Consumers at Church, part I

We have been exploring in this series the impact of how our identity has been shaped as consumers in 21st century America. Last week we reflected on Jamie Smith’s profound book, Desiring the Kingdom, and his insights into how consumerism shapes who we are. In the next two posts, I will apply those insights into how we engage the local church. In today’s post I want to consider just how strange our current posture of selecting a church is in an historic context. That statement might not naturally draw you in, but it’s only when we are able to see how alien and strange our current reality is that we can begin to consider how to diagnose our condition and, Lord willing, be cured.

The notion of “church shopping” first becomes a possibility in 20th century America. Consider just how strange this concept would be in any other era of the church. The early church, spread out across the Mediterranean, met in homes. Individuals and families who came to believe that Jesus was Messiah and Lord would naturally go to the house church of their neighbors who told them the good news. And because of the church’s small size, there were very few homes in any given geographic region that met. The only hint of any competition we see in the New Testament is Paul addressing the Corinthian Church:

“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”[i]

Notice how different this is from our circumstance, though. Even while claiming the authority of different teachers (Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), or Jesus), these groups were still meeting and worshiping together! Even so, Paul demolishes such divisions: there can be none but Christ who is the authority. But they were at least meeting under the same roof.

Today, doctrinal distinctions are only the beginning of our differences within the church (I follow Luther, I follow Calvin, I follow Osteen). The fact that we split up over these differences is a given. How we choose (and stay) in our church is based on things like worship style and programs; these choices would have been completely foreign to Paul.

Fast forward to formation of the Roman Catholic Church on through to the Reformation and you had, actually, a very similar experience of the local church to those in the early church. The Roman Catholic Church is a church that spans the globe and yet is made up of various parishes, with nary a square foot overlapping. For a millennia and a half there was no choice of what church you attended: you attended your local parish. The Reformation, believe it or not, didn’t change this reality. Due to the geo-political realities after the Reformation, very few people had a choice. Most were still given one choice. Whether you were a peasant in Luther’s Germany or Calvin’s Geneva or in Roman Catholic Naples, you attended the only church available to you.

The reality we currently live in, then, where I can select any number of dozens (or hundreds!) of churches within a 15 mile radius of my home is a radically contemporary phenomenon. And in a post-denominational world, it is even more exacerbated. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, such choices existed, but most people were rooted within one tradition, we and thus the appearance of choice was nothing more than an appearance. Today few people have a strong denominational commitment, and churches have followed this drift into a post-denominational reality.

What this means, then, is that there has become a mutually reinforcing consumeristic beast that has grown up in the church marketplace. In this world we choose churches based on how we have been trained culturally as both consumers and churches are reshaped as retailers of a spiritual product: peddling our wares with little differentiation from the shopping mall.

In our next installment we will consider more deeply how we are shaped as both consumers and providers of those spiritual wares in the context of the local church and what remedies might exist to remove ourselves from this cycle.

[i] 1 Corinthians 1:11-13.

For more on the Consumers series, see:

Part 1: We are Consumers

Part 2: Consumers at the Mall

Part 3: Consumers at Church, part I

Part 4: Consumers at Church, part II

Part 5: Consuming Alone

Part 6: Consuming Worship

Part 7: Signaling Consumption