Is Your Church Full of Customers or Owners?

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How to change the atmosphere of your church from receiving religious goods and services to authentic participation and service.

I continue my series today about laypeople and the mission of God. Let me start with a crisis point in my ministry that helped me to see the issue more clearly.

When I planted a church in Pennsylvania, we started strong, particularly for the North, by growing to 125 the first year. We had 25 people in our core and 100 new people who came over the course of the first year.

But the new 100 people didn’t do anything. They were passive spectators rather than active participants in the mission of God.

And so we recognized we had a cultural problem within the congregation.

There was a culture of non-participation.

People came to be objects of ministry rather than co-laborers on mission. They wanted to be what I could call today “customers of the religious goods and services” distributed by our exciting new church.

And it was killing me.

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I spent hour upon hour ministering, calling, working and begging others to do the same. It was not working, as people preferred to receive rather than to give.

So, we began to change the atmosphere to one of expectation that people will serve in ministry.

My motivation was not so complicated. What I tried to do was to shift the culture in my church from passivity to activity.

When new people came into our church, most of them connected to the 100 passive people instead of the 25 active. A bad situation became worse.

So, we took a full year to make a change through preaching, teaching and training.

We realized we had to help people get it, so we did.

Ed Stetzer Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.

More from Ed Stetzer or visit Ed at

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  • audie

    “Is Your Church Full of Customers or Owners?”
    How about…neither? That’s like asking if your five-year-old is a customor, or your aunt an owner. Those are irrelevant categories, and if, Mr. Stetzer, that’s how you see the people who for whatever reason attend your church, than I am quite glad to not be a part of it.

    • Justin Hitchborn

      I’m gonna go ahead and guess that you missed the purpose of this article.

    • debra roland

      Seriously with you on this Audie.

      I went to a church after many years away, only to be told that i HAVE to take all these required classes and give them my bank account. After trying to speak my concerns, I fled. God is everywhere and demanding these things sends people away. Maybe that is what you intend? Cut loose the people who have no money? Well sir, it works. You now have your private club.

      • audie

        Give them your bank account? Wow, that’s cultic.
        Understand, I’m all for a church that is a church, that is a gathering of the saints, where the Bible if preached, where one can partake of the sacraments. But I’ll not be a part of building anyone’s church-empire.
        As far as anyone’s so-called involvement in ministry, well, if you’re a Christian working a full-time job out in the world putting in your 40+ a week, and/or have a family that you’re trying to care and provide for and raise in a godly fashion, and you’re caring for the people around you, you’re involved in ministry.
        When I go to church, I’m not a customer, and I’m not an owner. I’m not there to buy anything, and I’m not there to run anything.

  • humbleone

    Even Jesus turned some of the people who followed him because they did not understand what he meant.We perish because of our lack of understanding.We can only do our best and leave everything up to the Lord for the battle belongs to the Lord.

  • Tim

    Audie…WOW, that was harsh! I think what Ed said rings true. Our churches are full of people who want to be served instead of serving. I agree also that it is our culture here in America to be that way. We have become a country that is consumed with consuming instead of giving. Unfortunately it is also in the body of Christ. So with that, I agree with Ed that we need to have classes for people to attend to teach them to serve and not to be served. I also agree that if the whole church is not involved in doing ministry, then the church is not doing what Jesus designed it to do in the first place.

  • Ray

    Shepherds don’t make sheep….sheep make sheep

  • Ryan

    Someone is living in a fantacy world. One of the initial reasons I quit going to church all together was because, as an introvert, I became overly involved in church service and socially exhausted and burnt myself out. (my fault). Even though I’m considering going back to church I’ve been bulking because I don’t want to get involved… (lessons learned). Since I don’t want to get actively involved, I feel its just best not to even go to church at all. For one thing, my job is more highly social than the one I had in the past and as an introvert, I enjoy and need my weekends away from people. I don’t have the energy socially to get involved in another group of people on Sundays as nice as they may be and I’m sure they are. I have the physical energy but not the social energy for another part time job. Ed, I don’t know why it bothers you that a major portion of a congregation is only there to be fed every week. Has the thought ever crossed you that this is why God sent them there… to be fed? I’m sure some of those are like me with highly stressful jobs or very busy lives, like they need more things to do and more stress on the weekends.

    • Jeff

      Good afternoon Ryan. As an introvert myself I fully see your problem with the church. As a teaching minister I try to get people as you and I to realize our value to the body of Christ. You have gifts of the Spirit that you can use for His Glory. But it is important for you to recogize the gifts you have. One problem is that at times the ‘church” tries to force the issue without trying to get the value out of the person. The church has its ways that are not always God’s ways.
      While I do want everyone involved (like I believe Ed here does) I think there are ways tog et people involved without making it more of a burdon to them than a blessing. What are your gifts? Can you use those in ways that bring Glory to God in the ways He has in mind?
      If you were at my church I would try to work with you and others like you to fullfil your gifts as God intended.
      I would suggest you try church again and remember that the church is actually the body of Christ. Christ has seen your value and He does love you.
      Best of luck and Blessings to you in His name.

      • Ryan

        You may already be a recipient of my gifts. I worked for GM for 13 years in sheet metal groups on doors, fenders, hoods and tail gates, brackets, hood latches and such for many different vehicles. Now I work for a company that makes keyless entry and remote starters for GM vehicles, DC to AC inverters for GM and Ford so people can plug things into outlets in the cars and SUV’s. I make the mechanical parts for fuel pumps for Ford Vehicles. Soon I’ll have had my hand in fuel pumps for BMW’s that will be selling starting in 2015. Just throwing a different perspective that Jesus church is involved in the cars we drive and many other things we don’t even think about. Not everyone has in-church sharable gifts. There is a lot more to Jesus church than what happens in the in-church commutity. For some, church is a little time away from the world, a divider from one week to the next, a place where they can get away from it all for a couple hours. Some might complain about people going to church to be served all the time, not realizing these have been out serving their work places and the public, 40 or more hours, (I’m salary so more) doing thier best to keep a Christian attitude and Godly work ethic. A lot of people could use more encouragement and spiritual guidence for their lives than sermons that drag them though the mire of thier shortcomings and made to feel they are never good enough, doing enough or giving enough for God. Very few are called to be in-church disciples… to be shepherds. How many sheep to a shepherd? How many church leaders/teachers to followers/learners? If there is 25 active people in a congregation of 100, that looks like a good ratio. Not everyone should have to be active participants. If a church needs that many, I would say it is overloaded with too many ministries.

        • Jeff

          I am not sure you understood my point so I will try again. Remember the true church (Greek-ecceslia) is the body of Christ, as in where you are with fellow men and women of Christ that is the church. A building is no more tha church today than it was in Jesus day.
          You fulfilling your God given destinity is what is important. Using your gifts for His Glory is what matters here, not just going to sit through a sing-a-long followed by a lecture (the typical institutional church service). Jesus did not tell us to stay inside but to go out into the world. So your doing what you do (I happen to be an engineer outside the church, so I get the idea that work is important) is important and I think you might agree that you can use your time for His service, doing work for His glory.
          And I would disagree, we are all called to be active participants in His church, it jsut depends on what that service entails. Can not an engineer do God’s work (I certaintly can). Can an automotive engineer or worker do God’s work? Can a maid do God’s work? Can not anyone bring Glory to God in what they do everyday?
          You do have a gift to share with the church. I would just suggest you enlarge your understanding of what the church is and how you can bring Glory to God and show the Love of Jesus in what you do every day.
          Best of luck with your work. Sounds interesting.
          Blessings to you in His name.

  • jeff

    I suppose the problem that I see with this line of thinking is that there is supposed to be only one way to serve the church. Is it not up to the Holy Spirit how to Best serve God for His greater Glory? What are the gifts of the Spirit for the members of the church. Should not we want and expect each to use his gifts as God sees fit, and for His Glory and not our own?

    If someone is not comfortable with Prophecy but is better with faith or speaking of tounges or healing, should not the church leader lead him into the path that God has in front of him/her? What is more important, that people do the bidding of the church or of God?
    Ed, I do not think you meant poorly here but perhaps you need to rethink your approach to this. Dead weight in the church does nothing to harm God’s truth but it is us who should lead others to His will. Are you sure this is what God had in mind for your church? Expecting great things of God’s people is great, but should we not expect that greatness to be from and of God, not to our benifit but His?
    Blessings to you.

  • David

    As a pastor of a new church, the culture of serving really needs to set by teaching the church to be the church and not just attend church. Jesus himself in Luke 10 said, “Go and do like wise” What I have experienced is that people get burned out by serving the church instead of being the church serving. There is a huge difference between being on a set up team Sunday mornings at 4:30 to set up a mega service vs realizing that they “the body” can serve the kingdom by how they serve Mon-Sat. Also there is way way way too much focus on serving our church instead of serving the collective church. It is amazing how just stopping to help somebody in need, be it a family member, a friend, or a total stranger is dismissed as not serving. Church today says that you serve by serving the church.

    Honestly you look around at any community in America and all the problems you see…The hunger rate, The divorce rate, The poverty rate, The homelessness rate, The crime rate…every issue is ultimately the churches fault. We have gotten so focused on the people serving the church instead of the church serving the people. We have gotten so focused on comparing our church to your church that we have stopped being the church in the community. I wonder what Jesus would say if he actually showed up at most churches on Sunday. I bet he would tell them to get the hell out and go be the church. We taught too long now that being a Christian is having soft feet and a fat butt. It amazes me to ponder how different our communities and country would be if we would all actually focuses on being the body instead of being like a dog chasing it’s tail. Because that is where we are at right now as the body. There is more focus on our churches glory than on God’s glory.

    As christians we have a decision to make…to either always be looking for the miracle or to be the miracle. The decision to be the miracle is easy…It’s simply you getting out of the way of yourself for the sake of someone else. That is true serving.

  • Eltee

    Thank you and I love reading this as it confirmed to me what I myself have learned in my little church community. I mentioned to a member of my congregation few weeks ago that.. “I see leaders in our church think that they own the church, they own the programs and its activities, do not talk to members of congregations to see and/or to know what they see not working right in our church, etc.” and do not look at running teachings activities, training members of congregation that out there, spiritually in need, whose souls are still wondering in the fields as outcasts!!!