Pleasing The Customer
by Rev. David Feddes
Pleasing The Customer
by Rev. David Feddes
The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their owm desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 2 Timothy 4:3

    "The customer is king." That's the motto of almost any successful business. Figure out what people want, and then give it to them. If you don't, your competitors will, and you'll lose business. In a market economy, you've got to please the customer. It's that simple.

    What's true in business seems to be true in the religion business as well. Religious publishers won't print a book if there's no market for it; religious recording companies won't produce an album if they don't think people will buy it; a religious broadcaster can't raise funds on the air if he's not saying what his audience wants to hear; and a church isn't going to expand and thrive unless it's the kind of place people want to be.

    Even the Bible is tailored to please the customer. Some people whose main interest is sports might not want a plain old Bible, containing nothing but the revealed truth of God, but they might be interested in Path to Victory, a New Testament with profiles of Christian sports heroes talking about their favorite Bible passages. According to Time magazine, the market for Bibles is worth $400 million a year, and sales are best when there are different Bibles to suit different customers. As the president of the Christian Booksellers Association says, "In a Baskin-Robbins society, people don't want chocolate or vanilla. They want a special flavor that really suits their needs!'

    Now, I have to admit that I hadn't thought of the Word of God as a brand of ice cream. But some people do, and they're selling Bibles in a lot more than 31 flavors. And everybody's happy. You get the Bible in your favorite flavor, and the booksellers get their $400 million. Everybody wins.

    Just as companies have tried to please people shopping for Bibles, so pastors have tried to please people shopping for a church These days, before a minister tries to start up a new congregation, he'll first survey the neighborhood to find out what people want and don't want. He'll often target his audience, just the way an advertising executive would. He'll tailor his message to white males between 30 and 45, or pick music that fits the tastes of a certain age group, or figure out what support groups might benefit people in his neighborhood. The key to being a successful church is finding the right niche in the religion market.

    Lately, some seminaries have created an entire department of study devoted to the science of "church growth." A great deal of church-growth theory depends on sociological and business principles. How can a church appeal to people in such a way that they want to join it? Pastors and church leaders have become fascinated with church-growth information. In a survey of preachers asking what author had most affected their ministry, the person named most often was a popular church-growth consultant.

    In other words, pleasing the customer is at the very top of the religious agenda these days. Preachers and church boards and merchandisers of religious materials are all studying the marketplace very carefully. They are studying you. They're trying to learn what makes you tick, trying to figure out what needs you feel, trying to offer something you'll find appealing, trying to draw you into their church. And this isn't all bad. Some publishers and broadcasters produce material that's very helpful, and they want to get their message into as many hands as possible. If different formats of the Bible get more people to read it, great! Likewise, many preachers study church growth because they want more people to know Jesus Christ and to join the fellowship of the church. If, by presenting the gospel as attractively as possible, they lead more people to Christ, wonderful!

    The apostle Paul himself once said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22). Paul was willing to adapt himself and his methods to meet people where they were. That's one reason he was such an effective missionary.

    Still, though Paul was willing to change his methods, he refused to change his message. He had a definite understanding of Christian truth, and he refused to compromise that truth to please the customer. It's good to be sensitive to people's needs and preferences, but when the main goal is to produce satisfied customers, something has gone terribly wrong. There are serious dangers in a consumer approach to religion. That's why Paul wrote to his friend Timothy, a young pastor, and said:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

    There's a market out there for preachers who say what people want to hear and for churches who give people what they want. Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby says,

'Late twentieth century Canada is filled with a consumer approach to religion... [Religious organizations] offer religion as a range of consumer goods. Rather than saying to culture, "This is what religion is," they have been much more inclined to say to culture, "What do you want religion to be?" ...Religion is available to Canadians in all shapes and sizes, and fragment-minded consumers have before them a multitude of choices.'

    Bibby's description of consumer religion in Canada is just as applicable to the United States, if not more so. The customer is king. And the result? Let's look at what the Bible says.

    There have always been people who want gods that suit their fancies, and there have always been leaders willing to give these people what they want. When Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, he was gone for more than a month.

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." (Exodus 32:1)

    So Aaron gave the people what they wanted. He made a golden calf that everybody could see and admire, and the people proclaimed that Aar-orYs homemade calf was the god who brought them out of Egypt. They had a wild party to celebrate, and it was all a lot of fun-at least until Moses returned from the mountain, and God punished the people for their idolatry.

    It's easy to manufacture a god that pleases the customer. People like to hear that God is a golden calf, or that God is their inner child, or that God is Mother Earth, or whatever else suits their fancy. But what they end up with is nothing but a worthless idol. It's an affront to God, and it's deadly for all who worship it. So beware of anyone who is too quick to provide you the kind of religion you want.

    When a religious organization gets too concerned with pleasing the customer, it misrepresents who God is, and in the process, it also misrepresents who we are. The prophet Isaiah told people about a holy and awesome God. He showed them how sinful they were in the light of Gods purity. That wasn't what most people wanted to hear. They wanted a positive religion, one that made them feel good about themselves and optimistic about their future. (See Isaiah 30:10-11).

    Once you stop thinking about Gods holiness, once you abandon the morals of the Bible for a new standard, once you're surrounded by preachers whose main goal is to boost your self-esteem, you can feel good about yourself without actually being good. Maybe you've heard about the international study comparing students from industrialized nations. In math and science, American students came in last, while students from South Korea ranked at the top. Ironically, when asked if they are good at math, 68 percent of Americans-the most of any country-said they were, while only 23 percent of the South Korean students said they were good at math -the least of any country. This demonstrates, says William Bennett, that American schools "are a lot better at teaching self-esteem than they are at teaching math."

    Like the schools, many churches have been on a self-esteem kick. Preachers promote it like it's the very heart of Christian teaching, though it's really just a recent trend in pop psychology. The greatest saints have always had a deep awareness of Gods holiness and of their own sin, and they have prayed daily for forgiveness. Nowadays, however, the filthiest and most corrupt person can bask in sermons about how wonderful and creative we all are. Churches are helping people to feel better and better about themselves, even as they are becoming worse and worse. George Gallup summarizes the situation this way: "Religion up, morality down." This goes to show that churches are better at teaching selfesteem than they are at teaching holiness.

    Consumer religion is eager to please. Instead of confronting you with the holy God, it manufactures an idol to suit your preference. Instead of declaring the righteous standards of God's commandments, it lowers the standards so that you can feel good about yourself And instead of warning you to repent and get off the road to hell, it makes your trip down the road to hell as pleasant and comfortable as possible.

    The Bible tells how the wicked king Ahab was preparing for a great battle and how he wanted to find out what his chances were. Ahab had prophets he liked and prophets he didiyt like, so he called in the ones he liked- 400 of them. They all said, "Go ahead. The Lord will give you victory." But Ahab's ally, king Jehoshaphat, asked for a second opinion: "lsn't there a prophet of the Lord-a real prophet-we can ask?" Ahab said, "There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah"' (1 Kings 22:8).

    Well, they called Micaiah in, and sure enough, he had nothing good to say. He told Ahab, "The Lord has decreed disaster for you.' No wonder Ahab liked the other prophets better! The only problem was that Micaiah was right. When Ahab went off to battle, an arrow penetrated his armor, he bled to death, and his army was scattered.

    Ahab liked flattery, not criticism. He liked to think positive, not to hear about judgment. So Ahab ignored Micaiah and marched to his death, with four hundred positive thinkers encouraging him every step of the way. As the Bible says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." (Proverbs 14:12).

    So beware of preachers who tell you only what you want to hear! They're just making you comfortable on your journey to hell. Listen to someone who preaches Jesus Christ according to the Bible, who preaches the Word in season and out of seasom when people like it and when they don't like it. Listen to someone who loves God enough not to misrepresent him, and who loves you enough to rebuke you and warn you when you're on the wrong path.

    Remember Reggie Lewis, the basketball star for the Boston Celtics? After collapsing in a game, this splendid player was told by a group of medical experts that he had a serious heart condition and that he should never play basketball again. Reggie didn't want to accept that, so he went to another hospital, where he was told that his basketball career could continue. That sounded a lot better, so Reggie began training again for the next season. But one day on the basketball court Reggie Lewis collapsed and died. His death was a reminder that people who tell you what you want to hear are often tragically wrong.

    The Word of God gives us a diagnosis we'd rather not hear: we're sinners. It gives a prognosis we'd rather ignore: we're bound for hell if we don't change. The Word also offers a cure that upsets us: the crucified body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus told the crowds of people who were curious about him, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." This was offensive to many people, and the Bible says,

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed Him. "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:66-69)

    Today, in an age saturated with consumerism, Jesus is presented in a way that doesn't really offend many people. You hear a lot about what Jesus can do for you. If you're lonely, Jesus can be your friend. If you want more money, Jesus can "bless you real good." If you're an athlete, Jesus can make you a winner. If you're feeling inferior, Jesus can give you more self-esteem. If you're family is falling apart, Jesus can put it back together. If you're struggling with an addiction, Jesus can help you out of your mess. Whatever your problem Jesus is the solution.

    There's some truth in this, but the central truth we need to know is that unless you eat Jesus' body and drink his blood, you are lifeless and decaying. You need to believe the preaching of Christ crucified for your salvation. You need to eat the bread and drink the wine through which the Spirit of Christ nourishes people for eternal life. Whatever other things the church may do or say, the preaching of Christ crucified and the holy sacrament of participation in his body and blood is the essence of Christian faith.

    If that turns you off the way it turned off the people Jesus was talking to, I'm sorry. But if you look for a religious substitute that you find more appealing, it's going to be a counterfeit. You need the genuine Jesus, not the consumer Christ. Who else has the words of eternal life? Who else is the Holy One of God? Beware of voices that tell you what you want to hear. Listen instead to Go&s Word telling you what you need to hear. If you!re not yet a follower of Jesus, repent of your sin, trust in Christ and join a church where Christ, not the customer, is King.

    Whether you have been a Christian for many years or for just a few days, you need to be aware of how your faith and life can be distorted when religious organizations try too hard to please a certain type of customer.

    We want our faith to be interesting, not boring. We love sensational testimony. We're fascinated by people who tell tales of the sin and horror they experienced before they became Christians- the worse, the better-followed by a spectacular conversion and a new life in which they're happy and holy twenty four hours a day. Sensationalism sells, as tabloids and TV shows demonstrate. But maybe our churches would be better off highlighting the unspectacular ways God often works in the lives of ordinary Christians.

    Another thing we need to watch out for is overadvertising. Sometimes we're so eager to lead people to Christ that we talk as if all their troubles will disappear the moment they trust Jesus. Or, at another level, we say it's possible to sense God's nearness at all times, to know constantly what the Spirit is saying. Books with titles like The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life are appealing. Preachers offer how-to advice on the "victorious life in Christ," giving glowing accounts of how alive and vibrant they feel, telling you how you can enjoy that same marvelous feeling in a few easy steps. And then, when you don't feel that way, you wonder what's wrong with you.

    It all sounds superspiritual, but it's just not true. Instant holiness and perfect fellowship with God sound appealing-but so do books with titles like Thin Thighs in Thirty Days. People are always going to be attracted to quick and easy solutions, but Christian discipleship is a lifelong journey that involves ups and downs, hardships and heartaches, times when God seems distant as well as times when he seems near.

    The Bible promises heaven in heaven, not heaven on earth. People need to know that Christ makes a great difference in our lives, but they also need to know that the Christian path sometimes leads through valleys of frustration and spiritual dryness. That message might not sell as well to customers who want instant happiness, but it's the truth, and in the long run it will do them more good.

    And churches that aim the gospel at one particular group need to remember that Christ breaks down the barriers of social preference. People want a church where they "feel comfortable," and they feel most comfortable with people who are like them. Church growth experts call this "the homogeneous unit principle.' They say that a church grows fastest when it targets a single racial group, or a particular age group such as the baby boomers, or a particular social class such as professionals, or people who like a particular style of music. Everything is structured to make people in the target group feel comfortable and to show the relevance of the gospel to their particular situation.

    But let's not forget: there's more to church than feeling comfortable. Often God calls us out of our comfort zone. He calls us out of ourselves and into Christ. We may feel most comfortable with people who are like us. But the gospel of Jesus and the celebration of his Holy Supper unites people who aren't alike. True Christian unity doesn't depend on social similarities; it depends on Christ.

    The church isn't a supermarket or a social club. It's the body of Christ. Christ is King; the customer isn't. Let's remember that.


Father in heaven, in a religious marketplace filled with many choices, we're often confused. Protect us from preachers who tell us only what we want to hear, and open our ears to those who preach the Word. Turn us from our sin to you, Lord.
Give us the wisdom we need to be sensitize to who still need to know you, to be aware of how they think and what they feel, and at time help us to be faithftd to you and honest in how we present the gospel. May your name be praised in all we do, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The message printed in this pamphlet was heard over The Back to God Hour, which is broadcast every Sunday from coast to coast in the United States Canada and by short-wave throughout the world.

If you would like to have a copy of our complete log of stations and additional copies of this message for distribution to others write to The Back to God Hour, write to The Back to God Hourt, 6555 West College Dr,. Palos Heights, Il.60463. We will be happy to mail them to you without obligation.

Prepared for broadcast by Rev. David Feddes,
Radio Minister, Christian Reformed Church.
The Back to God Hour
6555 W. College Dr., Palos Heights, Il 60463

Pleasing The Customer


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 Web Author:Michael Stevenson Updated: 12/16/2004 7:15PM