The Church is Like a Restaurant

In The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions edited by Ryan Bolger, he includes a chapter by Stefan Paas who, after planting a church in Amsterdam, said that the church is like a restaurant. He said that what they see in the Netherlands is a culture shift, producing new perceptions of church of secular Europe. Sociologist Grace Davie has termed this shift “from obligation to consumption”:

“In Europe as well as America, a new pattern is gradually emerging: that is a shift
away from an understanding of religion as a form of obligation and towards an
increasing emphasis on consumption or choice. What until moderately recently was
simply imposed (with all the negative connotations of this word), or inherited (a
rather more positive spin) becomes instead a matter of personal inclination. I go to
church (or to another religious organization) because I want to so long as it provides
what I want, but I have no obligation either to attend in the first place or to continue
if I don’t want to.”

Here, Davie reflects on one of the core elements of secularization, the differentiation of society in reasonably separate domains. In modern societies, “religion” or “church” is no longer intimately connected with other domains, like politics, science, or the economy. It has become a separate sector, catering to religious needs only. This means that in the most secular parts of the world there are no pressures left “obliging” people to attend church if they do not want to. They do not need church to get a job, to get a house or a spouse, for social standing, or for political influence. “Equally changed are the internal disciplines – the sense that church-going was the right and proper thing to do, a sentiment enforced by common values or shared beliefs.” In other words, people will go to church if and only if they have a need that can be satisfied only by a religious event.

This is an important explanation of the different patterns in churchgoing between those raised in Christian families and those who did not inherit this sense that churchgoing is somehow the right thing to do. People with a Christian background have been raised with the idea of the church as a family. Families stick together. People show up at parties and celebrations, even if they don’t like them. That’s what family members do for one another. They are connected by loyalty, duty, and (hopefully) love. Most other people view church as a restaurant. It is a place where you go when you are in the mood – in other words, when you feel a spiritual need. You may like this particular restaurant very much, but this does not imply that you will return next week. There are plenty of good restaurants to choose from. Sometimes a quick snack is just as good. Sometimes it is easier and cheaper to eat at home. And surely you don’t become a member of a restaurant. Membership is an idea that just doesn’t fit this pattern of consumption. It would be a very peculiar restaurant that invited guests to help in the kitchen or to clean up after they have finished their meals.

This shift from obligation to consumption reflects a wider cultural development in the West. In this context people tend to see religion as an instrument of personal development and no longer as something one belongs to. They go to church like they go to a restaurant.

If the church is a restaurant, this means that in worship, it will not just serve anything. Although they want to serve their customers, they do cherish some ideas about what is good and wholesome food. Most restaurants have some variety of food choices, but none offer every kind of food imaginable. In the same way, the restaurant church, although eager to serve and help people in their personal quests, will offer a certain range of the Christian tradition creatively and lovingly, but does not feel obligated to serve every variation of Christian belief and experience.

If the church has become a restaurant where people drop by occasionally, how is it possible to build a life-changing community where people will be turned to the kingdom of God? To some extent, the focus on community and not on the individual, goes against the tide of our culture. This will be an ongoing challenge to figure out. But, the church needs to communicate to people that we are delighted when you show up, regardless of whether you attend every week or have been away for a year.

Previously, in a more traditional age, the pastor had a position of authority. Now this has changed almost completely. This may help us to understand what the apostle Paul said when he called himself weak. In a consumerist culture, church leaders are weak people: there is nothing that requires people to listen to them. The bright side to this is that there is less distance between the pastor and the congregation. Today, people are less inclined to keep up appearances, because they are generally less prone to give answers that are socially desirable. This allows church leaders to develop relationships of greater honesty and freedom.

Leadership in a restaurant church is not about telling people what to do. The leaders are the waiters who serve people at their tables. The question we ask is, “How can we help you take the next step in your life?” But leaders refuse to be treated as parents who tend to all the needs of their children. Adults cannot expect leaders to fill every wish or answer every request. If people want to go their own way, leaders will respect this, even if they think it is the wrong way. But it would be childish if people would become angry when the pastor would kindly refuse to bless their choice. As an adult, the leader is responsible for his or her own choices, but they are not responsible for the spiritual progress and ethical behavior of people in the church. They can only be responsible for themselves and show how that can be done. In a restaurant culture, leaders must be very open about what they believe to be the way of the kingdom, but they must withstand the urge to drag people into it or to be manipulated into the position of a substitute parent.

We are on the brink of a new era, one of consumption instead of obligation. This will change church life considerably. But to realize that more and more people have come to view the church as a restaurant, may be helpful in understanding how we need to shift our ministry to serve the people we are encountering on the Way.

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2 Responses to “The Church is Like a Restaurant”

  1. Dave Moody Says:

    I don’t think this is particularly new- the consumption paradigm Bolger/Pass is describing. John 6 seems to be a God inspired reflection on this very thing– yes, Jesus fed the crowds but then was very intentional in telling them what was really on the menu– and that there was nothing else, and that they had to partake. Not many wanted what he was serving. And that didn’t seem to bother him. The kingdom of God does not have the consumer at the center. I don’t think scripture tells us the Kingdom is brought in gently, comfortably- Yes Jesus meets us at our deepest need- but he fights us every inch of the way, and the gospel is about power to demolish said strongholds (gods of consumerism)

    What you’ve described is accurate- we are willing captives to a consumer culture, people viewing the church as a restaurant/salad bar spirituality but I’m not sure we (the church) need respond to people playing by those rules. Postmodernity as descriptor is very helpful, but as a prescriptor of what we need to do to ‘reach the culture’ – well, its a counter kingdom.

    my 2c

  2. Pastor James Miller Says:

    Nice.

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