A 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 â€˜Merry Christmas: It’s Worth Saying.â€ The Alliance Defense Fund said it sold â€œabout 20,000 â€˜Christmas packs.â€™â€ The packs, available for a suggested $29 donation, include a three-page legal memo and two lapel pins.â€ 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 â€œnaughty and niceâ€ list that identifies major retailers that use the words â€œMerry Christmasâ€ in their Christmas advertising as â€œniceâ€ and those that use â€œHappy Holidaysâ€ as â€œnaughtyâ€ â€“ as if identifying Jesus with the worst aspects of the seasonâ€™s materialism is something to be celebrated.
Itâ€™s no surprise that it also made these groups an easy target for its enemies. â€œItâ€™s just a fund-raising scam,â€ said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. â€œAnd itâ€™s a scam in the worst sense â€“ itâ€™s fighting something that doesnâ€™t even exist.â€
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.