COVID and the Consumer Church
Whether we like the term of reference or not, we are consumers. Eating out? You can have Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Italian and myriad other countries’ delicacies delivered to your door at the click of a mouse. After a new car? You’ll find numerous dealerships for different makes within just a few minutes’ drive. Take your pick. Supermarkets? Tons of them, just choose whose beans you like the most. Alternatively, get the beans you like from one and the bran flakes you like from another. You’re a consumer, and what do consumers like? Choice. Why? Because choice means we can get just the very thing we like in just the style/taste/colour we like it. And now we live in a 24-hour world, you can get what you like whenever you want it, or at least place an order for it to be dropped at your door within a matter of hours.
It’s handy, isn’t it? What I want, how I want it, when I want it.
And yet it’s also concerning. It’s concerning because it forms and cements in us an attitude that says that the world exists to give us what we want whenever we want it. In other words, everything exists to make us happy. Everything exists for my convenience. Everything serves to make my life easier or more comfortable. It is, tragically, how we’re conditioned to think and to order our expectations. We don’t need to ‘tolerate’ something that’s less than our preference because we can get exactly what fits our personal inclinations somewhere else. Don’t like the bran flakes? Go to the other supermarket next door.
If this were the sum of the issue, then that would be an ugly enough indictment on a consumerist society, but that’s not where it stops. Regrettably, consumerism has crept into the church (actually, it’s pretty much kicked down the door and plonked itself on the front row!) For a long time now, people with greater minds and more experience than me have expressed the same (see the introduction to this article): consumerism in the church is rife. It was a known problem before lockdown began, but my concern is that this period has inadvertently accentuated an existing problem.
As of 16th March, the UK was plunged into a once-in-a-lifetime scenario. Along with many other institutions and places of social activity, churches were suddenly prevented from physically gathering. Church leaders found themselves figuring out how to create content for online worship services. Should we use pre-recorded or live stream? Our worship group or original artists from YouTube? A 40-minute sermon or a shorter version? Having seen what a number of churches did and how they did it – and how quickly they responded, I reckon the church at large responded pretty well. A brand new landscape, but one that many adapted quickly and appropriately to. (Kudos, fellow leaders.)
However, here’s where the problem of consumerism re-surfaces. Pre-lockdown, if you didn’t like the songs (or the style of whoever was singing them!), it was kind of tough – you’d physically attended the service and it was highly unlikely you were going to stand up and leave. Same goes with the sermon: Not keen on this guy’s style? Well, that’s just unfortunate, because you’re there for the next half hour so you may as well listen and learn anyway. But now? Don’t like this element? Not keen on that particular person’s way of doing things? No problem, you can just fast forward or nip and make a coffee, go to the shop, resume viewing later etc. And it goes further. Don’t like the start time? Watch later. Don’t like singing? Just join 15 minutes in. Can you see the problem?
I’m not prone to melodrama, so I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say these are dangerous times.
Imagine if, only liking meat, that’s all I ate, and never took on the nutrition offered up by vegetables; I’d be in pretty bad shape before long. Or if, preferring chocolate to fruit, I only ever opted for chocolate. It wouldn’t be too long before my health began to suffer. So it is with online worship (it’s also true of gathered worship, but I’m talking specifically about online worship): if we only ever settle for engaging with the things we like done the way we prefer, we’ll suffer some health issues. But let’s be honest - it’s easy to justify ourselves isn’t it? ‘No-one will know’, ‘It’s not like it’s harming anyone’ and other such justifying statements can flood our thinking. We can kid ourselves that it’s no big deal. But it is. Not only is it harmful to individuals’ health to only engage with what they like, by fostering self-serving attitudes, but it’s harmful to the health of the body, too. It’s nothing new. Paul found a similar scenario in first century Corinth. People had split into factions based on their preferences and who they were willing to follow: “It’s Paul for me”; “I’m an Apollos kind of guy”; “Cephas gets my vote” (1 Cor 1:12). Sure, this was a specific example concerning leaders but we also know from further on in 1 Corinthians that the whole issue of gathered worship had become disorderly as people acted out of personal preference and self-interest in times of gathered worship.
An unwillingness to engage with things we find personally unpreferable or occasions where we ‘opt out’ and hit the fast forward button can, in an unseen way, contribute to ill-health in the church. Again in 1 Corinthians, Paul was clear that different people ministering as God has equipped them is how the Church is meant to be and is good for the whole. And remember, he told the Corinthians that “the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”” We don’t have the ‘power of veto’ just because something or someone isn’t our cup of tea. As far as I can tell from my reading of the New Testament, God never intended gathered worship – including online worship! - to be a pick and choose buffet, catering to the preferences and desires of a bunch of consumers, but the place where others’ needs are placed above our own; our preferences are held back in order that someone else’s are met as together we offer our worship to God. And the preference of others shouldn’t be a begrudging thing; it shouldn’t be a thing borne through gritted teeth, but should be the cause of joyful delight. Lean in, see God using others for various things and applaud them on as you applaud the grace that gives such gifts to the church, even if your preference is that things were done differently.
Maybe we’d benefit from revisiting Paul’s words to a different church: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:4). Hear this challenge to resist the urge to fast forward through the bits you don’t like or to go somewhere else – another provider - for the things you prefer. Press in and take the opportunity to realise the challenge of the upside-down Kingdom which doesn’t revolve around me and my preferences – or you and yours – but around that which honours and blesses its King. Let’s pursue that agenda together through the things we find delightful and the things we find a challenge, in order that we grow in grace and concern for the wider Body. Ironically, doing so will lead to our own good and growth!