Being a church in a consumer culture…
“The Divine Commodity” right now, a book about how our consumer culture in the western world has affected church life. It’s an important topic for me right now because we’re in the midst of assessing the health of the church I lead as we digest the results of an internal survey we recently completed.
I’ll begin by suggesting that consumerism is a two-edged sword, rather than wholly evil, and spend the rest of this post looking at both edges of the sword. The most obvious edge is the negative one – faith is in the marketplace, like it or not, and as such people are shopping for churches, and even whole belief systems that ‘meet their needs’. In such a world, if I like prosperity theology, I can find it. If I like “Christian Polygamy”, or a church that either exalts or diminishes the role of woman in leadership, or a church that forbids gays and lesbians from attending or encourages them, I can find it. I can also find “just the right music” and “just the right youth ministry” and “just the right kind of preaching – you know, that perfect blend of conviction, humor, challenge, and encouragement that I need.”
At many levels, attending church has become synonymous, at least for some, with buying apples. When you walk down the aisles, whether at your local co-op, or Costco, there are lots of apple choices, and it falls to you to choose the one that’s “just right”, whether you want to choose or not. This is the world we live in, and the risk we run is that this customized faith becomes nothing more than an idol – which simply means a god made by us, which is by far the easiest kind of god to worship, because it’s really just an image of us. One risk we run is that we all gather around these unique “brand” characteristic and then, in our self-referential communities, remain blind to the areas that need transformation in our lives. The other risk we run is that we’re always one or two services away from leaving because the church no longer “meets our needs”. All of this is contributing to the stagnation and dying that’s happening in our churches here in the west.
Is there an upside to this consumerism? I think so because here’s the reality of Jesus ministry: he met people’s needs. Hungry people received bread. Blind people received sight. Captives received freedom. I’d argue that anytime you meet people at their point of need (not every person’s perceived needs, but people’s actual needs), you’re going to be accused of catering to consumerist culture. However, in truth, people need community, beauty, an opportunity to encounter God in ways that are accessible to them, an invitation to step into God’s story, and care along the way as they commit to doing so, and more. Why are we afraid of this?
Yes, we must do more than meet needs, because our calling ultimately is to help people walk in God’s story as fully formed disciples, followers of Christ. But along the way, we meet needs, and this means considering people’s needs, and as leaders, assessing how we’re doing in meeting them.
Upside? Downside? Solutions? Cautions?
I welcome your thoughts.