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Obituary for the American Church

July 5, 2011

From time to time I will have the people I’m discipling write out their own pastoral obituary. I ask them to write out how our enemy would take them out, rendering them unable to serve their family and communities. As you can imagine, the answers vary, but always serves as a really helpful exercise as they are forced to confront issues of character, etc.

Now last week I did a post looking at some of the things the American church is doing well. Today, let’s do something different. You see, taking the same exercise I’ve used with pastors, for the past year I’ve been thinking how the enemy would/might be trying to take down the American church. Now what I’ve noticed is that the original temptations Jesus faced (which can best be boiled down to Appetite, Affirmation and Ambition) are somehow warped and insinuated into the culture. As each culture is distinct and different, a smart enemy would come at each culture in subtle ways, tempting them in ways they don’t see or expect, and with things that would look different from culture to culture.

For instance, the issues the European church deal with are actually quite different than the ones the American church is dealing with…even though often times they are put under the same broad umbrella of “Western Church.” Sure, there are some similarities, but the attack is different. More nuanced.

But those original temptations of Appetite, Affirmation and Ambition are slowly insinuating themselves into everything we call CHURCH. We just often don’t recognize it or see it.

And so this is how, if our enemy gets his way, the American church could be taken out:

  • A culture of CELEBRITY (affirmation)
  • A culture of CONSUMERISM (appetite)
  • A culture of COMPETITION (ambition)
  • CELEBRITY
The idea of celebrity is deeply woven into American culture and values. All you have to do is look at the ridiculous nature of Reality TV and you see how Americans are constantly craving celebrity (either to be a celebrity or to find the next celebrity and stalk there every move). Now there is nothing dark or sinister about “celebrity” in and of itself. You can’t find an argument that says Jesus wasn’t a huge celebrity in his day. However, there is a difference between being famous and being significant. If Jesus was famous, it’s because he was doing something significant. The problem with many pastors is they make decisions, develop personas and define success from the lens of what will make them a celebrity/famous (even if they don’t know it or see that they are doing this). So in American church culture, it’s pretty easy to become a celebrity: Grow a HUGE church. Now all in all, it’s not terribly difficult to grow to be a giant church if you have the right tools at your disposal…but that doesn’t mean the ends justify the means of getting there. For instance, though Jesus was a celebrity in his day, he was willing to say things that ran people off in droves. In fact, the book of Mark chronicles the way (from about the mid-point of the book on) how people left Jesus to where, at the end, virtually no one was left. NO ONE wants to be associated with him for fear of the consequences. That’s a Charlie Sheen-esque flameout (obviously without the character issues!). That’s not something you see too often in American churches. I suspect it’s because riven deeply into the American psyche is the desire to be a celebrity. And American pastors are very susceptible to this. Many subtle things happen in people who desire to this kind of celebrity status: They can disengage community and isolate themselves, setting themselves up for moral failure. They can make decisions that are numbers driven and not always Kingdom driven. They can skew to a shallow understanding of the Gospel as opposed to a holistic one that leads people to discipleship. They can put the good of their church (their personal Kingdom) over the good of God’s Kingdom. Question: In what ways are your decisions made by a subtle undercurrent of ambition and a hope for celebrity?
  • CONSUMERISM

We live in a culture that revolves around consuming. Every TV commercial, every store, every credit card company, every bank, every TV show or movie, every piece of clothing, car or product, every website, every restaurant…every everything is tailored to fit your desires, needs or personal preference. We are easily infuriated when things don’t happen exactly as we want them. We exist in a place that implicitly says this: “We are here to serve you and meet your every whim and desire. Let us take care of you.” What’s more, it’s never enough. Eventually the house or the car get older and we want new ones. The clothes aren’t as fashionable and we want something more in style. That restaurant is getting boring, we must find another. Our favorite TV show is wearing thin, so the search begins for the next favorite. And on and on and on. This is how we are wired to think in the United States. And it is all backed up by this rationale: You’re worth it. You deserve to have what you want, how you want it, when you want it. And for the most part, the church plays the exact same game. We do as best we can to provide as comfortable an experience as humanly possible, using every means at our disposal to attract them in (and then keep them in). So we tailor what we do around their wants and desires. That’s Marketing 101, right? The problem is at the end of the day, the only thing that Jesus is counting is disciples. That’s it. He doesn’t seem to care too much about converts, attendance, budgets or buildings. It’s about disciples. And, by nature, disciples are producers, not consumers. Yet most of our churches are built around feeding consumers. I’d argue 90% of the church’s time, energy and resources are linked to this. But the issue is this: The means you use to attract people to you are usually the means you must use to keep them. In other words, if you use consumerism to attract them to your church, it often means you must continue using it to keep them…or else they will find another church who will meet their “needs.” And yet…that consumer mentality is antithetical to the Gospel and to the call of Discipleship. Disciples aren’t consumers, they are producers. Jesus cared about disciples more than anything else. Question: In what ways is your church community using consumerism as the means to draw people to a Gospel that is, in and of itself, anti-consumerism?

  • COMPETITION
You will never find a more hyper-competitive culture than you do in the United States. As a foreigner living in this land, I can attest to that with the utmost respect. Americans love to win, they love the struggle of the journey and love holding up the gold medal of victory. Now don’t hear me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being competitive, it’s just how competition has become warped and twisted within our culture. And it’s that, at least in the church, we are competitive about the wrong things. Much of the American church finds itself competing with the church down the road. “Are we bigger than them? Do we have more influence than them? Do we have the best/biggest youth group in town? Do people like to get married in our church building? Do people like our church better than theirs?” The fact of the matter is that there is a battle, we do have an enemy and we should be competitive…but against our enemy! What we haven’t seen is how crafty he is. This seems to be the alliance he has struck with the American church: “I’ll let a good chunk of your churches grow…just not at the expense of my territory.” And so what happens? 96% of church growth is due to transfer growth and not churches striking into the heart of our enemy’s territory. We’ll consider it a win because we have the new service or program that is growing…but that growth is mainly from people coming from other churches. That’s not a win! That’s a staggering loss. Furthermore, for many pastors, we don’t think we’ve won until we’ve won AND someone else has lost. Seriously?! For sure, we have an enemy and we should be competitive, but we should be competing against our enemy, knowing that the final battle has already been won, and not competing against our own team members. So gifted and skilled is our enemy, so conniving is he, that he has convinced us that beating the people on our own team is victory while he stands back and laughs, rarely having to ever engage in conflict, protecting his territory. He is beating us with a slight of hand, with a clever distraction, turning us against ourselves. Question: In what ways are you competing (both in actuality or simply in your mind) against people who are on your own team?

In all honesty, it isn’t that the American church will ever truly die or cease to exist. It will always be there. But it is entirely possible that if these three critical issues aren’t addressed and dealt with, it will be a hallow shell that is spiritually listless.

If we think through Celebrity, Consumerism and Competition, the anti-body against all of these is sacrifice. Learning to lay down what builds us up and giving to others instead. “Learning to serve, rather than to be served.” Looking for anonymity rather than celebrity. To build a culture of producers rather than a consumers. To live in a vibrant, sacrificial community fighting a real enemy rather than competing against the same community God has given us to fight WITH rather than AGAINST. It’s about sacrificing what we want for the glory of God and the advancement of his Kingdom, regardless of our advancement or desires. Clearly this is what Paul was getting after in Philippians 2:6-11 when describing the attitude of Jesus as taking on the attitude of a servant, willing to sacrifice all acclaim and equality with God. It was a willingness to set aside and sacrifice celebrity, consumerism and competition at the altar of the incarnation.

Fifty years ago, as these three subtle threads were being woven into the American church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., serving as a prophetic voice, said this:
If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
We are now into the second decade of the 21st century and we find ourselves still, for the most part, refusing to sacrifice what we want for what God is asking of us and his Church. Will we have the courage to sacrifice as Christ sacrificed? Will we do the things that cost us so that his Kingdom may advance?
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52 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Pratt permalink
    July 5, 2011 1:38 pm

    Thank you for this post Mike. It reminds me that I need to look long and hard into my heart.

  2. David Wild permalink
    July 5, 2011 2:00 pm

    Great post. There is a question for the church (and individual churches) I keep coming back to at the moment which is: “what happens when the lights go out?”. This can be taken physically (i.e. what of your church would remain if the church infrastructure fails?) and also spiritually (i.e. what of your church would remain if the Spirit decided not to inhabit it any more?). The answers to be feared for these two aspects of the question respectively are “nothing” (i.e. the church is fully dependent on its PA system, buildings, powerpoints, Sunday services, etc) and “everything” (i.e. not much noticeable would change if the Spirit left). A church fully centered on the two most important commandments (love God and love your neighbor) would surely be able to answer “everything” and “not much” to these questions.

  3. July 5, 2011 3:30 pm

    Great reflection questions for the church at large from the leadership to the pew.

    Thanks!

  4. July 5, 2011 4:08 pm

    Good thoughts Mike. Thanks for sharing!

  5. July 5, 2011 4:15 pm

    Mike, excellent post. I’m with you all the way on the issue of consumerism. Also, I appreciate how you connected our sin with the same temptation our Lord overcame. BTW, found this post via Bill Kinnon and have just added your blog to my RSS reader.

    Peace!

  6. Vilmarie Nixon permalink
    July 5, 2011 7:24 pm

    Agree 100%.

  7. Pat Pope permalink
    July 5, 2011 7:37 pm

    And many parishioners are to be blame as well. Many want what they want and are willing to accept it at any cost. I recently left a church that just concluded a pastoral church and the people who ran the second search committee (I ran the first one) had more of an “ends justifies the means” attitude. No matter that some of their actions weren’t ethical. I was questioned for some of my decisions simply because I was different and I did things differently from how they’re traditionally done. The second chairperson got his way as he normally does regardless of who he stepped on or offended. He’s been at the church a long time and exerts a lot of influence in the congregation, regardless of his tactics. As long as parishioners demand, “Give us what we want and we want it now!” and weak-willed leaders give in to it, things will not change.

    Sacrifice is not popular. Many people want a smooth and easy experience and will accept whoever gives them that. That’s the stuff of consumerism.

  8. July 5, 2011 7:55 pm

    Very thought provoking!Thank you for “shaking things up” with your wise advice

    Billie Hughes

  9. July 6, 2011 11:54 am

    Great post my friend. ‘Spot on’, as you Brits would say. Thx for the prophetic reminder.

  10. July 6, 2011 12:37 pm

    Powerful and just what I was feeling. Thanks for putting the words to my gut feeling.

  11. Blu Oc permalink
    July 6, 2011 1:08 pm

    May this prophetic “CHRISTmas in July Story (aka Charles Dickens & Jeremiah 8 :20″Harvest is past, summer is ended, And we are not saved.”
    Lord awaken Your eating/drinking / raising up to play “Church” .

    ‘Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’
    said Scrooge. `But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus
    with what you show me!’
    The Spirit was immovable as ever.

    Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he
    went; and, following the finger, read upon
    the stone of the neglected grave his own
    name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.

    ‘Am I that man who lay upon the bed?’ he
    cried upon his knees. The finger pointed
    from the grave to him, and back again.
    ‘No, Spirit! Oh no, no!’ The finger still
    was there.
    ‘Spirit!’ he cried, tight clutching at its
    robe, ‘hear me! I am not the man I was. I
    will not be the man I must have been but
    for this intercourse. Why show me this, if
    I am past all hope?’

    Lord I Repent and will bring forth Fruit of Repentance… Thank you.

    Blu Oc

  12. John S permalink
    July 6, 2011 3:31 pm

    You can write ‘self’ (pride) across all 3 of these as a root of the heart. I understand what you are saying about church growth through ‘transfer’. However this is not necessarily a staggering loss, in fact it can be a gain. If the person if transferring from a celebrity/consumer/competive false gospel preaching church then I’d count that a gain. Albeit not as good a gain as a lost sinner coming to repentance and faith. Or unless the person is a Luther, standing strong attempting to turn the church back to the true gospel of Christ. Even then, there is a point to give up that fight and move on as per the refomation.

  13. July 6, 2011 4:10 pm

    Agree 100%!

    Your message is also for the South Korean church.
    May the grace of God be upon the body of Christ all over the world.

    We can live out our lives as the sacrifical lamb only by knowing the love of Christ.

    Many blessings,
    Shalom!

  14. July 6, 2011 4:43 pm

    Mike

    Much agreement when you write…
    “But those original temptations of Appetite, Affirmation and Ambition
    are slowly insinuating themselves into everything *we call* CHURCH.”

    But – I would challenge…
    What really is it that – *we call* CHURCH?

    When people today hear the word CHURCH what do they think of?

    A building with a steeple on it?
    Is that in the Bible?

    Pastors – in Pulpits – Preaching – to People – in Pews?
    Is that in the Bible?

    Seems to me, Appetite, Affirmation and Ambition are slowly insinuating
    themselves into “the church of man.” The 501 (c) 3, non-profit, tax $ deductible,
    Religious $ Corporation, *we call* church.

    Did Jesus shed His Blood to purchase a building, a denomination,
    an institution, an organization, or a Corporation?

    Sould a “Disciple of Christ” call a Corporation – The Church of God? :-(

    NO. Jesus shed His Blood to purchase His Church, His people. You and me. :-)

    I would say “the Body of Christ,” the Church of Jesus Christ is doing just fine.
    It is His Body, His Church, and he will build it and add to it as he sees fit. ;-)

    Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean NOT on your own understanding…

    Now if there is an “Obituary for the American Church” the church of man,
    The 501 (c) 3, non-profit, tax $ deductible, Religious $ Corporations…

    Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s a God thing. ;-)

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall “hear My voice; “
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice – Jesus

  15. July 6, 2011 5:12 pm

    Great Post Mike. For those who want more on this, check out Mike’s book, “Covenant and Kingdom” at http://www.weare3dm.com

  16. Myron permalink
    July 7, 2011 2:08 pm

    Your insights speak as the words of a prophet for us who lead. May we turn to Scripture as our defense against these temptations, just as Jesus did. And may we clean the lenses of our own eyes so we clearly see where we are at the edge of following the tempter.

  17. July 7, 2011 7:35 pm

    YES.

  18. July 7, 2011 8:39 pm

    The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother. Martin Luther.

  19. July 7, 2011 9:31 pm

    Great words! I’ve had to deal with these issues in myself, and I’ve witnessed them in the church around me more often than I’d like. It’s heart-breaking.

  20. July 8, 2011 1:49 am

    Marvelous post and indictment upon the shallowness of Western Christianity. Sadly, that which is occurring now in Europe will soon be lapping at the shores of the U.S. “Rise up O men of God. Have done with lesser things . . .”

  21. July 8, 2011 8:32 am

    Great post Mike and really worth reading, thank you. I wonder though as consumerism is such a big thing in our society whether that is always going to be part of the journey to Christ. We are all looking for something and it is in the looking that we find Christ. Maybe the focus of the church should simply be turning consumers into disciples. In other words don’t criticise consumerism but rather make the most of it. Just a thought. The church is so often seen as speaking against society rather than offering a real alternative. The church that offer true community, radicale authenticity and true hope is the church that reflects the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t criticise society but rather the church for not being who it should be to these who were looking.

  22. July 8, 2011 11:11 am

    Well said Mike. I believe, as odd as it sounds to me, I will sit down and write my obituary now.

  23. July 8, 2011 11:26 am

    Your contents is like a walk in the park! You’re an inspiration to me and i’m sure many others!

  24. July 9, 2011 2:48 pm

    You piece is also applicable to those of us in the organic church movement. I also see these same characteristics among our groups, and I know I must ever be vigilant against these same temptations. I have made more disciples than you, etc. etc. etc.

  25. July 10, 2011 5:25 pm

    Thank for the post, Mike.

    I’m glad to have found your blog (and Twitter timeline) via a retweet on Twitter!

  26. July 11, 2011 12:05 am

    just read this post again, great stuff…good to know that others see the elephant in the room and will name it.

  27. Trond permalink
    July 11, 2011 10:36 pm

    @Mark Melluish: I believe you’re right, for a great deal of people, the path will go from consumerism to discipleship. Reminds me of the Willow Creek slogan “to turn atheists into missionaries”. But turning consumers into disciples might be a tougher one.

  28. Kirk permalink
    July 17, 2011 1:21 pm

    Worship, 24/7, why is that such a hard concept for people to grasp. Our bodies are to be a living sacrifice. Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Love your neighbor as yourself. He has given us the armor, He has given us the words, He has given us the example, He has given us the blood of our redemption, the power of the Holy Spirit, and yet as Paul explains in Rom: 7 we succumb to the weakness of the flesh.

  29. July 20, 2011 4:06 am

    I think you’ve produced some important points. I realized that theres so very much about this subject thats been uncovered and you did it so properly. Another points on your site!

  30. July 21, 2011 6:58 am

    Your contents is like a walk in the park! You’re an inspiration to me and i’m sure many others!

  31. July 25, 2011 2:11 am

    I am amazed the way you illustrate it. I think i will be coming back to read some of your post. -Cheers, Mike.

  32. August 1, 2011 8:42 am

    Bang on assessment from my perspective … what a challenge for all called to lead and participate in the Church … as Christ’s Kingdom personified … btw, I assume you meant “hollow shell” rather than “hallow shell” though actually the latter could apply if you think that these temptations mean we are shells of the “holy vessels” God wishes each of us as Christ followers to be and become! Will definitely be adding your blog to my RSS as well!!

    Pastor David Cumby
    Bridgetown Baptist Church
    Bridgetown, NS

  33. elmom permalink
    August 29, 2011 2:48 pm

    Reverb of lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life….1 John 2:15-17

  34. December 27, 2011 7:20 pm

    Mike

    Prophetic thoughts and truths. Ouch… we’re in trouble. I love your commitment and approach in forming “incarnational” communities. I saw community being formed in your seminar in Chicago. I love the Huddle approach because it creates a core of Christ filled people you know, love and share the Good New. That is so cool..

    The break down in church is a “system theory” break down. It takes a major crisis to change a system. In the church today there is no sense of crisis, nor urgency. No personal passion for changing and redeeming the world. That is apathy, and apathy is a temper of our times.

    Bruce

    • December 28, 2011 3:03 am

      Very insightful and painful. Thanks for sharing it as a 2011 top post. My only quibble is I think you vastly underestimate the difficulty in building a large church. But the risks you cite are real and very apparent.

  35. February 5, 2012 6:27 pm

    I have been thinking about the whole celebrity thing. I remember there were plenty of passages in the Gospels in which Jesus moved away from crowds and told people to keep quiet about what he was doing and where he was going. I can’t imagine a megachurch pastor doing that. They’d be tweeting their every move to the Glory of God.

  36. April 5, 2012 7:22 pm

    My, I’m so out of touch sometimes. My busy-ness gets in the way of God’s business. I just saw this post for the first time today. It is a God-send complimenting a conversation I had with a colleague just yesterday!

    If sociologists say that when cities like Newark, NJ and Gary, IN and Detroit get to a 70% level of urban blight and impoverishness, they have virtually no real ability to ever recover what that city once was… then how can anyone say that the church has a chance to move through and beyond the selfish secularism all around us when on any given Sunday, less than 20% of the American people are in a house of worship?

    What makes this reality even more indicting is that there are so many of us now who have been at this thing called ‘ministry’ or ‘church’ for 30-40 years and the demise has happened on ‘our watch.’

    I’m driven to my knees.

  37. April 12, 2012 1:53 pm

    blerg. #convicted

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