Christians ultimately attend church to meet with God. But sometimes we turn our churches into distractions, and spiritual leaders mistakenly prioritize things beyond God, becoming obsessed with marketing, consumerism, and entertainment — creating false idols.
The diluting of church happens in both subtle and obvious ways:
Scripture is substituted for a stirring YouTube video.
Worship is tweaked to incorporate flashing lights, fog machines, and synchronized graphics.
Visitors are given nicer gift baskets.
Contests are held. Websites are updated. Social media is expanded. Apps are developed. Promotional clothing is given away — a brand is created.
Coffee shops, bakeries, and Internet cafes are constructed. Food courts, fountains, and leather couches are put in the lobby.
Fancy TV screens are installed everywhere.
Gaming systems are provided for the youth.
Holy ceremonies are replaced by superficial events. Carnivals are hosted, concerts are performed, conferences are facilitated, food is served, and a litany of small groups and social clubs are created to fulfill every hobby, pastime, and niche imaginable.
Communion becomes a wine-tasting event, baptism gets transformed into a beach party, and confession is avoided altogether.
Volunteerism is disguised as leisure.
Ministry opportunities are adorned with pizza and games.
Mission trips are spun as exotic travel destinations.
None of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves if motivated by an intention to bring people into a closer relationship with God, but it becomes dangerous when churches sacrifice spiritual necessities for the sake of maintaining the cultural status quo.
Truth is gauged by the amount of attention received, morality judged by popularity, holiness measured by fame, authority determined by power, security based upon control, and happiness evaluated according to wealth.
This is what happens when we ignore God — or simply try to make God more marketable: Jesus becomes a product. The Gospel becomes a promotional tool. Parishioners become customers. Pastors become celebrities. Sermons become propaganda. Churches become businesses. Denominations become institutions. Faith becomes a religion, which eventually becomes an empire.
Instead of striving to be a place for divine communion where disciples praise and worship Jesus, churches become infatuated with accommodation — making people comfortable, happy, entertained, safe, and content.
Contrarily, churches can go to the opposite extreme and remove any hint of joy, encouragement, comfort, and inspiration. Instead, they choose to implement fear, guilt, shame, and other abusive tactics to legalistically manipulate people into “loving” God.
Both types of Christianity are illusions built upon lies and a facade of clichés, where cheap sales techniques and overused stereotypes are reinforced using the powerful motivations of insecurity, convenience, ignorance, and a deep fear and hesitation of being brutally honest, uncomfortable, humble, and vulnerable — scared of risking it all.
This is why people often abandon Christianity and stop attending church — because God has been replaced by shallow gimmicks.
Instead of helping the poor, feeding the hungry, tending to the sick, sheltering the homeless, fighting injustice, speaking for the voiceless, sacrificially giving, and wholeheartedly loving our neighbors (and enemies), churches have become co-opted by secular values and empty content.
Emulating Christ is not for the faint of heart, and following his commands will probably mean becoming a church that embraces conflict, discomfort, work, pain, suffering, and truth. This is the messiness of Christianity — following God through the Pilgrim’s Progress of life, forsaking the riches of this world for the treasure of a Divine relationship. Are we brave enough to embrace this?
Stephen Mattson blogs at stephenjmattson.com. He's contributed for Relevant Magazine, Redletterchristians.org , and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.