“Later on in my young adulthood …. Fresh imagery [of the church] was now provided by American business. While I was growing up in my out-of-the-way small town, a new generation of pastors had reimagined church … [as] an ecclesiastical business with a mission to market spirituality to consumers and make them happy.

“… The church was [now conceived of] as a business opportunity that would cater to the consumer tastes of spiritually minded sinners both within and without congregations. It didn’t take long for American pastors to find that this worked a lot more effectively as a strategy …. Here were tried-and-true methods developed in the American business world that had an impressive track record of success.

“As I was preparing myself to begin the work of developing a new congregation, I observed that pastors no longer preached fancy sermons on what the church should be. They could actually do something about the shabby image the church had of itself. They could use advertising techniques to create an image of church as a place where Christians and their friends could mix with successful and glamourous people. Simple: remove pictures of … God … from the walls of the churches and shift things around a bit to make the meeting places more consumer friendly. With God depersonalized and then repackaged as a principle or formula, people could shop at their convenience for whatever sounded or looked as if it would make their lives more interesting and satisfying on their terms. Marketing research quickly developed to show just what people wanted in terms of God and religion. As soon as pastors knew what it was, they could give it to them.

“… I was watching both the church and my vocation as a pastor in it being relentlessly diminished and corrupted by being redefined in terms of running an ecclesiastical business. The ink on my ordination papers wasn’t even dry before I was being told by experts, so-called, in the field of church that my main task was to run a church after the manner of my brother and sister Christians who run service stations, grocery stores, corporations, banks, hospitals, and financial services. Many of them wrote books and gave lectures on how to do it. I was astonished to learn in one of these best-selling books that the size of my church parking lot had far more to do with how things fared in my congregation than my choice of texts in preaching. I was being lied to and I knew it.

“This is the Americanization of congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business ran along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric. But this was worse. This pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity violated everything – scriptural, theological, experiential – that had formed my identity as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor. It struck me as far worse than the earlier … crusader illusions of church. It was a blasphemous desecration of the way of life to which the church had ordained me ….”

– Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 111-113.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What do you understand as the church’s mission in the world? 
  • How have you seen the Americanization of the church in your context as Peterson described?
  • How has this impacted the way the church views itself and how it interacts with people both within and without?
  • Is there a place for business principles and practices in the church? Explain.
  • Is there a line that needs to be drawn between church and business practices? If so, what is it, how should it be determined, and how should it look in practice?
  • What struck you the most in Peterson’s critique?
  • Is there anything you need to pray about or anything you need to/can change in your context?

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