Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given;” let’s keep that. “Sell all your possessions;” oh, that was just metaphorical. “Do not let your hearts be troubled;” absolutely, Jesus. “Give to everyone who asks of you;” with plenty of conditions, of course. If American Christians were as honest as Thomas Jefferson in how we pick and choose our favorite aspects of Jesus, we might discover that we’ve edited Jesus into a glorified version of ourselves. Our individualistic, egocentric, made-just-for-you society has conditioned us to make Jesus into someone he is not, thus leading the Church into a man-made, dead-end religion. Consumerism of American culture has slipped almost undetected into the Church, despite the abundance of rhetoric condemning worldliness and desires of the flesh. This short discussion will expound upon the crisis of consumerist infiltration in the American Church, provide practical means of fighting religious consumerism, and reflect on how I will change my consumerist style of Christianity.
Defined as “the attitudes and practices derived from shopping,” consumerism grooms Americans to seek the fulfillment of their desires. Fulfilling desires is already an American area of expertise; we associate ourselves with clothing lines, dietary trends, or political parties every day. The passion of church-goers often bears the marks of sports fans: enthusiasm for success without personal sacrifice. Christianity becomes simply another brand that its consumers hope will improve their lives socially and emotionally, giving rise to the “Consumer Christian.” In this context, Jesus is a self-serving and feel-good addition to the consumer’s ever-expanding identity. With Jesus as simply an image-booster, it is not surprising that self-identifying “Christians” are far more numerous in the southern states where Christianity is still popular while numbers plummet in ultra-progressive regions such as the northwest. But Jesus never promoted himself as the key to success, status, and stability. He said that his followers must die to themselves and give up everything they have, the ultimate antithesis of consumerism. Such vast contradiction begs the question: are “Consumer Christians” really Christians at all?
The principles of consumerism radically upend the very foundations of Christianity and discipleship to Jesus. Examining the life of Jesus reveals constant sacrifice, discomfort, conflict, commitment, and ultimately death. Consumerism creeps in like a snake, whispering that God only wants to bless us and would never ask us to be uncomfortable. Our “Have It Your Way” culture is the opposite of Jesus’ all-too-literal call to “lay down your life,” which would imply that Christians should live opposite of the consumerist culture. Sadly, this is not the case.
The Sunday morning church experience is a showcase of the consumerist influence rampant among Christians. First comes the need to find the “perfect church for me,” a process which has literally become known as “church shopping.” The decision to give one hour each week to a specific church is usually based on a combination of factors that must all meet our personal tastes: style of music, interesting teaching, and an array of programs to name a few. For millennials, out-of-date logo designs or traditional hymns are often enough to justify shopping elsewhere. But “shoppers” need not bear all the blame for consumerist choices; they are responding like customers because churches are operating like businesses.
Consumerism, in conjunction with capitalism, has turned far too many of our churches into growth-based corporations. These businesses have paid staff and annual budgets that must be paid out of the tithes of the consumers. The business owners know that customers will only fill the well-cushioned seats if they are happy and comfortable, so it becomes the job of the staff to ensure this comfort. Church customers can come in, get coffee, listen to a religious “TEDTalk,” and leave without ever being asked for anything except their money. The “service” provided is completely controlled, scheduled minute-by-minute to guarantee that everyone can leave right on time. Children who grew up in church expect a place they go as consumers to be filled, fed, and refreshed, rather than as contributors in mutual encouragement, collective sorrow, and interdependence. Most new Christians have similar expectations because the Jesus they have bought into has been advertised as the fulfillment of all their desires and dreams. Glen Marshall says, “If we have marketed Jesus primarily as a needs-meeting sort of savior, stripping the gospel of most of its ethical content, perhaps we ought not to be too surprised if we have a problem a few years down the road when it comes to helping those who have responded to such a message to live as if they are part of the kingdom of God rather than members of a religious mutual aid society.”
American consumerism is fundamentally individualistic, derived from a culture that stands diametrically opposed to subjecting oneself to a king. But Christianity requires such subjection and complete obedience. The middle ground formed between egocentrism and theocentrism is lip service: a person who willingly acknowledges Jesus on Instagram but feels no compulsion to live in submission to God’s commands. As published by Christianity Today, “the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences - music, books, t-shirts, conferences, and jewelry.” Ultimately, consumerism demobilizes and deactivates Christians, undermining the very essence of a follower, a missionary, or a disciple.
Changing the situation of a consumerist church is daunting for the sole reason that our entire culture has become consumers by default, both in and out of church. As Christians, we are complacent and comfortable with consuming rather than contributing. But we can begin working toward a healthy, productive Christianity by asking pastors to consider the issue and by challenging Christians to live more generously.
If the Church’s business of consumption is to change, we must see action from the leaders, pastors, elders, and staff. In discussing consumerism with pastors, we can ask them to incorporate more corporate sharing and prayer, following more closely to the New Testament’s early church. We can suggest that the preaching be distributed between mature believers, not just pastors, and that these teachings be interactive with questions and answers. Perhaps the most radical yet important proposal would be to reconsider paying salaries to pastors and staff in order to decrease the budgetary expenses that demand consumers. No doubt this suggestion is the most difficult; who is willing to be persuaded out of their job? These revolutionary ideas may be best received and implemented by young men and women who are beginning the journey toward ministry, such as those in religious university programs.
The most immediate way to reduce consumerism is through increasing generosity. As Robert C. Roberts states in his article “Just a Little Bit More,” over-consumption is a result of greed, and greed’s antidote is generosity. On a large scale, we can examine the giving record of our church and invite the leadership to drastically increase the percentage of money being given away, even if tithing remains the same. But the congregation must also be inspired to live more and more generously. As a body, we should collectively find more opportunities to sacrifice time, money, or possessions to the point that it actually affects our daily lives. Welcoming children from foster care, befriending homeless in our community, or volunteering as a tutor are just a few ways to further a more generous, others-centered lifestyle.
But cultural change begins on a personal level, and I am prepared to take action in my own life. First, I have been decreasing my consumption in general by practicing a more traditional “Sabbath,” a day set aside to focus on God and refrain from buying and selling. In conjunction, I want to increase the amount of money I give. As a student, it is easy to excuse myself from sacrificing money. But if I am not willing to give perhaps 10% now while my income is small, do I really think I will be willing to give 10% when my income is larger, and that percentage means more dollars? But more than just money, I will seek out opportunities to contribute with my faith, particularly through mentoring other girls who are younger in their faith. Finally, I will talk with my pastor about the problem of a consumerist church and ask how he envisions changing this debilitating situation.
More than atheism, postmodernism, or perhaps any other philosophy, consumerism threatens the Church because it redefines the person and message of Jesus to fit our desires. We must begin to fight the consumer attitudes that have silently infiltrated the Church before we find ourselves trying to sustain a kingdom without a king. I believe that when we begin denying our material desires for God’s eternal purposes, we’ll discover fulfillment and satisfaction that consumerism can never provide.