Friday, August 24, 2012

The Customer is Sovereign

User Friendly Church



At the heart of the market-driven, user-friendly church is the goal of giving people what they want. Advocates of the philosophy are quite candid about this. I noted in Chapter 1 that consumer satisfaction is the stated goal of the new philosophy. One key resource on market-driven ministry says, “This is what marketing the church is all about: providing our product (relationships) as a solution to people’s felt need.”

“Felt needs” thus determine the road map for the modern church marketing plan. The idea is a basic selling principle: you satisfy an existing desire rather than trying to persuade people to buy something they don’t want.

Accurately assessing people’s felt needs is therefore one of the keys to modern church-growth theory. Church leaders are advised to poll potential “customers” and find out what they are looking for in a church—then offer that. Demographic information, community surveys, door-to-door polls, and congregational questionnaires are the new tools. Information drawn from such sources is considered essential to building a workable marketing plan. Ministers today are told they cannot reach people effectively without it.

Worst of all, it seems people’s emotional “felt needs” are taken more seriously than the real but unfelt spiritual deficiencies Scripture addresses. “Felt needs” include issues like loneliness, fear of failure, “codependency,” a poor self-image, depression, anger, resentment, and similar inward-focused inadequacies. Some of these are real, and some are fabricated by the psychological sales pitch. These problems, we are told, are behind drug addiction, sex addiction, and several dozen other syndromes. The real problem—the root of all such troubles—is human depravity, an issue that is carefully skirted (though seldom overtly denied) in the teaching of the typical user-friendly church.

No longer are pastors trained to declare to people what God demands of them. Instead, they are counseled to find out what the people’s demands are, then do whatever is necessary to meet them. The audience is regarded as “sovereign,” and the wise preacher will “shape his communications according to their needs in order to receive the response he [seeks].”

The effect of such a philosophy is apparent; more and more people-pleasers fill the pulpits of our churches. Moreover, Scripture is overruled by the marketing plan as the authoritative guide for ministry. One textbook on church marketing includes this statement: “The marketing plan is the Bible of the marketing game; everything that happens in the life of the product occurs because the plan wills it.”6 Applied to church ministry, that means a human strategy—not the Word of God—becomes the fountain of all church activity, and the standard by which ministry is measured.

That approach to ministry is so obviously convoluted and so grossly unbiblical that I am amazed so many pastors are influenced by it. But it has become an extremely influential philosophy. Thousands of churches have overhauled their entire ministry and are now attempting to cater to the masses.

In fact, the user-friendly-church movement has become so large that many secular newspapers have begun to take note of the trend. One article in the Los Angeles Times described how a megachurch grew out of a door-to-door survey conducted for a “marketing study” when this church was not yet formed. “Customer Poll Shapes a Church” was the title of the article—and it is fitting. The story described how the pastor “tailored the church’s program to the needs and gripes people registered in his door-to-door survey.” Of course, the article said, his messages are brief, low-key, upbeat, and topical, with titles like “The Changing American Dream.” He spices his sermonettes with quotations from news and financial magazines.

Another Southern California newspaper ran an article entitled, “Marketing the Maker.” It describes several local churches that have employed the market-driven philosophy—and seem to be booming. One church “bought time on classic rock stations for an ad that sounded more like a pitch for a social club than an invitation to join a church. And newspaper ads were placed in the entertainment section, not the religion section.”

There is nothing wrong, of course, with a church placing ads in the entertainment section. But it is wrong for a church to promise—and deliver—a “church service” that is merely a form of entertainment. And that is precisely what many of these churches are doing. “A celebration—not a service” is how this particular church promotes its meetings, held, appropriately, in a movie theater.

One “church” has taken the concept to its logical conclusion—“a church service created for the medium of television. Our sanctuary has no pews … our sanctuary is [the] viewers’ television set.” Created by the founder of the Home Shopping Network, “Worship” is a 24-hour “non-stop Christian church service.” How can a “church” like that offer meaningful fellowship? you ask. The founders of “Worship” feel they have that covered. “At Worship, fellowship is a significant part of each service, but this, too, is handled in a unique way through modern tools of communication.… Worship employs the latest technology in digital telephone equipment to enable viewers from around the country to quickly connect to a Fellowship partner.”

And so the “customer” achieves ultimate sovereignty. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he can simply turn off the set. If he doesn’t enjoy the “fellowship,” he can hang up the phone.

MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Ashamed of the gospel: When the Church becomes like the world (48–51). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.