The average person isn’t buying the “core product” of our churches. Why is that?

Have you been to McDonald’s lately? Ronald is taking a back seat. What used to be a garish, clown-faced, cheap hamburger joint is morphing into a hip, cozy coffee shop featuring “McCafe” with free wi-fi, sophisticated coffee blends and frappucinos.

McDonald’s is already the number one java seller in the UK and Australia. Some observers believe that within a decade more people will come to MickeyD’s for coffee than for burgers and fries. A few predict McDonald’s will someday exit the hamburger business entirely.

McDonald’s “core product” is changing with the times. The U.S. burger market is saturated. Americans are beginning to think outside the bun. The only way McDonald’s can survive is to offer a new core product that will draw people in.

A similar change has been afoot in the church for the past 30 years. The “core product” we offered for centuries is falling out of favor with Americans. So we’re rolling out a new one. Unfortunately, this new core product is much more compelling to women than it is to men.

So what is the church’s old core product? Eternal salvation. Come to church and live forever. A pretty potent promise. Religion was literally a matter of life and death.

The entire evangelical world was once built around our core product. Look at church history. Traveling evangelists criss-crossed the country. Tent meetings were common. Every Baptist church had a spring revival. Believers went “witnessing.” America’s largest parachurch organizations were all in the soul-winning business: Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth for Christ and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Summer camps focused on getting people saved. Churches counted and reported converts and baptisms to headquarters.

Our worship services were designed to sell the core product. Sermons often focused on eternity. When I was a teenager, every single church service – regardless of topic – concluded with an altar call. Urgent pleas to receive Christ. It was your weekly opportunity to escape the flames of hell by coming forward to receive Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.

But a funny thing started happening about 40 years ago. People stopped buying our core product. Numbers dwindled at crusades. Altar calls were going unanswered. Door-to-door evangelism stopped producing converts. The old evangelical pick-up line (If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?) no longer got the desired response.

Why did our core product suddenly go out of style? Simple. People stopped dropping dead unexpectedly.

A little history lesson: since the dawn of humanity, sudden, unexpected death was common. People just “up-and-died” all the time. Plagues wiped out entire cities. Diseases had no cure. Sister Mattie would be fit-as-a-fiddle on Monday and dead-as-a-doornail by Friday. People had large families because they knew 2 or 3 kids would not live to see adulthood. Undertakers were busy.

In a world where people drop dead at any moment from incurable diseases, your eternal destination was of utmost importance. Preachers would stand at the altar and say, “This may be your last opportunity to accept Christ and go to heaven!” And they were right.

But in recent years sudden, unexpected death has become rare, particularly in the developed world. Average lifespan has almost doubled since the 1850s. Modern medicine has cured or controlled many lethal diseases. Occupational safety is the law. Cars are safer, and highway fatalities are at record lows. Even wars kill far fewer people than they once did.

So about 40 years ago people began to realize they weren’t going to die tonight – or even before next Sunday. The urgency to be saved right now was gone. Americans were no longer thinking much about eternity. The church needed a new core product to get people in the door.

In 1977, a California psychologist named James Dobson founded an organization called Focus on the Family. About that same time Campus Crusade for Christ launched Family Life, a new kind of ministry focused specifically on relationships. Also in the 1970s a Catholic priest from Spain imported Marriage Encounter to the U.S. Authors such as Gary Smalley created the multimillion-dollar Christian relationship book-and-tape market.

These pioneers found huge demand for their new product. Literally millions of Christians read their books, listened to their broadcasts and attended their weekend retreats. Family-oriented ministries grew like bamboo in a rainforest.

Pastors saw what was happening. They finally began preaching on relationships in the 1980s. Over the next 35 years the entire Evangelical movement shifted its focus from personal salvation to personal relationships.

Relationship ministry is absolutely essential, but evangelism is getting lost in the shuffle.

Today it’s rare to find a church that offers regular altar calls. The word hell, sin and repentance are rarely even mentioned in megachurches. But sermon series on relationships are as common as boots at a rodeo.

In less than 40 years the core product of the church has shifted from saving broken souls to saving broken relationships. The very way modern Evangelicals describe the gospel reflects the new core product: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now, I’m not saying that churches have abandoned salvation altogether. We still offer the old core product, but we no longer place it front and center. Like McDonalds, we still offer hamburgers, but we market ourselves as a coffee house.

American Christianity is in the process of rebranding itself. The gospel is no longer described as a life-and-death mission, it’s a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Many pastors and churches have embraced a slogan like this: “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Evangelistic organizations are dropping their mission-oriented names. Campus Crusade for Christ is in the process of renaming itself, “Cru.”

These marketing moves are bringing people in the doors. With more than 40% of U.S. children born out of wedlock and family disruption common, people are looking for help with their relationships. A Gospel focused on relationships addresses a felt need in today’s broken world.

There’s only one problem: the Bible emphasizes man’s fall, Christ’s work on the cross and our need for a Savior precede the transformation of interpersonal relationships.

First, that term: personal relationship with Jesus. It never appears in scripture. Across 66 books of the Bible, never once are humans commanded to enter into a relationship with God or Jesus. This metaphor is the creation of 20th century preachers who wanted to make the Gospel appealing to their core constituency: women.

Second, if you read what Jesus really said about relationships, you’ll be shocked. There is another side of relationships you must consider. Obeying Christ is central to your faith. Jesus said He did not come to bring people together, He came to divide them (Matt. 10:34-35). He said that any man who did not hate his family members was not worthy to be his disciple (Luke 14:26) He promised lavish rewards to those left their families behind for His kingdom (Luke 18:29-30). Not exactly the kinds of things you hear on Family Life Today.

And third, if you step back and examine the broad themes of the Bible, interpersonal relationships would not even make the top ten list. The apostle Paul addresses relationships infrequently, often for the purpose of keeping the early church from slipping into immorality. Almost every Christian book and sermon on relationships is taken from the few things Paul had to say about them.

Don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with the church dispensing relationship advice. Churches are wise to offer counseling and conflict resolution teaching in an era where the family unit is disintegrating.

The Bible clearly endorses marriage, fidelity and comity between individuals. The greatest commandments are to love the Lord and our neighbor.

But is this what the Gospel is really about? Is relational harmony the MAIN reason people should come to church? Is it “core product” we offer to the world?

Here’s my concern: if people come to see the church as “in the relationship business,” we set ourselves up for a number of unpleasant consequences:

  • More women and fewer men involved in church, since women are so much more relationally focused than men
  • Fewer young men in attendance
  • Further alienation of singles as teaching focuses more and more on marriage and children
  • Less focus on mission, evangelism and outreach
  • More passivity among the men and women who do go to church
  • A growing reputation as a feminized institution
  • Increased pressure to accept alternative relationships (unmarried, homosexual, polyamorous, etc.)
  • People blaming the church when their relationships go south
  • More “me” focused Christians
  • Fewer people accepting Christ’s gift of salvation

The Gospel is relevant to every area of life – relationships included. But Christ did not die a horrible death on the cross so you could have a regular date night. We need to keep the main thing the main thing. Men are interested in relationships, but they’re motivated by mission. The Gospel’s message of redemption must remain front and center, even if it doesn’t bring as many people in the doors. Used by permission.

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