The Church Has An Identity Crisis

Books and magazine articles about pastoral ministry often say that the modern church has lost its way and is in something of an identity crisis. Pastors are modeling themselves after corporate CEOs, talk-show hosts, or even celebrities and comedians. Writers as different as John Piper and Eugene Peterson have pointed this out and offered suggestions about what to do about it.

But the problem is that these books are written mostly for pastors, and it’s mostly only pastors who read them. The rest of the church doesn’t necessarily get caught up to speed on this, and, in many cases, the pastors are not able to actually explain this to their churches or effectively overcome the cultural inertia or popular demand of their congregations. They might complain about it, but they tend to eventually give in to “what the people expect.”

That means we need to bring more than just pastors into the conversation. The people who make up our congregations need to consider the question of the church’s identity crisis and see if they can’t help the church find its proper way.

What Do Most People Believe?

Before we look at the church, however, we need to first look at what most people think about religion in general. This means that we need to take a realistic look at what most people believe. Sociologist Christian Smith conducted a series of studies on this question, and along the way he has coined the expression, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to describe what he found out. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is Smith’s attempt to name the collection of ideas which believe that:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. 2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem. 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Through extensive polling, Smith found that these beliefs were actually common across denominational, racial, and even religious lines. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and even “spiritual but not religious” young people held these views in common while not expressing many other distinctive religious views. Specific doctrinal positions about the nature of God, the way atonement is made, or even the definition of the church tended to be absent from the answers given to the question “What do you believe in?” This lead Smith to conclude that, “the de facto dominant religion among contemporary teenagers in the United States is what we might call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.'” There are a lot of problems with this, of course, but the most important are that this is not what Christianity is, it does not glorify Jesus Christ, and it will not save a single soul from eternal judgment.

Smith was only looking at teenagers, but it’s hard to imagine that the bigger picture is much better. The functional religion for most Americans is something along the lines of “God wants us to be nice people who do good things, and if we follow His teaching, our lives will be better and we will be happy.” Since this is true of the people in the churches, the churches tend to naturally accommodate themselves to this same set of beliefs. Unless they are meaningfully rooted in a confessional tradition or have an especially competent ministerial leadership team, they follow the popular pressures. The church sometimes uses special terms to justify this like “relevant,” “impactful,” and even “passionate,” but the reality is that a combination of common expectations and market demands are defining these words. Churches tend to do what their members assume they should do, and their members almost always get those assumptions from the broader culture.

What Are Churches Trying To Be?

While it would be unfair to take Christian Smith’s observations and jump to the conclusion that our churches are necessarily preaching and teaching Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it’s worth stopping to consider if they might be inadvertently sending that message or a message close to it. If most of their people tend to believe something like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism– that Christianity is about being a good person who is happy– and if churches tend to give in to the demands of their people, then have churches (accidentally) started promoting Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? One wonders if some of their marketing decisions don’t play into this, and if so, how they came to make them. My guess is that a lot of their decisions are based upon what they think people want and then, after that, a lot of copying of the way that other churches do things.

Professor Carl Trueman sees consumerism at work in the church in the following ways:

…the obsession with youth culture; a model of ministry that judges success in terms of numbers, not faithfulness; a culture which disregards the past; a dislike of anything approaching discipline, as the church is there for my needs, to scratch where I am itching. When church is just one more product to buy or leave on the shelf, then marketing, not theology, become the driving forces in her life.

This does seem to be the growing trend. In our post on worship styles, I mentioned that many churches tend to imitate music concerts. Checking the websites of some of the more well-known churches around town seems to confirm this. Many of them have their praise band as the central image on the home-page, and some add spot lights (or even multi-colored spotlights) and a large enthusiastic crowd. Some of very professional in appearance. None of these things are wrong in themselves, but their placement on the front page sends a distinct message for marketing purposes. These churches are saying, “We are like this. You will have this experience here.” And the main thing being advertised is the concert.

Other churches use different approaches, but they can still fall into the same general philosophy. Some emphasize social work. Others promote their various programs– popular ones these days range from children’s ministries to money management. Some churches promote sports opportunities. Looking at this, one gets the impression that churches are primarily social clubs that provide family services and climax with an inspirational concert experience. Preaching hasn’t gone away, but it very often does blend in with this larger framework, as the sermons try to “inspire,” “encourage,” and “equip.” Again, it’s not wrong to inspire, encourage, or equip, but when these are the top goals, and when the older words like “doctrine,” “reproof,” and “righteousness” are no longer used, then the pastor often becomes something like a Talk-Show Host or Motivational Speaker. In other words, he fits right in.

Of course, the choice of how to “market” the church is not always made with the same amount of precision. Sometimes the pastor or local leadership has very little to do with the work of advertisement or marketing (though I think they are making a mistake, if this is the case). So we should be careful not to overly quick to judge a church by its website, stationary, or talking points. Still, the way that we describe our churches to the world is telling. It reveals what our churches are trying to be. My point here is to ask you to consider what you assume a church should be “all about” and what sort of message the churches around you have been sending as to what they are “all about.”

What Should Churches Be?

If we do not want the church to simply imitate other parts of the culture, or to become a social-services group or therapy session, then what should it be? The Biblical answer includes a number of things: teaching the contents of the Bible, preaching the gospel, prayer, sacraments, discipleship (what Jesus calls “obeying all that I have commanded you), and a concept called koinonia (which is translated as both “fellowship” and “communion” and means a combination of both). This last concept is what most churches probably think they are doing with their emphasis on “community,” but the Biblical koinonia was more than coordinated group activities. It involved the sharing of one another’s lives through companionship, intercessory prayer, the bearing of one another’s burdens, the encouraging of holy living, Christian education, and the sharing of resources, including food, money, and even housing.

The classic descriptions of the church are things like, “House of Prayer” and “Hospital for Sinners.” You go there to meet God. At the time of the Reformation, three particular activities were singled out as being the church’s calling. These were the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, and practice of church discipline. The “Word” refers to the Bible, the sacraments were baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and discipline had to do with both positive “discipleship,” as an ordinary lifestyle according to religious principles, and negative “punishment,” when a member of the church falls into serious sin.

Now, some folks would say that churches should only do these three things and nothing else. I’m not sure if that is quite justified, and it would depend a lot on how each term was defined. But we don’t have to go that far to still challenge our churches to a radical course-correction. Let’s just call for those three things to be the top priorities for our churches, the things our churches talk about the most and spend the most time and resources on. And let’s ask for this to be reflected in our self-presentation to the world.

“Why should we do this? Well, there’s always the traditional answer– because that’s what the Bible says. And I agree with that. We should look to what the Bible says about the church. “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25).

But I think we can also answer in terms of marketing and strategy. The church should prioritize the Word, the sacraments, and discipline because those are the things that it can actually do better than any other institution. The church really can’t promise to provide a better concert experience than the world. It can do a pretty good job, but it’s not going to actually be able to compete with Ticketmaster. The church can help you get your finances in order, but it won’t ever really be as good as a real accountant or wealth manager. The church can help with social and political activism, but it won’t ever be as good as actual policy institutes and politicians. It can be second or third best, or more likely eight or ninth best, but it won’t ever be the best.

By contrast, when it comes to Word, sacraments, and discipline, it is the best. Those are the things over which it has expertise and even authority. In fact, when we are talking about corporate activities and official assemblies, only the church can do those things. Only the church has the means of grace and the keys to the kingdom. Those are what make the church unique among all other institutions. It’s how the church stands out. So the church should embrace that and promote those things.

The church should be about God, Jesus, the gospel, worship, prayer, the sacraments, speaking against sin, and living together in a community of Christian virtue and love. Those should be its “selling points.” That is what the church is about because that is who the church is.


Throughout this post, I’ve used the language of marketing and strategy. But that’s not really my top priority. I’m not really focused on church websites or advertisements. While I do want churches to be more self-critical about their marketing and self-expression, what I really want is for Christians to consider what the church is supposed to be. I want Christians to look at what they think the church should be all about and consider where they got those ideas from and if those ideas really are correct. I want the church to grow out of its identity crisis.

I want the church to be itself.

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