Christians believe that the church is, or should be, the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in the world.
But the church is affected by its surrounding culture, sometimes to a fault. It’s hard to deny the consumer-oriented approach that many churches take at some point in their development. And there’s no doubt that many people go church shopping with a “what’s in it for me and mine” mentality.
Churches face pressure to grow in order to survive. But growth at what cost to the integrity of their message?
Churches today fear irrelevance, if not extinction, and adopt marketing strategies not much different from businesses. That usually means emphasizing the less demanding aspects of the Christian faith – love and acceptance, forgiveness and personal peace – and soft-pedaling the tougher requirements of discipleship.
Things like losing your life to save it. Loving your enemy. Actively helping the poor, the sick and the lonely. Seeking justice. Placing God above everything else, even family. Following Jesus to the cross.
As the Rev. Samuel Lloyd, former dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, said in a sermon based on the passage from Luke where Jesus says his followers must “hate” their family, “This is not a good church growth strategy! Instead of talking about how appealing church is, Jesus wants them to know how hard it may be to follow.”
Lloyd, in his book, “Sermons from the National Cathedral: Soundings for the Journey,” imagines an ad the Cathedral might place in the Washington Post:
“Is your life going pretty well, but you sense you want to be more miserable? Why not try the National Cathedral?
“Having a rough time at home and find yourself alienated from everyone in the house? Good for you. You’re looking like a disciple.
“Sick and tired of all those beautiful possessions you’ve been accumulating all those years? Come on to the Cathedral and we’ll take them off your hands.
“Have you ever considered crucifixion? Try the National Cathedral.”
The point, of course, is that being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy, and we can’t gloss over the challenges to our loyalties that a deep and mature faith entails.
A church that grows only because it makes people feel good and “meets their needs” may be a church that has conformed too much to culture and not enough to Christ.