We caught up with Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, and author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church (Zondervan, 2007), at a conference where he was talking to other leaders about consumerism and the church. Kimball says the size of a church isn't what makes it consumer driven, but how the leaders define success.
You've been talking to other pastors about consumerism in the church and the impact it's had on our theology. How do you begin to recognize that impact?
You hear a lot of the complaints and valid criticism about the church being "a provider of religious goods and services," as Darrell Guder says in the Missional Church. I started thinking about my own church and asking could the leadership be the ones who are really guilty of this? How did that happen?
I began to think about our meeting spaces. The early church met in homes where it is easier to participate, people can contribute, can be more vocal, make a meal, whatever. And then worship moved to the Roman basilicas and the format changed. People became more passive, but they still walked around and engaged. After the Reformation pews were brought in and people began to understand church different because they become passive. Expectations of a pastor and a leader become different. People expected us to do things for them.
So how has that translated into the church today?
We've been taught that this is how church goes. This is what you're supposed to do. But now we're making it better and bigger - better seating, better lighting, better sermons, better parking, better children's ministry, better youth ministry. We're simply fueling the whole thing.
But all of the consumer assumptions underneath are the same.
Yeah. And we haven't yet challenged those assumptions. But my bigger question is what is this producing? Is it really producing people who are living and demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in their lives? Are they loving one another and loving God more? What are we looking at for success?
So what is your sense? Are the ?bigger and better' churches producing the fruit of the Spirit?
I think it depends on the church leadership. As you talk to different leaders you pick up what they focus on. Ask them how they define success or what are they most excited about. That's an interesting question. It reveals a lot. You can have a church of twenty thousand but what are you looking at as success? If I walked up to a person at your church would they say I'm here to get my religious goods and services. Or would they say I'm an active participant in the mission of this church, and this big worship meeting is just one part of it. Of course you can go to a small worship meeting and have the same exact thing. So it's not about big church or little church necessarily.
So what are you guys doing at Vintage Faith to question those underlying assumptions of consumer faith?
We are asking God to transform us into a worshiping community of missional theologians.
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Say that again.
We're asking God to transform us (because it can't be done through human effort); into a worshiping community (because we want to be worshipers first); of missional theologians (because if we're on a mission in our culture we have to be thinkers).
We're calling the church more of a missional training center as much as we can. We're launching community groups. We're calling them "community groups" even though we see them as house churches, but that name has weird connotations for some.
And what about your worship on Sunday, does that look different too?
Not really. Sunday meetings are just one part of the rhythm of the wekk when we all gather together, and we try to express worship to God and to teach in ways that creatively reflect who we are and the values we are striving to hold. Sundays are about community, care, worship and Scripture. But I'd hope that if you were to walk up to someone in our church and ask them "What is church?" they wouldn't talk about the big meeting but about being on a mission.