Customer Is King: The Consumer and the Christian

[Humans] have been periodically assailed by qualms of conscience and fits of dizziness to pretend they occupy the center of the universe. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I

Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week – for YOU

Double your pleasure, double your fun; have it your way; have you had your break today; two for me, none for you; hungry? Why wait; just do it; it’s everywhere you want to be; because you’re worth it … Indeed, we are living in an age of personal success and instant gratification. Technological advances have pushed our society to the point where waiting more than a moment or so for the line to move forward or our smart phone to load our e-mail causes us to become incredibly frus [LOADING … LOADING … LOADING … LOADING]trated.

As the Niebuhr quote above suggests, we are suffering from a fit of dizziness in the affluent West that we occupy the center of the universe. In addition, customer service in metropolitan areas and suburbs has become more important than ever. If I don’t like the way I was treated at the Starbucks close to my house, I don’t care! I’ll just go to the Starbucks a few more blocks away. We have choices. One of the stop lights I always stop at on my way home from Moore First UMC subjects me to over 30 different kinds of advertisements. Liquor stores; pharmacies; gas stations; supermarkets; pizza parlors; cell phone retailers; and many more! I know that, at this particular intersection, I have the choice to go and spend my money at any number of locations, all of which are trying to convince me (in the time it takes for the light to change from red to green) that I need their product more than someone else’s.

Should anything different be said for the Church?

The “Welcome Center” attracts guests, offers services and gifts, and provides promotional materials that seek to set your church apart. Some resources explain how you can give yourself to the church, but others focus on what “guests” can “get” by coming.

People have an enormous array of churches to choose from. If a non or nominally religious person doesn’t like the way they were treated in a United Methodist Church, our open table theology or our doctrine of infant baptism isn’t necessarily going to keep them there. There is a church down the road from the church I serve that has a comparable modern worship experience and a comparable children’s department, and their welcome ministry begins in the parking lot. I might have my own fit of dizziness every now and then and believe that my preaching is bringing in guests to my church, but I am frequently awakened from that dream! I do think it is because we manage to make guests feel welcome in a way that does not suffocate them. I often wonder, however, why some hospitality committees and welcome committees aren’t just called the Customer Service Department. Is that wrong? Does it matter? Surely we can find ample evidence in the history of evangelism dating back to the Apostle Paul supporting using the language or the ideas within a subculture to point people to Christ. Should the Church’s welcoming ministries profess that Customer is King?

In her book, Catch, Debbie Nixon tackles this question by leading her readers to the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. She speaks of “The Four P’s” of marketing: Product, Promotion, Place, and Price. The product, obviously, is what you are offering to the customer; promotion addresses the many ways you promote the product; place is how the product gets to the customer; and price sets the value for the product. Nixon utilized these principles in a previous life marketing fine clothing for women. Now, she uses these principles at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS.

 “Jesus made it a priority to get to know more about this woman. He asked questions. He made observations. He identified the woman’s need  and offered her living water to meet that need. She ran to tell her friends about the life-changing product she had been given. Word spread quickly about this life-changing product:

 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days.41And many more believed because of his word.42They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’ John 4:39-42

For Nixon, the product is the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the new life this brings to the world; the promotion is through making visitors feel the love of Christ that other “customers” are already a part of, through welcoming and evangelistic means; the place is the church building, the mission field, the home, and the street corner; and the price is not entirely monetary. For the United Methodist Church, the price is our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness so that we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The consumerist language embedded in the book and the Catch program shocks my senses – I sometimes have a hard time teaching the material. However, the program uses language that people understand, concepts they can readily embrace, and practices that they can immediately implement.

Is Customer King in the Church? Are our visitors/guests our customers? Should we be embracing this kind of language and utilizing the culture, or rejecting the jargon of consumerism and embracing something entirely different?

Our churches are not supermarkets, are they? One stop shops? The danger of incorporating this language and philosophy into church ministries is that we would also incorporate a philosophy of pampered individualism.

There is no Christianity without community. If a Church uses a model of individualism to attract a new member to the church, then those in charge of Christian Education must be equally ready to help them unlearn an inward-focused faith. After all, the Church is one of the only non-profit, membership-driven organizations whose purpose is to reach out to those who are not yet its members.

What do you think? Is Customer King in the Church?

6 comments

  1. If the customer is “King” then Jesus is???? This all fits with what I call the “divine butler” idea that many have: God is in the business of serving humans, not the other way around. Just before I read this article, I had been thinking about the necessity of regaining a robust theology of sin and redemption. Without that, we humans really are the rulers of the universe.

    1. Christy, I appreciate your comment. The pitfall is indeed that the Church risks becoming a place for being served, not for becoming equipped to serve others. Thanks for sharing!

  2. If Catch, Debbie Nixon’s understanding of The Women at the Well is any indication of where we are headed we are in a lot of trouble.

    1. d, thanks for your comment. “Customer service” in the church is a little disconcerting. I don’t know that her comments on the biblical text are an actual indication of “where we are heading,” if by that you mean the United Methodist Church. However, it seems apparent that churches are adding more and more ‘perks’ for their guests to keep them coming back. That’s where discipleship classes come in. Certainly guests who are considering membership need to be made very aware of what vowing one’s prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness really means. Our conference is beginning to use A Disciple’s Path and I think it does a good job in grounding visitors in the work we need to be doing as a Church and our responsibilities as disciples of Christ.

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. I remember the first time someone explained the concept pioneered by Soren Kierkegaard — that worship is a divine drama. We are the actors and God is the audience. It totally changed the way I viewed what happened on Sunday morning. I understand that many guests have to feel welcome at the table first, but at some point they need to be asked to pass the potatoes too. What a shallow cup we offer them if we assume they are only there to be served.

    1. Charla, I appreciate your comment. There is an important transition that has to take place between guest and member, and we must make sure we don’t pass over that transition for the sake of ease or quick growth. Thanks for sharing!

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