I have been blogging about evangelicals and their drama a fair bit lately, and about how they could use a little more mainline Christianity in their lives. But mainliners have problems too. As the mainline struggles with declining numbers, finances, clergy numbers, etc… I have seen many churches trying anything to get people to stay, to come back, to be seen. These efforts have resulted in a trend that I have been trying to name, and I have finally come up with something:
Now, the movie Anchorman is not for everyone, it is crass humour paired with the absurd, but it speaks to this trend. Anchorman 2 recently came out, and if you watch this trailer, you will get what I am talking about at 0:50. (Warning: the trailer contains offensive themes).
The main character, Ron Bergundy played by Will Ferrell says,
“Why do we have to tell the people what they need to hear? Why can’t the news be fun? Why can’t we give them what they want to hear?”
Anchorman is not just crass humour, it is also (at times) brilliant satire.
We all grow weary of the 24 hour news cycle, and the fight for ratings and views, which earn advertising dollars. But we kid ourselves to think that this “Give the people what they want, instead of what they need” attitude hasn’t crept into Christianity in North America.
And let’s face it, it works. It gets people to tune in, click the link or sit in the pew. It makes people happy, and there is nothing that feels better to church leaders than a room full of happy people. As a pastor, it is really hard to insist on giving people what they need, it can be way easier to give them what they want.
Giving people what they want can be done in these 9 easy steps:
1. Easy answers. People don’t need good teaching and preaching, they want easy answers. Just offer people a list of concrete easy-to-follow advice, they will not only love it, they will it repeated so they can write it down. Look at all the internet lists out there, “10 easy ways to…” etc… We all click on them. Heck, that is why this post has that a title like that. Concrete advice is so much easier than in-depth explorations of our faith, theology, history and ethics. Don’t waste time helping people grow or learn, or to live with tension and complexity. The most recent young earth creation debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye had a “give them what they want” ethos written all over it.
2. Give them outrage. People don’t need to me telling them about complex problems, people want to be mad at something. We are biologically inclined to respond more viscerally to negative emotions like anger. The media knows this well. It is way easier to preach outrage about taxes, government regulations, other religions, political agendas, or the evils of being rich than it is encourage people to grow in empathy and compassion. Seeing the ‘other’ as human or seeing issues as problems we are called to do something about takes work, and a good measure of God’s help. Who has the energy to be calm, collected and compassionate? Outrage is easy.
3. The Bible they know. People don’t need me to tell them what the Bible really says, they want to hear what they think it says. God helps those who help themselves. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. To thine own self be true. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Money is the root of all evil. This too shall pass. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Most people think they know what is in the Bible, why tell them otherwise? Besides it is a lot easier for preaching when you don’t have to explain what the Bible is actually saying, no one wants to hear that anyways. It is more convenient to preach from the bible of old wives tales and clichés, than the 66 books we used to know.
4. Someone to blame. Terrorists, gangs, the poor, those in power, gays, immigrants, ethnic minorities, liberals, conservatives, children, the sick, the elderly, women. People don’t need to know that their problems likely have complex sources (with themselves at the centre), they want to hear who they can blame for their problems. So let’s stop trying to help people see the pervasive effects of sin in the world, or the suffering and brokenness of others around us. Instead, let’s blame people for their own problems and and let’s blame those ‘others’ for our problems too.
5. Approval but no oversight. It can be really tiring to say ‘no’ as a pastor. People don’t need to hear it, especially when they want to hear ‘yes!’ Can we read from “The Secret” instead of scripture in worship? YES! Can the youth sing Justin Bieber songs during the offering? OF COURSE! Is it okay to have a bible study on Chicken Soup for the Soul Vol. 3? NO PROBLEM! Can’t we just not mention God in church anymore? GOOD IDEA! It can be a lot of work to help people understand why Christians do the things we do. It is way easier to just let people do the crazy things they want.
6. The promise of getting rich. People do not need to hear that God doesn’t like people getting rich, they want to hear that God makes us rich. The biggest churches in North America make the promise that God will bless us with wealth if we only have enough faith (and give lots of money to the pastor). It would be way easier to tell people that God wants to give us lots of money if we want it enough, and at our basest level we want to hear that. It can be real bummer to talk about how Jesus was kind of a poor dude, and that God is not cool with extreme wealth or extreme poverty.
7. Car chases, puppy dogs and celebrity gossip. People don’t need to hear about all the depressing reality of the world, you know like real political, economic, social issues and what God has to do with that stuff. They don’t want to hear about suffering or sadness. So slap some kittens on the powerpoint, use the latest episode of ‘the Bachelor’ as a sermon illustration, use bible study time to watch the latest pop culture movies. It doesn’t really matter if people can’t tell the difference between Jesus and Jay-z, or Matthew and Matthew McConaughey, or Mary Magdalene and Miley Cyrus.
8. Avoid conflict at all costs. People don’t need to know how to have healthy relationships, they come to church to get what they want. Never ever challenge church people. Always do what they want. Always give in. Never fight. Maintaining principles, challenging bullies, standing up for justice just causes conflict. Conflict causes anxiety. And anxiety is really stressful. Pastors burn out on that stuff. It is way easier to just avoid conflict altogether. Churches that avoid conflict can last for decades before all the unresolved issues blow up in their face. Who wants to deal with issues all the time, when you can just deal with all of them at once every few years?
9. Nostalgia. People don’t need to practice living in reality, they want to live in the world that they fondly remember. Give them sappy, emotionally manipulative drivel. People want to be reminded of the world they once had and loved. They want to relive the same Christmas Eve service every year, it doesn’t matter the same kid has been a sheep for 7 years, or baby Jesus can shave now. People come to church because of how great it once was, they don’t want to waste time imagining what it could be in the future. Looking forward means change, looking back means everything stays the same. Change is hard, why change?
So, now that you know these 9 steps, please don’t follow them.
Long before Anchorman 2 came out, I had been adopting a motto for ministry. “I am not here to give you what you want, I am here to give you what you need.” It is a bold stance to take as pastor these days. You don’t have to spend much time reading the Christian internet, watching TV preachers, or even seeing some local churches in action. It is way easier as a pastor, as church leadership, as church people to give people what they appear to want. Giving people what they want gets results, higher ratings and more butts in pews. But it is disingenuous faith. It results in “worshiptainment”, it creates “church consumers” instead of church members”, it allows people to stay stagnant in faith, instead of growing in relationship with that Jesus.
And speaking of Jesus, he wasn’t all that interested in giving people what they want was he?
Nope, he was all about what we really need.