Caving to Consumerism: Christian Calling or Corrupt Coercion?

I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I’m not sure how to resolve it—or even if there’s anything to be resolved. Many people look to the church for practical advice on daily life. What does the Bible say about how to keep my kids off drugs? What is God’s will for my spouse? How can the church make me a better person? I need a girl/boyfriend; does the Bible give any tips on how to find a good match?

From authentic life-obstacles to a truly selfish prosperity “gospel,” there are many congregations and denominations that provide answers to such dilemmas. And usually these answers follow a particular pattern: God wants you to have “x,” so if you do “y,” God will do “z,” whereby you end up with “x,” and life is good. Because I want a better marriage, children who are more polite, a higher paying job, an easier life, a healthier body, I can go to church and get the steps from God/the Bible. I can follow them and bam! I have what I want and God’s blessings to boot.

I consider this to be, in the words of Tommy Smothers, “El toro poo poo.” It is simply consumerism at its most base level. I will go to church for the primary purpose of getting something. If one church brand doesn’t give me what I think it should, I can switch to the next one. And I can simply keep moving around until I find a church brand that gives me what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it in a church, I’ll look somewhere else. After all, it doesn’t matter what the “dispenser” looks like as long as my life gets better, right?

I believe that God, the Bible, and the church are bigger than that and desperately more important than that. I am also recognizing I’m in the minority, a minority that is getting ever smaller. Jesus, as I understand him, goes a completely different direction. The call of Christian disciples isn’t to provide religious blessings and recommendations for a better personal life. It is to be part of God’s work of redeeming and caring for all of creation. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.35).

Now perhaps some good, practical counsel can help us do that with deeper wisdom and fewer distractions, but improving my own life situation cannot be an end unto itself—insofar as being a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church is concerned. We are to practice forgiveness, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, and grace and carry that into our Monday through Saturday world. We are to show the world what God’s love looks like. We are to reveal the presence of God in the world. We are to point to signs of the reign of God anywhere we recognize them. We are to teach and equip disciples to be part of God’s mission according to our particular contexts (though I think we have a lot to learn about context).

Yet there is a continual call for a consumer approach to church. Generally, people aren’t captivated by being part of a renewed world free of violence and injustice, where all are loved and valued. Rather, we become excited about solving personal problems and taking steps to make our own lives more fulfilling.

My quandary is whether or not there is room for consumerism in the church. Is it sticky enough to use as a connection to people, genuinely caring for their personal needs, and then offering a larger vision of God’s mission in the world?  Is that a manipulative bait-and-switch, or an authentic incarnational approach to mission? Or something else entirely?

What do you think?

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, Institutional Church, kingdom of God, Make Disciples, missional church | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Caving to Consumerism: Christian Calling or Corrupt Coercion?

  1. Debbie A

    It seems to me that what you’ve referred to in your last paragraph is exactly what Jesus did. He fed the crowds who came to him – thereby caring for their physical needs. Then he offered them more. He offered them the Kingdom of God. This is not consumerism. This is filling a perceived and real need (hunger) and fulfilling an unprecedented need – offering what they truly needed for their souls.
    When people come to us searching for an easier life, maybe it is because they’re struggling. If we can help them with the need they’re aware of, maybe they’ll listen long enough for us to offer them the real answer their souls long for – salvation through Jesus Christ.

  2. One day I heard a young man speaking. He said he was going to be a missionary, and he was going to “save” the people. The people then would not mind being hungry anymore. I told him, kindly, I hope, he had it backwards. He could not save anybody. Jesus saves, and Jesus also fed the people before He spoke to them. Hungry people cannot listen or hear.

    Think about yourself in church and consider what happens when your stomach starts to rumble? Most of us immediately cease focusing on anything but having dinner. We cease hearing or listening. The inner physical person needs to be fed in order for the spiritual person to be fed. Physically hunger people cannot learn until their hunger is relieved.

  3. There’s what gets you in the door (or in front of the Gospel) and then what keeps you there, what changes it works in you and how it gets you to engage (or not) in the larger work of redemption. I agree that sometimes the message can be too shallow and “consumer” focused. But, it’s just a step.

    I think about yoga, and how many people in the west use it for fitness without realizing that yoga is really a practice of being in the world. The asanas (postures) are just a small part of what it means to be a yogi.

    So, if personal development draws someone in, that might not be the worst thing, but the question becomes how easy is it for them to go deeper? How do we both nourish the person in the pew and create in them a greater hunger to go out into the world to share and help and serve?

    Thank you for the post — definitely got me thinking.

  4. At its best, being a part of a church both addresses our felt needs and simultaneously calls those needs into question. How do you keep your kids of drugs? Strengthen your relationship with them. Looking for God’s will for your spouse? How about asking your spouse! The church can make you e better person by equipping you to deal with a messy world and then forcing you too do so. Looking for a spouse? Why? Are you at a place in your own life where you would be a good spouse for someone else?

    What I think we miss in the whole consumer mentality is that the Christian life is about relationships–relationship with God and relationships with others. And relationships are messy. The “x, y, z” God-will-reward-me thing isn’t messy, it is mechanical. It is contractual, not covenantal. The real “answers” that the church gives to the challenges of daily life is the encouragement to stay in relationship, to struggle together in an often sinful world with often sinful people. The Bible is simply a series of stories about such relationships and how God is involved. I think we can accurately say to people: “We may not have the answers, but we will support you as you struggle with the questions!”

  5. I feel that if you use “your life will be better” for new believers it is o.k. as long as your motivation is not to get “additional butts in the pews” but to attract them and then lead them past the original selfish motivation as to “what can the church do for me?” to the “what can I do through the church to serve God and others?” I agree with Tom Sramek, Jr. that “relationships is what it is all about and the church can offer relationship—-relationship with God; relationship with fellow Christians; and relationships, no matter how messy, with all of God’s children. There’s a difference between a ‘better life” promised which is pretty commercial and can be selfish; and a “fuller and more satisfying life” that comes from relationship with God and neighbor.

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