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Letter from America: Religion as a consumer product

January 1998 | by Terry Worthan

In a recent Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal (religion section) my interest was drawn to an entire article titled ‘A Growing Movement: Full-service churches offer programs and activities geared to America’s consumer culture’. The article went on to give an example, namely the First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Georgia. It described the church as ‘one of the fastest growing service-churches’ with its ‘eloquent 235, 000 square foot facilities, staffed with 22 professional ministers [and] a membership of 7689’. The journalist, Gayle White, said its calendar offered ‘everything from a senior adult chilli cook-off to a super-bowl party’.

Ms White quotes Scott Thumma, who holds a D.D. in the Sociology of Religion: ‘In offering a range or a multitude of places to minister or be ministered to,’ he comments, ‘these churches function as a kind of mall. … Programs are like little boutiques.’ The article also quotes a person who recently moved from the Atlanta area to another state as saying he was ‘shopping for a church’.

This, in a limited way, describes the sad state of affairs in America. Religion is just another consumer product. Competition is the name of the game. Another quote in the article states, ‘People accustomed to luxurious stores and professionally produced entertainment do not want to settle for amateur religion in second-rate facilities.’ No doubt that is true. The first church of Jerusalem, with a total of 120 members, assembling in a stuffy upper room, would not have appealed to the consumers of modern-day religion. But it was that church, and those like it in faith and practice, for which Jesus shed his blood and died. And it was from that church that the true gospel of the grace and glory of Christ first spread around the world.

The fools are not those leading this ‘growing movement’ but those who flock to and support it. Those who give it their time, talent and money are being taken in — and in a big way! This movement and its leaders are not interested in your souls, but in your cash. You pay for the ‘oil’ that keeps their machinery running smoothly. They are the same ‘flesh merchants’ against whom Paul warns his readers in Philippians 3:2, 18, 19. They are cast in the mould of the ancient Pharisees who, said the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘compass sea and land to make one proselyte’ only to make him ‘twofold more the child of hell’ than themselves (Matthew 23:15).

My readers, for your soul’s sake, hear me and ponder well my words. There will be no chilli cook-offs and super-bowl parties in hell. Eternity without Christ will be no amusement arcade. Show-time will be over when the soul breathes its last farewell and says goodbye to this old world. Nor will heaven be a super-mall of never-ending boutiques, well stocked with the dainties of carnal pleasure. Heaven is a place where never-ending praise will be lifted up to Christ, the Lamb, who was slain that sinners might receive cleansing from their sin. But that praise begins here in the hearts of the redeemed. A redeemed soul is one who has been made aware of the awfulness of his sin and of the judgement from which he has been redeemed. This awareness is not to be found in the boutiques of supermarket religion, but only at the cross of Christ and at the throne of sovereign mercy.

May the God of heaven and earth purge the land of these religious humorists and show-time entertainers, or at least grant that they be led to pursue their proper profession as performers, and quit the arena of religion altogether. While there is a place and time for laughter, the God of the Bible finds no humour in lost or misguided humanity. The compassionate God of glory still appeals: ‘How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity, and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? Turn you at my reproof: behold I will pour out my Spirit unto you. I will make known my words unto you’ (Proverbs 1:22-23).