Scratching Where They Itch?

One of the most troubling things I see when I look at contemporary Christianity is the mentality that the church should fashion itself according to the needs and wants of the “audience.” It’s an idea that grew out of the evangelical church growth and seeker movements and is practically an epidemic today. Almost every evangelical church these days is to some extent thinking in terms of what the audience wants and how churches can provide them with a desirable product. It’s unseemly, to be sure, but it’s just a symptom of the consumerist culture we live in. Presumably, it’s how things must be done. Whatever else you might say about a product you’re trying to sell, the one thing you know for sure is this: the audience is sovereign.

But of course, the question the church must reckon with is this: is Christianity a “product” we must sell? Looking at the language many pastors and Christian leaders use today, it certainly sounds like it.In Pop Goes the Church, Tim Stevens argues that effective churches are those that identify the needs of their audience, speak their language and “scratch where they itch.” In Branding Faith, Phil Cooke says that the church needs to “start thinking in reverse,” by focusing on the audience rather than the message and realizing that “it’snot the message you send, it’s the message that’s received that counts.”

Cooke also says this: “Pastors, Christian leaders and broadcasters always thought they had the answers to what their audience wanted and, more important, the audience would listen. Today the audience is in charge. In a virtually unlimited channel universe, the audience has more choices than ever before, and for us to justify their attention, we need to get on their wavelength.”

Indeed, it may be true that people have more choices than ever before and that Christianity is competing for increasingly depleted pockets of attention, but I hardly think the answer to this dilemma is to start with the conceit that “the audience is in charge.” Especially for Christians, it should be clear that the audience is not and should not be sovereign! The audience consists of broken, depraved, n’er do well sinners. God is sovereign. He comes first, not the audience’s idea of what they want God to be or what they want from religion.

The problem with the “audience is sovereign” approach is that audiences rarely want what is really in their best interest. Giving audiences what they want might make a company money, but it rarely satisfies the audience in the long run. And it hardly ever edifies their soul. Furthermore, in terms of Christianity, what the audience “wants” has very little bearing on what Christianity actually is. In a market economy, consumer needs are those that consumers identify for themselves. But as David Wells points out in The Courage to be Protestant, “the needs sinners have are needs God identifies for us, and the way we see our needs is rather different from the way he sees them… The product we will seek naturally will not be the gospel.”

To “scratch were they itch,” then, seems like a futile pursuit for a church trying to win converts to the Gospel. People are itching for a lot of things, and some of them might actually add up to what the gospel of Christ offers, but at the end of the day the gospel is defined outside of and with little regard to whatever it is people think Christianity is or should be.

The logic of consumerism is that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price. It’s all about ME—the brands I buy, the products I consume, the “gimme more” mindset of never having to wait long to have any desire fulfilled.

I’m not sure there are any circumstances under which Christianity fits comfortably into this paradigm.

To position the gospel within this consumerist framework is to open the door to all sorts of distortions, mutations, and “to each his own” cockamamie variations. If it’s all about selling a message that scratches a pluralism of itches, how in the world will a cohesive, orthodox, unified gospel survive?

In his article “Jesus is not a Brand” in Christianity Today, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson raises the warning that by adopting a marketing mindset, the church “will subtly contort the gospel into mere personal fulfillment,” focusing only on the benefits of becoming a Christian and presenting a message “not fundamentally different from commercial advertising about the existential benefits of this car or that soap.” And this sort of “what can the church do for me?” mindset is completely contrary to living a God-centered, neighbor-focused life.

To conceive of Christian identity in terms of consumer satisfaction is the wrong way for the church. We cannot let ourselves—or our message—be form-fit to the fickle demands and fluctuating interests of the market.

As Wells puts it: “Relevance is not about incorporating something else as definitive in the life of the church, be it the hottest marketing trend, the latest demographic, the newest study on depression, what a younger generation thinks, Starbucks, or contemporary music. None of these is definitive. None should be allowed a defining role in how the church is strengthened and nourished.”

There are a lot of things that scratch were the average person itches. Things like aspirin, coffee, reality TV, cookies, cigarettes, sleep, sex, and orange juice. To place Christianity in that category of just “one among many” desires that people might have is to do it a monumental injustice. Christianity transcends all that. It is much bigger and above all earthly whims, fads, desires and emotional cravings. If we think we can “sell” it best on the terms of the consumer, we are gravely mistaken.