Our days can sometimes feel as thought they are filled with constant advertisements for some better version of life. We are constantly being solicited with products and experiences that we are told will make us happier. Of course these are ads are all empty promises, but we keep buying them. Christians too have bought into this consumerist tendency of our culture and that tendency has a direct negative impact on the development of community within the church. Consumerism is a problem we will have to overcome in order to cultivate healthy community.
Consumerism is the pursuit of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. It has been around for…well, a long time. There is nothing inherently wrong with owning things, or desiring specific new items to add to our lives. But consumerism is more than just interest in specific products, it is an effort to fill the void in our lives with possessions. It drives us to work more, spend recklessly, and trend towards both greed and waste. It is idolatrous and selfish.
Within the church consumerism negatively affects us both individually and corporately. Individually, consumerism does two things. First, it shifts our focus towards selfish, personal, pursuits. In order to get new things we need to make more money, spend more time at work, and focus more on our acquisitions once we get them. So, if I want a boat I am going to have to put in extra hours at the office, or emphasize picking up more shifts, or countless other time-consuming endeavors. But, even if that’s not the case for me (supposing I make enough money to simply buy my boat), once I acquire it I am going to need to invest more time and energy into my boat. I am going to need to take it out often, if I want to justify the purchase, and I am going to need to spend time cleaning it and doing all the necessary upkeep on it. The same is true for homes, cars, and more. And of course, when this boat or grill or playstation no longer satisfies me, I will begin my pursuit of the next meaningful product. The reality is that what we consume often ends up consuming us. Or, in the words of folk musician Joe Pug, “The more I buy, the more I am bought. And the more I am bought, the less I cost” (Hymn #101). The pursuit of goods and services as a goal consumes immense amounts of time, focus, and energy. That’s time, focus, and energy, that I don’t have to give to the building of relationships.
Secondly, the consumerist impulse also means that I don’t have to rely on others. If I can purchase all my needs then I don’t need other people for help, companionship, or hospitality. If I can build a sports bar in my basement then I don’t need to go out with friends to watch the ball game. If I can put in a pool in my backyard then I don’t need to swim at your house, and I don’t need a membership to the community pool. Now, can I invest in these things as a part of my hospitality? Can I put in a pool so that I can host pool parties? Sure, and many people do. But when the motivation is more self-focused we increasingly find that we don’t need others. I don’t need your hedge trimmers cause I have my own, and therefore I don’t really need you. I can ask friends to help with my dry wall repair, or I can hire a company and miss out on that connection. This is not to suggest that buy products and services is always selfish and always wrong. It’s not. It is to question, however, if the overall trend in our lives is towards feeding our own independence in such a way that it actually diminishes our need for one another. In that sense, consumerism is very unhealthy for us.
Thirdly, consumerism encourages us to treat the church like a shopping mall. We approach church with a primary emphasis on what it can do for us? What does this church have that I need? What does it have that I want? Does it have the music ministry I want or the youth program my kids want, or the service opportunities that I crave? And, of course, if it doesn’t possess those things then I can go on to the next church up the road. Or, if the church changes some of its programs and offerings, or I change and no longer care about those things, then I can leave and go to the next church. We no longer look at church as covenant relationships with investments and ministry to one-another. Rather, church is social arrangement we make until it is no longer advantageous or compelling. We shop, we consume, and we move on.
Consumerism is also, however, negatively affecting us corporately. In particular it encourages the church to think about corporate appeal and corporate comfort as chief priorities. Does our church have all the right programs to attract new consumers? We emphasize our ministry programs as the real appeal. We feel compelled to sell our church to the masses. We also tend to emphasize church comfort over mission. What would make our lives, services, ministries more enjoyable. David Platt gave a startlingly depressing report several years ago in his book Radical. He described a news paper in which two stories sat juxtaposed to one another with glaring differences. He writes:
On the left one headline read, “First Baptist Church Celebrates New $23 Million Building” A lengthy article followed, celebrating the church’s expensive new sanctuary. The exquisite marble, intricate design, and beautiful stained glass were all described in vivid detail. On the right was a much smaller article. The headline for it read, “Baptist Relief Helps Sudanese Refugees.” Knowing I was about to go to Sudan, my attention was drawn. The article described how 350,000 refugees in western Sudan were dying of malnutrition and might not live to the end of the year. It briefly explained their plight and sufferings. The last sentence said that Baptists had sent money to help relieve the suffering of the Sudanese. I was excited until I got to the amount. Now, remember what was on the left: “First Baptist Church Celebrates New $23 Million Building.” On the right the article said, “Baptists have raised $5,000 to send to refugees in western Sudan” … That is not enough to get a plane into Sudan, much less one drop of water to people who need it. (16)
Such a startling comparison is obviously dramatic. It is not always this way and yet it represents something of our own interest in bigger, better, and more comfortable for us. Is it wrong to upgrade your sound system at church? No. Is it wrong to redesign the children’s wing? No. Is it okay to have bookstores and cafes? Sure. But is that our primary focus as a church? Are such emphasis driving us towards greater community and investment in one another? Bigger and better does not always equal better in the Biblical sense.
When building campaigns become an end unto themselves we have lost sight of the goal of the church. Renovations and remodels are fine, but only if the serve the greater purposes of the church and facilitate our investment in Kingdom things, not the least of which is the community of believers (which is different from the comfort of believers).
Consumerism will, I believe, be a serious flaw of the modern church when history judges us decades from now. If affects us individually and corporately and it is undermining our efforts at community in pronounced ways. Changing this cultural influence on Christians is no small issue and I don’t know that I have the answers at the moment. Being conscious of this temptation, however, is at least the first important place to begin.