Why “Consumer Christians” Deserve a Little Love
The word on the street is that some believers actually select a church based on what it does for them.
To the religious elite, this is horrifying. They can’t fathom Jesus being pleased with a churchful of people who decided where to worship based on a preferred worship style or a preacher they can connect with. They think it’s awful that so many Christians decide where to go to church based on the quality of the children’s and youth programs rather than the opportunities for missional and community ministry.
You’ll find these so-called consumer Christians clustered in two kinds of churches. They attend traditional churches that do church in a comfortable and nostalgic “this is how it’s always been done” way. And they attend supersized mega-churches that cater to their desires with top-notch bands, interesting speakers, air conditioning that actually works, and parking attendants who make sure no one has to wait too long to get in or get out.
To my thinking, these consumer Christians are the modern day equivalent of the crowds that followed Jesus. They’re fickle. They flock to the latest and greatest. Many of them don’t get it. Many will abandon ship at the first sign of hardship. While these are hardly admirable traits, they are remarkably similar to the traits found in the people Jesus had compassion for and doggedly pursued for the full three years of His public ministry.
Yet today’s religious elite view them with derision and scorn. They chalk them up as selfish pigs. They note their carnal pursuit of a what’s-in-it-for-me Savior and write them off as unworthy, shooing them away or, better yet, doing their best to keep them from ever showing up in the first place.
The Ultimate “Uncomfortable” Church
I remember talking to a young pastor who was convinced that Jesus would be most pleased if he could get his church to the point that it was made up exclusively of fully committed Christians. He didn’t mind some hard-core sinners showing up. They deserved to hear the gospel a first time. But he didn’t want any consumer
Christians. They’d already had too many chances.
A big part of his plan was to build the ultimate uncomfortable church. Really.
After reading a number of books and hearing some stirring talks at conferences, he had come to the conclusion that it was ridiculous to spend money on snazzy church buildings that lured the uncommitted masses, when Christians in other parts of the world were willing to meet for hours under the shade of a tree. He told me, “If persecuted Christians walk for miles and meet at great personal peril in harsh and cramped secret settings, why can’t we show the same kind of commitment? Why do we need fancy buildings, when we could use the money to help those in need? Why can’t we meet in a tent or a tilt-up? Why can’t we sit on folding chairs or on the floor?”
Then he hit me with what he thought was the coup de grâce. “If Green Bay Packer fans can sit for hours in the freezing cold cheering on their favorite team, why can’t we do the same for Jesus?”
Unfortunately, he overlooked something rather important. He forgot who shows up at Lambeau Field in the middle of winter. It’s filled with people who are already rabid Packer fans. I’m from San Diego. If I moved to Green Bay and you wanted to convert me into a Packer fan, you’d better get me a flat-screen. There’s no way I’m going to the game if it’s less than fifty degrees outside. Should you trick me into going (by emphasizing the excitement and lying about the ten-degree windchill factor), I guarantee you I’d be in a taxi by halftime. The result would not be a new Packer fan.
If our goal is to fill our churches with only people who are already deeply committed to Jesus, then it might be a good idea to build a Lambeau Field–type worship facility. But if our goal is to persuade the unconvinced, reach out to the uninitiated, and invite the not-yet-interested to come and see what Jesus and Scripture is all about, it might be a good idea to make our buildings (whether they be house churches or mega-churches) as inviting and comfortable as possible.
The Sinners Jesus Liked to Hang Around
The notion that consumer, casual, and cultural Christians need to be smoked out and driven away at the first opportunity ignores something significant about the ministry of Jesus.
The sinners that Jesus so famously liked to hang around were not hard-core pagans who had never been exposed to God’s Word. The prostitutes, tax collectors, and others who so irritated the Pharisees were almost exclusively Jews who knew the ways of God but, for whatever reason, chose not to follow them.
Perhaps they presumed upon their religious heritage or their Abrahamic covenant. Perhaps they felt that even though their sins were great, at least they weren’t as bad as the heretical Samaritans and the idol-worshiping Gentiles. Who knows? But one thing is certain: in an environment where cultural, religious, and ethnic identities were so intertwined, there is no way these “sinners” were ignorant of God’s law. Their sins weren’t sins of ignorance. They knew what they were doing. That’s why Jesus could tell them to stop sinning without having to explain further. They knew exactly what He meant.
That sounds an awful lot like the situation we face in many of our churches today. They’re filled with people who are presuming upon their religious heritage, a casual belief in Jesus and the resurrection, or a prayer they prayed at seventh-grade summer camp.
The thin-the-herd crowd wants us to write these people off as unworthy of our time, energy, or compassion. They want us to focus instead on the hard-core pagans rejected by the church and society. But we can’t redefine the ministry of Jesus so that it fits our paradigm. If we want to reach out to sinners like Jesus did, then our list of approved sinners will also have to include the carnal, cultural, and consumer Christians who populate our pews.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should be satisfied with a church full of casual, carnal, or consumer Christians. I’m not saying that we should settle for a definition of spiritual maturity that’s nothing more than a nod to God. I’m not saying we should ignore church discipline in the face of continuing sin. (1 Corinthians 5:11-13 gives a specific list of sins that are grounds for spiritual separation when practiced by self-proclaimed Christians. If such people fail to repent, the passage says, we are not to associate with them unless or until they do so.)
Our ultimate goal can be nothing less than full obedience to everything Jesus taught.
It’s the only way we can fulfill the second half of the Great Commission. (Matthew 28:18-20. The Great Commission ends with a command to teach disciples to obey everything Jesus commanded. Colossians 1:28-29 describes the goal of the apostle Paul’s ministry: to present everyone perfect in Christ.)
But our attitude toward people who struggle and even ignore what they already know needs to be aligned with the compassion and ministry of Jesus rather than the disdain, disgust, and exclusivity of the Pharisees. But that raises one more question. Aren’t these people really just lukewarm Christians? Didn’t Jesus say somewhere that He hates lukewarm Christians?
The Lukewarm Church in Laodicea
Like many, I once justified my disgust with struggling and halfhearted Christians by referring to Jesus’ words to a lukewarm church in Laodicea. In the third chapter of Revelation, Jesus tells the Laodiceans that He’d rather have them hot or cold — anything but lukewarm. He goes on to say that He will spew them out of His mouth if they don’t get their act together. (Revelation 3:14-22)
To me, this passage was crystal clear.
God hates it when we’re lukewarm in our faith.
People who claim to know Him but fail to follow him with full passion belong in a spittoon. But I had missed something important. Jesus wasn’t suddenly switching gears in this passage. After an earthly ministry of reaching out and pursuing the less-than-fully-committed, He wasn’t abruptly writing them off now that He was back in heaven. He was still pursuing.
Despite their tepid faith, Jesus wasn’t slamming the door in their face. He was doing the opposite. He was pleading with them one more time, counseling them to buy from Him what they didn’t even realize they needed. He stands at the door knocking, in the hope that someone will open it and let him back into his own church.
This is a rebuke motivated by love, not by loathing. The Laodiceans were incredibly messed up. They were not only lukewarm; they were arrogant about it. They thought they were rich. They thought they needed nothing. In reality, as Jesus said, they were “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (v. 17).
But Jesus didn’t give up on them. He warned them one more time in the hope that they would come to their senses. They’d apparently been lukewarm for a long time. Yet He still pursued. The time would come when He would spit them out. But the time had not yet arrived.
Whenever our passionate pursuit of radically committed Christianity results in writing off or shooing away or otherwise taking it upon ourselves to spit out people who lag behind (even way behind), something has gone terribly wrong. We can no longer claim to be aligned with the heart of Jesus. At that point, we’ve crossed the line. We’ve become part of the spiritual elite — an accidental Pharisee.
The truth is that Jesus didn’t come to raise the bar. He didn’t come to weed out the losers. He came to turn losers, laggards, and enemies into full-on sons and daughters of God. He will judge, and it won’t be pretty when He does. But He prefers to pursue and to forgive. That’s why He cried out on the cross, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they do.” That’s why he warned the Laodiceans one last time. That’s why He still hasn’t come back in fiery judgment. Jesus is not slow in keeping His promise to return and judge.
He doesn’t want any to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:7-9.) And that includes the hard-core sinner, the lukewarm, and even so-called consumer Christians.
That’s why I find our current disdain for the less-than-fully-committed so perplexing. I think Jesus does too.
As you look at the churches and Christians you personally know, are there any areas where you believe the bar needs to be raised in terms of what it means to follow Jesus? Have you ever experienced or observed the NIMBY effect (Not In My Back Yard) in your own church, small group, or circle of Christian friends? What happened? What can you learn from that experience? Would you agree that, at some level, we are all “consumer” Christians? Why or why not? And is that a good thing, a bad thing, or no big deal?
Excerpted with permission from Accidental Pharisees by Larry Osborne, copyright Zondervan.