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Bob Rognlien

Religious Co-Dependency in a Church-Shopping Culture

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(An Excerpt from Empowering Missional Disciples) 

By Bob Rognlien

How Did We Get Here?

Do you ever read the New Testament and wonder why the church of our day seems so different from the very first church? Two thousand years ago Jesus sparked a missional movement which grew from a houseful of disciples in Capernaum and a Spirit-filled room in Jerusalem into a worldwide movement that overcame the most powerful temporal forces on earth. When we look at churches struggling in much of the world today we have to admit something critical has been lost. What happened to this contagious viral movement which transformed the greatest authorities and powers of its day?

In 3DMovements we describe the root cause of this radical decline as “spiritual feudalism.” In the summer of the year AD 313 the leaders of the Roman Empire issued the Edict of Milan which proclaimed freedom of worship for Christians so that “any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule.” The strategy of a modern pragmatist comes to mind, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” Emperor Constantine effectively managed to pour the dynamic, transforming movement of Jesus into the mold of Roman patronage, resulting in the institutional forms of church that have endured until our own day.

From that point on the church began to reflect the shape of this patron-client culture, rather than the other way around. Almost imperceptibly the clergy began to adopt a posture of patronage toward the laity, taking on the responsibility for spiritual leadership and oversight, while expecting from their clientele obligatory obedience, financial support, and attendance at public services. Even as the Roman Empire melted into medieval Europe, this system of patronage continued in the feudal system of lords and serfs.

Now the die was cast that would shape the forms of Christianity for the coming millennium. A kind of spiritual amnesia regarding the pattern of life set by Jesus and his first followers was institutionalized. Patronage came to define the roles of clergy and laity in the church. Somewhere along the way, following Jesus and living as part of an extended family on mission was replaced by church attendance and sacramental observance. Followers of the Way, the Truth, and the Life were co-opted by the ways of this world rather than the Kingdom Jesus established. But there was a still deeper kind of amnesia yet to come …

From Client to Consumer

We can see the dynamics of spiritual feudalism at work today in all the denominations that trace their historical roots back to European soil. One sign of this culture of dependency is how often members of these churches feel interpreting the Bible is beyond them and so they rely on their pastors to “feed them” spiritually. In this we see the continuation of the patron-client relationship that stretches back some 1700 years. But the movement of Jesus was poured into yet another cultural mold.

The colonization of North America provided fresh soil into which a new society and culture could be planted. Unfettered from the feudal system of their homeland, these pioneers began to establish a cultural system valuing individual responsibility and initiative over status and privilege. Informed by thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith, they began the great experiment of a democratic nation based on a free market economy.

Not only did this New World provide greater opportunities for geographical, political, and economic exploration, but for spiritual innovation as well. Multiple waves of revival, from the so-called “Burned-Over District” in upstate New York to a tiny church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, give testimony to the entrepreneurial climate of this new world. It is these kinds of innovative movements in America over the past century that have given rise to new networks, movements, and denominations that don’t trace their heritage back to Europe or Rome.

Those churches that sprang from American soil have avoided certain aspects of the feudal model, but unfortunately many have been co-opted by another system. Whereas Constantine poured the early Christian movement into the mold of Roman patronage, many American churches have been profoundly shaped by the mold of democratic capitalism. Ours is a free market system where “church shopping” makes complete sense to most people because the focus is on meeting the perceived needs of individuals. Over the past fifty years churches in America have continued this pattern by placing an ever-greater emphasis on attracting new members by providing staff-led programs tailored to the specific interests of various constituencies.

In the middle of the last century American churches began offering specialized programs targeted at the heart of the family: children’s and youth ministry. Eventually they began hiring specially trained staff members to provide professional quality programming for literally every stage of life. The “seeker targeted” churches of the last few decades took this free market approach to a new level as they began to aggressively market their services and programs to those who had little or no background or interest in the Christian faith or church.

Eventually, many mainline and even European churches also sought to implement this kind of client-driven methodology to reverse their catastrophic declines in church participation and faith. Even now most church-planting strategies still focus on how to attract new people to the various services they can provide. Those churches in America that were able to attract large numbers of people to their services and programs gave hope that this approach was the silver bullet to renew the Christian movement at the end of the twentieth century. But aside from a handful of celebrity-level exceptions, this is proving to be a short-lived hope.

With about 4% of the Millennial generation in America currently attending church services on a regular basis and every other demographic category declining significantly as well, it is clear this attractional model is falling woefully short. Apparently we need more than a better marketing plan or a new program to solve this crisis. What began as a dynamic grass-roots movement in Palestine that nearly conquered the Roman Empire gradually became a theology in Greece, an institution in Rome, a state church in Europe, and now a non-profit service provider in America. The question is: what will the next chapter of our story be?

Consumeristic Feudalism

On a recent trip to England my wife Pam and I spent a day touring the massive estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, called Chatsworth House. Built in 1549 by Sir William Cavendish, the thirty breathtaking rooms of this three-story manor are lavishly adorned with sculpted marble, fitted with countless gilt-carvings, and stuffed with classical art. Surrounded by a thousand acres of fantastically sculpted gardens and five miles of walking paths, a day is hardly enough to take in the spectacle of this monument to the feudal upper class.

After seven straight hours of marveling at the lavish lifestyle that produced such a place, the irony was inescapable when the tour ended in a typical tourist gift shop, filled with postcards, t-shirts, beach towels, and mugs, each bearing the crest of the esteemed Cavendish family. I felt like I was exiting a ride at Disneyland! Combined with the steep admission price and various options for audio tours and added attractions, this naked display of capitalism in a shrine to aristocratic privilege made me laugh out loud.

It is natural for the Duke and Duchess to employ the business strategies of a free-market economy to keep their lavish estate operating, because the days of feudalism are long gone. This is the only way such a relic from the past can be preserved and even that may not be enough to keep pace with the steady decay of such an unwieldy monument. The day may well come when the Chatsworth House has to be converted into swanky condos if public fascination with the luxuries of the past begins to wane.

And this is exactly the predicament that my church and many like it face today. We have inherited a long-extinct feudal system in which the established members function much like religious serfs, offering their attendance and tithes, while clergy like me are expected to offer spiritual provision and protection. But, along with the Cavendish family, we find ourselves living in a time when feudalism no longer operates, and a free-market economy rules the day. As a result, we search endlessly for ways to market ourselves to a population that sees us as a quaint throwback from an irrelevant past—a far cry from those first followers of Jesus who converted and transformed a violent pagan empire!

Those churches and leaders that sprang from American soil and managed to avoid inheriting a primarily feudal culture are faced with a different, though similar predicament. By proclaiming the message of Jesus in an individualistic framework with a pioneering spirit, these newer churches were able to establish themselves and made significant inroads in the second half of the last century. At one time simply worshiping in non-religious buildings with rock bands and casually dressed preachers who proclaimed a clearly applicable and empowering message was enough to attract increasing numbers of attendees, but not anymore.

Growing postmodern skepticism and resistance to any kind of organized religion are rapidly overtaking the gains of culturally relevant expressions of Christian faith. A deeper cultural shift is taking place that is leading down the path towards a thoroughly secular and ultimately pagan society. The Christian movement has come to a crucial crossroads; what the New Testament calls a “kairos.” We must come to terms with the fact that much of our current way of doing church is not rooted in the pattern set for us by Jesus and his first followers. This is the core problem threatening the viability of the church today.

Beyond Feudalism and Consumerism

Many people who are fascinated with Jesus are no longer willing to engage with his church because we have strayed so far from the life Jesus modeled for us. The time has passed where we can fall back on simply trying to make our current ecclesial forms more culturally relevant. There is no hipper, cooler, more tech-saavy way of reaching the newer generations—or their parents for that matter. Nor is going “old-school” and reverting back to comfortable or curious traditions the answer. We are not going to market or incentivize our way out of this dilemma. The only answer is radical—we must go back to the beginning of our story to recover the roots of Jesus’ movement.

Every student of postmodernity knows that in many ways the 21st century is more like the 1st century than the 20th century was. Will this next era of church history be looked back on as another “dark ages” for the church or an era of Christian reformation and renaissance? It all depends on how we respond to the challenge. Will we cling to a long-lost feudal system by focusing on the number of our members and the amounts of their tithes? Will we be co-opted by a consumer culture through one more marketing campaign or the latest “relevant” program to boost attendance and offerings? Or will we reclaim the three key elements of the movement Jesus began: living in the authority and power Jesus passed on to his followers, multiplying disciples as Jesus did, and learning to live by that power as families on mission?

Jesus’ call is simple and clear: “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17). Simply put, Jesus was about empowering missional disciples and those who follow him today will do the same. If we are willing to go back and relearn how to follow the pattern Jesus set for us, we will discover what it means to be part of that powerful movement by which God is redeeming the whole world. Come join us on this great adventure!