Stirring Up Controversy Yet Again:
Some Vexing Thoughts on the Homogenization
of the Church.  -  Or, When Bigger Might

Not Be Better

On an episode of The Simpsons (of all things to be quoting!), Homer was complaining to Bart about how television was causing everyone to look and think alike.  "I thought that's what Walmart was for," Bart responded.  Hmmm... Mass media causing conformity?  Nationwide discount stores offering low prices by selling a BUNCH of just a few items of each category, thereby making everyone bland and cheap by having the same cheap stuff?  Pretty deep idea for a cartoon.

I first saw this a few years ago, but it came back to mind recently when I was at one of these giant home improvement warehouse stores.  I needed 12 silver-colored screws to hold some door hinges in place.  The store had HUNDREDS of them, made just for that purpose, for a very low price - in brass colored metal and not quite as big as I thought I needed.  Not a silver screw of that type to be seen anywhere (unless I bought a whole new hinge that had screws included).  So, what should I do?  Settle for the wrong color and size because that's what the store thinks I need?  Or go shopping elsewhere?  I ended up at a small, customer service oriented, family owned hardware store that had just what I wanted, but for just a little more money.  The lesson learned here was that the big store had anything I wanted, as long as it was what THEY decided that I (and everyone else and their brother) wanted.  Sometimes that works out.  Very often it does not.  Now, if you need something even a little out of the ordinary, you have to go looking far and wide, and may or may not find it - if indeed it's even available at all anymore because the big stores don't carry it.

So, how does this connect with the church?  A few years ago I attended a workshop at a nearby mega church - Saddleback church in Orange County.  It was HUGE - very well organized, slick, focused and polished.  Every pastor's dream - or was it?  As I listened to the seminar I heard quite a few really good things, but (now I really don't mean to denigrate their ministry at all) I began to get an uneasy feeling.

That feeling intensified when they started talking about their target demographic: "Saddleback Sam - Mr. South Orange County."  They actually had an image that they projected for us to see of this guy who was their target audience: male, mid-30's with a cell phone permanently attached, is well-educated, likes his job and where he lives, has health and fitness as high priorities, would rather be in a large group than a small one, is skeptical of "organized religion," thinks he is enjoying life more now than five years ago, is self-satisfied, even smug, about his station in life, prefers casual and informal over the formal, and is over-extended in both time and money.  It struck me that in several rather striking ways, this seemed quite a lot like the pastor of that church, and I wondered what his "target demographic" would be like in 20 years - I bet it would be about the same person, but 20 years older with the problems of a person of that vintage - much like the pastor would be.

What's the problem?  Why shouldn't we use all the marketing expertise and techniques available to spread the Gospel?  What would be wrong with trying to find a "Hawthorne Harry" as our target demographic?  I think it takes us back to Walmart, back to the conformity and forced sameness of The Simpsons example, back to the limitations of a single-minded approach like the home improvement store.  Does everyone fit the demographic?  What about those who don't?  What if we change and the ministry no longer "fits" who we are? What if the demographics of our area change?  Most importantly, what if the Spirit of God has something else in mind?

Recently there was a story in the news about cancer rates going up in our country.  The rise in these rates corresponded with (among other things, of course) the incredible increase in the amount of money Americans spend on eating out.  As our lives become busier, and as we become lazier and more dependent on such things, we consume more processed food, going for convenience and flavor, not health or the staples of our normal diets.  We've lost a connection with the natural process.  Some scientists (but certainly not those who work for the fast food industry) think the two problems are closely connected.

I think overly-processed religion causes a cancer as well, one that eats away at hearts, lives and faith.  When the Church is tempted to go for "flavor," for what is exciting and "NEW," for the "bigness" of a mega church (along with its power and clout), and tries to appeal to people by providing quick, easy, prepared and processed religion, we essentially remove the Holy Spirit and the power of the Word from the process.  If we in the church have it all figured out and if we have all the techniques down, why do we need God at all?

By making church growth (that is, becoming a mega church) the Holy Grail of the church, and by using these modern techniques to achieve that goal, we sidestep the normal spiritual process that all Christians must go through to find faith and spiritual growth.  We take God out of the equation.  It is God who calls us to faith, not techniques and demographics.  It is the Word which shows us Jesus, not a song or message designed to appeal to a certain demographic. And it is personal sharing of faith, forgiveness and love which spreads the gospel of Christ from one to another, certainly not a slick marketing appeal designed to attract a particular kind of audience.

One of the problems that I see coming out of all of this is that all churches, even the non-mega ones like ours, are damaged by the wake that this kind of church movement leaves as it makes its way through the culture.  People come to expect a slick appeal to who they are, to their own demographic, rather than the gospel's offer of life and hope and its call to a life of service to God and 
humanity.  Even the Lutheran Church, believing that mega mergers bring a better church, has been caught up in the illness that this causes.

Can you imagine Jesus using demographics to "target an audience"?  Would he shape his message to appeal to the most people possible?  Would he make his message more appealing and less offensive to get more followers? Would he shape his theology and teaching to reach "Jerusalem Joe"?  Would he minimize the Cross to avoid frightening people away?  Would he make sure there is Starbucks coffee available when he taught (like Saddleback does)?

As we grow and we respond to the word of God, our lives change and others are able to see God active in us.  When people hear the Gospel preached, THAT is what touches and changes and calls us to him.  If the church shortchanges that process, we end up with churches that misstep morally, compromise doctrine and scripture to be more appealing, that become ecumenically promiscuous in desperate attempts to become bigger and more powerful, and lose our ability to be truly used by God.

Pastor Larry Becker
Reformation Day, 2002