Being a Consumer… of Ministry and Missions?

We live in a consumer culture (I am sure you are fully aware). The United States is one of the few nations where the service industry is larger than the manufacturing industry. In other words, we don’t so often make things as we provide services. And I believe we have all, in this service-oriented culture, become spoiled and critical. We often judge a restaurant, dealership, or retail store by the service we receive, not necessarily by the object we obtain. And it doesn’t take but one bad experience and we, with our money, walk out the door.

For many years, being on church staffs, we have talked about how people have become consumers of ministries. We shop around and find the right mix of ministries that tickle all of the right spots – we may go on Sunday mornings to this church because the preaching is great, but we go to this church on Sunday nights because the Worship is powerful, then on Tuesdays we go to this church for the Ladies Bible Study, and our teenagers go to camp with this church because that camp rocks. We judge each experience based on “customer service,” if they don’t sing the songs we like, or say the words we like, or have the building with the big slide for junior, we are out the door.

In an article entitled “Confessions of a (Recovering) Church-hopper”, the author, John Fischer, stated, “In our free-market, commodity-rich society, it’s understandable that we would approach church as we would a shopping mall of spiritual products and services. This is the way our culture operates.”

Jesus warned us that in this world we will have trouble and that this world is not our home. In Matthew 10 He said “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” He knew that the deceiver, the great enemy of our souls, would be constantly at work feeding us the lies of our surrounding culture. So Jesus warned us to test everything and to be wise, to not buy into the culture mentality, but to instead have a Kingdom mentality.

I think this consumer culture has corrupted both our expectations of and our commitment to churches. And we often don’t realize that there is a price we are paying for being church shoppers – a great price. This is a culture mentality and not a Kingdom mentality. In all of that running around, true community is lost. It becomes about the show, about the experience. We become critical consumers, instead of joining into the Body of Christ and playing the vital role God intended for us to play. We become spectators instead of members of the Body and we lose sight of the church as a body of Believers that we were intended to join.

And in all of this – essentials of the faith are lost. Where do we serve? Where do we tithe? The unfortunate evidence shows we don’t. According to Barna, only 5% of church goers tithe. (Tithing is the giving back to the Lord the first 10% of what the Lord has given us).

So not only are we consumers, but we are cheap. We are interested in the best free show out there.

It is no wonder that many of us walk away from church, never to return – as do our students who have grown up treating church this way. Recent research by Barna of 2,660 twenty-somethings shows that Americans in their twenties are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church services, to donate to churches, to be absolutely committed to Christianity, to read the Bible, or to serve as a volunteer or lay leader in churches. Without community, the purpose of the church is lost. Don’t you wonder if we are throwing away an entire generation because we have been fooled into this consumer mindset and they have watched us and this mindset is the only thing they have grown up knowing of church?  I’m sure many things play into these statistics, but I wonder if this mindset is also a part.

We must be very wise when it comes to our church membership. I am not advocating remaining in dead churches (what my husband calls country clubs – a topic I wrote about in detail last year). But I am saying we need commitment and true community, not consumption, both for ourselves and for the children who watch our every move.  We must join into the work of Christ through His church. We must give. We must serve. We must connect. We must change everyday to become more like Him.

The past few months, I have been noticing the trend towards this consumer model not only in churches and ministries, but also in missions. Don’t get me wrong – there are some great things happening in missions around the world these days. It has, and I’m grateful for it, become vogue to care for “the least of these.” Churches and Believers are using terms like “social justice” and are truly becoming interested in sharing our immense wealth with the rest of the world as well as with the single mom down the block. I do love that, and don’t want to ever discourage it.

Another incredibly positive thing that has happened in the past 20 years is an amazing infrastructure has been developed to reach the poor and lost around the world. Compassion International and WorldVision are both amazing 4-star rated charities on the ground all over the world feeding, clothing, schooling, and reaching millions of people with the Gospel of Christ. For about $30 a month you can take care of a child in another country and assure that they will be fed, cared for, and given the chance to hear the Gospel. You can pay for it automatically, write them from your laptop, and make a huge difference. This is a FANTASTIC thing.

In addition, many ministries have sprung up in recent years taking people on trips to experience what God is doing in other countries. You can journey on a short-term mission trip and visit orphanages or villages and care for people directly – sharing the love and light of Christ. This can be another wonderful thing. My husband and I met on a short-term mission trip and I have loved being a part of those in the past.

But I have begun, in recent months, to feel a conviction and a caution in my heart when considering not only going on these short-term mission trips, but also sponsoring other people to go on them. I feel we must be wary of the consumer mindset creeping into our decision making.

My sister has given me permission to share this – and hopefully it will help you see where I am coming from. My sister is about to leave on an 11 month mission trip to 11 countries. When I first heard about the trip a few months ago, truthfully, I was against it. I had a huge sense of caution, not because of the trip, but because of the expense. At the time, my sister was going to begin fundraising for the entire $15,000 that she needed for the trip. I felt like it was a great potential experience for her, but I felt cautious about the fact that she was going to be asking people to donate so much money. I felt there was a huge red flag and I expressed to her my concern. In time, the Lord revealed to her that she needed to sell everything she had to raise money for the trip, and she was obedient to that call. Through the sale of her possessions and her car, she raised over 2/3 of the money needed for the trip. So although she was fundraising, she was also sacrificing. She gave her all first before she asked anyone else to give to the cause. Practically speaking, she felt that if the trip was going to be a great experience for her, the primary weight of financial responsibility needed to fall on her. At that point, my cautious feeling went away and I can now say, after watching her sacrifice this past few months, that I feel this trip is the best possible thing for my sister and I am convinced she is ready to follow this call.

This is where I have come down on this issue, and please keep in mind this is only my opinion and conviction and I understand others may disagree. I think we must be VERY wise and wary when making decisions about missions because I think the enemy can fool us here. We can allow a short-term mission trip to become an expensive safari, an experience for our benefit where we get to observe another world and take pictures and then we leave and return to our life leaving little good effect in our wake. So we spent a ton of money, but outside of us having a life-changing experience, we don’t have much to show for it.

On the other hand, because of the infrastructure in place through worthy ministries like Compassion and WorldVision, we can do a tremendous amount of good for a small amount of cash. For the cost of some of these short-term trips, we could sponsor more than 10 children for over 3 years through Compassion International. And as each of those children are changed, over the long-term, they impact others. So the ripple effect of that sponsorship has huge potential. The money goes into that community directly to make a concrete difference.

I am not saying there is not a place for short-term missions, but I believe we must be wise and we may need to only consider them after we have given our money sacrificially to other places where it possibly can do more good. There is only so much money we can give to causes, and we must be wise. There are missionaries all over the world who are long-term career missionaries giving their lives to invest in people groups. They are making a massive difference in the lives of hundreds of people and they need our support. We MUST support them before we become spectators or consumers of missions ourselves.

And we must be sacrificial. We cannot ask others to give to things when we ourselves have not given our all.

So our giving then looks like this:

1. The tithe – 10% of income to our local church where we are an invested member serving. (Biblically mandated – must be first).

2. The offering – Sacrificial giving over and above the tithe to worthy ministries.

3. The experience – Short term trips where we ourselves also benefit, that we ourselves have sacrificed to attain.

It is, after all, not about us, but about the spreading of the glory and gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not consumers then of missions, but we are contributors to the cause of missions around the world.

What do you think? What do you think are the pitfalls in our consumer culture we need to avoid when it comes to Ministry and Missions?

**Just in case someone may understand, please know I am not advocating these guidelines for the life of every Believer.  I am simply saying, as I have processed this, these are the thoughts and boundaries I have put in place in my mind to test these things and see if I am buying a mindset that is not holy.  So if you have a concern or think I am imposing rules on you, please know first of all that I am not, and please feel free to reach out to me**

8 Comments

  1. you bring up some very good points. i’d like to comment on a few:

    consumerism in church is hurting christianity — but i think it’s a sign of deeper problems, not necessarily the problem in and of itself. we view church as an event, not a community. and we view ministry as serving those who will show up to our programs. if this is what christianity’s going to be about, then we all better start church shopping.

    i respect your sister a great deal. it’s incredible what she’s doing. i also admire a great deal tentmaker missionaries, who are able to find a way to work while “on the field,” making enough money to support both their family and their ministries.

    i, too, am questioning our current views on short-term missions. i honestly can’t say they do a great deal of good for the communities to which they go. for me, the only redeeming quality, really, is that long-term missionaries come from short-term missions. i never would have decided to live and serve in tanzania if i’d not first been on short-term trips to mexico and england. i am really big, though, on internships — where students (generally) stay a bit longer than typical short-term trips, and are able to learn quite a bit about culture, language, cross-cultural ministry, and the general life of a missionary.

    as for your breakdown of moneys given, i think it’s great for people to give 10% to their own congregation, and i think it’s really great for them to give above and beyond that number to other ministries. but i do wonder about the necessity of setting a firm percentage (10) for giving. i know there is / was sort of a biblical mandate for such, but i would hold that today to give generously and cheerfully is our mandate. why so firm on the tithing bit?

    thanks for what you’ve written; i’ve enjoyed reading it. this is my first time to your site, by the way. i’ll be back.

    Reply

    1. James – I don’t know how you found my blog, but I’m so thankful And thrilled you did. I took a look at your site and think you and your wife and tiny girl are perfect examples of what we need to be about.

      You bring up great points, that frankly your experience gives you license to say more than mine gave me license to say. I was trying to ease into the discussion. :). I did wonder if the redeeming factor of short-term was the experience and the draw to long-term. I loved what you said in your blog about the people of China and Tanzania and if that heart was born on the field then that is certainly a fruit. And I too respect the tentmaker or other professional missionaries who are self-sustaining.

      About the tithe, I think it’s more what motivated me, which is why I wrote it in such firm language. When I saw the maddening statistics on tithing I tried to think back to what motivated me when I first began to trust the Lord with my tithe. For me, having the 10% as a guideline and a goal helped, but then again I’m goal oriented. I remember my satisfaction at reaching that number and seeing that we were still surviving. Once I reached that number, I did begin to joyfully and cheerfully give but honestly at first it was about the goal. So you may be right that it is/was only a guideline, but I think it is a reasonable guide and measure of our willingness to trust God in the area of our finances.

      I am so thankful you found me and wrote. I too will be back to your blog and I pray your family knows peace, joy, and blessings beyond imagination as you serve the people of Tanzania.

      Reply

  2. jenvideo, i found your blog when i was browsing posts on ‘missions.’ i do that occasionally, just to see what others are writing on the subject. but for the record, my family (as in my wife and daughter) are the “perfect examples” of what we need to be. i myself am not the “perfect example” of much of anything except God’s forgiveness, grace, and humor. i also don’t have any greater license to say the things i say than do you. although it’s true that missionaries are often allowed to critique things others can’t. we’re seen as strange, and therefore are permitted just a bit to complain about american culture and the modern-day christian worldview.

    i’m torn on the short-term missions thing, and probably spoke as if i’m more sure of my feelings than i really am. i do see most of the “benefit” as going to the christians on the short-term trip. and i actually see a lot of problems caused by them. but i can’t paint all of them with that same brush.

    i was a tent-maker in china, and loved it. i hope this (tanzania) is the last time i have to raise funds in order to serve as a missionary / development worker. i’m already looking at other options and possibilities for the future.

    as far as tithing, it’s odd because i read the following blog about 15 minutes after yours. there are some good thoughts, though i don’t agree with all of them. worth checking out though:

    http://hardwords.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/dont-be-guilted-into-giving/

    thank you for your prayers. see you around.

    Reply

    1. I am totally intrigued by that blog. I confess until you questioned the tithe as 10%, I’d never thought of it as anything BUT 10%. I don’t know if I was taught that or what? But it’s interesting. I definitely want to study it more. I am so intrigued about the idea that it was referring to taxes. I really want to learn more and see what that is.

      I think you are right though – it ultimately is about the heart, and only the heart. For me, being a first born goal oriented person, it had to be a goal or I didn’t feel like I would ever get it accomplished.

      And about the short-term missions thing – I am also with you. I am wrestling with this. When I used to take people (particularly students) I sometimes wondered how much real good we were doing – sometimes it seemed we were just a massive force to be reckoned with.

      I guess I am just tired of everything in the church in America being about us, and so little actually being about the Lord and His glory and about others. In my life as well as in most other’s lives. I know it is the human condition – but I also don’t think that gives us license to be content with that. It isn’t right – and we must press in and fight that consumer “me” mindset. Not because we have to – but because we need to. Because we’ll be miserable otherwise.

      I don’t know – still wrestling. So glad to make your acquaintance. Totally made this blog worthwhile.

      Reply

  3. oh, and this is odd… i read your tweet about the pastor’s response to glenn beck. the pastor who wrote that response grew up going to church camp with me every summer.

    Reply

  4. Really appreciated reading your post today, Jen.

    The first time I travelled outside of North America (aside from my honeymoon) was with a short-term mission trip.

    I loved the experience of going, but the fundraising… that was awkward. We did sales, auctions and all of these kinds of things, but the thing we never did was ask the church outright to give if they felt led to give. I’ve never been sure why.

    As James said, there’s good and bad with short-term missions. What really helped us was coordination between local missionaries and churches and our church. We asked them what they wanted us to do and we did that.

    I think the most important thing about short-term missions is that it forces us to wake up to reality outside of North America. For me, it led to me joining Compassion’s staff, encouraged me to sponsor a second child with Compassion and, ultimately, to be more generous to my local church.

    P.S. Hope you enjoyed the blog on giving (James linked to it above). Come on by and share some thoughts if you like.

    Reply

  5. Being in long term missions I feel that really the benifit of short term missions is to those going on the trip rather than on the feild. If a short term missions trip is planned in a way that is to encourage growth and missions awareness in the people going it will help them both if they end up at home or on the mission feild. Having people with understanding about the mission feild in churches at home can be very benificial to missionaries as they tend to put more effort into helping.

    I do feel that church shopping is also hurting missions as when missionaries return home to visit thier churches often half or sometimes more of the people who were attending that church when they left have moved on to other churches. This makes it difficult to keep people informed and praying for the missionaries and more than anything we need people committed to praying for us.

    Reply

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