“Want fries with that?”

mcdonalds_workers_gi_topMy only living predecessor as rector at St. John’s (they all stay 30 years) has a theory about free-standing altars. He says the unintended consequence when they pulled them out from the walls for a more communal feel is that it turned the priest into the “guy behind the counter.” And from this perspective the priest does indeed appear like a shopkeeper or a liturgical bar tender.

Coinciding with a gradual decline in denominationalism — one that has since become the new reality — this has added to a dangerous model of consumerism in American church life. We’re all familiar with the concept of “church shopping.” People new to town visit a bunch of churches before deciding which one is the most comfortable or which one feeds them or which one meets their needs or where they feel a “connection” with the clergy. I’ve done the same thing — though sticking to a single denomination, you’ll be glad to know.

With the advent of the Model-T Ford, Americans moved away from the parish model where you simply attended the church in your neighborhood and stuck with it in good times and bad. These days, unless you live next door, most people pass a variety of churches on their Sunday morning trek to worship.

Clergy feed into this consumer approach to finding a parish when we joke with Sunday morning visitors about checking out the “competition” when what we really want to scream is “Pick me! Pick us!” And many newcomer programs spend a lot of time and energy on creating attractive packets that help “sell” the congregation to people who wander in looking for a church home.

Parishes should┬áput their best foot forward and seek to communicate who they are — this is the main reason to have an engaging, updated web site and a poeurlup34wmqbvibrant presence on social media. And it’s why we need to be intentional about welcoming folks on Sunday mornings. But welcoming people into a community of faith shouldn’t feel like either a fraternity rush party or buying a new car. Nor should it risk “false advertising” as sometimes happens — people are welcomed, excited, pumped up by their new church only to realize there’s a lot less “there there” than they’d been led to believe.

But the consumer mentality transcends our welcoming of newcomers and can infect even the healthiest of parishes. Church programs become menu items for parishioners to select and then judge. We like the idea of having a large group of programs from which to choose — and even passionately advocate for more programs — even if we don’t actually participate in them.

This mentality also impacts stewardship: “I don’t like the direction of the parish (or the clergy) so I’m withholding my pledge. I pay good money and I expect good service.” Financial giving should come from a heart of gratitude to God; it’s not a fee for ecclesiastical service.

5650299990_092d6d84a9_zThe knock on East-facing altars during the Liturgical Renewal Movement of the 1970′s was that they didn’t offer a participatory experience of worship. This was also at a time when the clergy did most of the talking during liturgy while facing “the wall” when celebrating the Eucharist rather than the people. Yet, having served churches with East-facing altars for the first nine years of my ministry, there’s also something unifying and transcendent in all facing the same way — toward God. This is neither the time nor place to renew this debate but it’s hard to look at the priest as the sacramental Pez dispenser when he/she is not standing behind the deli “counter.”

So recognizing there is a pervasive consumer culture in parish life, what can we do about it? Well, we can ignore it and hope it goes away or we can name it as something destructive to our communal faith lives. Why “destructive?” Because it pushes against Jesus’ call to discipleship. When we approach church as consumers we’re being passive, expecting others to do the work of ministry. And isn’t that what we tried to get away from with liturgical renewal? The idea that worship is akin to attending a choral arts society concert?

We don’t consume church, we are church. And that’s the approach that leads to spiritual transformation. If we aren’t engaging with body, mind, and spirit, we’re not fully invested in our faith which makes church just one more activity among myriad choices rather than the place out of which our entire lives flow.

I encourage you to think about ways you’ve unintentionally moved into a consumer mentality in your own parish life. Has it become a barrier to open, authentic, engaged relationship with the divine? What are some ways you might move past this approach to something more fruitful? How might you move past consumerism into a ministry of service to others?

And for the record, yes, I do want fries with that.

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11 Comments on ““Want fries with that?””

  1. Relling says:

    In an economy like this one, where people’s incomes and expenses can change dramatically overnight, it is probably not a great idea to judge your parishioners giving as a comment on the church……yes, I know….it’s an old habit.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Excellent article. Thank you. I really appreciate the wisdom and insight you share when you get serious.

  3. Father Tim says:

    Hardly judging that, Relling — the Widow’s Mite takes care of that. I’m simply highlighting the danger that occurs when we lump church into all the other fee for service relationships out there in our consumer-driven culture. Parents do this with schools, taxpayers do this with government, homeowners do this with builders. I don’t believe our faith lives should be subjected to the same paradigm.

  4. Glenn Brown says:

    I think it has less to do with how worship is done as opposed to how church is done. Churches who do this well (and I think I attend one right now) encourage the creativity of the parishioners in and out of worship. because of this the sense of separation between minister and congregation shies away from the waiter/diner mentality into one of roll.

    The prime difficulty in achieving this on the part of ministers or parishioners like me is one of patience rather than format. Most people (including most pastors IMHO) don’t really know the things they do well in the fullest sense of the word. Furthermore no one knows the things they do well together in the context of a bunch of other people who they may or may not be acquainted with.

    Of course our consumer culture doesn’t exactly encourage patience.

  5. Really well done. You us something to think about. When our kids work at fast food chains with a drive up window, perhaps we should consider if they feel there’s no difference between their job and our ‘vocation’.

  6. Well there are also those who just expect to be entertained on Sunday morning. I am always a little taken aback when spaghetti dinners or organ concerts are better attended than worship services. Why do we ask people to volunteer their time and talents for various activities, and yet never say, “we need you to come to worship — we need your attention, participation; your mind and heart; we need you to grow in your relationship with God, and it’s going to be difficult, time-consuming, life-changing — it’s an adventure!” Why do we tell people Christianity is easy, and that they don’t have to do anything . . . except, oh yes, make a financial pledge? I also think it’s a big mistake to tell people that their financial giving in an indication of their relationship with God — it’s not. It’s an indication that one wants the Church and its mission and ministry to continue and thrive. If you have to judge someone’s relationship with God, base that on holiness and love. . . but be careful about judging!

    And yes, Fr. Tim, this is an excellent article!

  7. Jeremiah says:

    I’m not sure there is one bit of this with which I agree. Of course, if the minister/priest/presider/congregation thinks of the altar as a “counter,” then there is an initial mentality from which all else will proceed.
    If any – or all – recognize the altar, consecrated as it is, as a sign of Christ’s presence in their midst, then they will approach with fear, trembling, awe and gratitude. The consumer mentality will have been left at the door, and needy supplicants will approach the throne of grace, asking the Lord’s continued mercy and blessing.
    Then again, if all that’s being dispensed is one whopper after another, or anything else that smacks of fast food, and if the people are of the opinion that they can, indeed, have it their way, well of course it’s all going to feel like a road-side stop for a quick (I almost said cheap) meal, with some playground-time thrown in, too.

  8. Meredith Gould says:

    Were you listening in on the conversation around here last night? Dan and I were going on about the travesty of church-as-entertainment-center. In far too many churches, the push toward creating programs seems to remain alive and well, in a sickening way. And yes, when I was a pastoral associate, I fully participated in all that. Mea mongo culpa.

    Hey, I love gorgeous liturgy but if worship doesn’t inspire a longing to live the Gospel in the world, starting with the local community, then what on earth are we doing? And…why?

  9. Father Tim says:

    Yes, Meredith, I have wire-tapped your living room. Almost as interesting as your Twitter feed!

  10. Woodstock Churchlady says:

    I have two thoughts. 1. Since my church could not move the altar away from the wall, we use a table in front of the steps, with the priest facing the congregation. It means so much to be able to see what the celebrant is doing and to feel equal and included. We then go up to the altar to receive Communion. And we can kneel! It is a good compromise.

    2. Not to be nasty, but it’s all very well for large, wealthy, nonurban churches to condemn the desire for more members and the efforts to attract them. But struggling parishes don’t really have that option (to disapprove of the efforts of others). We are too busy trying to pay the bills, spread the Good News of Jesus and become better Christians.

  11. Phil L. says:

    HI! Father Tim pointed out many areas where a parish can appear more a consumer item than the place we offer worship as a believing community. But not so in the Eucharist. With all due respect to St. John’s past rector, for our generation after the Council, the issue is not east-or-west facing. It is about whether or not we know what the mass really is. If we know that the mass is the new and perpetual act of praise to the Father and our source of spiritual Food in this life, we will not see it as a priest behind a counter. I try to tell my kids that, whether their future church is inner-city gothic or bland suburban architecture, it is the same mass. The same goes for if the priest is engaging or reads deadpan.

    The reason I’ve heard that families in my parish pick the one they’re in is reverence for the Eucharist.

    The other consumerist tendencies in a parish are very real; my wife’s childhood parish bulletin has a list of contact phone numbers a page long. From a non-administrative standpoint, I think we need to realize that our community and stewardship as a parish flow from our oneness in worship, ie. the Eucharist.

    Thanks for the article. Will watch for Meredith’s tweets.


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