Last month the UC Berkeley “News Center” reported , “Religious affiliation in the United States is at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930’s, according to analysis of newly released survey data by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University. Last year, one in five Americans claimed they had no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990” (on-line source). A mega-church pastor comments in this Fox News opinion piece what this report means is that Americans are increasingly more wary of labels. This same mega-church pastor then goes on to talk about overcoming “…the labels that bind us” which he says is done through having a relationship with Christ. What does that mean?
Overcoming labels through relationship means, among other things, “[I]n order to reach the current generation and generations to come, we must change the way we do things.” What the pastor means by that is “peeling off the labels that cling to our reputation.” He is talking about a business concept called “re-branding.” In the corporate world when a product loses its luster it is not unusual for a company to consider renaming the product, hoping the re-brand will boost sagging sales. One of the best examples of this strategy that I can think of is the grand reopening of restaurants. I can think of at least three failing restaurants in my neighborhood which while they have the same owners, have changed names and cuisines several times to bolster sales. I watched a gelato shop re-brand into a hot-dog and gelato restaurant, only to fail and change into a Mediterranean restaurant which happens to serve gelato. Hot dogs are still on the menu, but with a Middle Eastern twist. Something tells me the re-branding isn’t working in their case.
Where this mega-church pastor is correct is in his assertion that people need a relationship with Jesus Christ. Where this pastor goes terribly wrong is with his idea that we have to “push past artificial constraints” in order to “truly become who God created us to be.” What this pastor is suggesting as a remedy for his labeling crisis are the same old, tired, church growth methodologies which are failing. He’s still talking about human methods of production, and not about the Holy Spirit working through His Word. Indeed, what if people are just tired of identifying with pop-Christianity pushed onto them by mega-church pastors? What if they just don’t want to be labeled as being a member of the circus church down the road which utilizes all the latest fads in their re-branding schemes designed to pack people into their theater seating? One glaring problem these mega-church pastors are missing is that the trends they like to cite are really evidence of the failures of their church growth models. The unbeliever isn’t interested in bait-n-switch and the church hopper is only going along for the ride until the freebies run out, then they’re off to the next “free high” associated with being part of the next and best, cutting edge, religious crowd.
Contrary to what the mega-church pastor claims, labels are important. Some of these labels are the marks of the church. Where do we find the church? Where the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered (AC VII). The marks of the church, or its labels, are “…the pure doctrine of the Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with the Gospel of Christ” (Apology VII & VIII, 5). People need to hear the Gospel preached in its purity, with no gimmicks attached. The church of Christ has survived and been given growth by the Holy Spirit long before the 20th century church growth inventions came on the scene. Furthermore, since our Lord promises the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18), we do not have to worry about whether or not the Holy Spirit will continue to add to the church daily. That fact alone frees us to proclaim the pure Gospel in the world.
Perhaps the decline in “religious affiliation” is that an increasing number of people are simply tired of the “Purpose Driven churches,” and while they don’t know what to look for in finding the church, they at least see that the message coming out of the Rick Warren and Bill Hybels “cookie cutter” churches is not genuine?
We Confessional Lutherans understand what the Scriptures mean when we read, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). We know what that doesn’t mean is faith comes through re-branding or any anthropocentric methodology where the focus is on what we have to do in order to “truly become who God created us to be” so that the church can be “blessed with growth.”
The task of the church is to remain faithful in delivering the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. As Confessional Lutherans we are in an incredibly good position of getting out the pure Gospel, because God has freely given it to us. May our Lord grant us the boldness to proclaim His Gospel in its purity to the world.