"OK, after this we'll hit DKNY, Barney's, and that hot new church around the corner. They've got God—50 percent off!"































The Retail Church

As American churches become more like chain stores, they’re ruining communities and distorting the Gospel.

By Chris Thron

Modern suburban American churches are based on what might be called the “department store” model. Like retail stores, churches cut costs and expand their facilities by moving out of neighborhoods and drawing on a larger “customer base.” Also like department stores, each church has its own “distinctives” (denominational, musical, racial, or political) that appeal to a particular “market.”

It is common throughout America to have three or four large churches sitting right next to each other, forming a kind of spiritual shopping mall. Instead of Sears, Foley’s, and Merwyn’s, we have Central Baptist, Faith Bible, and Grace Assembly, all within walking distance. On Saturdays, the mall parking lots are filled with customers’ cars from miles around; and on Sundays, the very same vehicles crowd the church parking lots.

Certainly the “department store” model has practical advantages. Our streamlined churches have “better” music, “better” facilities, “better” Sunday schools for kids. People have a greater variety of churches to choose from, and can more easily find one that meets their preference. However, our churches have entirely missed the point. Church is not meant to be a retail operation. The purpose of the Church is not to serve customers, nor to satisfy preferences. The Church is meant to be the visible expression of God’s family, the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth. The Gospel is not a commodity to be marketed, but a life to be lived on a perpetual, moment-by-moment basis. And this life is incomplete unless it is intertwined with those near us who share the same life, who are sealed with the same Spirit.

If yuppies gather in one church and the elderly in another; if the deliberate and the spontaneous never eat God’s meal at the same table; if black, white, and yellow worship in “separate but equal” sanctuaries; then how can we say we are One? How can we claim to be related, let alone members of the same Body? Do families behave like this? Don’t children interact with their grandparents?

Here are other examples of the spiritual and social damage our churches inflict, largely without our realizing it:

American churches encourage a passive, “consumer” faith.
Pastors are, in effect, marketers, and evangelism has degenerated into advertising. This is an inevitable result of the “niche” church philosophy, by which churches pitch to a particular cross section of society. Churchgoers shop around until they find a place that has the right “atmosphere,” so churches are preoccupied with projecting the right “image.”

American churches destroy neighborhoods.
They weaken local communities by creating separate “faith communities.” But in most cases, church congregations are movie-set communities that have the appearance of closeness, but lack the substance. In recent years many churches have recognized the need for more significant relationships, and have started home group programs in an attempt to bring people closer together. To be sure, these home fellowships bring together church people—but not neighbors. For example, on our street there are (at least) three separate small groups, from three separate churches. The three groups are scarcely aware of each other’s existence. Apart from the three host families, all other participants drive in from outside. They meet together for one or two hours, and never see each other for the rest of the week (except to say hi in church). What a feeble imitation of apostolic fellowship! When the first disciples met from house to house daily, you can be sure they did not drive ten miles to do so!

American churches promote a false separation between spiritual life and daily activity.
Christians work at the office, and fellowship at church. To be sure, at church we are encouraged to evangelize on the job, and to invite coworkers to our own church (further promoting division within the Body!). But we are not encouraged to develop significant fellowship ties with co-worker believers from other churches. On the contrary—churches themselves set the opposite example. I myself have been active in several workplace fellowships, and time and time again I meet believers would like to participate but are already too involved with their own churches. A person can only belong to one family, and each church sees itself as its own self-contained spiritual “family.”

American churches breed isolation.

Americans who spend time in the Third World are often struck by the amount of socializing that goes on in the markets and shops, or on the streets between passersby. Why doesn’t that happen here in the U.S.? One significant reason is, my “brother in faith” is not the person I work next to, or live near, but rather the person I drive 10 miles twice a week to “do church” with.

Church leaders have a choice. Either they can continue striving to build “successful” churches with growing attendance; or they can put aside their concerns with “success” and focus on genuinely improving the spiritual environment in neighborhoods and workplaces, by fostering ties among believers who live and work there. Pastors and church leaders possess the tools to rebuild neighborhoods socially and spiritually—if they would only use them.

Rather than constructing “faith communities” apart from neighborhoods, pastors could coordinate efforts towards creating faith communities within existing communities, composed of neighbors and coworkers who share the same faith even if not the same church. Instead of running their own separate small-group programs, pastors could network to encourage local believers to meet together regardless of church affiliation. Pastors could serve as counselors, helping neighboring Christians to see past surface differences, to appreciate and respect each other’s practice of faith, to avoid stumbling blocks and pointless arguments, and to function as a single team with a single purpose—to share the basic Gospel.

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Chris Thron is a Christian writer who lives in Austin, Tex., and pays the bills as an R&D engineer in wireless communication. He is trained in math and physics, and has taught in universities in Africa and the People's Republic of China. He also manages an educational website for kids that features "paintable picture stories." You may email Chris Thron at cpt_pct@myrealbox.com.

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