If you’ve read much of today’s leading Christian writers, you’ll quickly notice that the church loves to criticize itself. The thinkers question our mission and confession; the feelers question our institutions and traditions; the doers question our methods and our motives. Some of this is healthy; I think we always ought to consider where we’ve come from, where we are, where we’re going, and how best to get there. But in all of the criticism, questioning, and finger pointing, there’s one person that everyone loves to blame for everything that’s wrong with the church today – the man or woman who sits in the pew, week after week, and contributes nothing.
Recently, Aaron Loy wrote a piece that made its rounds through Facebook. In “Five Really Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church,” he describes this self-centered attitude that wreaks havoc in the body of Christ. Thom Rainer in I Am a Church Member addresses this problem as well, when he shows how the church isn’t about any one person except Jesus Christ. Those who put their own wants ahead of others’ spiritual needs actually oppose Jesus’ work in his church.
I agree, and while the Christian must still face off against the world, the flesh, and the devil, the Church is often hamstrung by men and women in her midst who work against Christ through simple inaction. Though much of today’s writing focuses on members who complain about the music, criticize the preaching, sow dissension, etc., the greatest damage might be caused by people who do none of these things…or anything else.
Who are they?
If I could give them a name, I would call them “Consumer Christians.” Christians, because that’s likely what they would call themselves, though they might be greatly mistaken. (More on this later.) Consumer, because that’s what they mainly appear to be doing – taking, receiving, absorbing, ingesting – though this may also be a false impression. (More on this later, too.)
Unlike other groups of Christians, who are known by what they do and say, the Consumer Christians are better known by what they do not do or say. The Consumer Christian (CC) can be identified, then, by what he or she avoids. And since, in the Christian life, there are at least two areas that most of us already prefer to avoid, CC’s are not difficult to spot. A CC simply…
…Avoids the Mission
This is very simple. A CC does not share the Gospel with unbelievers.
In order to become Christians, we must hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and receive the grace of God to turn us from our sin and give us faith to believe in Christ as our Lord and Savior. As a result, we also receive pardon for sin, a righteous standing with God, membership in Christ’s family, and the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling inside (and among) us. We receive so much!
A CC simply doesn’t give any of it away. He or she just consumes, remember? Not that anyone actually can give away God’s forgiveness, righteousness, etc. All we really can give is the Gospel, which is all anyone but God could have given us. But we didn’t get it from a CC, because they don’t give it!
Of course, CC’s aren’t dumb. They’ve heard sermons on the Great Commission (they’re good at hearing), and they’ve been urged many, many times by their pastor or some other speaker to share the Gospel with others. But somehow they’ve convinced themselves that they are exempt. Whether they believe it’s the preacher’s job or that the Great Commission was for 1st century Christians only or that they can get involved at a later date or that simply living a good life is sufficient, they do not accept that Christ would have them giving the Gospel to non-Christians.
I don’t have the time here to answer all of the objections a CC might give, but I submit one line of thought. In Acts 1:8, Jesus promised the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and he said that the result of the Holy Spirit’s coming would be that his disciples would give witness to the Gospel everywhere. In this verse, the people who receive the Holy Spirit are the people who are the witnesses, and the scope of Jesus’ prophecy was much too large to have been fulfilled only by those present when he gave it (e.g. “…to the uttermost part of the earth”). This is followed by the story in Acts, Romans, etc. of what the Holy Spirit did with those whom he indwelt, which demonstrates that the Commission was distributed to all members of the church. (cf. Acts 8:4)
The obvious (to me, anyway) conclusion is that those who have the Holy Spirit are to participate in sharing the Gospel to the nations. And this is precisely what the CC avoids. And not only this, but the CC also…
…Avoids the Ministry
This is not the same thing as avoiding the church. Like I said before, CC’s believe themselves to be part of the church, and they will often be present at church services. They will also happily associate with the church’s people (the church is people, I know), among whose number they are often counted. But they will avoid the church’s efforts to build itself up.
I’m not talking about growing numerically; that should happen through evangelism. I mean the process described in Ephesians 4:11-16, where the members of Christ’s church receive the truth as it is taught by qualified individuals and then speak it lovingly to one another so that all may grow together to become more like Christ.
The “ministry” is not a vocation or professional calling for someone who wants to get a salary from working in a church; the “ministry” is Jesus’ plan for every Christian to learn more of him and then share more of him with other Christians so that they too may learn more of him. Of course, no one ever learns everything he needs to learn, any more than he outgrows his need for grace. And so the “ministry” involves every Christian receiving and giving biblical truth from every other Christian in his or her life. It is a process of mutual love and growth. It is sharing and protecting and encouraging and warning and helping. And it is something that the CC avoids.
We should all avoid legalism.
It would be easy at this point to criticize anyone who doesn’t come to church-wide visitation or get involved with a small group, but that would be missing the point.
And it would be legalistic.
A CC is not someone who simply avoids the pastor’s favorite church activities. Though the pastor has been gifted and called by God and spends much time talking to God and studying God’s word to discover the best ways of spreading the Gospel and building up the church, his particular methods are not absolute. Canvassing, door-to-door, tract distribution, prayer meetings, small groups, and Sunday School classes may or may not be good methods for fulfilling the mission and the ministry of the church, and a CC shouldn’t be identified by his or her non-attendance at such functions. (A particular temptation for pastors, I confess!)
A CC is one who avoids Christ’s favorite church activities, namely evangelizing unbelievers and discipling believers. And this means that CCs are not known by their relationship to the church (which might be good), but by their relationship to Christ (which most emphatically is not).
Who are they, really?
And that raises some troubling questions, not the least of which are lexical. If a man or woman avoids living as Christ intended and even commanded, can it be said that such a person follows Christ? I grant that none of us is perfect and that we all may (at times) do things that belie our confession, but did not Christ predestine a process of conformity for those who belong to him? Shouldn’t there be at least a trajectory of Christlikeness? And shouldn’t there be some indication of Christlikeness in areas that are essential to being a Christian, such as the results of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling or the function of a member of Christ’s body? Ultimately what I ask is, If a person avoids both the mission and the ministry of those who follow Christ, then in what sense can he or she be called a Christian?
And there’s another question. If they are hearing the Gospel, which is both the power of God unto salvation and the means of faith, in what sense can they be said to be consuming it if it bears no fruit? If they are sitting under sound Scriptural exposition on a regular basis and continually avoid those things toward which Scripture points them, are they really consuming it? If it doesn’t change them, doesn’t become a part of them, isn’t used by them, has it really gone into them?
All of which is to say that perhaps “Consumer Christian” is precisely what these folks are not. Perhaps the true Consumer Christian is the person who receives the teaching of Holy Scripture, is changed by it, and then – stumblingly, falteringly, imperfectly, even irregularly – gives it to those who need it. Perhaps a Consumer Christian is the only person who truly can fulfill the mission and ministry of the church because he or she devours the grace which God so richly supplies and then distributes it to the best of his or her ability to others both near and far.