Death by Church by Mike Erre
This book went slower than I thought it would. I'm an accomplished reader with a good vocabulary and I'm a lifelong Christian with a better than average knowledge of the Bible due to a lot of study over many years. But it still went slow. It's not because it was a bad book. It was because it was so good that it went slow. Satan did not want me to digest this book and he tried distraction. Despite having trained myself to concentrate and read a lot and despite my good reading comprehension, I was fighting distraction. The reason is because it had nuggets of wisdom and truth that satan just plain didn't want me to know! But I prayed and kept going and I was so glad I did! This is a deep book and does require some basic Christian and Bible knowledge, as well as, the discipline to look up unfamiliar words like eschatology, hermeneutics, suzerain, etc. Just make yourself stop and look it up in the dictionary, you will be glad you did!
Stan and I have felt divorced by our church for a year and a half now. We have attended our church since 1983 so it's been very difficult moving on. We have visited a lot of churches in the last 18 mos and sometimes one or the other of us gives up for awhile. I hate the designation, "church shopper" because it sounds so shallow and spiritually immature. But I have to admit to having been "shopping" for a church all this time. It's awful. With all the churches in our area, that we can't find one that meets our simple desires. We are looking for a church whose leadership is honest, humble and not controlling. We are looking for a church that allows us to worship God with our whole heart, mind and body. We ask for a church that believes in the Bible as the Word of God and the basic Christian tenets and is not entangled in the latest church-building fads or the name-and-claim prosperity theology. We are looking for a church that is NOT into the corporate, mega-church mentality or is striving to have scripted, professional entertainment substitute for worship. Pride, control, worldly success is rampant. We don't want a church that has a dry devotional with 60 secs for prayer and a couple of verses of a hymn so everyone can get out the door in plenty of time to go out for lunch. We haven't found a church in our near vicinity that has fit us.
Mike Erre takes a couple of chapters to describe the problems with the church in America today. His first point is that church in modern day has been marginalized and no longer influences society. The church is used for sentimental roles like weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits and maybe a word of advice here and there. We are descending into "irrelevance". We don't influence or change the world around us anymore. We aren't changed or transformed or converted any more. We aren't different from those around us who aren't Christian.
He accuses the church of reducing the message of salvation and sanctification by the Holy Spirit in a McDonald's process. He calls it the McDonaldization of the church. Efficiency, calculability, predictability and control are the 4 characteristics of McDonaldization. Our churches have a "pre-packaged", one-size-fits-all spirituality in order to reach as many people as possible. This effort towards efficiency finds the "best means to achieve a particular end so that other consumers can be served". The congregation is seen as consumers who "want others to do the thinking for us and serve it up to us in nice, tidy, efficient bundles." It reminds me of the Japanese Bento boxed lunches.
They look a lot better than a Happy Meal but there you go. I guess you get what you pay for. Of course, we are human beings and we are each on our own spiritual journey so one-minute devotions, 45 mins worship services, how-to manuals called Bible studies aren't going to meet the needs of our spiritual lives. It's not all that cut-and-dry. We are complex, complicated humans with an infinite God who is trying to develop a relationship with each of us. It's not going to be "efficient". Erre also calls our churches to task for trying to turn "invisible spiritual realities into things we can see and count". He says our churches are fascinated with measuring success by numbers, rankings, size. This is the calculability characteristic of McDonaldization.
"The dirty little secret behind all of this is that for many (and I include myself in this), pastoral ministry is a spiritualized form of getting our ego needs met. It is fundamentally narcissistic. Most of us talk a lot about the glory of God, but we prefer more tangible measures of success. Maybe this explains our fascination with numbers...Like the disciples, we still argue about who is the greatest in the kingdom of God, but we use the ABCs to keep score: Attendance, Buildings, and Cash..." Pg 27-28
"We all feel as if we have to offer a church much like the Wal-Mart Supercenter down the street. People want a vast array of inexpensive products, convenient times and locations, and a smooth checkout, so we structure our churches the same way. The problem with this, obviously, is that nothing in Wal-Mart transcends the ordinary...The entire ministry is mediated by well-dressed and polite people with name tags and the professionals on stage....Our definitions of success are too often aimed at bigger, better, and more, and we work ourselves into exhaustion as mini-messiahs who are poor substitutes for the real thing. We may get glimpses of God's transforming or healing power, but those are the exception rather than the rule. The 'church as vendor of religious goods and services' mind-set is antithetical to the Bible's insistence that the church is the Bride of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the household of God..." Pg 28-29
"We should not be focused on asking how many people attend. Instead the question should be, what kind of people are we becoming? Size is no longer a reliable predictor of faithfulness, as the growth of cults and country music indicate." Pg 35
The third characterization of McDonaldization is predictability. He says that pastors are under pressure to make things uniform and reproducible, to "homogenize our processes of faith and discipleship into a set of steps that supposedly works for everyone."
"Because of our impatience with prayer and incarnation, we settle for what is merely predictable." (or explainable). Pg 35
"Predictability is expressed in capital campaigns (if you do X and Y, you'll raise this much money), worship services (low lighting plus songs in minor chords equals reverence), and discipleship (here are the four stages of faith that everyone goes through so you can know where you are and what comes next, or take these four classes). The last word people would have used to describe Jesus if they really knew Him would be predictable. And He said the Holy Spirit is about as predictable as the wind..." Pg 36
Stan and I have come across this in the Baseball Diamond methodology that is in many church Mission Statements (Vision Statements, Church Objectives).
Also called the road map to growth in Christ. I did a Google search on "baseball diamond church faith" and came up with 289,000 results with the very first ones being churches who have also bought into this methodology. I guess a bunch of pastors went to the same "church building" seminar? Their objectives aren't wrong, but it's the efficient, calculable, predictable, controlling characteristics of McDonaldization.
Control is the last of the four characteristics of McDonaldization.
"Churches seem to be intent on making disciples of churches, not disciples of Jesus. Very often our version of following Jesus gets held up as the only way to do it, and those who do it differently are rarely welcomed. Power and control undergird a lot of the ways we as pastors lead our churches. Vision statements can become a means of control; so can discipleship programs and spiritual gift tests. Of course, there is a difference between control and accountability. We need to exercise discernment and fight to maintain our unity. But we in church leadership often seem intent on getting everybody looking, acting, and talking the same way." Pg 36
Erre says that some churches take the McDonaldization to it's logical conclusion...franchising. Raising churches in new locations that are guaranteed to be exactly like it's parent church. Highly controlled so that everything is the same. It becomes a mall mentality where we design ministries with every demographic in mind, sort of a one-stop headquarters. The churches no longer have buildings but "campuses" and our bulletins are filled with programs, classes, ministries, life groups, small groups, activities, trips all to appeal to as many people as possible so that more people are drawn into our church building and then maybe we can get some Jesus in them. Referred to as the "attractional mode". This promotes consumerism with congregants.
"The way we do church contributes to this misunderstanding [consumerism]. The vast majority of people in the church building are passively arranged (in comfortable chairs) to focus on a stage, upon which are gathered the most gifted (or sometimes hired) people in the church delivering what is hopefully an engaging spiritual experience." Pg 38
Erre says that consumers love the benefits of competition between businesses in the marketplace. It becomes a buyer's market and vendors pander to consumers to get their business. The church has fallen into this mentality too. Parishioners have become consumers and have the mind-set that we are entitled to have our needs met, especially if we pay for it (with our tithes and offerings). Our monetary gifts become club membership dues to buy entertainment, have our children safely occupied, and make sure we feel good when we leave the services on Sunday morning. Our ministers are expected to direct the Sunday services that have become so complicated and professional. These types of churches have produced self-centered, self-absorbed "end-users".
This is Erre's first two chapters. Then he begins to describe the Kingdom of God. He spends a chapter setting a background. The New Testament Church, the first church, was in a hostile environment and for someone to be saved meant their lives were on the line. Both the converted and the church he joined. If he is converted and he is found out, he could be put to death. If he is tortured and revealed the others in the church, they could be rounded up and put to death too. Knowing this, meant that conversion was a serious business, a possible life-or-death decision. The first church discipled someone who was interested in becoming a convert. They taught them and questioned them so that they knew what was involved when they made their decision for salvation. It was not just except Jesus and go to heaven as our reduced gospel has become. That is important but incomplete. When we are born again, we repent of our sins, accept Jesus' forgiveness, and become a citizen of God's Kingdom, one of His children and Jesus becomes our King, our Lord. We are no longer of this world, we are citizens of a new country called the Kingdom of God. We have transferred our allegiance from anything worldly to our Savior and King. We have a new government and new laws. We should live according to our new culture. We have a new leader who is desirous of controlling every aspect of our lives. There is no hidden spiritual life vs. the public secular life. God wants all of us. He doesn't force Himself on us and forcefully take control but He is so loving and good and right and wise and powerful that we do ourselves a great favor when we volunteer to give Him every area of our lives.
We are different and we have a different allegiance now. Erre calls us colonists whom God has sent to a conquered land (the unsaved don't know they are conquered but the Bible makes it clear that the victory has been won) to influence and integrate the native peoples into God's Kingdom. A church should be the colony, the assembly of Christians who are called to show the world what God is like and what His Kingdom is like.
I can't get into all of it and I'm sure I've rambled enough but this book should be read in small doses and then meditated on and prayed about. Steep yourself in it. Let it sink in.
My one question, is what do we do if we don't find a church like Erre describes?