how TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can “challenge the consumer culture” of their churches.
See, lots of ickie fake Christians want their church community to be comfortable and kind. They shop around till they find something close to their dream church, but they only stay until they find a closer fit. That’s not Jesus-y enough for King Brett. (And this ain’t even the first time I’ve called him that.)
And he wants evangelicals to “challenge” this consumer culture thing. Yes, I’m sure that’ll make any evangelical congregation warm right up to these folks.
Also yes, we find the same problem here, too.
Consumer Christianity really irks authoritarian church leaders
By now, we find an evangelical consensus regarding consumer Christianity. Evangelical church leaders universally hate it, and it’s beyond obvious that what they really hate is people rejecting their demands for obedience. Like the evangelicals who seek to overturn no-fault divorce laws, these church leaders want to serve church to their congregations without worrying about the meal not being at all to their taste. And they want those congregants to return week after week to attend church and volunteer wherever their leaders want them to go, all without complaints or arguments.
In 2019, High Pointe Church posted a very clear example of this sentiment. Peppered among Bible verses that are likely at least slightly misapplied, they offer these scorching-hot criticisms:
Consumer Christianity is just what it sounds like – we treat Christ and His bride like commodities that exist to serve our wants. We treat believers and the church as things that need to impress us. If they don’t, we’ll harbor bitterness in our hearts or, more often, simply leave and find a group that gives us what we want. [. . .]
Of course, there are some situations that demand us to confront others or outright leave a church. Yet the vast majority of people who take issue with fellow believers do so as consumers. [. . .]
It’s so tempting to place ourselves in comfort, settling into a place that doesn’t push us like it’s a comfortable chair meant to relax us. Yet biblical truth, not comfort, is what we must always surround ourselves with. [. . .]
A consumer is concerned with preferences; a servant is concerned with the truth of Christ being taught and lived.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that whoever wrote this is the last person anyone sensible should ever trust with power over other people.
You can find nearly the exact same criticisms in a 2020 Lifeway post. And this 2020 Medium post, this 2020 Union Baptist Association of Houston post, a 2020 post from the blog Christian Minimalism, this perplexing 2020 timeline from Focus Press, and this ringing 2023 condemnation from a sermon clearinghouse.
Every one of them suffers from the same problem we’ve been seeing.
Reports of the death of consumer Christianity have been greatly exaggerated
Before we get into the list of how our in-the-wild posts have tried to solve the problem of consumer Christianity, I want to show you a few folks who announced its death a wee bit early.
In 2015, Carey Nieuwhof predicted that any day now, “consumer Christianity will die and a more selfless discipleship will emerge.” He wrote:
As the church reformats and repents, a more authentic, more selfless church will emerge. Sure, we will still have to make decisions about music, gathering times and even some distinctions about what we believe, but the tone will be different. When you’re no longer focused on yourself and your viewpoint, a new tone emerges.
Of his ten predictions, only #9—about the rise of online church attendance—would prove somewhat true.
A July 2020 post from Firebrand is quite an odd duck. Its writer, Matt Reynolds, seems to be speaking prophetically. (That’s Christianese for an evangelical pretending that Jesus gave them visions of the future.) He’s certain that the pandemic would lead to the death of consumer Christianity. Like many evangelicals around 2015, he thinks that the Christians melting away from congregations just weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™. The ones remaining would be a “pruned tree” that was ready to grow and flower, and then to produce fruit again.
Unfortunately, both Nieuwhof and Reynolds would turn out to be drastically incorrect.
(Not) solving the enormous problem of consumer Christianity
Obviously, all along evangelical writers and leaders have offered surefire solutions to consumer Christianity. They rarely write a criticism of it without veering immediately into their favored solution for it.
Going by the reviews of Skye Jethani’s 2009 book (link), he calls for the creepy practice of discipleship. In addition, he suggests that individual Christians drill down extra-hard on Jesus-ing: prayer, fasting (at least from media if not from food), and practicing self-denial.
Allan Bevere, who wrote the 2015 Ministry Matters post (relink), is certain that consumer Christianity will be eradicated if Christians drill down super-hard on “the historic doctrines of our faith.”
The writer of that 2015 Christ and Cascadia post (relink), David Warkentin, seems to suggest discipleship as a solution to the problems he’s identified.
King Brett McCracken says in his 2019 TGC interview (relink) that Christians all just need to stop evaluating churches’ performance on what-all they get from their churches, and start evaluating them on the basis of “what is Jesus doing in this church” and what service they, as congregants, can offer the church. Also, whoa lots of discipleship.
Ray Burns, writer of the 2019 High Pointe post (relink), thinks Christians should never leave their churches—unless it is to join a church that is, as he puts it, “one that truly follows Christ.” Until then, they must keep attending the church that doesn’t.
Robby Gallaty, writer of the 2020 Lifeway post (relink), goes in mega-hard on discipleship. Once the authoritarian grip of control is firmly in place, the pastor should order his disciples to volunteer.
In the 2020 Medium post (relink), Joe Forrest thinks church members need to volunteer more often.
Tony Wolfe of Union Baptist (relink) doesn’t have any concrete suggestions. He just wants church leaders “to be embodying the mission of our Lord while equipping, resourcing, and mobilizing our people to do the work of the ministry.” Okay.
Same for Christian Minimalism (relink), which ends in much the same way. Christians must “resist conforming to consumer culture and be transformed and renewed in Christ Jesus.”
Same as well for Focus Press (relink). Its writer, Jack Wilkie, demands that churches “grow the backbone to ditch the soft-pedaled Gospel and start tearing down strongholds.”
The 2023 sermon guy (relink) seems to think that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ won’t fall for consumer Christianity in the first place.
Also, don’t miss this six-point list. Its author, Chuck Lawless, wrote it in 2019. He thinks it’ll stop consumer Christians from joining an exalted church of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and tainting it with their presence. As for me, I think it sounds like a fantastic way to alienate potential tithe-payers and pew-warmers.
The problem with purely subjective definitions
Together, we’ve sure looked over a lot of sources today. And as I’ve noted, every single one of those sources suffers from a dealbreaker of a flaw.
That flaw is simple. All of these evangelicals operate from a purely subjective definition.
Consumer Christianity is simply a form of the religion that doesn’t seem Jesus-y enough to the Christian judging it. If it was way too Jesus-y, the judge would simply call it legalistic. Back in the 1980s, before evangelicals knew about consumer Christianity, they’d likely have called those Christians worldly or backslidden.
The problem is that one evangelical’s consumer Christianity is another’s “preaching the Word.” (That’s Christianese for extremely Jesus-y preaching with lots of Bible verses quoted.) And vice versa. The Christians who join churches that other evangelicals consider consumeristic would likely bristle hard at that description. They might even counter-accuse their accusers of doing the same thing.
All aboard the Wayback Machine
When I was in college, I was a true-blue Pentecostal. At the time of this story, I was living in the dorms, so this takes place in the late 1980s. For the first time in my life, I met a whole bunch of folks of differing faiths.
Evangelicals and Pentecostals weren’t that much alike. The two branches of Christianity had not yet fused. But we did share enough traits that we got along pretty well. All in all, I reckon we represented about eight different flavors of right-wing Christianity. Biff and I were almost the only Pentecostals (and the only ones in our social group for a while). Though we did have a lot of good-natured arguments about doctrine and theology, we were friends.
As such, we all regularly visited each other’s churches. It was a nice way to see another flavor up-close, as well as to spend time together in fellowship. (That’s Christianese for hanging out, but in a Jesus-y way.)
One day, our friend Mike attended a service with us at our Pentecostal church. Mike was a strange, almost hippie-like guy: boppy, musically inclined, extremely intense and serious about religious stuff, but with a good sense of humor otherwise. A couple decades later, and he’d have shot to the top of any evangelical denomination. I still sing his “Iguana” song sometimes because it makes me smile. He and a few of our friends attended a Maranatha church.
Well, this Pentecostal service was right up close to Easter Sunday. So it was obviously full of descriptions of gore and blood and torture. The congregation was getting worked right up. But I could see Mike wasn’t feeling it. He had a notebook open on his lap with his Bible. The notebook was a strange sight to see in our church. But he didn’t write much in it. Finally, he capped his pen and closed the notebook around it, and just listened.
As we left, he criticized my pastor’s sermon. “It was just him screaming ‘BLOOD!’ every few minutes. How can you get fed from that?” he asked. His face reflected deep concern—for my spiritual welfare, I realized!
He also didn’t like the super-expensive and very fancy church decor, likening it to a funeral home. And I mean yes, okay. Mike really had a point. Here’s a picture of that church around 1988:
It would be many years before I realized that Mike was, in effect, accusing us Pentecostals of liking this church and this style of preaching because it made us feel good. It gave us happy Jesus zaps. But it wasn’t edifying in the way he liked better.
I could have said much the same of his Maranatha church, though. They met in a repurposed warehouse. The congregation sat in folding metal chairs, which had to be stacked and folded away after services. And the preaching looked a lot like that “Contemporvant” parody years later.
We were each judging the other’s flavor of Christianity in the same way. His edifying message seemed dry and scholarly to Biff. Pentecostals’ edifying message seemed culty and violent to Mike. Personally, I liked Mike’s style of church better. (But they taught some doctrines I believed were incorrect. Their errors started with Trinitarianism. Changing churches, therefore, wasn’t at all an option for me.)
And that brings me to my ultimate point.
Consumer Christianity couldn’t exist for many centuries
Centuries ago, Christians got one and only one choice regarding Christianity: Join, or suffer. They had no choice about which church to attend, either, or which rules they’d follow as members of it. No, they simply attended whatever church had jurisdiction over their town or area. And they followed all of the rules their priest set—at least around potential tattle-tales.
When I think about the sheer wealth of rules that Christians had to follow on pain of suffering, it just dizzies me. I’m not just talking about fasting days. Those could take up damn near half the calendar, plus the entirety of Lent. Christians back then had rules governing everything. If a community got too well-known for slacking off, the Catholic authorities might just send an inquisition team over to make sure everyone was toeing the line.
When Queen Elizabeth I said that faith was a matter of individual conscience, she set a rocket off under Catholic leaders’ collective asses. Her Catholic sister and England’s previous queen, “Bloody” Mary, had been all too happy to persecute Protestants and inquisit the hell out of dissenters. By contrast, Elizabeth didn’t want to “open windows into men’s souls.” To her, religion was a private matter. It felt unseemly to her, as the head of England’s government and the leader of its official Protestant denomination, to pry into anything so personal.
Of course, at the time that was a lofty sentiment that didn’t always find full expression in practice. Even into the 1800s in America, everyone was forced to abide by a huge number of strict rules and laws that favored Christianity—particularly involving what they could and couldn’t do on Sunday.
In recent decades, though, modern Christian leaders lost that level of temporal power. Authoritarian evangelical pastors might wish they had the ability to strip freedom of association from their congregations and force them to obey, but all the church discipline contracts and discipleship covenants in the world can’t grant them that power. (Similarly, a BDSM master-slave contract can’t legally make anyone a real slave.)
And now, it’s ALL consumer Christianity
Barring those constrained by social obligations or fears of retaliatory Christian love, every person in this country can decide to join any church they please. (The church might not accept their membership, but still, they can ask.)
Similarly, Christians can leave any church they like for any reason, even for no reason at all. They don’t need to explain themselves to anybody. And they don’t have to put up with anyone trying to adjudicate their boundaries there.
That goes for the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at TGC and all the others railing about consumer Christianity. They, too, joined the flavor of the religion that they felt spoke most to their own private hearts. The flavor they joined does something for them, same as other flavors do for their adherents. It just does different things for them. They think those things are the ultimate expression of Jesus-osity.
And well yes, of course they do. It’s the flavor they joined. Of course they think it’s the best one. I’d hardly expect any Christians to concede that their flavor isn’t nearly Jesus-y enough to get them to Heaven.
Well, the Christians in those competing flavors think the same of whatever they’ve chosen. Their flavor is not one bit more or less valid than those of the people judging them.
Until Jesus shows up in an unequivocal way to set his followers straight regarding exactly what they must believe and do to escape Hell, there isn’t an end to this argument. Every one of these people has the same basic Bible. They can all use the same Bible verses to justify their opinions. And sometimes, they use the exact same ones.
Why evangelicals love to rail against consumer Christianity
That’s how we know that evangelicals are using this complaint about consumer Christians as an expression of tribalism rather than as a serious attempt to reform Christianity.
I mean, we already knew that from the fact that they’ve been talking about it for thirty-some-odd years without moving the needle even a little from its starting point. That’s definitely one way to know. They do the same regarding hypocrisy and “bad Christians.”
But when you see Christians setting up a problem whose surefire solution involves more people Jesus-ing just like they do, perk up your ears. Ruffle out your ninja whiskers. You’re sensing self-interested tribalism. If they’re trying to set an out-group up as insufficiently Jesus-y, or accusing them of Jesus-ing all wrong, that goes double.
Tribalistic groups are us-against-them style groups that often make members feel antagonistic toward their out-groups. They contrast their vastly inferior out-group with their much better example. And they seek to enforce consistency in their members—and to trample dissenters and those asking too many or the wrong questions. As you might suspect, they also tend to be authoritarian in nature.
In tribalistic groups, criticisms like consumer Christianity serve a few functions.
First and foremost, they reinforce the complainer’s own position within the tribe. They’re a good member of the tribe! They’re expressing a tribe-approved opinion!
Second, they communicate a tribalistic position to anyone reading it. Realistically, it’s extremely unlikely that any Christians who fit these evangelicals’ scorn-filled definition of consumer Christian are ever going to find and read these screeds. If any do, it’s even more unlikely that they’ll be moved to change their flavor of Christianity. Remember, they’ll have their own defenses against those charges!
But other tribe members will see it. And they’ll absorb the lockstep opinions presented there. It’ll become part of their self-image as tribe members. It’s extremely unlikely they will ever join those flavors being criticized, simply because they’ve now been vaccinated against the idea.
Third and possibly most importantly, these complaints tell potential dissenters what’ll happen if they get too cozy with the out-group being insulted—or worse, ever join them.
Tribalistic smear campaigns exist for a very good reason.
Not a single one of these campaigns can possibly reform Christianity’s flaws, much less reverse the religion’s decline. But the people participating in them are getting something big out of them, all the same. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be producing and consuming them like they are.
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