Archives For Consumerism

In my previous post, I argued that consumerism has affected the church in ways that we rarely consider. We don’t try to convince church members that they need to be buying more stuff, but our structure and overall approach does tend to communicate that each person’s role in the church is more about consuming the goods and services (in both senses of that term) that we offer and less about living as the body of Christ. In this model, church is where we go, it’s the organization that plans our activities; but it’s not necessarily who we are.

Notice that you can be very involved, you can have a great heart, and you can be doing genuinely beneficial things within this consumerist model. There is a real difference between consuming lattes and consuming sermons and programs that help you learn more about God. I don’t mean to suggest that the consumerist model that has influenced most of our churches is somehow wicked, but I am suggesting that this consumerist approach shapes our lives in unintended ways.

In this post, I want to explore the concept of discipleship and how the consumerist mentality might be skewing your perception of it.

 

First, Keep the Church in Proper Perspective

I want to present discipleship in the highest possible terms. From the moment that sin entered the world in Genesis 3, God has been at work to reverse the effects of the fall. His plan of redemption focused in on Abraham, then Israel. It played itself out through the kings and the prophets. And then God’s plan of redemption took on flesh in Jesus. For the disciples, it was obvious that through Jesus, God was bringing his plan to redeem the world to completion.

But when Jesus died, raised from the dead, and returned to his Father, he handed the mission to the Church and sent the Holy Spirit to empower us for this purpose. So the Church is more important than we can imagine because God has made it so. As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

The Church carries on the mission, and Jesus gave us the mission in two words: make disciples. So whatever goals or plans we have for our churches, they had better fit within that command to make disciples. We are not allowed to have plans for our churches that do not fit within God’s plan for his Church.

 

Small ChurchThen, Evaluate Your Church’s Programs

And this brings us to church programs. Jesus never commanded us to have men’s ministries or women’s ministries or youth groups or any of the other programs that fill our church bulletins. Does this make our programs bad? Of course not. But it should make us think about what our programs are for. Since Jesus set disciple making as the church’s agenda, our church programs need to be focused on making disciples.

I’ve seen many great examples of programs that create disciples. I’ve seen ministries that help men and women grow in their ability to follow Jesus and provide them with tools and opportunities to reach out and make disciples. Programs are not bad. But if we’re not careful, programs can become focused on hundreds of things that are unrelated to making disciples. I’m not anti-program at all, but I am firmly convinced that programs can become a distraction.

So the crucial thing is that we evaluate our programs to ensure that the busyness in our churches is focused on making disciples.

In the consumerist church, programs are the unspoken goal of the church. If we can get people attending services and participating in programs, then we’ve got a successful church. But if our people are fully engaged in programs, yet they are not growing as disciples or actively making disciples, then our churches are actually not pursuing the mission Jesus left for us.

Ask yourself what your programs are producing. Who is coming out of these programs? Are you producing people who sit in on program after program, who can work through curriculum with the best of them, who know which services and series they need to attend in order to be fed? Or are your programs producing people who are actively meeting needs, who are following Jesus in real-life situations, who can skillfully and lovingly show a friend, neighbor, or coworker what it looks like to follow Jesus? One of these is a legitimate goal for our churches, the other is not. One fits the consumerist model, the other does not.

All of the momentum in the modern church movement pushes us to continue with the consumerist model: keep attending, keep signing up, keep being fed. And we may indeed become better disciples and disciple makers through attending, signing up, and being fed. But this is the not the end goal. If our people are not taking the next step and making disciples, then our programs have replaced discipleship, and that is a turn of affairs that we have to fight with every fiber of our ecclesiastical being.

 

 

In many American churches, consumerism is being used as a vehicle for the gospel. With lessons gleaned from the entertainment industry and the world of marketing, these churches present the gospel using forms of communication familiar to every American. Many people hear the gospel through this type of church. It’s effective. But should they being doing this? And what do we mean when we say it’s effective?

[For any theology/missiology nerds reading this, what I’m seeking to address here is an issue that involves contextualization and syncretism. If you care to explore that connection, view this footnote: [1]]

So let’s consider the consumerist model of doing church. Consumerism is all about creating products that will appeal to consumers. In the church, this can look like anything from performance-oriented bands to entertaining sermons to polished programs. I can sense many of you preparing to throw stones at other churches at this point, so before you do that, consider: all of our churches do this to some extent. I have yet to encounter a church in North America that avoids all elements of the consumerist model. I want to be clear that the enemy is not entertainment, programs, or “being relevant.”

It’s easy to be superficial in our dismissal of consumerism in churches: “Their worship is so showing…they’re so ‘seeker sensitive’…people are only going to that church because the children’s ministry is a huge production…” But the problem is actually far deeper than all that.

It’s not wrong for people to be entertained. It’s not wrong for pastors to carefully craft their sermons so their congregation will be entertained so they will stay engaged so they will take another step on their spiritual journey. Skill, professionalism, excellence—these are not the problem.

The problem with consumerist models of doing church is the way this approach shapes us. And it does shape us—deeply.

Visit the mall regularly and you will be shaped. You won’t notice the shaping, of course. You think you’re going to the mall to complete your errands, or perhaps just to enjoy the atmosphere. But you’re being trained to view life in a certain way. You’re imbibing an embodied vision of “the good life.” You are “listening” to powerful “sermons” about the way your life could be if you’d only shop here, if you’d only adopt this lifestyle, if you’d just give this product a try.

Why are so many people going to quickly purchase the new iPhone 6s when it releases? (Or the Android equivalent.) No one is actually eager to buy it for the two or three things it can do slightly better than the previous version. People are going to quickly adopt the newest iPhone because the advertisers are masters at training our desires. They know how to bypass the head and go for the gut. The malls, the commercials, the coffee shops, the auto dealers, the layout of our cities—all of it pushes us towards a specific version of the good life: have this, live this way, and you’ll be happy.

Now mentally walk into an American suburban church. The service is carefully tailored to appeal to you. Programs are designed to meet your needs. You choose which church activities you want to sign up for. The church staff is the production company and you are the consumer.

“It’s different,” you might say. “I’m not being offered a ‘product,’ I’m being offered Jesus. I’m being drawn into worship.” Yes and yes. And this is why I’m not accusing the consumerist mentality of being evil. People do come to know Jesus through this approach—often!

am arguing, however, that this approach subtly shapes our view of the gospel, its purpose, and our role in the mission of God. For the first Christians, church was anything but consumeristic. They didn’t need to advertise programs to meet one another’s needs. Their lives were intertwined enough that they just knew where the needs were and did what they could to meet them.

When church is set up in such a way that every aspect of our spiritual life is presented like a sales pitch, wrapped in entertainment value, and tailored to catch our fancy, we’re bound to misunderstand the purpose of it all. We’re bound to miss the reality that we don’t go to church or volunteer at church, we are the church. When we embrace the consumerist mentality, we get the impression that all God expects of us is to sit in on services and attend programs.

But there’s more to the Christian life than this. And the tragedy of the consumerist model is that we’ll never allow our people to experience how much more there is until we stop marketing to them. The gospel calls us to self-denial, not savvy shopping. We have to find a way to view the people in our churches as members of a body rather than costumers, attendees, or even volunteers.

So instead of assuming that attracting large groups and gathering loads of signups for our programs is a neutral way of communicating the gospel, what if we all stopped to consider how our approach to “doing church” shapes the people we’re reaching out to? What if we asked if there is a better way to do what we’re doing, a way that will communicate the gospel effectively without unintentionally validating the consumeristic mentality of the shopping mall? The reality is that many of our churches are doing pretty well in this respect, but we could all afford to do better.

 


[1] In my missiology classes, we talk about principles of missions: how to best present the gospel in a certain culture. One important concept we discuss is “contextualization.” How do we take the cultural forms we encounter in a given society and accurately express the gospel in terms that are familiar and compelling to that group of people? For example, when you enter a Middle Eastern society, you’ll want to start by presenting the gospel in the local language. That much is easy. Other questions are more difficult: Should we refer to “God” (a generic English term for the Divine Being) as “Allah” (a generic Arabic term for the Divine Being)? Or does that go beyond contextualization and enter the realm of “syncretism,” which is missions-talk for mixing two religions together? The goal is to find the cultural forms that can best express the gospel and to avoid those that might distort the gospel. It’s not easy to do, but it’s an important concept. Missionaries and missiologists are careful to think through these questions as they bring the gospel to new cultures. Yet few in America have ever considered how the cultural forms they utilize affect the gospel message they are trying to communicate. Specific to this post, how can we contextualize the gospel in North American cultural forms while avoiding syncretistically distorting the gospel? My argument is basically that utilizing the consumeristic methods of the shopping mall have led us past contextualization and into syncretism.

iPhone 6Two significant events took place in the same moment this past week. The first was the release of the iPhone 6. Of course, most of us could argue convincingly that this does not qualify as a “significant event,” but the fact remains that people freak out and line up every time a new iPhone is released. Culturally speaking, it’s a big deal.

The second event was the instant devaluing of our “old” iPhones. (In case I’m about to lose my Android-using readers, keep in mind that everything I say here is true of any smart phone, and any product, really.) My iPhone 5s was exciting, useful, and elegant—until last week. Now it’s outdated. It no longer does what I need it to do, or at least not with the style and speed that I’ve learned to expect this week.

I’m being a bit overdramatic, of course, but while most of us would never say this directly, we feel it deep down a lot more than we’d be willing to admit. This is because our society has successfully trained our desires. We in the church know that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), but we still really want the newest technology.

James K. A. Smith explains that this odd tension we feel between what we believe intellectually and what we desire in our guts comes from the “cultural liturgies” that train our hearts. Through powerful mini-narratives (like the one in the video below), through misguided messages about our identity, and through a host of tactile experiences in which we are invited to “taste and see” that Apple is good, we now know—in our hearts if not our heads—that the newest iPhone is essential to human flourishing.

The irony in this is that in teaching us to overvalue things, our techno-idolatrous society also teaches us to undervalue things. Smith explains:

“Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness…On the one hand, this practice invests things with redemptive promise; on the other hand, they can never measure up to that and so must be discarded for new things that hold out the same (unsustainable) promise.”[1]

We always hope the newest phone or gadget will satisfy. But in the end, the thing is never more than a thing, so we quickly realize that our problems aren’t solved with technology. We are kept on the line, however, because as soon as we realize the iPhone 5s hasn’t delivered on its promises, the iPhone 6 is already whispering to us about the inadequacy of the 5s and the joys it can provide. By the time we realize the iPhone 6 can’t bring happiness, the 6s will be saying sweet things in our ears.

Again, this all sounds overdramatic. None of us would admit to buying a smart phone in an attempt to gain happiness. But I challenge you to listen to the ads and images around you. The next time you see an add for a smart phone, ask what you’re being promised. When you find yourself wanting to upgrade your phone early, ask whether you’re intellectually convinced of the superiority of the new phone’s features or whether there’s something more deep-seated and intangible that is drawing you to see your “need” for this new device.

I’ve explained before that a smart phone can be a glorious gift from God, a gift that can compliment our true humanity and serve God’s purposes in this world. But we must always keep a careful eye on our desires. And when we find our desires veering towards idolatry, we must begin retraining our hearts to seek first the kingdom of God.

 

 

[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)100.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) Kicking Santa Claus in the movie Christmas Vacation.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) kicking Santa Claus in the movie Christmas Vacation.

Amidst the hectic nature of the Christmas season, squeezed within the crowds of our shopping malls, and frantically moving from one get-together to the next, we need to remember one essential Christmas truth: Immanuel.

I’m not talking about loosening up your Christmas schedule. I’m not asking you to forego your annual visit to Santa, to boycott those non-Christian Christmas movies, or to sing only churchly Christmas carols. I don’t mean to imply that we simply remember that Jesus is the reason for the season or to suggest that we take some time to focus on him this Christmas. Not at all.

No, what we need to remember this Christmas season is Immanuel. The life-changing truth of Christmas is the advent of Immanuel. God-with-us, which is literally what Immanuel means, is the reality that transforms every aspect of life. The Old Testament is all about God’s presence. The Garden of Eden was all about God-with-us. The post-sin promises in Genesis 3 were about the restoration of God-with-us. The tabernacle and temple were about God-with-us. The exile was the tragic realization that God-is-no-longer-with-us. And the positive side of the message of the prophets was the hope of God-with-us.

And then Jesus was born, and God was with us. In the most profound sense imaginable. He was a human being, walking amongst human beings, teaching us from our midst, guiding and healing us as he stood next to us. And even when Immanuel rose from the grave and returned to the Father, God-with-us was still a present reality. In fact, when Immanuel ascended, he left us with Immanuel on steroids (so to speak).

Jesus was God-with-us in that God walked in our midst. As amazing as that is, Jesus sent an even more intense version of God-with-us to take his place: the Holy Spirit. Now God-with-us means that he lives not beside us, but within us. He is with us on the inside, transforming, convicting, and guiding us. Immanuel has never meant more.

Now back to the point. As we elbow our way through the Christmas crowds, God-is-with-us. As we stand in line for a photo with Santa, God-is-with-us. As we gather with our families, give and receive gifts, sing Christmas carols, and give and receive the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) white elephant gifts, God-is-with-us.

It’s not about abandoning one for the sake of the other. It’s not about taking time away from the shopping mall to think about Jesus. When you walked into that shopping mall, God was with you. And he’s with you still now. And now. And now. He is everywhere in your Christmas schedule. You do it all—shopping, Santa, and singing—by God’s side, or better, with God inside. Immanuel.

So it doesn’t matter if you go to see Santa or watch a movie in which he stars. God is with you. View Santa through eyes of faith and you have nothing to fear. It doesn’t matter if you over-gift your kids or feel a rush of delight as you drink a peppermint mocha at Starbucks. God is with you. If you do these activities as a transformed and transforming bearer of the very Spirit of God, then these “distractions” cannot possibly pull you away from the Christ of Christmas, because he’s already there. On the inside. Immanuel.

So as you navigate this Christmas season, just remember one all-important truth: Immanuel.

BuddhaThroughout the Bible, God’s people are accused of turning away from God and toward idols. Idolatry is the epitome of godlessness because it denies God his due worship and enthrones some other person or thing in his place.

But biblically speaking, the greatest mass-producer of idols is God himself.

Romans 1:18–25 explains that all people know God, yet they suppress that knowledge and instead pursue unrighteousness. Idolatry is at the heart of this exchange. Verse 25 reads:

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

What are they worshiping here? The creature. Who made the creature? The Creator! If the creation itself is the place we shop for our idols, then there is a sense in which God is our friendly neighborhood idol dealer.

Of course, the things that God makes are not idolatrous in themselves. It’s just that every good gift that God gives is susceptible to corruption. God creates a good world in Genesis 1 and 2, and Satan perverts it in Genesis 3. And so the cycle has gone throughout history.

The trick is to keep everything in its right place. The moment we fail to see God’s gifts as God’s gifts, we have dislodged them from their proper relation to God and lifted them to an idolatrous level. In the Old Testament, they did this with stone representations of false gods. In our modern world, we do this with finely crafted automobiles. But it doesn’t stop there. We also do it with flesh and blood human beings for whom we care deeply. We do it with ideologies like success and safety.

Literally every thing is only one step away from being transformed into an idol. We are more powerful than we think.

So take a good look at the incredible gifts that God has handed to you. Your phone. Your car. Your family. Your life. Each of these things has immense value because it has been crafted by the Creator. But be sure to love those gifts for God’s sake. A subtle shift in perspective is all it takes to turn a gift into an idol.