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Eugene Peterson: Practice Resurrection 3

In Eugene Peterson’s new book, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ , Peterson probes into his own history and his own experience of the church to draw out some powerful — stunning might be the better word — observations about the church. Three points to make today, and I ask these questions:

Is this your experience? How has the church been “Americanized” or “consumerized”? What do you think can be done about it?
First, as a child and youngster, Peterson’s church focused on two images of the church. One came from the Song of Songs and the other from Ephesians. One focused on beautiful Tirzah and the army with terrible banners (Song 6:4), and the other one focused on the pure and splendored and holy and unblemished church (Eph 5:26-27). His pastors were always trying to repair the church to get it to be like those texts.

Peterson became a pastor, and those sentimentalized and romantic and crusader images were instinctual.

Third, then something happened. “Tirzah and Terrible-as-an-army-with-banners had been scraped and replaced with the imagery of an ecclesiastical business with a mission to market spirituality to consumers to make them happy” (22). Instead of preaching fantasy sermons about what the church could be, he says, we could do something about: turn the place into a consumer-shaped business for Christians.
“All we had to do was remove pictures of the God of Gomorrah and Moriah and Golgotha from the walls of our churches and shift things around a bit to make our meeting places more consumer friendly” (23).
“Marketing research quickly developed to show us just what people wanted in terms of God and religion. As soon as we knew what it was, we gave it to them” (23).
Tell me, is this true? Too true?
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Melissa S.

posted March 1, 2010 at 8:41 am

Wish this post were longer. We have had a difficult time finding a church that teaches God’s Word. The churches we have visited are barely recognizable as churches at all. We are mid 50s and the church (body of Christ) is a foreign culture that we cannot reconcile with scripture. One of the large churches we attended for a couple of years definitely was in marketable, palatable mode; even though there were a lot of gray-heads in the pews, their target market was young people. The emotionalism was off-putting and loud rock-band music (they called it worship) with all the personal pronoun songs (I, me, my) sent us packing and wandering in the wilderness for the past two years. Will the real church please stand up?

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posted March 1, 2010 at 8:55 am

I agree, my friend. I pastored one of those ‘seeker-driven’ churches. Our desire was very missional and people were saved and discipled. But we omitted some elements that we didn’t need to. Churches around us that were evangelistic, passionate, grace-oriented and led by godly visionaries, were thriving without ‘hiding’ those aspects of God. If you are authentic, balanced, loving in deed and word, you can display the whole counsel of God and be a healthy, growing church.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 9:05 am

Alan Hirsch lists consumerism as one of our greatest enemies.
Excuse the self-promotion but Phil Kenneson and I wrote a book on this very topic back in the late 90’s. It was called “Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing”. (Somewhere in the book bins of Wipf and Stock now)..
A central tenet of marketing is the notion of exchange. You give us your time attention and $ and we will provide you with religious goods and services that are tailored to your needs. The insidious thing about that is that it completely undercuts the truth that this life together we call church is a gift.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 9:29 am

@ 1 Melissa
What do you mean by “teaches God’s Word”? The reason I ask is that it’s a trigger phrase for me and I don’t want to assume that you mean something that you don’t. Is it that the church hardly uses Scripture in teaching, sermons and doctrine, or that it’s not what you agree with. I find too often in my circle that it’s a straw man for the latter, as opposed to a real criticism of the former, something like a Baptist attending a Methodist church and being upset that they don’t teach true doctrine.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 9:30 am

Organizations market themselves. The people of God don’t know marketing. Instead, they live the Great Commandment and the Great Commission – intertwined into One.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 10:00 am

I’d say it helps to remember that there is nothing new under the sun…in human behavior and sinful choices. The trend in many churches today is blending with the world in music, advertising, catchy sermon titles, cool and radical pastors, etc.
Worship should be just that, leading all who participate into a state of worship, adoring our Creator and Savior. Smaller groups, softer music, less formality and a heart for Christ may bring the needed change.
Followers of Christ should not be about trends, marketing, radical music or any other worldly idea. The Bride of Christ is about being light in a dark world.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 10:07 am

I think consumerism is at the heart of much of the church’s problems. Being in a house church, I hear a lot of rhetoric in the house/organic church world against the institutional church and how it panders to people via marketing and consumerism. I agree with it to some degree…
Yet, I feel that many in the pews desire their pastors/leaders to provide them with spiritual goods and services because that is the world we live in. Advertisers and marketers are trying to sell us something all the time, though I can’t remember the exact statistic. Church leaders are merely trying to “speak the language” of the culture they’re trying to engage. I do, however, believe they’re going about it the wrong way.
For the church to be truly counter cultural we need to oppose this trend in our society and desire to consume only Jesus and the life that comes in and through him. I can honestly say that I don’t believe I myself know how to do that. It’s something my husband and I discuss often as we attempt to raise our children to be “in this world but not of it.”

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posted March 1, 2010 at 10:33 am

I find that we’re all consumers. The moment any of us says, “I want” or “Why don’t we do XYZ?” as if doing XYZ will make everything perfect, we have become consumers who are making our wishes known. So if you like and insist on only the older hymns, you’re a consumer who is saying that is the brand of church you like and want. If you say, throw out every remnant of old and let’s go high-tech because that’s what speaks to this generation, you’re a consumer. Change is inevitable, but we must make sure we’re changing for the right reasons and not simply to satisfy an audience (or our customers). Meeting people’s spiritual needs and advancing the kingdom have to be uppermost, otherwise, we’re nothing more than another organization that feels the need to periodically upgrade in order to be current and satisfy its customer base.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 11:22 am

It amazes me how we rehash topics to appeal to the blogosphere of socialized networking. We can comfortably sit behind our lap tops or desk, ah perhaps I phones and communicate endlessly on a wide range of topics, which brings the point in hand. The church has become a varied up to date cultural dynamo that draws people in for socializing network of endless activities including life application type stories to draw people in. The fact is no one wants to come to church to hear a sermon on why they are a sinner and need Christ?s atoning sacrifice to appease God?s wrath. The first and foremost reason for church should be in reflection of what it is that we are and how it can change.
I believe Pastor (retired I believe) Peterson?s thought on the two themes, suggested in the OP?s quote does result from recognizing the fact that all are and will be sinners until Christ?s 2nd advent. That?s what the 2 quotes, especially from Ephesians? reminds us of, our relationship, that of a spotless, blameless bride. I believe all too often one can come into Christianity in our modern day churches, yes even Catholicism & Orthodox and go thru the motions and really never realize how undeserving we are of God?s love and sacrifice of his Son for our sins. Dr. Martyn Lolyd-Jones remarked, ?For many years I thought I was a Christian, when in fact I was not. It was only later that I came to see that I had never been a Christian and became one? (Over at gospel coalition web site is the whole on D M L J). It struck between the eyes and hit home how the church has gotten away from this one and only kind of exegesis of scripture. Problem is, this culture is not into this anymore. We need social interaction from cultural dynamics to get people to come in and hear a good story and this is what people want out of the church interaction. We should interact by confession of sin and prayer to one another in love and humility, and then we can move outward to the unregenerate. Eugene Peterson?s remarks are valid and indeed a church model to reflect upon.

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posted March 1, 2010 at 11:31 am

I tend to think that this tendency, which was and is very real, is the result of three factors: 1. Strategic thinking (nothing inherently wrong with that), 2. How a given pastor/leadership team defines gospel and the mission of the church that flows from it, and 3. A low view of tradition.
I remember, having grown up in the dispensational/evangelical/Baptist churches, the driving logic: This was the age of grace, and the mission of the church was to get as many people to get saved (meaning, receive justification) as possible. The Old Testament was good history, but wasn’t we weren’t in that dispensation anymore, so it’s usefulness was limited. Even the first half of the gospels weren’t especially relevant as that was also a different dispensation, whereby Jesus was wrapping things up with Israel. Acts wasn’t especially relevant either along with parts of the letters because that stuff stopped with the apostles and/or was “social gospel.” (Some of) Romans was the gospel and it defined the mission within the context of a very frightening reading of Revelation. And traditions of men (intended of course only to refer to Catholic and high-church folks!) didn’t matter either. The next generation heard that combination of messages loud and clear, and took the next logical step. They just realized that you don’t have to scare folks into receiving forgiveness, you can sell it with honey instead. Since tradition doesn’t matter and receiving justification is primary, we don’t have to keep the hymns, the choirs, the threats of hell-fire, or much anything other than the message of forgiveness of sins and whatever will help people receive that. That’s what Peterson is describing: a reduced gospel given with a spoonful of sugar to help it go down. It’s Lutheran and/or dispensational gospel, handed down once or twice, with a little strategic thinking.
For my part, I think it’s more of a what-are-we-offering/consuming problem rather than a how-we-consume/offer-it problem.

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John W Frye

posted March 1, 2010 at 11:36 am

I think it was Jacques Ellul who wrote that the church will absorb its context (prevailing culture) like a sponge absorbs water. In a capitalistic, market-driven culture, is it any wonder that the USAmerican church has absorbed marketing/consumerist strategies as a way of communicating to the culture? A. W. Tozer was lamenting this drift back in the late 1940s…calling it showmanship and entertainment in the church.
When the Church traded in telling its grand Story (revealed in the WHOLE Bible) and inviting people into it for a diminished multi-color packet full of principles and steps to know God, it accelerated (degenerated) into blatant consumerism so as to trap their “market share.” One of the most competitive realities in the USA is the church.

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T Burns

posted March 1, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Of course the Church is too consumer driven, that’s not new. The real and curious debate ought to revolve around what we do instead?
How do we effectively appeal to people w/in the construct of our culture in a way that accepts them as consumers and then prods them toward sacrifice?

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Dave Leigh

posted March 1, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Effective missional ministry always faces the challenge of contextualizing essentials without compromising essentials, having enough enculturation to gain a vantage point from which one may critique and challenge the target culture, while being understood and credible.
Incarnation need not mean syncretism. But it can often be mistaken for that. Churches that take seriously the call to reach our consumeristic, materialistic, trendy society often take risks for the gospel that should be admired, although also evaluated with caution.
Peterson’s “pretty perculiar paraphrase” (The Message) is a shining example of wanting to communicate the Truth in the vernacular. But Peterson is also great at calling us back to the simplicity, depth, and mystery of spirituality, in all his writings. The church would do well to learn from him.
I look forward to hearing more discussion about this book, if you choose to explore it further.
Thanks again for another great blog!

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