When Christian churches first faced the threat of disestablishment, ministers were understandably worried. “A Divine and sacred institution shouldn’t be left up to the wiles of a free market,” they argued. In retrospect, most recognized that some positive things came from Churches existing as voluntary organizations. For one, ministers became more concerned with how their people received their ministry. Also, church members had to support their churches with voluntary donations, which gave them a stake in its ministry. This practical focus was likely a deterrent to the spread of Unitarianism and Deism in America.
Other outcomes were mixed. Disestablished churches spelled the end of the parish system, where your church membership is based on your neighborhood.
There are also negative aspects to a spiritual marketplace. It encourages religious entrepreneurialism, which gives rise to novel ideas, new sects, and movements. False teachers tickle the ears of the people and sell them lies that they are eager to buy. Christians flit about from church to church, never committing and never putting down roots.
As Christians we want to emphasize the fraternity we have with one another. All true churches around the world are part of the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Yet individual churches in a given city, whether they like it or not, are locked in a competition for market share. The Church Growth Movement embraced this uncomfortable fact and weaponized it. They viewed the smaller neighborhood churches as “feeder” churches, and they sought to attract large crowds with a battery of programs for all ages. Pastor-shepherds were recast as “ranchers,” and worship services became spectator events.
The community, intimacy and accountability that is natural to a smaller church is necessarily lost in the big-box church. This need, however, can be met through the mid-week small groups. This solution may work for those who have time to spare.
I think it is important for us to identify and acknowledge the ways that our consumerist culture has influenced our approach to church. It is natural for Christians to think of their church like a consumer product. They ask themselves (in more ‘spiritual’ language) “what is the value added to my life?” They evaluate the teaching – and I imagine most ministers hope that people will choose their church based primarily on its teaching. But people also evaluate the music program, the nursery, the youth group and other age-appropriate programs, building aesthetics and more. If things ever become uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be too hard to find another church that will fit their needs.
Such a view of things is based entirely on a selfish perspective. “What do I get out of this?” Entirely absent is the question, “how can I contribute?”
It is key that we reframe our view of what the church is. It is not a market commodity. It is a family.
This perspective is especially important if we ever encounter inter-personal conflict. Instead of retreating from conflict, view it as an opportunity for reconciliation. Rejoice that the Holy Spirit has given you an opportunity to grow in holiness. “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Js 3:18).
Similarly, if a potential or actual area of ministry is lacking, then ask yourself whether this is an opportunity for you to serve others.“As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet 4:10). Maybe you don’t feel that you need your current local congregation. But consider whether that local church needs you.