October 10, 1993

PLEASING THE CUSTOMER

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3).

“The customer is king.”  That’s the motto of almost any successful business.  Figure out what people want, and then give it to them.  If you don’t, your competitors will, and you’ll lose business.  In a market economy, you’ve got to please the customer.  It’s that simple.

And what’s true of business, in general, seems to be true of the religion business as well.  The customer is king.  Religious publishers won’t print a book if there isn’t a market for it;  religious recording companies won’t produce an album if they don’t think people are going to buy it;  a religious broadcaster can’t raise funds on the air if he’s not saying things his audience wants to hear;  and a church isn’t going to expand and thrive unless it’s the kind of place people want to be.

Even the Bible is tailored to please the customer.  Some people whose main interest is sports might not want a plain old Bible, containing nothing but the revealed truth of God, but they may be interested in Path to Victory, a New Testament with profiles of Christian sports heroes talking about their favorite Bible passages.  According to Time magazine, the market for Bibles is worth $400 million a year, and sales are best when there are different Bibles to suit different customers.  As the president of the Christian Booksellers Association says, “In a Baskin-Robbins society, people don’t want chocolate or vanilla.  They want a special flavor that really suits their needs.”

Now, I have to admit that I hadn’t thought of the Word of God as a brand of ice cream.  But there are those who do, and they’re selling Bibles in a lot more than 31 flavors.  And everybody’s happy.  You get the Bible in your favorite flavor, and the booksellers get their $400 million.  Nobody loses.

And just as companies have tried to please people shopping for Bibles, so pastors have tried to please people shopping for a church.  These days, before a minister tries to start up a new congregation, he’ll first conduct a survey of the neighborhood to find out what people want and don’t want.  He’ll often target his audience, just the way an advertising executive would.  He’ll tailor his message to white males between 30 and 45, pick music that fits the tastes of a certain age group or figure out what sort of support groups might benefit people in his neighborhood.  The key to being a successful church is finding the right niche in the religion market.

Lately, some seminaries have created an entire department of study devoted to the science of “church growth.”  A great deal of church growth theory depends on sociological and business principles.  How can a church appeal to people in such a way that they want to join it?  Pastors and church leaders have become fascinated with church growth information.  In a survey of preachers asking what author had most affected their ministry, the person named more often than any other was a popular church growth consultant.

In other words, pleasing the customer is at the very top of the religious agenda these days.  Preachers and church boards and merchandisers of religious materials are all studying the marketplace very carefully.  They are studying you.  They’re trying to learn what makes you tick, trying to figure out what needs you feel, trying to offer something you’ll find appealing, trying to draw you into their church.

And this isn’t all bad.  Some publishers and broadcasters produce material that’s very helpful, and they want to get their message into as many hands as possible.  If different formats of the Bible get more people to read it, great!  Likewise, many preachers study church growth because they want more people to know Jesus Christ and join the fellowship of the church.  If, by presenting the gospel as attractively as possible, they lead more people to Christ, wonderful!

The apostle Paul himself once said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  Paul was willing to adapt himself and his methods to meet people where they were at.  That’s one reason he was such an effective missionary.

Still, though Paul was willing to change his methods, he refused to change his message.  He had a definite understanding of Christian truth, and he refused to compromise that truth to please the customer.  It’s good to be sensitive to people’s needs and preferences, but when the main goal is to produce satisfied customers, something has gone terribly wrong. There are serious dangers in a consumer approach to religion.  That’s why Paul wrote his friend Timothy, a young pastor, and said:

Preach the word;  be prepared in season and out of season;  correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3).

There’s a market out there for preachers who say what people want to hear, and for churches who give people what they want.  Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby says,

Late twentieth-century Canada is filled with a consumer approach to religion…  [Religious organizations] offer religion as a range of consumer goods.  Rather than saying to culture, “This is what religion is,” they have been much more inclined to say to culture, “What do you want religion to be?”  …Religion is available to Canadians in all shapes and sizes, and fragment-minded consumers have before them a multitude of choices.

Bibby’s description of consumer religion in Canada is just as applicable to the United States, if not more so.  The customer is king.  And the result?  Let’s look at what the Bible says.

There have always been people who want gods that suit their fancies, and there have always been leaders willing to give them what they want.  When Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, he was gone for more than a month.

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.  As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him (Exodus 32:1).

So Aaron gave the people what they wanted.  He made a golden calf that everybody could see and admire, and the people proclaimed that Aaron’s homemade calf was the god who brought them out of Egypt.  They had a wild party to celebrate, and it was all a lot of fun–at least until Moses returned from the mountain, and God punished them for their idolatry.

It’s easy to manufacture a god that pleases the customer.  People like to hear that God is a golden calf, or that God is their inner child, or that God is Mother Earth, or whatever else suits their fancy.  But what they end up with is nothing but a worthless idol.  It’s an affront to God, and it’s deadly for all who worship the idol.  So beware of anyone who is too quick to provide you with the kind of religion you want.  An idol is still an idol.  If you’re searching for God, don’t settle for a well-packaged substitute.

When a religious organization gets too concerned with pleasing the customer, it misrepresents who God is, and in the process, it also misrepresents who we are.  The prophet Isaiah told people about a holy and awesome God.  He showed them how sinful they were in the light of God’s purity.  That wasn’t what most people wanted to hear.  They wanted a positive religion, one that made them feel good about themselves and optimistic about their future.  As Isaiah put it,

They say … to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right!  Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.  Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!”  (Isaiah 30:10-11)

Once you stop thinking about God’s holiness, once you abandon the old-fashioned morals of the Bible for a new and improved standard, once you’re surrounded by preachers whose main goal is to boost your self-esteem, you can feel good about yourself without actually being good.

Maybe you’ve heard about the international study comparing students from various industrialized nations.  In math and science, American students came in last, while students from South Korea ranked at the top.  Ironically, though, when asked if they are good at math, 68 percent of Americans–the most of any country–said they were, while only 23 percent of the South Korean students said they were good at math–the least of any country.  This demonstrates, says William Bennett, that American schools “are a lot better at teaching self-esteem than they are at teaching math.”

Like the schools, many churches have been on a self-esteem kick.  Preachers promote it like it’s the very heart of Christian teaching when it’s really just a recent trend in pop psychology.  The greatest of saints always had a deep awareness of God’s holiness and of their own sin, and they prayed daily for forgiveness.  Nowadays, however, the filthiest and most corrupt person can bask in sermons about how wonderful and creative we all are.  Churches are helping people to feel better and better about themselves, even as they are becoming worse and worse.  George Gallup summarized the situation this way:  “Religion up, morality down.”  This goes to show that churches are better at teaching self-esteem than they are at teaching holiness.

Consumer religion is eager to please.  Instead of confronting you with the holy God, it manufactures an idol to suit your preference.  Instead of declaring the righteous standards of God’s commandments, it lowers the standards so you can feel good about yourself.  And instead of warning you to repent and get off the road to hell, it makes your trip down the road to hell as pleasant and comfortable as possible.

The Bible tells how the wicked king Ahab was preparing for a great battle, and he want to find out what his chances were.  Ahab had prophets he liked and prophets he didn’t, so he called in the ones he liked, four hundred of them.  They all said, “Go ahead.  The Lord will give you victory.”  But Ahab’s ally, king Jehoshaphat, asked for a second opinion:  “Isn’t there a prophet of the Lord–a real prophet–we can ask?”  Ahab said,  “There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad.  He is Micaiah” (1 Kings 22:8).

Well, they called Micaiah in, and sure enough, he had nothing good to say.  He told Ahab, “The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”  No wonder Ahab liked the other prophets better!  The only problem was, Micaiah was right.  Ahab went off to battle.  An arrow penetrated his armor, he bled to death, and his army was scattered.

Ahab knew what he liked and what he didn’t like when it came to religion.  He liked flattery, and he didn’t like criticism.  He liked to think positively, and he didn’t like to hear about judgment.  So Ahab ignored Micaiah and marched to his death, with four hundred positive thinkers encouraging him every step of the way.  As the Bible says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end, it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).

So beware of preachers who tell you only what you want to hear!  Listen to someone who preaches Jesus Christ according to the Bible, who preaches the Word in season and out of season, when people like it and when they don’t like it.  Listen to someone who loves God enough not to misrepresent him, and who loves you enough to rebuke you and warn you when you’re on the wrong path.  For as the Bible says, “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).

Remember Reggie Lewis, the basketball star for the Boston Celtics?  After collapsing in a game, this splendid player was told by a group of medical experts that he had a serious heart condition and that he should never play basketball again.  Reggie didn’t want to accept that, so he went to another hospital, where he was told that his basketball career could continue.  That sounded a lot better, of course, and so Reggie began playing again in preparation for the next season.  But one day on the basketball court, Reggie Lewis collapsed and died.  His death was a reminder that people who tell you what you want to hear are often tragically wrong.

The Word of God gives us a diagnosis we’d rather not hear:  we’re sinners.  It gives a prognosis we’d rather ignore:  we’re bound for hell if we don’t change.  And it offers a cure that upsets us:  the crucified body and shed blood of Jesus Christ.  Jesus told the crowds of people who were curious about him, “I tell you the truth unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  This was offensive to many people, and the Bible says,

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?”  Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”  (John 6:66-69)

Today, in an age saturated with consumerism, Jesus is presented in a way that doesn’t really offend many people.  You hear a lot about what Jesus can do for you.  If you’re lonely, Jesus can be your friend.  If you want more money, Jesus can “bless you real good.”  If you’re an athlete, Jesus can make you a winner.  If you’re feeling inferior, Jesus can give you more self-esteem.  If your family is falling apart, Jesus can put it back together.  If you’re struggling with an addiction, Jesus can help you out of your mess.  Whatever your problem, Jesus is the solution;  whatever your question, Jesus is the answer.

There’s a certain amount of truth in this, but the central truth we need to know is this:  unless you eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood, you are lifeless and decaying.  You need to believe the preaching of Christ crucified for your salvation.  You need to eat the bread and drink the wine through which the Spirit of Christ nourishes people for eternal life.  Whatever other things the church may do or say, the preaching of Christ crucified and the holy sacrament of participation in his body and blood is the essence of Christian faith.

If that turns you off the way it turned off the people Jesus was talking to, I’m sorry.  But if you look for a religious substitute that you find more appealing, it’s going to be a counterfeit.  You need the genuine Jesus, not the consumer Christ.  You need the Savior crucified for sinners, not the new-and-improved magic Jesus, manufactured and packaged to please the customer.  As Peter said, to whom else shall we go?  Who else has the words of eternal life.  Who else is the Holy One of God?  Beware of the voices telling you what you want to hear.  Listen instead to God’s Word telling you what you need to hear.  If you’re not yet a follower of Jesus, don’t be fooled by flattery.  Repent of your sin, trust in Christ, and join a church where Christ, not the customer, is king.

And now, a word for those who are already Christians.  I’m glad you know the Lord, that you haven’t fallen for counterfeits, but we still need to be aware of how our faith and life can be distorted when religious organizations try too hard to please a certain type of customer.

We want our faith to be interesting, not boring.  We love the sensational testimony.  We’re fascinated by people who tell tales of sin and horror before they became Christians–the worse, the better–followed by a spectacular conversion and a new life where they’re happy and holy 24 hours a day.  Not long ago, Christians couldn’t get enough of listening to a certain man who claimed that before he became a Christian, he led a very large group of Satanists–but it turns out he was lying to make his story more exciting.  Sensationalism sells, as the supermarket tabloids and TV shows demonstrate.  But maybe our churches would be better off highlighting the unspectacular ways that God often works in the lives of ordinary Christians.

Another thing we need to watch out for is overadvertising.  Sometimes we’re so eager to lead people to Christ that we talk like all their troubles will disappear the moment they trust Jesus:  all their addictions will disappear, their depression will be lifted, their diseases will be healed, their financial problems will be replaced with success, and so forth.  Or, at another level, we say that it’s possible to have a personal relationship with God, to sense his nearness at all times, and to know constantly exactly what the Spirit is saying.  Books with titles like The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life are very appealing.  Preachers offer how-to advice on the Victorious Life in Christ, giving glowing accounts of how alive and vibrant they feel, and telling you how you can enjoy that same marvelous feeling in a few easy steps.  And then, when you don’t feel that way, you wonder what’s wrong with you.

It all sounds super-spiritual, but it’s just not true.  Instant holiness and perfect fellowship with God sound appealing–but so do books with titles like Thin Thighs in Thirty Days.  People are always going to be attracted to quick and easy solutions, but Christian discipleship is a lifelong journey that involves ups and downs, hardships and heartaches, times where God seems distant as well as times when he seems near.

Instead of overadvertising, we need to be honest with each other.  When we tell people that we’re experiencing heaven on earth, they’ll obviously want what we’ve got.  The trouble is, we haven’t got it, and neither will they.  The Bible promises heaven in heaven, not heaven on earth.  Christ makes a great difference in our lives, and people need to know that, but they also need to know that the Christian path sometimes leads through valleys of frustration and spiritual dryness.  That message might not sell as well to customers who want instant happiness, but it’s more truthful, and in the long run, it will do them more good.

A final word and this concerns the kind of niche marketing I mentioned at the beginning of the broadcast, aiming the gospel at one particular group.  People want a church where they “feel comfortable,” and they feel most comfortable with people who are like them.  Church growth experts call this “the homogeneous unit principle.”  They say that a church grows fastest when it targets a single racial group, or a particular age group such as the baby boomers, or a particular social class such as professionals, or people who like a particular style of music.  Everything is structured to make people in the target group feel comfortable and to show the relevance of the gospel to their particular situation.

But let’s not forget:  there’s more to church than feeling comfortable.  Often God calls us out of our comfort zone.  He calls us out of ourselves and into Christ.  We may feel most comfortable with people who are exactly like us, in a setting that caters to our preferences.  But the gospel of Jesus and the celebration of his Holy Supper unites people who aren’t alike.  Christ breaks down the barriers of social preference.  True Christian unity doesn’t depend on social similarities;  it depends on Christ.

The church isn’t a supermarket or a social club;  it’s the body of Christ.  Christ is king;  the customer isn’t.  Let’s remember that.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, in a religious marketplace filled with many choices, we’re often confused.  Protect us from preachers who tell us only what we want to hear, and open our ears to those who preach the Word.  Turn us from our sin to you, dear Lord.

And then, Father, give us the wisdom we need to be sensitive to those who still need to know you, to be aware of how they think and what they feel, and at the same time to be faithful to you and honest in how we present the gospel.  May your name be praised in all we do, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.