Churches Aren’t Corporations and Christians Aren’t Customers

OK, full disclosure; this title is a rip-off of a Rebecca Schuman piece that ran last month on It’s a great editorial entitled “College Students are not Customers: a Political Shorthand that Needs to Die.” So your first task is to pause and read it, and try not to get bogged down in the comments section. (Most comments sections are unreadable, but you can tell that more than a few unemployed or underemployed academics responded to this article since the comments are uncommonly articulate.)

Now that you’re back, you should see why I am so eager to look at our churches through a similar lens. If (and this is very much a disputed “if”) we think of students as customers, then there will always be the temptation to goose the bottom line by appealing to the immediate desires of these students/customers. The analogy here is with political pandering. If all you want is someone’s vote, then you are more likely to tell them what they want to hear than to try to get them to hear the truth. So colleges and professors, when they treat students like customers, are inevitably drawn to shape curriculums and programs and even classes to fit “what the students want” instead of working to shape students through exposing them to hard ideas and holding them to high standards.

I could do a couple of things here. As a college professor I’m tempted to stay with the educational theme, but as your esteemed blogger, I’m moved to turn my attention to similar dynamics within the churches. Instead of asking the question, who are our customers, I’d phrase the issue differently. To whom should our churches be accountable? Who is our constituency?

There are plenty of facile answers to these questions. Off the top of my head I can think of plenty of biblical “proof texts” that might support either side. The words of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me,” seem to suggest that the sole mission of Jesus followers should be to spread the truth, regardless of what folks might want to hear. But then I think of Paul’s reminder in I Corinthians 9 that to Jews he was as a Jew while to Greeks he was a Greek. What a “seeker sensitive” sales strategy! Instead of proof texts, I’d recommend that we consider our church spaces, not as commercial spaces or even as educational spaces, but rather as workshops, places with saws and hammers, tape measurers and T-squares. Simple question: what is the relevant measure?

If you’ve ever worked with standard framing lumber, then you know the dirty little secret: a 2×4 is nowhere near 2×4 inches. It’s much closer to 1.5×3.5″. So do we use that nominal 2×4 to measure the tape measure and declare the markings on the tape too long, or do we measure the 2×4 using the tape as the standard and note the fact that the 2×4 falls short? What is the relevant measure? The answer here is obvious, but it is much less so in our churches.

The old joke about finding good restaurants when you’re in a new city is to follow those who would likely know. If you want good Korean food, look for Koreans. If you want good Mexican food, look for Mexicans. If you want good English food, look for a French restaurant! (Perhaps the worst joke in history.) Does this logic hold when looking for churches or even good educational institutions? If we want a good church, can we not simply follow the crowd? This would, of course, mean adopting the wrong measure, by allowing popularity to serve as a measure of truth and goodness. We mustn’t forget that more people saw Hot Tub Time Machine 2 than Selma, and Bud Light routinely outsells Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.

The fact is that this question isn’t even interesting enough to justify the last two paragraphs. We know that popularity does not correlate with quality, a point that Schuman makes regarding higher education as well. So why do we continue to chase (not the almighty dollar, though church budgets may have more of an effect than we’d like to admit) after the mirage that “customer approval” is some kind of marker of effectiveness or quality or even truth? The truth is – and even as I write this I know that I only rarely agree in practice with the point I’m about to make – I don’t want a church or a pastor that makes me happy or coddles me or panders to me. I want a wall. Something or someone that pushes back against me and corrects my bad habits and stands as a measure over against my self-assertions. I have more than enough corporations and billboards and telemarketers telling me what they think I want to hear. I don’t need the same from a church or a pastor. I do not want to be marketed to. “To preach” may have a negative connotation today but that’s what I want. A preacher and a church and a scripture and a tradition that is strong enough to push back against me. I need a religious measure that isn’t afraid to tell me what I don’t want to hear, one that will hold me to a standard.

Do not treat me like a customer, because I’m not always right.

Part of the Emergent Church backlash against the Seeker Sensitive movement (Wow, that’s a bunch of Evangelical jargon I just dropped on you.) is the claim that the SSM turned popularity and accessibility into the sole markers of success. These mega churches became the Wal-Mart’s of the Christian world, offering ample parking, minimal commitment, and next to no challenging pushback. No doubt this criticism is something of a caricature, but it voices a legitimate concern. Churches are not corporations and must not be measured by the same standards of popularity and market sector dominance.

The next time you’re sitting on some church committee or volunteering for a project, ask yourself about your church’s or group’s “marketing strategy.” Are we working to give the people what they want, or to address a genuine need? Often those two will not be the same.

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