I don't drink coffee but that hasn't stopped me from using the Starbucks across the street from my church as a second office. I sip my overpriced beverage in the armchair near the window. On this afternoon I was meeting Greg and Margaret*members of our church I'd worked with closely for the last few years.
"We've decided to leave Blanchard," Greg started. "For two months we've been church shopping." Church shoppingwhere did that dastardly term come from? I thought while gazing out the window at the swarm of suburbanites fluttering between The Gap, Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble, and Williams-Sonoma.
"We really love Blanchard," Margaret added to soften the blow. "It's been a great church for our family, with a wonderful children's program. Greg and I really like it, but our boys are teenagers now and they prefer the music at Faith Community*." I took a sip of my preferred drinka tall, no whip, Tazo chai latte. Maybe I should have gotten the low cal, non-fat, grande Earl Grey, with Splenda.
Margaret continued, "Faith Community has so much to offer our family, and I think it's really important to go someplace the boys like. When your kids are teenagers, you'll understand." Having played the evangelical trump card (the kids), Margaret sat back in her chair believing no further discussion was necessary.
"What are you going to do when your boys leave home in a few years?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," said Greg. "Maybe we'll come back to Blanchard."
"I hope you don't," I replied, meaning no malice. I did, however, relish the stunned look on their faces, if just for a moment. "I hope that you commit yourselves so fully to Faith Communitybuilding strong relationships, serving with your gifts, participating in its missionthat you could never see yourselves leaving that church. I really believe God grows us most when we are committed to a community."
For the next hour we had a difficult but edifying conversation about their decision to leave. Then I prayed for Greg and Margaret in the middle of Starbucks, and watched from my chair by the window as they drove away in their SUV, a chrome fish on the tailgate.
From Lord to Label
Christian critiques of consumerism usually focus on the dangers of idolatrythe temptation to make material goods the center of life rather than God. This, however, misses the real threat consumerism poses. As contingent beings, we must consume resources to survive. The problem is not consuming to live, but rather living to consume.
We find ourselves in a culture that defines our relationships by our purchases. As the philosopher Baudrillard explains, "Consumption is a system of meaning." We assign value to ourselves and others based on the goods we purchase. One's identity is now constructed by the clothes you wear, the vehicle you drive, the music on your iPod. In short, you are what you consume.
This explains why shopping is the number one leisure activity of Americans. It occupies a role in society that once belonged to religionthe power to give meaning and construct identity. Consumerism, as Pete Ward concludes, "represents an alternative source of meaning to the Christian gospel." No longer merely an economic system, consumerism has become the American worldviewthe framework through which we interpret everything else, including God, the gospel, and church.
When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it as a comprehensive way of life, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express our identity.