March 26, 2017

Riffs: 12:29:06: The Christian-Industrial Complex

crapbk2.jpgA good friend mailed me a note the other day, asking my opinion of a book that was all the rage in his megachurch. It’s not the first time we’ve had that conversation. We’ve covered this ground many times because his church, like most of American megachurch evangelicalism, often behaves like a group of consumerist sheep looking for a shepherd. Such shepherds are supplied these days by Joel Osteen products, Rick Warren products, Jabez prayers and products, Left Behind books and games, Beth Moore products, Joyce Meyer products, Thomas Kincaid products, Max Lucado books and products, and so on and so on and so on.

I call these “shepherds” because 1) the marketers are effectively leading evangelicalism through the high powered, high financed marketing of these products, 2) actual pastors are doing little to provide alternatives to this kind of marketing, but are often using these marketing promotions as the sources for sermon series and worship themes, and 3) the evangelicals buying these products are virtually without the ability to discern what is happening to the Biblical concepts of the Christian life and discipleship. Tie all this together with the fact that the most successful churches, most successful leaders and most successful Christians are buying into this consumerist version of Christianity and you have a major step in the undoing of evangelicalism.

My friend tells me that the book is all the rage, a sermon series is on the way and, of course, our well-salaried friends at Lifeway “Christian Resources” are designing resource packets to sell to churches. ***sound of cash registers in the background please*** This all for a PRODUCT…a product that I read a few months ago, but finally had to put down because its reading of the Bible was so flawed, its conclusions so unwarranted and its potential for misunderstanding so certain. But it will sell, because ***bah!*** we’re hungry to be “led.”

Oddly, the book is on a topic on which I could recommend 5 outstanding books that would do any Christian a lot of good and be true to scripture. Of course, my book recommendations wouldn’t ring the cash registers at most evangelical product outlets because they couldn’t spare the shelf space. John Haggee has an autobiography coming out: “The Bigger the Chart, The Bigger the Preacher.” The book my friend wrote to me about has MAJOR theological and Biblical issues, but they aren’t going to be pointed out because there’s money in the wind.

Those who read this blog have heard these sorts of ranting observations for years. I have called evangelicalism a niche market, and I have deplored the process of “anointing” products with claims of spiritual inspiration or divine significance. Other serious authors, such as David Fitch, have voiced these concerns, and now we hear secular newspapers pointing out what evangelicals themselves can not or will not see.

Warren Smith, publisher of the Charlotte World, writes of the “Christian-Industrial complex.” (Thanks to James Watkins and Think Christian for picking up these editorial and getting it on the net.) Here is what we’ve created by allowing publishers, marketers and promoters to become the defacto leaders of evangelicalism.

Examples of the Christian-Industrial Complex are easy to see. The Women of Faith conferences, for example, rake in more than $50-million per year and are part of a for-profit, publicly traded company. The Christian retail industry topped $4.5-billion last year. (A bit of context: $30 per month can support many pastors in developing countries. That means that Americans spend enough annually on “Jesus Junk” to support 250-thousand Third World pastors — for 50 years!)

Let me ask any sheep out there who are offended that I said your Jabez wall hanging might be a bad choice if they have any idea how much money is made by Christian authors, publishers and marketers? How much money is made and where does it go? When you see Joyce Meyer handing out a bag of rice, are you actually taken in that she deserves $50 million a year rather than mission agencies and humanitarian ministries?

Denise and I sponsor a pastor in India through Gospel for Asia. We send $30 a month, $360 a year. This pastor, not being an American, does amazing things with that level of support. As someone whose spending habits have single-handedly kept at least one Christian publisher in the black, I’m glad I’m no longer spending that money on myself. I still spend money on Christian books, but in the last 5 years, my spending has dropped drastically as God has shown me what I am a part of. I don’t exempt myself from what I’m criticizing. I got sucked in right along with millions of Christians in my generation. But I am now moving the other way, and I want you to consider the same path.

Smith also mentions another aspect of this phenomenon: the manipulation of sheepish evangelicals with the “constant crisis” we face from secularists in the culture war. For example, the recent attention to declaring war on those who want to replace “Christmas” with “Holidays” has been quite a money-maker.

The Mississippi-based American Family Association says it has sold more than 500,000 buttons and 125,000 bumper stickers bearing the slogan ‘Merry Christmas: It’s Worth Saying.” The Alliance Defense Fund said it sold “about 20,000 ‘Christmas packs.’” The packs, available for a suggested $29 donation, include a three-page legal memo and two lapel pins.” You can do your own math on this one.

This story goes beyond the ridiculous to the surreal when you learn that the groups also publish a “naughty and nice” list that identifies major retailers that use the words “Merry Christmas” in their Christmas advertising as “nice” and those that use “Happy Holidays” as “naughty” – as if identifying Jesus with the worst aspects of the season’s materialism is something to be celebrated.

It’s no surprise that it also made these groups an easy target for its enemies. “It’s just a fund-raising scam,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “And it’s a scam in the worst sense – it’s fighting something that doesn’t even exist.”

It is a “scam.” Most of evangelicalism is becoming so “scammable” it’s embarrassing. The rhetoric defending this nonsense is even more embarrassing.

Why don’t we just stop? I’m almost certain that if we quit buying this stuff, they’ll quit marketing it. If we can get over our fetish for successful fads, new trends, the next big thing, quick fixes, cool promos, ads and hype, we make do something startling in our walk with Jesus. What a shame that a newspaper editor has to tell us this. We already know it, because we know Jesus wouldn’t approve of all this marketing and he wouldn’t participate in it on the level we do.

Get yourself and your families out of this mess. Look at what’s happening and say NO to it. Pastors: Talk to your people about books worth reading. Get your sermons from the Bible, not some marketer. Critique the fads. Most of all, present the savior and the call to follow him. Tell Lifeway to take their next marketing ploy to the shredder. Resist the remaking of the Christian faith into buying stuff, wearing stuff, going to stuff, doing programs and spending money. Remake your Christian experience this year into something that’s not just another fad. Get angry if you need to, or just quietly say “I’m not part of this anymore.” Get off the train and walk. Wave at the sheep on their way to the next sheep convention to get a sheep shirt and a bag of sheep books.

Get your people reading the Bible, reading good books, talking to each other, doing ministry in your community and grounded in simple Christianity. Reduce your consumeristic discipleship by half, and then look at the half that’s left and see what you really think of it. Jesus said that if we find the treasure in the field, we don’t buy, we sell. We give away. It’s a revolution, not a convention or a market. Jesus went to a religious marketplace once. It didn’t turn out well.

Do something as a disciple that makes sense: repent of and abandon this consumeristic Christian virus before it kills you.

Comments

  1. AMEN! Preach it, Bro. I cannot tell you how disturbed I am by “Christian Cunsumerism” veiled under the guise of earth-shaking ministries and proclamations of sharing the secrets by which the “Abundant Life” is secured. In actuality, nothing is *shared* …. is is sold in the spiritual marketplace. Thank you for once again addressing this so clearly. Unfortunately, it will probably need said a few dozen more times before it sinks into those thick evangelical skulls. I intend to pass this on to some close frinds who will undoubtedly think I have committed the unpardonable sin along with you. So be it.

    Tim

  2. I was just about to email you the link to the new Joel Osteen official board game…..

    http://www.amazon.com/Endless-Games-Your-Best-Life/dp/B00006699X

  3. Well said. I do a weekly post on my blog highlighting some of the odder Christian items that are for sale. I find it amazing how we Christians(myself included) get so caught up in consumerism, and how utterly useless and tacky so many of the products being marketed to Christians are.

  4. Um, yep. It’s beginning to feel rather “Ichabod-ish” in Evangelical-land. Thank God Christ’s kingdom will never fail. It’s just a matter of discerning whether what we’re in is actually “Christ’s” kingdom and not one of our own making. That’s the ‘daily’ rub. Oh, BTW, just today a local pastor called to order Fitch’s book so that he and another pastor can read it together. I seriously am thinking of asking if I can join them. It seems God is sowing seeds of revolution in the church. Discontent is breaking out! Hallelujah!

  5. Oy, Jesus Junk. In JR High, I thought it was only about those frisbees with “Fly high with Jesus” or those anointed-workout videos. Later on, I realized that it didn’t stop at trinkets for little kids.

    I’m also a culprit – I’ve bought tons of CCM throughout the years, a bit under the guise of “supporting their ministry.” Now certainly, there are musicians and authors deserving of our attention and even support – but not at the expense of discernment.

    This reminds me, in part, that as Americans we are terribly ignorant of the effect of our frivolous culture upon us and our faith. It’s easy to see this when it’s as blatant as MTV. Less so when it is mailed to us with sales pitches that promise each new book (or CD or movement) will usher in both revival in our lives and in our land. Like IMonk said, I am still not immune and I am by no means boycotting everything at the local CBA store. Still, knowing that we are products of our consumerist culture should be in our conscious minds before jumping on the latest Church-oriented media fad.

    Along these lines, it would not hurt us to remember that an alarming amount of CCM labels and publishers are not owned by Christians anymore. Many are divisions of giant companies that have more interest in separating people from their money than helping them die to themselves in order to serve Christ. With so much happening under the guise of “ministry” for sale, we can’t afford not to be good stewards of our money.

  6. We need to not only apply this to the christian retailers of Jesus Junk, megafads, bless me now, get rich quick, etc.

    We need to go further and apply this to the Christian radio and tv outlets. Why? if the host of a Christian tv/radio show peddles the stuff via a commercial interruption, send in a donation and you will receive the book…, or does a Paul Harvey and mentions the products in every conversation had, then they are equal and guilty contributors to the mania.

    It’s like the athlete who advertises for a product and people buy it because the athlete promotes it. The athlete is considered a nice guy and nice guys will not advertise anything that does not work…

    If we say no to the Jesus Junk, we need to say no to the peddlers and also say no to the shows who accept advertising from the Jesus Junk producers or advertise it themselves because in many cases in Christian media, the advertisers control the ‘worldview’ with the pocketbook strings and use them to get their products and opinions out to the market.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    One of the things that has been so difficult for me to get across to people about the Purpose driven (and etc.) fads isn’t even the neo-gnostic, consumerist context of the theology, but the fact that Rick Warren is teaching them about the Christian life instead of their community. You say it very well here. Cheers.

  8. How encouraging! Your post is so true and worth pointing out…In the past couple of years I’ve been seeing this sad trend ‘materalizing’; and it seems to only be picking up momentum. The more bold voices to speak against this (and in support of the alternatives that you suggested) the better.

  9. Thanks for that article, the issue of consumerism and Christianity has for some time now concerned eccelsial thinkers as the cultural values and assumptions about the Gospel in the west are often un-questioned when many of these churches define and create their ecclesiologies. Often church is nothing but a mirror of culture rather than a counter – prophetic voice for the Kingdom. The North American dream is sadly the value set that shapes many believers in the West…

    thanks again for your thoughts, I like your blog.

  10. sammorxman says:

    Wow, Talk about hammerin the pulpit!
    Tiy are right on!
    I always cringed when I went to a concert (Christian entertainment .. ahem .. guilty as charged)
    Bunny trail
    Anyway I would always cringe at the tables of “witness wear” and doodads.
    Reminds me of the old joke where Jesus is at a flea market. He picks up a hat emblazoned with WWJD. He asks the person behind the counter what it meant. When told, Jesus replied ” well I know He would not pay 20 bucks for this hat” and tossed it back on the table.
    Too often we as Christians get caught up in banner chasing.
    But …. I begin to repeat your article.
    Again… right on, brother
    God help us American christians to become more accountable.
    —Sam

  11. The void of The Word of the Lord, from the King of His Kingdom, will always be filled with some foolish thing.

    All one has to do is look over historical Christianity to see the inventive imaginations of man foisted on Jesus’ Church, as a replacement for the real thing.

    The only antidote I know for this foolishness is not an even more learned intellectualism, but a deeper revelatory walk with God, but then that demands a firmer commitment to the personal cross we’re called to carry, and who wants more of that???

    Following the way of the flesh is far more fun, provides a broad range of the expressions of the opinions of man, and freedom to do as I want and rubber stamp Jesus’ name on it. This is the Christianity I’ve grown up on.

    Living outside the camp is a whole new landscape…

  12. I’m new to your blog -I like what you have to say. This was really thot -provoking!

  13. Check out The Center for Theological Inquiry at http://www.ctinquiry.org. Something like there Pastor-Theologian program is a major step in the right direction.

  14. Michael,
    I couldn’t agree more! BUT, let’s take it one step closer to where most of us really live — how much true evangelism by missionaries and true benevolence to community needs is impossible because of our insistance on making mortgage payments for our “temples/houses of worship” and the salaries paid to “professional” pastors and uncounted “staff.”
    Thanks, again,
    Dan

  15. Congratulations!! You’ve been ‘spitboxed’. Check out your post at:

    http://www.spitboxmedia.com

    God Bless!

  16. To all who follow this thread . . .

    I would like to recommend an essay by James Fowler (a good Campbellite ) on “Christian Giving” (http://www.christinyou.net/pages/xngiving.html)

    Fowler pokes holes in many of traditional teachings, not unlike Michael is wont to do.

    Dan

  17. I agree with this post for mature Christians, but what if one of these products is used to lead a non-believer to the Lord? In it’s bite sized chunks and easy to read or listen to format, won’t it be worth it if one person that doesn’t believe in God finds Him?

    To your point, I agree that we need to find a way to push those that have heard the Good News to challenge themselves. But remember, it is our purpose (are you going to berate me for using that term?) to find those that have not found Him.

    We live in a media saturated world. If we can use these tools, is it not worth it? As long as they don’t go to the Compaq Center to worhip, I mean. 🙂

  18. I happened to catch the Osteen segment on “60 Minutes” last eve. The guy can’t be all bad, puttin a 10-piece band on stage complete w/horns. The boy’s even got his own “Wayne Newton”! RB

  19. I think the reason people buy Jesus stuff is that it makes us feel more “christian.” I gave up secular music several years ago even giving away some of my favorite albums. Why? it made me “feel” like I was doing something for the Lord. I bought into the whole “gotta read this book” thing. No more. Thanks for a thoughtful blog.