“Hey Mike,” I said, gently grabbing his shoulder as we left church. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” Mike responded. “How have you been?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied. “Wasn’t that a great message from Pastor Jon?”
“It was good…” Mike paused. “That song at the end—it was too loud. And I wish the worship wouldn’t go so long. Church went 10 minutes over. I like to eat at the pancake place—but you have to beat the Baptists to breakfast. Now I’ll probably have to wait in line.”
My wife and I live on a tree farm in the country. It is also a certified wildlife habitat. So, during the winter, we put food out in our backyard for the animals. The other day we watched four deer eating the corn we spread out on the ground. One of the deer was larger than the rest. It was interesting to watch, as the big one would push the others away. I learned two lessons: (1) There are bullies, even among animals, and (2) deer are consumers, just like people.
In truth? We consume to survive. Yet, we human beings can manage consumerism. Then comes Jesus, with a whole different culture of generosity. He says, in Matthew 5:40, “and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well…” (Revised Standard Version). The Message Bible ends that paragraph with the words “live generously.”
That verse in Matthew reflects the approach Jesus wants for His followers. It’s about spiritual maturity. As Kingdom people, we are not self-focused consumers. We live generously and graciously toward others. Why? Because that is the way God impacts us.
The opposite of consumer mentality is grace. Jesus demonstrated the cost on the cross. He died for us that we may live for him. How does that impact the co-mission Jesus declared? He said, “Make disciples of others.” What does that signal about the way you do church? If Jesus was your pastor, what would your congregation look like?
Change: The Litmus Test
What do you think it felt like for Jesus to move from Heaven to Earth? How did He handle the transformed lifestyle from being in a perfect environment—at the right hand of His Father—to a baby with a messy diaper? Is there a message there about your willingness to change, to do whatever it takes to reach your neighbor for eternity? How does that address the addiction to religious consumerism? What is the message for your church? For you and me?
The drift toward Christian consumer is often the distinction between form and substance. As we Church Doctors consult congregations, we often see the tension between the Good News about Jesus and the “containers” we use to share it. Jesus—who He is, and what He’s done—reflects the centerpiece of the power of Christianity. He changes the world: one person at a time. The containers are the vehicles we use to carry the unchanging Good News. Vehicles reflect the reality of our changing world. It sometimes gets muddy when you are not clear about what are the vehicles and what reflects a nonnegotiable, biblical truth.
For example, was the cross where Jesus died just a vehicle, or a symbol that is absolute? Or is it both? What carries indisputable meaning: that Jesus died for you—or, did it have to be on a cross? Could he have suffered and died for you by a Roman spear? If it was a spear, is that what you’d wear around your neck to send the message that Jesus died for you? If that makes you a bit uncomfortable, you are getting the idea of how form creeps towards substance.
Here is a classic example that provides a sample litmus test. Does your church pray the Lord’s Prayer in worship? Do you? If so, do you pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done”?
You see, there are two sides to communication: form and substance. Substance—the meaning—carries, perhaps, 90% of the content. However, the form leverages that 90% up to, perhaps, 70%.
For example, let’s say you’re lying in bed with your spouse and a romantic twinge occurs. So, you lean over and say, “Dear, I love thee.” How would that work out for both of you?
Unchurched people who are receptive to God hear that, and—subconsciously—a little roadblock becomes available to the enemy of Christ. Add to that ancient rituals, pews, obsolete dress codes, old-style worship songs, and—to an unbeliever—it piles up a subconscious wall that whispers: “Is this Jesus relevant?” It occurs subconsciously for potential believers. Over time, it impacts many of the children who grow up in the church. They subconsciously drift from the faith of their childhood.
When we consult churches, we spend many hours interviewing a cross-section of the membership. It is common for us to be across the table from a couple who worship regularly and have adult children. Our routine questioning goes like this: (1) “Do you have children?” (2) If they say “yes,” we ask, “Were they active in the church while growing up?” (3) The response is usually, “Yes. They were in Sunday school and youth group.” (4) “So, are your adult children still around here?” The answer, most often, is, “No, they live far away.” (5) “Are they active in a church?” The answer—about 85% of the time? “No.” (This response is frequently shared with tears.)
What about the other 15% of adult children who are active in a church? When we ask for details, the parents usually respond: (1) “They married an active Christian,” and (2) “They go to one of those contemporary churches.” Further investigation reflects that those churches are often (1) non-denominational, (2) use contemporary language, and (3) are located in a contemporary-looking facility.
The medium does send a message. The medium is not THE message. The message must always sync up with the biblical truth—which is often called “doctrine.” The substance is nonnegotiable. The form, however, is also important. Jesus came into this world looking like the people He was trying to reach. He spoke their language. He ate their food. He dressed like them.
The Consumer in All of Us
The scribes and the Pharisees reflect the “frozen chosen” of Jesus’ time. Most of them couldn’t connect with God’s Son, because He didn’t fit their mold. They were religious consumers. They went to great political efforts to use the Romans to get rid of Jesus. There was a couple from the “old school” who become notable exceptions: Nicodemus and Paul.
In today’s institutions that train future missionaries, they teach them to speak the “heart language” of the people they will be trying to reach. If a missionary is called to Brazil, that language is Portuguese. If the assignment is to South India, the language could be Telugu. If they are mission-minded pastors for most American churches, they would speak contemporary English. Or, it could be Spanish, or some other language depending on the community where they serve.
Jesus is after your heart. Your heart language is the language you dream in. And, it’s not just what you say, but how you dress, the facilities where you meet, the instruments you use—everything speaks a message.
The consumer mentality is in all of us. Yet, if we are consumed with Jesus and His mission to reach others, we will join with one of our best missionary models: the Apostle Paul, who said, “… I make myself everybody’s slave in order to win as many people as possible. While working with the Jews, I live like a Jew in order to win them…. In the same way, when working with Gentiles, I live like a Gentile…. Among the weak in faith, I become weak like one of them, in order to win them. So, I become all things to all kinds of people, that I may save some of them by whatever means are possible. All this I do for the gospel’s sake, in order to share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19b-23). Spoken like a missionary, not a consumer!
The bottom line is this: Are you willing to dismiss the old archaic containers about our living Lord in order to effectively reach those in your own social network with the Jesus who never changes? Are you the missionary who will discard the warm and fuzzy containers—the way we’ve always said it—that are subconscious roadblocks that make the King of Kings seem old, foreign, out-of-date, and obsolete?
Will you let the Jesus in you speak through you? He left Heaven to bring you eternity. Will you discard the “bushel basket of consumerism” that hides the light of Jesus (Matthew 5:15)? Or, will you let your light shine so others experience the glory of God in Jesus? No one—including Jesus—said it would be comfortable. Since God is calling you to impact the eternal destiny of others, what will you do? What Christian would ever want to disrupt His mission? Not you. And, not your church!