Will Small Business Saturday lead to Small Church Sunday?

November 29, 2011 — 8 Comments

For the past couple of years, the holidays have sent me into an uncomfortable examination of consumerism. My consumerism. Your consumerism. Our consumerism. This over-attention to “stuff-ness” starts with a bang on Black Friday and then backbuilds through Advent before exploding all over itself on Christmas morning. 

Each year brings some new stomach-turning twist. The advertisements are darker and darker–like the department store commercial that turns misfit shopping behavior into a cutesy musical number,

or the electronic goods chain who is running a series of “game on Santa” spots

and the behavior of the consumer follows suit. People pepper-spray their way through crowds of shoppers to get the best deal. They mob one another for discount waffle irons. 

A.J. Swoboda, in a message he gave at Theophilus Church on Sunday, Nov. 27, observed that “Black Friday has become our culture’s new Good Friday.” That’s a problem. And it is infecting our churches. Consumerism is alive and well in our faith communities and more often than not it, not the gospel, is in the driver’s seat.

In an email last weekend, prompted by my post on Jim Collins’ Good to Great, my father remarked, 

Church members want a pastor with charisma who energizes them rather than a pastor who teaches the word so the Holy Spirit can change their life. They want music with melodies pleasing to them rather than words which praise God. They see themselves as stockholders and the deacons as the board of directors which means everyone is accountable to the member and the church’s role to bring them an ROI – a return on THEIR investment.

I think he’s right on. We are good consumers and we expect our churches to provide a steady diet of things for our consumption. Tim Suttle wrote a wonderful piece for the Huffington Post in which he describes the “one-two punch” of consumerism as sentimentality and pragmatism. More and more, churches are looking to feel-good Sundays and corporate growth strategies to increase their bottom line–which is usually butts in the seats and dollars in the plates. And that makes me sad. 

But I am still hopeful. One of the reverberations from the market crash 2007-2008 is a growing distrust for large, faceless corporate organizations. In October 2011, around 650,000 people abandoned big banks for smaller, local credit unions. The Occupy Wall Street movement is one example of people expressing their feelings about large corporations. The rise of Etsy and the recent invention of “Small Business Saturday” are others. It is hard to know, and be known by, an organization. I think that people are moving progressively toward valuing that which is small and simple, over large and complex. 

That will necessarily impact how we “do” church. I think that the bell is tolling for megachurches. They’re not too big to fail, and many will. But what will step in to gather together those displaced by the collapse of these huge faith “communities?” Smaller churches, sure, but it won’t be enough to just be smaller.

Instead, we still have to deal with the way that consumerism shapes our desires and expectations. The gospel isn’t a product, the pastor isn’t a CEO, the elders are not a Board of Directors, and the congregants are not the customers. Christ is the head of the church. The gospel is his mission. We are his workforce.

For leaders, this means a radical shift in how we view ourselves and our roles within the church. Gilbert Fairholm’s Perspectives on Leadership, a seminal and important work on the difference between leadership and management, is helpful here. He takes the reader through past paradigms (which he calls “virtual environments”) of understanding the role and task of leadership–Leadership as Management, Leadership as Excellence, Values Leadership, and Trust Leadership–before offering his proposal: Spritual Leadership. 

Fairholm asserts that we want–we need–leaders who are aware of the spiritual implications of their role and the work in which we are engaged. He discusses problems with applying spiritual leadership in a business context, namely that it can lead to a perception of the leader as lacking professionalism, it interferes with the ambition to succeed, and it forces a leader to deal with her shortcomings. But these obstacles are not nearly so great in a church leadership context.

When it comes to spiritual leadership, church leaders can take the lead, so to speak, on creating models and best practices. Let the businesses and corporations learn from us, for a change! People are still searching for meaning in their lives. More and more they are waking up to the reality that consuming the latest retail goods doesn’t satisfy their appetites. We have an opportunity to offer a wonderful counter to the buy-consume-buy cultural norm. But to do that, we have to imagine faith communities that engage in a counter-rhythm. I think that small, spiritually-led communities are key. What do you think? 

Anderson Campbell

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  • treed92

    The thing that concerns me is that if people do migrate to the smaller congregations that they will bring their ideas of “professionalism” with them. This will not be good for the small church. While it is always good to look for ways to improve, we must be sure it is God’s way and not man’s.Terry ReedSmall Church Tools

  • Anderson Campbell

    Terry–First, thanks for weighing in!Second, I couldn’t agree more. If we do see a migration from “professional” churches to smaller, less corporate churches then there will be a pull by the newcomers to turn these smaller churches into miniature versions of the megachurch they just left. And really, we can’t fault them for that inclination. It’s what they know. Those who have been rooted in smaller churches will need to display a great deal of patience with their new friends. You’re also right in thinking that some of the changes and suggestions they bring might not be all bad. Good thoughts, Terry.

  • cthomasdavis

    I’m not so sure that smaller is better. The Bolsheviks started as a small organization – you see where I’m headed. That smaller organization will inevitably morph into a larger one and we will have similar problems. Of course the answer is reform, renewal, developing meaningful relationships, purity of mission, ‘change’. But cries for change and reform end of failing in the end as well hence our last election cycle. I don’t think that leads us to despair, I’m just saying that new or small isn’t necessarily better. The idea of Occupy Wallstreet could lead to something new that is much worse than any of us imagined. On another note, I had someone post that they are excited about our consumerism because it pulls our economy out of the pit. To quote, ” I’m not that upset about Christmas consumerism as that is the only way some have to participate in the birth of Jesus. In our family we tend to try to keep family traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation. And it goes w/o saying, we submerge ourselves in the true meaning of the season. But some don’t have that. And yet, they feel compelled to cover their homes with flashing lights. I look at that and think, Someone is trying to get through to them. They know, on some level, it’s a season of recalling and remembering and commemorating the Light that walked on this earth.On a political level, I’d like to remind those who govern us and may or may not be destroying the US economy…it’s Christmas shopping that pulled the bacon out of the fire last year and probably will this year.”What do you think about that? I knew it would excite you.

  • Rodger McEachern

    Andy – provocative and encouraging…I agree with you [after Fairholm] the need for change in how we leaders view ourselves and our role …saying that I will be honest that much of your reference to leadership is outside my experience…this I believe is due to having been a part of small churches for my entire Christian life…yet I have, and I would think other pastors of small congregations are as well, an acute recognition and experience of the implications – spiritual and other – of what we do/don’t do, say and don’t say as leaders upon those whom we serve…and you are right to say that Christian leaders should take the lead in best practices and models of leadership…and I would think those leaders of small congregations should be asked on occasion. #dmingml

  • Chris Marshall

    small and simple? me likie

  • Anderson Campbell

    Tom – I don’t know… I think that one of the problems with the megachurch phenomenon lies precisely in the size of those organizations. Part of the corrective needs to be, I think, smaller. I hear your Bolshevik fear, but not every organization that starts out small is doomed to become a totalitarian state, either. Just sayin’.Regarding the commenter on your blog–sheesh. I’m not sure that person and I see eye to eye on what participation in the birth of Christ actually means. Her assertion that “consumerism … is the only way some have to participate in the birth of Jesus” is absurd. There are plenty of non-consumer ways to participate in the birth of Jesus. But in its absurdity it is telling of the way that consumerism serves to obfuscate even our most basic religious beliefs.

  • Anderson Campbell

    Rodger – One of the privileges of getting to know you is gleaning from your wisdom and leadership experience. You are spot on that many small church pastors have a keen sense of awareness of the impact of their leadership upon those they lead. I would surmise that is in part due to fewer degrees of separation between them as leader and those they lead.

  • Glenn Williams

    #dminlgp Thought provoking stuff Andy. One concern that I think might be missing however, is the inability of church leaders to adequately engage the ‘professionals’ within their organizations, and consequently, a perceived aloofness and inability to relate to the demands and pressures faced by these people Monday thru Friday. This inability to engage sometimes stems from a position of defensiveness and their own insecurity, and possibly even a fear that these professionals will try and introduce worldly business principles into their church. So on the one hand, we have leaders who need to address issues like consumerism, materialism, etc, but they do it from a position of judgment, insecurity and irrelevance. Church pews are full of disengaged professionals fast declining in numbers. Not because of consumerism, but the inability of church pastors and leaders to engage them with truth and grace. When was the last time, your pastor entered the world of a professional or businessperson to gain a clearer perspective?As Collins says, we need to be careful that we do not attribute principles of greatness to principles of business. For discerning church leaders, they must model something that it is real and yet doesn’t alienate them to a position of irrelevance or redundancy – “be in the world, but not of it.” Too often, we are “in” it and “of” it, or not “in” it at all.