The End of Premium Mediocre Church
December 6, 2022

Back in 2019, on a whim, I sketched out a setting for a modern fantasy story: a single coffee shop that is simultaneously present in multiple cities throughout the world: “…you know the one. Books by local authors, brochures for a walking tour of the city’s outdoor sculpture, a poetry open mic night the second Tuesday of every month. It’s…quirky is kinda putting it politely. But they’ve got great coffee…” Never did write the story, but everyone I ever showed the setting had the same reaction: they know exactly the shop I’m talking about–it’s just down the street! I bet you know it too.

So imagine my delight when Aaron Renn interviewed Benjamin Mabry on managerial aesthetics, and led off their discussion with the observation that you can walk into a “local” coffee shop in any major city in North America, and they all look and feel the same. I commend the full interview to your attention, but in brief, Mabry’s thesis is that since we’ve been taken over by a culture of managers and administrators, their bland aesthetic now permeates our society. Renn and Mabry discuss how and why this culture has taken over, how Venkatesh Rao’s concept of premium mediocrity is an integral part of it, and what we can do to subvert and thwart the managerial aesthetic.

John Drane’s The McDonaldization of Church: Consumer Culture and the Church’s Future reflects on some of the same themes (although about 20 years earlier). The core characteristics of the McDonaldization process — efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control — produce precisely the results that Mabry is railing against. Drane’s point is, they produce those results in the church.

Much like you can walk into the same “local” coffee shop in any city in North America, you can walk into the same hip urban church plant in any city. Ten miles outside city limits, you can walk into the same suburban megachurch anywhere in the country. People who are happy with the McDonaldized world can find an answering experience in the church.

This is not to say that the church is targeting the same demographic as McDonald’s; it’s not. While there are some among us who minister to the true elites (Mabry’s nomenklatura), that’s mostly a side gig; there’s no sustainable revenue model there. The church managers and planters recognize that true cultural elites are beyond their reach, but the rest of the top 20% of the socioeconomic population — Mabry’s apparachiks — represent an attainable revenue stream. That’s the target audience for upwardly mobile churches.

Which is to say, the target audience is the same group for whom premium mediocre goods and services are curated. “Premium mediocre” is a surprisingly intuitive term, but Rao’s illustrations are useful:

Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.

Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.

Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway….Mediocre with just an irrelevant touch of premium, not enough to ruin the delicious essential mediocrity.

Venkatesh Rao, “The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial”

If that doesn’t describe our churches….

All of this is destructive to the gospel. For the vast majority of the population, including the apparachiks at whom it is aimed, premium mediocre culture signals ‘superficial,’ ‘hollow,’ ‘fake.’  The apparachiks know better than anybody that they can’t talk about anything real with the people they’re trying to impress with Instagram pictures of paella. Including—or maybe especially—the people at church.

There is no future in that culture. There is no culture in that culture: a necessary feature of premium mediocrity is identifying yourself by what you consume, not what you produce. That won’t do for the people of the New Jerusalem. If we are to live in a city whose builder and maker is God, a city into which the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor, then we must be makers and doers for the glory of Christ our King, not consumers of the “right” brands. So what do we do instead?

I wrote about the Boniface Necessity earlier this year. In that article, I framed our approach as culture war, but “not your grandaddy’s culture war,” because a Moral Majority-style counterattack simply isn’t going to work, and we’re not doing that. With another six months’ practice and reflection (in that order) under my belt, I’d like to modify that framing a bit. It’s not precisely culture war, not the way most people mean that. But it’s not not culture war. It’s culture construction in a cultural war zone.

God gave us a job to do: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and exercise dominion. In a word, build. Fighting is not building. That doesn’t make fighting invalid; there are times when you fight in order to build later. But you can’t ever build by fighting. You can, however—when conditions are right—fight by building. And conditions are right: our very existence threatens the worldlings’ current project.

Among our opponents, the clueless ones think we’re irrelevant. The Long March worked; they hold the cultural institutions. What could one church, of all things, possibly do that could threaten their hegemony? “If even a fox ran on it, the wall would fall down!” But when they say that, they’re projecting: because their project is socially constructed, they think ours is too. That’s a fatal mistake, and the cannier ones know it.

The house of cards they present as unassailable cultural dogma is extraordinarily counterfactual, and so extraordinarily vulnerable. A well-constructed house of cards only looks sturdy next to other houses of cards; setting a cinderblock next to it instantly restores perspective. You don’t even need to knock it down.

By practicing the real, we reveal the ridiculous. People have often heard a lot of lies about us. We have a hostile mass media committed to making us look strange, even dangerous. We can’t prevent that. What we can do is live the kind of lives where, as soon as they meet us, they know they’ve been lied to (cf. 1 Peter 3:16). No matter how much social construct our opponents pile up for themselves, the core of every single person is the image of God, and an undeniable hunger for the One whose image they bear. When we incarnate the Triune life, a clear, piercing note cuts through the noise and resonates in every human heart. One friend’s recent appraisal of our community here in Englewood: “It’s weird…but it’s good weird.”

When I invite someone to join us, incarnate Triune life is what I’m inviting them into. In our community, they meet reality, not some media caricature. It’s all very well for people to reject “love the sinner, hate the sin” as an incoherent idea, but when they have to reckon with the reality—hatred for the sin because we love the sinner—that’s another matter. Jesus routinely got a good reception from people (like Levi, or the woman at Sychar) who “shouldn’t” have liked Him. Reality has a way of being different than people expect, and we have good reason to be optimistic.

At the same time, we know that doesn’t guarantee us a good reception. Peter and Stephen each preached a sermon that cut the hearers to the heart; one of them baptized three thousand and the other got murdered. To those who are perishing, we are the aroma of death, and that does tend to provoke a reaction. But to those who are being saved, we are the aroma of life. God calls us to go out and invite them in from the highways and byways and everywhere: “The promise is to you, and to your children, and to those who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” Let’s go get them!

When I have this conversation in person, this is the point where people ask, “So how can I do that in my town?”

I have some bad news: I have no idea how to do this in any other context than mine. This is not a McDonalds; the concept of a replicable model is precisely the thing we’re getting rid of. So forget “ministry models,” forget “best practices.” Best practices were never anything but a way to do what everyone else was doing—in other words, to be mediocre. Premium mediocre, if you do it better, but why bother? As Todd Rose points out, “Do what everyone else is doing, but do it better” is good for the status quo, but it’s rarely good advice for any particular person. No, there is no formula, no model.

We listened to a lot of other people, but we didn’t listen to them like a McDonald’s franchisee listens to the trainer from corporate. We listened like young hunters listen to the grizzled old coot who bagged that near-legendary twelve-point buck we’d all been after for the last three seasons. Nobody thinks they can just set up their tree stand in the exact same spot and bag another twelve-pointer; they’re listening for wisdom, not formulas.

In the end, we prayed a lot, focused on a few key things, and trusted God to bring us the blessings of obedience.  I can’t even tell you if the key things we focused on are the same key things you should focus on; you’ll have to ask God about that. What I can tell you is what we did, and what came of it.

We immersed ourselves and everyone in our sphere of influence in the biblical Story and the Psalms. Day-to-day decisions get made from your gut based on the story you think you’re living in; we wanted to live based on the true story, with the Psalms as the soundtrack. We realized that we can’t obey the “one another” commands of Scripture if we don’t even see one another except across an auditorium once a week. Obeying those commands is essential to Christian obedience, and therefore being in one another’s lives is essential too. We accept that we are called to a conscious intertwining of our lives in a culture that works hard to keep us separated. It’s not easy to embrace a deep collaboration across multiple aspects of daily life…but life is hard anyway; why not do it together?

We gotta eat anyhow; so we eat together like the covenant community we are. More, we gotta start businesses, make marriages, brew beer, change diapers, heal marriages, grow tomatoes, cook soup, wipe noses, tend the sick, fix cars, serve our neighbors, mend clothes, educate our children, make music and books and medicine, dance, pray, and above all, worship. Let’s do it all together, as together as we can! (By the way, none of those examples are aspirational; they’re all drawn from recent experience.) What we can do together is shaped by where we live, who we live near, what we do for work, a thousand little factors no model could predict. We pray, and trust God to guide us. He does.

However you see God’s direction in your own community, start today. We’re tempted to delay hard obedience when there’s resistance; that’s a mistake. We’re Christians! We don’t wait for our enemies to disappear before we obey. We know this from Psalm 23: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” God doesn’t remove the enemies; He feeds us to overflowing right under their noses.

When God sets the table for us, the world, the flesh, and the devil can’t stop Him. The only defense they have is to lure us away from the table. They will mock us as quaint, shame us as retrograde, cancel us for being offensive. Even their invitations to “friendly” dialogue will be designed to slow us down. We need to take Nehemiah’s words for our own: “I am engaged in a great work, and cannot come down.” So come, and welcome, to God’s Table. Let’s not miss what He’s serving today.

Tim Nichols is a pastor at large with Headwaters Christian Resources and a massage therapist in Englewood, Colorado. He is a coauthor of the Victorious Bible curriculum.

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