I recently met a twenty-something at an outlet store who was showing me some stylish shirts. The polite conversation turned to the obsession people have with brand names on their clothes. I explained to her that I was a minister and noticed that consumerism has even come into the church. To my shock, she said “It almost sounds like those two don’t go together”. Is it possible that someone who doesn’t know Jesus can see truths that some Christians might have become oblivious to?
Consumerism, though much more prevalent and refined today, can be found in Jesus’ time:
“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance’;
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at Him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
This skeptical, hard-to-please mindset during Jesus’ time is not unlike today’s consumerism that is easily bored, never satisfied, and entertainment-driven.
In movie entertainment, there is always this push to do things on an increasingly grander scale to satisfy consumer demand for “more”. Sequels are often spun out with the idea of bigger, better, and more dangerous stunts to placate an audience who knows all of last year’s tricks.
In Part One of Consumer Christianity, we read from Judges 17 about a man named Micah who created his own private spirituality by making an idol and hiring a priest.
A modern way in which this happens is called consumerism.
CONSUMERISM is defined as living to consume as opposed to consuming to live. When someone consumes, they acquire things (and often more than they need). It is when who you are is based on what you buy.
What drives consumerism is the thrill of the chase and the desire for status (keeping up with the Joneses).
On a church level, Christian Consumerism is driven by entertainment and marketing to whatever people want. In the same way that Micah designed his own personal God and priest, designer spirituality is part of the mindset of the Christian consumer.
Some may feel that because they are just surviving and “making ends meet”, consumerism doesn’t apply to them. It is however a statistical fact that some of the people who struggle the most with consumerism are the poorest.
Consumerism is part of the world system of values and, for better or worse, is deeply-rooted in almost everything we buy and sell. But to put the word Christian and consumer in the same sentence should be theologically impossible because they are as contrary to each other as good is to evil. Here are some reasons why trying to combine both can never work.
A commodity has been defined as, a valuable thing or product that you can buy or sell. The verb for commodity is to “commodify”. Everything, no matter how common or sacred, has been “commodified” in our culture. Things like pet rocks, statues of Jesus, and tragically even human beings have been turned into trinkets that can be bought and be traded. It is believed that everything has a price tag. Youth can be bought and sold in creams, facelifts, tummy tucks, and pills. Sex has become commodified through pornography where men and women are turned into objects.
The danger in trying to turn our faith into a commodity is that just like thoughtful consumers, we see ourselves as patrons hiring a service, giving a thumbs up or down to our worship experience or whatever services are offered. In our worship, we become the evaluator, instead of the one being evaluated by God. The tables are turned as we become the center of gravity instead of God.
Some Christians have even commodified their giving. Since they see themselves as power brokers paying for a service, if something happens that they don’t like in church, they stop giving.
Jeffrey McDonald has well said,
“Faith has become a consumer commodity in America. People shop for congregations that make them feel comfortable rather than spiritually challenged. They steer clear of formal commitments to Christian communities. They flee when they are not quickly gratified or when they encounter interpersonal problems. Changing churches has become as routine as changing jobs. As a result, churches are no longer able to help people develop solid moral characters.” Jeffrey Macdonald, Thieves In The Temple
Here lies the danger of commodifying God.
You own it, you have the power to keep it throw it away or change it. This is not unlike someone wears a cross around their neck just for good luck – just something that is available when they need it.
Just look at the “how to” section in any Christian bookstore. “How to” sections can be a great blessing and are not wrong within themselves, however it is possible to turn off portions of truth we don’t care for and turn on portions we do. This can lead to a morality without Jesus, or what has been called by many “moralism”. Just give me the 5 ways I can be a better husband, wife, mom, dad, etc.
George Barna stated,
“Most churchgoers have not adopted a biblical worldview, they have simply added a Jesus fish on the bumper of their unregenerate consumer identities.”
Micah in Judges 17 tried to add religion to his uncommitted life.
Then Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.” (Micah was in control here).
When we try to commodify God, Church becomes therapy instead of transformation. It becomes all about good feelings rather than life change.
Vincent Jude Miller called Consumer Christianity The new “spirituality” from which people choose the characteristics that will enforce their current lifestyle”.
Tell me about the goodness of God, His blessings, His promises, and hold the rest. It might make us feel better for the moment, but it doesn’t really fix the root of the problem.
When we try to blend consumerism with Christianity, we keep ourselves in an infantile state.
INFANTILIZATION: The act of prolonging an infantile state in a person by treating them as an infant. It is when a 35-year-old person is treated as if they are fourteen.
Infants are easily infuriated when things don’t happen exactly the way they want them to. Self– control isn’t expected because such words cannot be understood beyond the immediate needs of the self–absorbed infant. Spiritual infants are no different.
A disciple is a follower of Jesus and of His teaching, discipline, and Kingdom.
Discipleship implies obedience, discipline, and, correction, words that you will never hear in marketing ads appealing to consumers.
Discipleship most assuredly implies that “the customer is always wrong”. But it’s hard to be a disciple of Jesus when a person views Him no differently than they see a service offered from AT&T or Verizon. It is consumerism when we shop for churches only as places that fit our needs, not necessarily places where we can be rooted and challenged.
Instead of me the worshiper being shaped by encounter with God, I the consumer shape the God that I desire. But the God that I fashion to my liking never satisfies.
Isaiah 42:17 “They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, ‘You are our gods’.
A consumer approach to Christianity can never satisfy. It is like the mule who always chases the “carrot and stick”. With every effort, the carrot moves just out of reach.
When Jesus saw that they had commodified the Temple, He made a whip and drove them out saying “My house shall be called a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves”.
He also said things like “You can’t serve God and Mammon” (money or things).
No one is ready to become a true worshiper or disciple until they are awakened to the reality that we cannot be good Christians and religions consumers at the same time. Christianity and Consumerism are what a snake is to a mongoose.
Rodney Clapp said,
The Christian disciplines like patience and self-control are the very opposite of acquiring things and instant gratification.” (Rodney Clapp, “The Theology of Consumption & the Consumption of Theology).
It’s impossible to be a consumer without eventually being “consumed” yourself. Jesus’ words are a testimony that a person’s soul can never become commodified.
Matthew 16:26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?