Goodbye Local Church?

The marketplace mentality is working against ordinary congregations.

A man walked into an auction and there he saw something he had always wanted. It was a parrot. He decided to bid for it. The price escalated. He would make a bid and then someone else in the room would top him. Eventually he secured the bird for £100. Then suddenly he realised he had not found out the most important thing. ‘Does the parrot talk?’ he asked the auctioneer. The man replied, ‘Who do you think has been bidding against you all this time?’

That silly story reminds us that a most widely held and influential picture of the modern world is that of a marketplace. Our contemporaries tend to see the world generally in terms of commerce. The whole of consumer society is predicated upon marketplace ideas. Shops have their sales. The internet has its offers. The workplace thinks in terms of a ‘jobs market’. The name of the game is competition in the context of personal choice. 

The marketplace of churches

The truth is that there is now a marketplace of churches. This marketplace stretches across denominations and church ‘brands’. People are quite willing to switch and travel long distances. Churches are in competition for members. 

Market forces are in play and that being the case, sadly, it seems that a number of those forces are working towards the destruction of local churches—churches where people live in fairly close proximity, where the congregation is intentionally aiming at being a family, and where every member has a responsible part to play in the life of the church. Such churches are finding things increasingly difficult to attract members. Many are fragile and dwindling. Thankfully that is not the case everywhere. But it is happening.    

As I have contact with pastors around the country, repeatedly I hear the story of visitors who look at a church but don’t return, or of those who decide to come fairly regularly but hang loose and won’t get too involved. It would be wrong and foolish to dismiss churches where this happens as ‘bad churches’. In NT terms, many of them are in good spiritual health in terms of faith and love. But it seems that is not good enough. ‘I can’t find people who will take up responsibilities.’ ‘We need workers. At present we can’t really do any outreach.’ Those are just two recent cries from good gospel men.

So, what is going on? The answer is that the market and the market mindset is against them. The cards which make for the choices of Christian people are stacked against the ordinary local church. 

The Christian consumer

Think about the wider UK landscape. We live in an affluent society where there are many options for people. We can buy an amazing variety of goods and services from houses to hotdogs, from haircuts to holidays and more. The heart of consumer culture, which distinguishes it from say a communist society, is personal choice. With almost boundless scope, we can have precisely what we want (so long as we can pay). The dominant thought in people’s minds is, ‘where can I get the best deal for myself?’ Unconsciously that same mindset of personal choice has infiltrated the picking and choosing of many Christians regarding churches. 

When it comes to preferences, what influences the choices of today’s people? Years ago, Francis Schaeffer explained that the direction of the secular consumer society is towards personal peace and prosperity. The whole of our technology is geared towards making things easier for us. The line of least resistance beckons powerfully to our contemporaries. 

Does this same attitude express itself when it comes down to choice of church? Many of the population, including Christians, are under a great deal of pressure at work. They are likely to have a large mortgage to pay and a family to feed. They have to put in long hours during the week. So, when it comes to the weekend and to church what are they looking for? They are looking for an easy option. They are looking not so much to be challenged as to be uplifted and looked after.  

I know I’m simplifying here, but that often boils down to four things. They are looking for: 1. A fun Sunday School which will mean that they won’t have to fight their kids to get them to church; 2. A gifted music group which gives splendid and uplifting performances; 3. A preacher who expounds a passage of Scripture in a lively and entertaining way, reassuring them of the love of God and not expecting too much by way of sacrifice; 4. A congregation with people similar to themselves where they can find a comfortable friendship group. This quartet meets their needs.      

But here’s the initial problem. Most ordinary churches with ordinary pastors just don’t match up. They might manage one or two out of the four, but they can’t tick all the boxes. Rather, from the point of view of this consumer mindset, most ordinary churches look like a lot of hard work. 

I listened with sympathy recently, as yet another pastor told me about receiving a phone call from a man whose family had come to his church three or four times. ‘We’ve decided yours is not the church for us. We are going elsewhere. There are no children the age of our children.’ The pastor said he had to restrain himself from shouting down the phone, ‘Well how are there ever going to be children the age of your children unless someone like you comes!’ So, that family, like many others, said ‘goodbye’. 

A deceptive magnetism

The four ‘must haves’ for consumer Christians can of course be provided by the bigger churches. So, they draw people like a magnet. They have the trained and gifted paid staff. They may well have a preacher with a UK-wide reputation. Thus, the ordinary churches shrink and the bigger churches grow. The local church is undermined. 

But in a sense, maybe that is not the point.

The matter of personal choice in the marketplace is deeply interwoven with personal identity. The kind of goods I buy, the kinds of clothes I wear, the kind of music I listen to, the kind of lifestyle I adopt tells you a lot about who I am and who I wish to be perceived to be. And similarly, the kind of church I choose says a great deal about the kind of Christian I am.

At its worst—and this thankfully is not the case with all large evangelical churches—the big church simply supports a kind of ‘Christian’ life which is almost indistinguishable from that of respectable, common-sense secular people apart from church attendance on a Sunday morning. Little involvement is required. The professional staff provide everything necessary. All you have to do is turn up. It punches the card of belonging to a church. 

In his recent book on Tim Keller’s life, Collin Hansen, has a telling quotation from Richard Lovelace: 

[P]astors gradually settle down and lose interest in being change agents in the church. An unconscious conspiracy arises between their flesh and that of their congregations. It becomes tacitly understood that the laity will give pastors special honor in the exercise of their gifts, if the pastors will agree to leave their congregation’s pre-Christian lifestyles undisturbed and do not call for the mobilization of lay gifts for the work of the kingdom. Pastors are permitted to become ministerial superstars. Their pride is fed as their congregations are permitted to remain herds of sheep in which each has carefully turned to his own way.[1]

It is a very comfortable form of Christianity, but it sits at a great distance from denying self, taking up the cross and following Jesus for the sake of God’s glory and spreading the gospel to needy areas. True discipleship becomes theoretical. This is actually a very dangerous place to be. That is because it is one thing to call Jesus Lord and another thing for him to be Lord of our lives. ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand…crash!’  

Better preaching

A frequent defence of ‘committing’ to a big church is that ‘we are here because the ministry is so good’. But there are a couple of things to be said about that. First, though that attitude may have an element that is commendable, it still leans towards the spiritual consumer attitude. Church is about what I take away, not so much about what I give or how I serve.  Secondly, these days I am not too convinced that the preaching in many larger churches is that much better. If the preaching at some of the bigger Christian conferences I have attended recently is anything to go by, I have heard Scripture passages handled far better and more powerfully in quite a few less well-known churches.

I was talking about my fears for larger churches to an ordinary pastor recently and he hit me with a very perceptive comment. ‘The trouble is,’ he said, ‘all the smaller churches and their pastors dream of being like those larger market-leader churches you describe. They have no other vision to which to aspire.’ That was a sting in the tail. So, don’t just blame the large churches. In reality it is the way much evangelicalism thinks.

What can ordinary churches do?

As things stand, the answer is ‘Not much.’ The market dominates. But here are a few things to think about.

Firstof course, it is not wrong for local churches to major on, and advertise, what they do best. These are things like family atmosphere, personal pastoral attention, and giving an outlet for everyone’s gifts. However, going back to the opening illustration, that is simply the local churches parroting the market and even the parrot joining in the bidding. It is to accept the status quo and get involved in the competition game.

Secondlythe pastor of the ordinary church can explain the church market to his congregation in his preaching, so that they know what they are up against as a church and understand why very often visitors don’t stay. If he can cast a different and more biblical vision of what they, as a church, are about, that will help too.

But, thirdly, and more importantly, a pastor of a smaller church can recognise that his highest calling is to develop his own communion with God. When, because of his grace, our own hearts are genuinely thrilled with God himself, it transforms ministry and lifts us above the competition game into a large-heartedness that will bless the whole church. Instead of being distracted by where we sit in the league table of churches, we joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

But back to the marketplace…

The major concern

If this assessment of what is happening across the church scene is anywhere near correct it raises a huge concern. The Bible speaks not of a marketplace but of a kingdom. We seem to have assumed and be practising a false paradigm. Is it true that the day of the ordinary local church is coming to an end? Or is the problem that the majority of Christians are running with an idea which is from the world not the Word of God?

And who will be prepared to challenge them and teach them the truth? 

What makes us Christians is that we truly believe that ‘Jesus is Lord’. He is the king of the kingdom. If the central question of the market is ‘where can I get the best deal for myself and my family?’ then the core question of the kingdom is very different. It is ‘Lord, what would you have me to do?’ (cf. Acts 22:10).Seeing the vast needs of a post-Christian society, does anyone ask that question any more? 

[1] Colin Hansen, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation (Zondervan 2023), 97.