In my online Theology of Worship class with Dan Kimball at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, one of the questions Dan raised this week is how the church can prevent "worship consumption. Here are some of my thoughts on that:
This past Thursday I attended an area-wide youth worker’s luncheon, hosted by the Portland Youth Foundation. I was mostly impressed by what I heard, as well as with the call for us as youth leaders to get our youth groups involved in our communities as the hands and feet of Jesus with a “no strings attached” philosophy.
Afterward I stopped by the Christian Supply book store table, and signed up for a subscription to a quarterly free box of stuff. (Hey, I’m part Scotch and I married a Dutchman. You don’t walk by free stuff. It’s anti-cultural.)
I got back to church and opened my free box. I pulled out an appropriately cool-looking, lightly stone-washed black baseball-style cap with “Jars of Clay Good Monsters” stitched in the same color on the front. I pulled out a pink concert t-shirt of some female music artist (whose name I don’t remember right now as the box is still at church), size small, and the accompanying CD with said artist’s Barbie-looking face staring back at me. There was a mini-poster for the movie Facing the Giants and a copy of the accompanying soundtrack, plus maybe half-a-dozen more CD’s in genres from hip hop to acoustic folk.
And I thought, “Since when did Christianity become an industry?” (To which you might respond, “Well, DUH, Sue. Have you been living under a ROCK?!?”)
Did you know that you used to be able to walk into a Christian book store, and if you couldn’t afford one, walk out with a free Keith Green cassette tape?
But bear with me.
Friday night I took my youth group to the 30-Hour Famine Rally in Beaverton, where several hundred kids gathered in an auditorium-style sanctuary, complete with two screens and all the latest sound and video technology. Even colored lights and lasers. A youth band played up front, maybe singing a lot of original songs, since there weren’t any CCLI numbers with the words on the screens and my kids hadn’t heard most of what they played. Several kids (not many of mine, after all we are Presbyterians) migrated down in front of the stage to be closer to the band and to pogo-stick and dance with the music. (One way. Jesus. You’re the only one I could live for. [One of the songs my kids had heard.])
We had been given a ticket on our way in, and our MC’s, a couple of culturally cool-looking guys who had good “up-front” skills, drew random numbers to give away free stuff, and threw more free stuff out into the crowd. We watched some very well-produced videos which did an excellent job of illustrating the contrasts between the abundance in the US and the poverty in other parts of the world.
But as I sat there I couldn’t help thinking, “The church and the Christian music industry have been doing culturally relevant things like this for years, but once these high school kids graduate from even the savviest of our programs, they are disappearing from the church left and right.”
Surely we are speaking their language. Surely we have entered their world. What were we doing Saturday night that isn’t “2007 American teenager”? It’s not like they go to youth events where we have robed choirs, pipe organ music, screechy sound systems, MC’s wearing pajama-looking green plaid pants (like one of our church’s 70-something parishioners), and dry, 3-point lectures.
If I give away the free stuff to visitors to our youth group, do you think that will encourage them to come back again? Is that what the free stuff is for? Does part of my job description include Christian industry marketing promoter? What would I be “saying” if I did that?
My final question is this: If we speak to our kids in the language of cultural consumerism, even if our words are “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” are we unintentionally communicating that the gospel and Christianity are just another couple of brands which you may opt to purchase or leave on the shelf at will, depending on your “needs”?
My response to the dilemma of worship consumerism: When planning our emerging worship gatherings, in the wider context of everything else we do as a church, we must learn to speak in the medium of covenant, not contract.
Which means you can't just add candles. You will also need to intentionallly equip people with the counter-consumer-culture skills of commitment and community.
(Now where did I leave that easy button?)