Consumerism Goes to Church

Anthony B. Robinson

It won’t be news to most church leaders that the consumerism that has become a part of the cultural ethos of North America regularly shows up at church.

Lay leaders who are making stewardship calls may field complaints that the church “isn’t meeting my needs.”

Clergy may find themselves trying to figure out how to talk about a wedding as a service of worship when it is pretty clear that the couple see it as a celebration of themselves and their specialness.

Educators and church school teachers may find themselves pressed by parents whose main criteria is finding a church where their children “have fun.”

Music leaders and staff people are called upon to produce music to fit the tastes and preferences of something that feels more like an audience than a congregation. Or they juggling the demands of people who say, “I only go/ I never go” (pick one) “to a service with contemporary music.”

Researcher George Barna recently observed, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to fit our personal needs — our clothing, our food, our education. Now its our religion.”

Moreover, this consumerization of religion and church seems to cross the usual theological lines. United Church of Christ minister and journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald recently lamented the consumerization of faith in his book, “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul,” (Basic Books, 2010).

Here’s MacDonald: “Faith has become a consumer commodity in America. People shop for congregations that make them feel comfortable rather than spiritually challenged. They steer clear of formal commitments to Christian communities. They flee when they are not quickly gratified or when they encounter interpersonal problems. Changing churches has become as routine as changing jobs. As a result, churches are no longer able to help people develop solid moral characters.”

But its not just mainline Protestants like MacDonald who are concerned. In their 2011 Inter-Varsity Press book, “Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation,” evangelical pastors Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken tell the story of the church they founded in Folsom, California, employing the methods they learned at Willow Creek.

Though their church, Oak Hills, was a “success,” which grew rapidly, Carlson and Lueken’s gradually came to realization that they had created a “monster,” a congregation that needed constant feeding with the next new thing or extravaganza. “When we structure a church around attracting people to cutting-edge, entertaining, interesting, inspirational and always-growing services and ministries, there is simply no room for letting up.”

Carlson and Luekens “began to grow increasingly uneasy that this model of doing church might be unhealthy for the people whose understanding of the Christian life was shaped by a church culture that treated them as religious consumers.” Such concerns led to a shift, a shift from attracting consumers to the spiritual formation of disciples of Christ. It also led to a smaller church, but one that Carlson and Lueken’s are pretty sure is more faithful and for its members, healthier.

Church leaders do find themselves trying to walk a narrow edge. How to be relevant and enagaging, and yet not turning the priesthood of all believers into the company of all consumers, where a small number of staff and lay leaders produce something called “ministry” which others consume.

My own reflection on this is that in a society that has a growing number of un and de-churched people, we do need to be aware and responsive to people’s needs and, at least to some extent, meet people where they are. But meeting them there doesn’t mean leaving them there.

Instead, it seems to me the task of the church, in the words of Alban Consultant Dan Hotchkiss, is “to teach people to want things they did not know to want.” People may come our way looking for a great youth program for their teens or for “a spiritual experience” that is satisfying to them. It’s a place to start. But from that starting point, a healthy church, one that takes the gospel and Christ’s call to discipleship seriously, will teach people to want things they didn’t know to want.

What might those things be? Well, worship for one. Many come to church with expectations shaped by entertainment experiences and are inclined to see themselves as an audience to be entertained by worship leaders who they construe as performers. Over time, our task is to reframe those expectations, to teach people the particular nature of worship, of encounter with God, of going deeper. By experiencing good, deep worship that has integrity people who didn’t know to want such worship, discover that they cannot live without it, indeed that they cannot live without the God they encounter in worship.

Another place people might “learn to want what they did not know to want” may occur in service ministries. Initially, the impulse might be to burnish the college admission application or to do something that bulks up the charitable deduction line item. But on a mission trip or a Habitat build people might discover something more, something they never expected. They might learn from those they serve, not only giving gifts but receiving them as well. They might even find themselves being served in mysterious ways as they serve others. They may learn to want to see the world throught the eyes of the poor, the marginal, the recovering.

In a society as heavily soaked in consumerism and entitlement as ours Christian faith and formation are, in some measure, de-tox operations. We start with people where they are, but we don’t leave them there. We teach people to want things they didn’t know to want: the living God, the call of Christ to “follow me,” and the encounter with God and others that occurs outside our comfort zones.

We may, over time, help people to see that one of our most basic needs is to get over our needs, to get over ourselves, indeed to “lose ourselves.”

And that is important work to be doing.

  • Ron

    There is one irony here. Teaching people to “want things they did not know to want” is exactly what advertisers do to make us bigger consumers! How else do we end up with so many things in our houses we don’t know what to do with them? I think it may be more important for those in the church to first understand every person’s real needs for fellowship and worship.


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