We’ve been discussing the impact of the water we swim in in 21st century America – consumerism—on our spiritual lives. Last week I took a look at how unique our situation is in the context of 2,000 years of church history. The notion that you have any decision to make on the church you attend would be a completely foreign idea to the experience of two millennia of Christians around the globe.
The point of such an observation isn’t to shame our current context or even lament the fragmentation of the church (those would be discussions for another day). Rather it helps us see the strangeness of the reality that, for most contemporary American Christians, there is a lengthy period of shopping for a church that happens when one moves or, for most, if anything happens within their church context that upsets or unsettles them. The days of being buried in the church where you were baptized and married are long gone for most.
And shopping really is the right word for this process. Looking through the eyes of the categories of our consumer identity, when we shop for a church we do so with our consumerist identity shaping that process:
1) “I’m broken, therefore I shop.” We look for churches that latch onto our deficits, insecurities, and offer fulfillment to those desires. The pulpit has always been a place where the timeless truth intersects with the cultural questions of the day, but that reality has been heightened in a consumer-driven world.
2) “I shop with others.” Our consumerism is driven by our pre-existing social networks. Unless you are completely new to a town and without a social network, your church shopping is driven by your network of friends. We go where we are already connected and accepted. In fact, it is totally normal that one frequents several churches where one connects with different sets of friends. For many there is no more loyalty to one local body than there is to the choice of shopping mall one chooses.
3) “I shop therefore I am.” We the consumer ask that the hour and fifteen minutes we spend in the worship center on Sunday morning create and be sufficient in shaping our Christian identity and experience. It should provide for us the feelings and catharsis we desire.
4) “I am in control.” We will serve the church and engage in calls to action, but only when we feel as though our needs are being met and that we can trust the leaders.
Believe it or not, I don’t think that the problems attendant with our consumerism are wholly bad. Imagine, for instance, how difficult it would be to truly form a congregational identity with the reality that the congregation was a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9) in a congregation located in Europe in AD 1200 where the identity of serfdom permeated the identity of the congregation. It would be extremely difficult for such a person to really own their identity as priest.
Doubtless however, there are serious problems with our engagement of the church as consumers. What does it look like to truly live lives where we are so invested in one another that we are characterized by the exhortation of one another (Heb 3:13), by our sharing meals and possessions with one another, and praying with one another (Acts 2:42-45)? Quite simply this engagement and giving of ourselves to our brothers and sisters in meaningful long-term relationships cannot happen as long as we are consumers of the product of our local churches and not participants and ministers of the gospel (Eph 4:12). When we stand as consumers of a product that is offered, we will never engage and own the ministry to which we are called. To paraphrase (rather cornily, I admit), John F. Kennedy, we should ask not what the church can do for us, rather ask what we can do for the church.
Ironically, it is often those who claim to be frustrated by the church’s capitulation to this consumerism who become church shoppers the moment change is introduced into the local church. A complaint is registered about that change (often cloaked in spiritual language) and they depart their congregation in search of a congregation that suits their preferences.
Churches and congregants alike can’t avoid the reality of the consumerist sea we swim in. But both those in church leadership and those who fill the worship centers are called to an awareness of and to fight against our impulses. We are no mere spiritual shopping mall, but are in fact “living stones… built up as a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:4). Let us not , fellow Esaus, sell our birthright for the McStew offered us by McChurch.
Photo credit: Alexandru Tungui/Unsplash
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