Church Consumers and Contributors

You know that sort of article that seems a bit off to you, but when you try to put your finger on why, you can’t quite find anything particularly wrong or egregious? I just read one of those a few days ago. It’s by a guy named Carey Nieuwhof and it’s about how going to church no longer makes sense. I agree with every point he makes.

Basically, there’s just not that much you can get from church that you can’t get elsewhere. You can often even stream the service online. So the only real reason to go is because you aren’t a consumer of church, but a contributor to its mission of reaching the unchurched. As he rather aptly puts it, “you don’t attend church. You are the church.” If you want to grow a church, you need to stop worrying about the mere consumers in the back row and focus on the people you want to reach, doing everything in your power to make the service accessible and appealing even if it means losing people (who, after all, can go online for whatever brand of worship suits them).

So what seems off to me, even though I’m pretty much in agreement? It’s not my style, of course. He’s big into lists and sometimes comes across as a little too one-size-fits-all. And he’s pretty clearly writing for more of a megachurch style congregation than I find appealing. But high-church snobbery does not produce God’s righteousness, and I actually learn a fair amount from this blog, even though I can’t say I like it or particularly enjoy reading it. I take what I find useful, and leave the rest. But what is the “rest” here?

I think it’s hiding in this sentence: “…sitting in a back row consuming church doesn’t make you very good at being the church.” At first, I was like “yeah, that’s right!” But then I asked, “What exactly are you doing at your church that it is even possible to be a mere consumer and not a contributor?”

Are they praying? If they’re praying, then they’re not just consuming, at least not if you believe that prayer actually changes reality. Likewise, if you’re giving the gift of attention when listening to a sermon, raising your voice in praise, or receiving the body and blood of Christ (which is never just consumption, even if you are literally consuming something), then you’re actively being the church, even if you never lift a finger to pass out bulletins or set up chairs or whatever else is needed and never quite work up the nerve to invite someone along.

Instead of saying drop the dead weight and focus on those seekers who will become contributors, I wish he’d started with the assumption that everyone who is there has been drawn by the Spirit of Christ and is already serving in God’s sanctuary. Based on that beginning, you can start helping people ask what more God wants to give them. This entails the gift of discernment, whether it’s the pastor who has it or the pastor identifies others who have it.

And what if it turns out that someone really just attends faithfully for years and doesn’t feel any strong draw to doing anything else? Well, note the adverb we habitually use: they attend faithfully. Faith is not consumption. In fact, it is also a spiritual gift. So what shall we say to them? “Because you are not an eye, I have no need of you?”

Now I am by no means saying that you should allow this person to actively sabotage your mission if that’s what they’re doing. But Jesus healed and fed and exorcised without price or expectation. He invited some to come along with him, and others he just sent on their way (sometimes with the instruction *not* to tell anyone what he had done). So let us not despise those whom he has welcomed.

Otherwise, this post has some good stuff to think about. And even the opportunity to think about what was wrong with it is a welcome one.

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About Kyle Rader

Kyle is a theologian and postulant for holy orders in The Episcopal Church, and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School and lives in New York City with his spouse and two kids. Visit Kyle's contributor page for a longer bio and CV.