Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Rescuing the Church From Goods and Services

It’s not often I come out of a dissertation defense with my head spinning and my heart breaking.  But this is in fact what happened to me this week as I listened to Dan Jarrell’s presentation of his paper.  On the surface, a title that reads—“Beyond Technology: Albert Borgmann’s ‘Device Paradigm’ And Its Implications for American Evangelical Churches” may not cause someone to stop in their tracks, but I will tell you that this paper has given me pause and challenged me to some serious reflection.

Dan is a pastor of a significant church, one of the largest if not the largest in Alaska (ChangePoint in Anchorage).  The catalyst to this project was a DMin prof, Andy Crouch, who pointed Dan to Borgmann’s writing (e.g. Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology).  Crouch is one of the best thinkers on culture (note his book Culture Making).  It was also fueled by Dan’s own growing frustration with the problem of consumerism in the church and the wholesale marketing of sacred things as if they were commodities to be consumed. He took the ideas of Albert Borgmann and applied them to the philosophy, culture, and practice of American evangelical churches in general and American megachurches in particular.

Here’s a powerful paragraph, just a sample of what Dan is saying in much of his work:

 “Consumers find freedom in devices that deliver what they value, becoming dependent upon those devices and embracing a “device paradigm” that shapes their view of life. Over time, consumers lose all sense of the value of process. They think technologically, expecting their needs to be addressed through devices, even when those needs cannot be commoditized. I contend that American evangelicals have learned to think of spiritual maturity and community as commodities. They expect their churches to provide the devices necessary for enjoying those commodities with minimal engagement in the processes that create and cultivate them. Churches grow if their programs and services seem to deliver what is expected, yet neither maturity nor community is a commodity. Neither can be enjoyed without full participation in process. The result is ironic: churches that are most effective in delivering a product are least effective in making disciples.”

As I listened to the presentation, I found much of what was said disturbing, not because anything was wrong, but because so much of what we have allowed ministry to become has gotten off center.  Dan essentially shared that this project has been his own journey of repentance—shifting from “device” thinking to “grace” thinking. Device thinking focuses on efficiency (best means to achieve an end), calculability (bigger is always better), predictability (making people feel comfortable and safe), and control (institutionalizing and packaging).  This is what a technological society values.  It is also what pastors can come to value, especially as the church grows into a large corporation. 

In contrast, grace thinking is much more interested in participation (how can we get maximum personal engagement with what matters?) and contingency (creating space for the inefficient, the immeasurable, the unexpected, and the uncontrolled). 

Just as our consumerism culture has reduced, fragmented things into mere commodities to consume, assisted by machine and technology, so the church has tended to fragment, reduce, mechanize the things that are focal, transcendent, things that provide a center of orientation.  It looks something like this–worship is reduced to excellence on stage, with passive observers expecting something more next week; fellowship gets reduced to giving units; obedience gets reduced to legalism; sacrament gets reduced to an efficient prefilled communion cup with wafer; and the Bible gets reduced to a sermon extracted from its metanarrative-e.g.“7 tips to Marital Happiness”).

So what needs to happen? Here are some of Dan’s thoughts: First, we need to repent of our tendency to follow the ways of a reductionist culture.  Second, we must reconsider how we evaluate success.  Our metrics need to count servants, not listeners; celebrate initiative (people finding ways to get engaged) over impact; and measure success in terms of deployment over detaining. Third, we need to embrace contingency (meaning—pack your plans with margins, welcome uncertainty, provoke dialogue, and be brave to invite criticism). 

Here are other things–Keep structures simple and lean.  Do things with, not for, people.  Turn the love boat (10% serving the 90%) into an aircraft carrier (everyone on board vital to the mission). Value personal touch over distant technology.

Too easily I find myself embracing a theology of achievement.  Papers like this help me move back to a theology of alignment—with what it is God values most.

  • Jerrilyn Korth
    10:18 PM, 17 March 2012

    Thanks for sharing. I find myself longing for a time when sharing the gospel didn’t require so much “bling”…Jesus did enough, He did it all,we have nothing more to add.

  • Debbie Hays
    7:05 AM, 20 March 2012

    I so agree with Jerrilyn….. There is so much that needs to be done still, and yet I stumble over my own self.. more than I care to admit. As far as technology is concerned, I pray that my ‘I’heart will replace my ipad & iphone so that my Father can ‘download’ all of the ‘apps’ I know that I need to be the light that He has called me to be. Actually, I really only need one app… Him. Thanks for sharing John

  • Eddy
    6:06 PM, 19 June 2012

    David As a (progressive) pastor who iieetifdns with so many of your struggles, let me ask a completely uninvited and possibly unwelcome question. There is something about the community of the church that I think does relate to God’s center of attention. If God is at work in our relationships—and I think that is the place where God is made most manifest—then of course being away from that community leads to feelings of alienation and remoteness. Being alone with God is always life-giving to me, but if I am not in a community, then I am not getting the fullest picture of God. Though the church drives me crazy, it is a community which keeps me grounded. I don’t think God only “lives” in the church, but is there a community in which you can live your faith—especially with people that drive you crazy??

  • Javy
    1:07 AM, 20 June 2012

    , Please do not bother knikcong, I already have the good news! Please take one. Edit: A MATURE person would not bother soliciting their delusions to other law abiding citizens enjoying the peace and comfort of their home, minding their business. There should be laws against door to door jesus knockers. How would you Christians like it if I came to your door at 7am with a speech about why you should play Adult Swim games, and how Zombie Hooker Nightmare and Hennesey changed my life. Wouldn’t like that would ya? Flipping hypocrites.

  • Tatjanci
    10:22 PM, 21 June 2012

    My experience grwoing up in a medium sized church in the US (approx 250) was that it was easy to just show up and leave without anyone really taking notice. I found the experience of attending a smaller church of about 100 in the UK very different. (I was there for three years.) While I had as much freedom to easily come and go, I definitely felt it was more noticed in the smaller church. I began to build relationships there which resulted in me staying longer, led to stronger friendships, discipleship, and eventually the realization that I hadn’t ever followed Jesus, even though I’d always thought I was a Christian. I observed a real community and deeper fellowship there in that smaller church that I hadn’t seen before. In hindsight I think it was a picture of how the church is described in Acts.In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point he talks about the theory that 150 is a magic number where he describes a social phenomenon seen across multiple types of communities (schools, workplaces, etc). I’m paraphrasing but basically the idea is that approximately 150 persons is the maximum number of people whom we can interact with without feeling that we don’t know how we relate to them. When workplaces rise above that number they have observed productivity levels come to a plateau even while adding additional workers. The idea is that above that number, people begin to feel like numbers and don’t think that what they do really matters or makes a difference. I felt that the missional church video above was spot-on in describing church members who don’t think they need to personally prepare themselves to share the gospel, and instead think that bringing someone to church and leaving it up to the pastor is evangelism. I think there can be a real danger in a large church where members can begin to depend on the pastors and elders to do the job that I think we are each called to do.I don’t know if the model of a big attractional church really works I think the people inside the church probably think it’s an attractive model that works but I’m not sure that the people outside would think the same. As to being attractive , the apostle Paul talks about being all things to all men but logically one large church can’t be all things to all men, really it can only be a few key things to only a certain type of people. I think it’s the reason why there tends to be a dominant homogenous group in a church, plus a few attenders in fringe groups. In thinking about how we should do church, I find it very helpful to think about Jesus’ model of discipling only 12 men over the course of three years with the goal of sending them out to be disciple makers in their own right. I think we see the same model followed by Paul as he trains up other men to plant churches. I find it helpful to remember the cliche that God has no grandchildren. I would love to see churches begin to plant when they get too large I feel that this would encourage people who haven’t felt needed before to step up to the plate and reveal talents and gifts we haven’t seen before, or for previously dependent people to realize they too can be equipped to become leaders too. I also feel that large churches can make the mistake of depending on the strength of its people whereas perhaps small churches might by necessity be forced to depend on the One whose strength matters, to His glory!

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