5 Dangers of Having it “Your Way” at Church

In 1975, Burger King forever changed the fast food game by launching a campaign known as “Have it Your Way”. You can watch the original commercial here. It’s quite catchy. Prior to this, though it seems strange to modern understanding, if you ordered a burger, it came with whatever it came with. Pickles, ketchup, mustard. Maybe some diced onions at McDonald’s (are those really onions?). You didn’t like it? Take it off yourself or make a special order that would frustrate the employees and make you wait quite awhile.

Then along came the “Have it Your Way” campaign where it suddenly became trendy to add extra ketchup, hold the pickles, light lettuce, and throw on an extra slice of cheese. The campaign made a comeback in the 90s, when they unveiled both onion rings and fries as options to go with your meal. The message was simple- we cater to the customer and we want whatever you want, because if you’re happy, you’ll come back and eat with us again. It was a simple, but brilliant marketing idea.

Around this same time, the American churches decided to take on the same campaign strategy. Give the people what they want, flow with the tides of culture, and become as appealing as possible in hopes that people flock to you in droves. And before you cast a disapproving eye to the “seeker sensitive” churches out there, know that I’m looking squarely at you. Yes, you.

The church whose set list was lifted off of the week’s local Christian radio station and whose sermon came in the form of 3 ways to improve your marriage. The church who loves their drummer -as long as he’s in a cage and plays a beat you can clap to on 2 and 4 (and for the love of God, people, it’s 2 and 4) and loves their pastor- as long as he doesn’t preach about sin, tithing, or making a personal impact in the neighborhood in which you live. The church who hangs their hat on being a warm, welcoming environment in which you will feel loved and your children will be well taken care of, and guarantees that you will leave feeling uplifted and refreshed.

Yes, I’m talking about mainstream Christianity as a whole. Here’s 5 reasons why having it your way is a very dangerous thing.

1. Having it your way creates both spiritually fat and spiritually deficient attendees.

I’m blessed with children who are relatively good eaters and actually enjoy some variety in their meals. But I know people whose childhood consisted of pop tarts and hot dogs. For years. As they grew up, they added pizza as the third staple to their diet. Why? Because it was easier for their parents to simply give them what they wanted than to “fight” to feed them what they needed.

Unfortunately, that’s the way of things in churches all too often. We don’t talk about money (even though 11 of the 39 parables of Jesus do), holiness and righteousness (unless it’s about the holiness of Jesus and our inability to attain it), or about making disciples as we go about our everyday lives (even though it is the prime directive of the Great Commission).  Don’t make it too hard, too deep, too personal, or too challenging. Skim the surface, if you please.

Conversely, there are others who remind me of my own days of working at Burger King. We would, more often than you’d want to know, get drive thru orders that went something like this: “Hello. I’d like a double whopper with cheese value meal, King sized, with a Diet Coke. Oh, and can I get an extra Diet Coke with that?”

Sir, I don’t think that diet drink does what you think it does. Also, I apologize for your impending diabetes and heart condition. Later in life, please don’t blame me, blame the cheapness of the $0.39 upsize.

Many others in our churches are like this scenario. We know what we like, and we want to gorge ourselves on it. We like getting spiritually fat, on the depth and meatiness of scripture, but ask us to go out and act on any of the things we know to be true, and good luck rolling out out the door.

In reality, getting only what you want is going to severely limit your ability to grow. When I first got married, my wife was a pretty picky eater. But I very much enjoy cooking, so over time I’ve been able to introduce her to new (and better) things and her palate has adjusted and improved as well.

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fit momma

I know that she would tell you that she’s a much more well-rounded eater now and there are certain things she makes a staple of her diet that 10 years ago she wouldn’t have touched with a 10 foot pole. Her diet consists of more protein, less breads, and actually consuming fruits and veggies. As a result, she is a very healthy, very fit mother of two who’s a lot more comfortable in her own skin than she was when we first got married. That’s growth. That’s maturity.

Hebrews 5 puts it this way: “You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”

2. Having it your way prevents unity.

Frankly, the most discouraging part of a church staff member’s job is sitting down to the emails and comment cards on Monday morning. Complaint, complaint, a thank you, complaint, “respectful concern from a brother in Christ” (read: complaint). Why? Why do we as believers, bound together in the unity of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, do this without fail to our leadership? It’s certainly not because we wish to tear them down.

It’s because we’re so used to getting what we want. Society as a whole encourages this behavior. “The customer is always right.” (Even though, anyone operating in any form of customer service can tell you horror stories of exactly the opposite being true.) We’ve become entitled people. My opinion and preference not only matters, but it carries more weight than anyone else’s. As a result, the conflicting voices drown out the singular voice of unity carried by the Spirit of God. And we wonder why we’re so unable to hear him speak or see him move.

It is only when we present our bodies a living sacrifice (Romans 12.1), eliminate selfishness and think of others and their interest as greater than our own (Philippians 2.3-4), will we experience the oneness talked about in Ephesians 4, where our unity in faith will make us fully mature as a church and no longer like little children.

3. Having it your way thwarts racial and cultural diversity.

The stereotypes of stark, white Christianity are sadly, mostly true. Church buildings and services largely look the same, sound the same, and smell the same. The people you see on the stage with the band, promoting events, and giving sermons could be your cousin, husband, or sister- assuming you grew up in a suburban white family. We have long understood that what people see on stage is what is emphasized to them to be important. Therefore, what people see on stage is what they repeat and who they emulate.

And church leaders are even somewhat sensitive to the idea that diversity is important. It’s why we have our announcements done by the youth pastor, or the guy with the graphic tee and tribal tattoos. But try to do a song in Swahili or Spanish? Attempt a combined multi-lingual service? Invite spoken word or other “fringe art forms” into the gathering? Well then, we can all take it as a “special” situation once. We’ll “put up with it” so long as it doesn’t become the norm. And we hope that the ladies with their hands raised, the couple clapping in the middle of the sermon, and the gentleman in the front row who shouts “c’mon now!” and “preach!” are just visiting family for the weekend. Because, God forbid that we actually have people enter our church who don’t worship in our way.

Oh, but perhaps they’ll learn. Give them a few weeks and they’ll understand the unspoken code. Be silent, face the front, and occasionally raise a hand if the band is singing a Chris Tomlin song. Anything more than that, though, and the pastor is getting an email on Monday.

4. Having it your way promotes a consumer mentality.

Americans like security and freedom. Which many times translates into us liking to be complacent, lazy, and angry whenever someone does something that we don’t appreciate. Once again, we’ve carried this mentality into the church with us and it’s drastically affecting the way we approach the very purpose of the church itself.

We want to come in and sit down in a padded seat with proper heating and cooling. We want our children to be out of our hair, but well taken care of. We want a hot cup of coffee as we walk through the doors. Maybe two. We want music that we recognize and that doesn’t hurt our ears. We want to feel welcomed by everyone we come into contact with. We want a message that tells us how to become a better person, but doesn’t challenge us to change who we are or what we do. We want something that makes us feel better about ourselves and our decisions. And at the end of the day, we want to leave feeling encouraged that we’re ok just as we are, so we’re comfortable with remaining exactly the way we were before we arrived.

If our experience at a gathering is anything less than what we want, we either complain, go somewhere else, or both. And there are no shortages of churches looking to cater to your whim out there, so we feel confident that eventually we’ll find a place that gives us everything that we want. When in reality, what we’re really wanting is…

5. Having it your way makes the church all about you.

We want to be the focal point of this thing called Christianity. Not the Christ for whom it is named. We want to be the one he was thinking of when he died upon the cross. Nevermind how presumptuous that sounds. We want to think of ourselves as the one that Satan is attacking regularly. Nevermind how arrogant and self-important that makes us out to be- the prime target of our number one enemy, rather than, oh any one of the millions of other believers out there. And we want our gatherings and churches as a whole to be doing and saying exactly what we want them to do and say.

Except that Jesus Christ is the head of his body. And in the Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 passages where this thought is developed, it’s made clear that parts of the body who wish they were something else, somewhere else, or that the body were doing something other than what it is doing- they’re actually the very reason why the body of Christ is not working to its full potential.

So maybe, the next time you get the urge to give one of your leaders some “friendly advice” about how things should be done, first take a look around and ask if this is something that would be beneficial for building up the entire body… or if it’s really just a personal preference because you’ve gotten a case of the “gimmes”.

And church leader, the next time you start to acquiesce to the whims of an attendee, ask yourself what’s in the best interest of the body. Does it further the call to make disciples who make disciples? And if you spend the majority of your time bending to the desires of those within, I can guarantee you’re not going to be able to devote nearly enough time to those without. Don’t forget that the shepherd was willing to leave the 99 behind to go and find the one lost sheep. Keep the priorities in focus.

Rolling Stones might have gotten it right on this one. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime you might find you get what you need.

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