Spencer Burke on the Church that Consumerism Built--and Why I Fled

The upcoming issue of Leadership deals with "Consumerism and the Church It Creates." We asked Spencer Burke to write about his journey from being a megachurch pastor to spiritual guide of an online community (TheOOZE.com). Below is a brief excerpt. The full article will appear in Leadership's July issue, along with some of the best of your comments about how we live out the nature of the church today.

When I gave up being a teaching pastor at a Southern California megachurch eight years ago, people around me were perplexed. After all, as jobs in professional ministry go, working at Mariners was a dream–big building, big budget, big salary. What wasn't to like?

Maybe I was burned out, they reasoned, but I'd be back. I was bound to get over my ministry midlife crisis eventually, right? But when months turned into years and I still hadn't been added to anyone's payroll, more than a few eyebrows went up. I kept talking about this online community, TheOoze.com. Sure, it was an interesting idea, but hardly a career move.

When I was leaving Mariners, the buzzword was relevant. It's what every church was striving to be, by changing their music, their marketing, even their ministry philosophy. Today, church leaders are still pursuing relevancy in order to reach more people. When those efforts don't pan out as expected, church leaders are quick to blame "consumerism." The problem? People. They want too much, and they're never satisfied.

But is that really it?

Is the problem that people in the pews keep upping the ante on their demands, or is it that church leaders don't comprehend the real source of their discontent? Is it that people want too much, or that they just don't want what the church is currently selling?

Right now churches are focusing on one product to the exclusion of others. Most often, it's teaching, a 60- to 90-minute event held at a particular time, at a particular physical address. It's basically the same product we've been selling since the Renaissance. People sit in a room and listen to someone talk.

But here's the thing: back then, it made sense for people to travel miles to hear someone talk about God. After all, people were mostly illiterate, Bibles were expensive, and Sunday morning was often the only time people could expand their horizons. Teaching was a rare commodity.

That's no longer true today. Teaching is available everywhere - on television, radio, online. The local church no longer has the corner on the market.

The situation reminds of the banking industry. At one time, if you wanted to deposit or withdraw money, you had to go to the bank and stand in line. You had to fill out a slip and wait for someone to serve you. Today, there are independent ATMs capable of instantly dispensing cash everywhere - from grocery stores and restaurants, to sports stadiums and bars. I can't remember the last time I actually "went to the bank." It's not that I've stopped needing money; it's just that I choose to get it in other ways.

May 03, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 32 comments


May 16, 2006  9:29am

I want to encourage Spencer for fleeing the consumer version of church. God's mercy has brought him out. When you earn a living that does not take money out of an offering plate, they will accuse you of "giving up THE ministry". Rejoice with Paul, that you can minister "free of charge" (1 Cor. 9). A warning is that Satan will tempt you to repackage church with different packaging that is still consumerist and call it non-consumer. I have found that believers, even strong believers resist giving up their consumer habits and addictions. They will even reject you relationally, especially if you show them the obvious scripture that calls for a quality of church life that is so different. One of my favorite statements about consumer church is: "The great danger is not that we will renounce our faith, but that we will settle for a mediocre version of it." Consumer church is a little truth mixed into a lot of "dung" (KJV for c _ _ _ ). Consumer church escaped the cleansing that occurred at the reformation and got passed on to us to day as good church. It's time to get on with more clean up.

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Ian McGuiggan

May 12, 2006  10:28pm

What product line does the cross of Christ go under? How do we make a blood soaked, beaten, and brutalized God/Man nailed to a piece of wood for our sin attractive to "consumers"? It's time the "Me, Myself & I" consumer faced the SHAME of our it all. If anything is NOT marketable it's the crucified Christ. For goodness sake He wants us to live the life and die the death He did - who'd buy that product? would you? but we preach Christ crucified..... Ian www.allaboutchrist.net

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May 12, 2006  5:26am

There seem to be a couple of themes raised here. It seems that many people here are doing what we followers of Jesus do best - split hairs. Who cares if its a mega church or a new Barna type church that reaches someone for Christ? I'm positive Jesus just commanded 'Go and make disciples'. Jesus, who was fully human and fully God did not elaborate on the details, I think he trusted us enough to be inspired from Him to work it out. As someone who has been a recipient of a 'mega church' introducing them to Jesus through a small group (in the last 10 years) I want to encourage every person, large church or small to just 'go'. Let God and the Holy Spirit do the rest. Surely, the primary mission of the church (and I mean the WHOLE congregation when I say church) should be to introduce someone to Christ. oh and yes there should be discipleship follow up. Yes there should be points to a vision too, but the primary one should surely be just 'Go' On the staffing issue. I live in Australia and our churches, even the 'mega church' that I attend are poor cousins from a staffing perspective compared to America (and yes we are so rich too compared to the rest of the 80% of the planet's churches). There are no health plans, no career plans. Just a desire to follow Jesus and change the world. So much of the conversation has come from pastors previously from the mega churches. I think the large churches are in a very awkward situation with all of these burn outs. The expectations of the large churches (and I mean from the senior staff and the congregations) are high. They are expected to operate funtionally like corporations - yet they don't have the funding to support the staff to do their job properly with adequate resources. Churches are esentially funded like NGO's and operate with little or no funds for any kind of H.R. development and support. the money always goes to the 'business end' What do people expect when burn outs occur? Pastors are workaholics too (an issue that seems to be not addressed enough). Pastors want people to be transformed and to follow Jesus. Unfortunately they work so darn hard that they do burn out from from ministering to everyone that calls out to them. I am not one usually to 'blog' as I usually find a blog like many so called post modern convesations to go never end. But I am passionate about pastors having a life in and out of work. I'm also passionate about the 'lost being found'. Surely we all need to talk less and 'GO' more.

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May 11, 2006  4:06pm

I think we also need to keep in mind that different churches have different callings. Instead of developing strategies we need to hear from the Father and implement His plan. Why do a lot of things OK, when we can do a few excellent to reach our community? Also, one of the key benefits of attending a church is relationships. DVD's and TV services are great. But if you look throughout the Bible, very few leaders were successful alone. Even Christ had His disciples then he sent them out by twos.

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Richard Phillips

May 10, 2006  9:21am

Wow all this talk is very exciting. I am a member of one of the fastest growing MegaChurches in the country www.lifechurch.tv. The thing that makes this the most exciting is Lifechurch addresses all of the concerns mentioned in the comments. It is relevant yet it is service focused. It is large, yet we have hundreds of small groups. It is feeding its people and we also have dozens of outreaches to the community at each campus. Lifechurch.tv is constantly growing changing and maturing - and ever becoming more Christlike as a body and individuals.

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Wayne Pendle

May 10, 2006  6:34am

When a church member tells me "Pastor, I didn't like that song, it was too cold in here, or we ought to/should ...." I'm finding the reply "Well, that's an interesting comment...but let me ask you Joe Member, 'How many hungry people did you feed this week? Did you visit any sick folks? What about praying with some guys in prison?'" A blank stare in usually the reply and results in that person never asking about how they'd like church to meet "their needs" again. It's amazing what the smell of body odor left on your clothes from hugging a homeless person will do for your "hour on Sunday" mindset. You and I are the Church – not a building. However, the "gathering times" as a Body are critical for prayer, corporate worship, and encouragement as we then leave the building to BE the church throughout the week. "Coming to church" should not be seen as the end, but the menas to equip one another for good works. So pastors.... go charter a bunch of buses one Sunday morning, take your "members" to the local homeless shelter and feed some people. It'll will speak louder than 52 weeks of music, video clips, and alliterations.

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Warren Lamb

May 09, 2006  10:55pm

The article and the posts dmeonstrate passion from all, which, I believe, is a good sign. The question is,: What is it that we are passionate about? This is a subject near to my heart, also, We went from pastoring in a mega-church to the type of home fellowship that Gearge Barna describes in "Revolution". It works! We teach through the Bible a book at a time, chapter at a time, verse at a time. As far as relevancy, we follow the model's of Peter at Pentecost and Paul before Felix and Drusilla. The folks that are part of this fellowship are actively involved in being and making disciples of Jesus Christ. The "doing church" model has become about programs and organizational structures. What happens now - at least for this pastor - is what I was called to do. I see people consistently growing in their faith, living it out, investing in the lives of others in whatever sphere of influence God has assigned them to, and they enjoy "community" as a part of the Body, as part of the Church. They are equipped for and are activeky engaged in ministry. They worship together, alone, and in other venues as they have opportunity and as they find enjoyable. What else could I hope for?

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Fr. Matt Mirabile

May 09, 2006  10:36pm

When starting with the wrong premise we often get the wrong answer. I think Spencers article is an example. Both he and the Evangelical/megachurch model begin the question with "How can I reach more people with the gospel". This is fundamentally a question of communication. But ultimately his criticism is that a consummerist model does not give life to the church. It was, to him, unsatisfying and vain. That is the problem. I would suggest that the church draws its life, not from mission, but from the eucharist. The mission of the church flows out of a communion with the body and blood of Christ, in the participation in a meal whose properties exceed the physics of matter. The Protestant church is constantly and feverishly inventing new means and methods because it is running exhausted. She spends herself to pour out the gospel while she fails to draw life from the source and summit of our real (not abstract) union with God. When mission is not anchored in communion it loses its connection with the life of Christ and the worshipping community. What is necessary is a return first to the Eucharist and let mission proceed from there.

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Troy Dennis

May 09, 2006  8:18pm

I don't agree with the methods Spencer suggests, but then again, I don't think the article was as much about the methods as it was about trying to break us out of old ways of doing things which don't work. After all, he concludes by saying, "Let's start our conversation with the mission of the church, not about any particular tools or methods." What are we about? Too many times I think we are about counting numbers, measuring growth, imitating what "works" somewhere else, without ever really thinking about the mission first. Its interesting to think of how church would look if we were to completely reengineer the way we do things to match the mission, much harder actually to do it.

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May 09, 2006  7:18pm

If you're looking for ways to fill churches, don't offer the world what it knows is failing them! Offer them a safe place to be real, an anchor to hold onto and a new perspective on life. The church at its essence is counter-culture! Therefore trying to be culturally relevant and theologically pure at the same time will never work. They are mutually exclusive concepts. The world wouldn't be "seeking" if they wanted more of the same of what they are trying to escape. God spoke to a friend of mine and told her "if you'll tell them about me, I'll bing them in." We are programming the Holy Spirit out of our churches. If we allow Him to move in, He'll fill the seats. He has a track record of bringing life into a void.

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