From Lord to Label: how consumerism undermines our faith

Christian critiques of consumerism usually focus on the dangers of idolatry - the temptation to make material goods the center of life rather than God. This, however, misses the real threat consumerism poses. My concern is not materialism, strictly speaking, or even the consumption of goods - 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 and actions primarily through a matrix of consumption. 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, and 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 only to religion - the power to give meaning and construct identity. Consumerism, as Pete Ward correctly concludes, "represents an alternative source of meaning to the Christian gospel." No longer merely an economic system, consumerism has become the American worldview - the 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, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity. And 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.

Approaching Christianity as a brand (rather than a worldview) explains why the majority of people who identify themselves as born-again Christians live no differently than other Americans. According to George Barna, most churchgoers have not adopted a biblical worldview, they have simply added a Jesus fish on the bumper of their unregenerate consumer identities. As Mark Riddle observes, "Conversion in the U.S. seems to mean we've exchanged some of our shopping at Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and Borders for the Christian bookstore down the street. We've taken our lack of purchasing control to God's store, where we buy our office supplies in Jesus name."

July 10, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 12 comments

John Small

July 30, 2006  10:52pm

To Jac, I'm glad you are part of an active small church with a Biblical vision. I'm not. Most churches in my denomination are aging and shrinking, yet they relentlessly cling to what they know. I'm speaking of their traditions, not the Word of God. My church and my denomination seem more concerned about protecting our 18th century hymnody and worship style than reaching people with the Gospel message. That doesn't make them bad people, but they aren't producing fruit. We claim that we are called to reach the world with the hope of the Gospel, but the only additions we've have to our church in years are transfers from other churches within our denomination. Maybe we don't have to be ALL things to ALL people, but shouldn't we be concerned about winning SOME of them? God bless you for the success you are having.

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July 26, 2006  8:51pm

I just finished reading the entire article in my copy of Leadership Journal. (A magazine I chose to subscribe to over a host of other offerings aimed at Christian Leaders). I was glad the magazine utilizes color throughout (I prefer color to black and white), I enjoyed the cartoons (I like my magazines with humor) and I was quite pleased that Skye chose to write the article in English rather than Greek or Hebrew (English is the only language I understand) I am curious, however, why it is considered appropriate for a magazine designed to develop mature Christian leaders to have a modern look (quite different than the look of the first issue I read almost 25 years ago), include elements that are strictly for entertainment and speak in a language that is understood by the common man, and yet a church is condemned for using the same tools to develop mature believers. Imagine the heat the Apostle Paul would take today for his attempt to connect with culture on Mars Hill. Talk about a salesman using a consumer-oriented approach to evangelism.

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Warren Lamb

July 21, 2006  10:28pm

Wow! Seems, for the most part, we recognize and agree that rampant consummerism has taken us from the others-oriented Church of the New Testament to the "Me-Church" of the New Century. Up until a few months ago, my wife and I felt that we were pretty much alone in this country as relates to how God has led us to deal with this problem. We were soooooooooooo wrong! A couple of years ago, while I was on the verge of stepping into a pastoral position with a new "megachurch", we became heavily concerned over the wordly, fleshly predominance of entertainment and, yes, consummerism. We couldn't get our minds around the little barista from the espresso stand in the foyer delivering espresso orders to customers in the sanctuary during the worship time. There was a lot more, but that pretty much splashed us in the face with ice water. SO out of order...we were suddenly tired of "doing church". We knew that I was called and gifted to preach and to teach, not to being a business executive. So, we prayed for weeks, and God led us to begin a home-church. Home-churches are small groups of people who want to be every-day, all-day disciples of Jesus Christ, who desire worship to be a lifestyle, who consider being in the Word on a daily basis as requisite to survival as eating, and who see service to the lost and hurting world around them as an integral part of the mandate to "make disciples in your going". A couple of months ago we came across a fairly new book by George Barna entitled "Revolution". We celebrated when we discovered that we are part of the millions to whom God has spoken and made broken over the tragedy that we have called His "church" for too long. There are many of us who have studied and trained and pastored who have had our fill of doing it the world's way, of feeding the Me-Monster. Now we're doing it the way we are confident that God intended it to be done - close-up and personal (oh, would that be what the discipling environment is supposed to look like?). We have people who attend our gatherings who are actively involved in churches in the commnity. They are growing and deepening their relationship with Jesus Christ in remarkable ways - ways many of them haven't ever experienced. They see the churches that they are involved with as just one their mission fields. This, I believe, is a fundamental solution to the problem. There is such a peace that flows, even in the midst of some pretty tough trials that our fellowship members have experienced. The "community" that is so needed and sought is found and lived out like the big dogs can't supply. For the most part, no longer must the church say "silver and gold have I none'; for now we say, "silver and gold have I lots!" Yet, also no longer do we say, "In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, get up, pick up your mat, and walk!" We feel that we are part of the move God is making to restore and revive HIS Church and return us to the clarity of vision and purpose and power He intended. Thanks, Skye, for your clear, concise and very real comments. We need more of this.

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July 19, 2006  9:04pm

Great article. Sociologists are speakers of truth; much-needed voices who tell us where were are so we can adjust where we are going. To Mr. John Small, I believe you are making some rather large assumptions with "self-centered, closed-minded, walled-up, aging, shrinking, dying churches" How do you know that these churches are shrinking, aging, etc? As a 24 year old who is part of a living faith community, my contemporaries and I believe that our generation is crying out for authenticity, simplicity, and truth. We have been raised by television, we've been to Disneyland, we've attended the biggest rock festivals, we've overindulged in our hedonistic bloated consumeristic society, and quite frankly, we're tired of it. And it's the last thing we want in a church. We've been saturated in it long enough to realize that those things do not give us life. What I appreciate about sociologists is their perspective they bring. What often is lacking are the answers. It seems those are up to us. What I do know is that the solution is Jesus. Through studying his life, we are shown how to live. We know what to prioritize, we are shown how to love. We want to build communities, not mega-churches. We want to stomp out the hyper-individualism and replace it with sharing and generosity. We want to live among the poor, not just deliver hampers to them at Christmas. Communities like this are small, but they are growing, and very, very powerful.

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July 15, 2006  3:38pm

Tim wrote: "what I was trying to get at is that I'm tired of hearing people trot out "all things to all men" as the end all be all to any discussion on outreach, evangelism, or how to create a "cutting-edge" worship service. People use this verse to justify all sorts lame and misguided ventures, usually because they assume they know how to be "all things" to a demographic with which they have little familiarity." Agreed...

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July 14, 2006  1:45pm

Interesting discussion about a real problem. The same thing had happened to the Jews that were alive when Jesus ministered for those three short years. Look in Mark 11:15-19 where Jesus drives out the merchants and money changers from the temple. They were doing the same thing we're doing today and we'll keep doing it as long as we try to pour new wine into old wineskins. When Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead, he did away with the priesthood, the temple, the daily sacrifice, and fullfilled the law. All who believed in Him became the priesthood, their bodies became the temple, the law was written on their hearts by the presence of the Holy Spirit, with Christ Jesus Himself as High Priest and the perfect sacrifice. Jesus' command was to go to all the nations and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything he taught His disciples. This is the command to live in relationship with Christ in obediance and love, not a call to fill up a church building with parisioners. The challenge we face is not evangelism but rather discipleship. The churches are great at attracting people, drawing them in but they rarely seem to do any more than that. How many of your fellow parishioners read their Bible regularly? How many of them have someone else that is more mature and solid in their faith to guide them into maturity? Who is taking the time to teach parishioners to be disciples in the same way that Christ commanded? The greatest preaching, most impactful praise & worship, fabulous media, or any church facility cannot replace the fundamental facets of being a disciple of Christ. This article is right on, no two ways about it.

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Phil S

July 13, 2006  6:14pm

Wonderful article and analysis! It reminds me of Os Guinness' book, Prophetic Untimeliness, in which he warns that the idol of relevance is a very fickle god. Instead being relevant to people's felt needs, we need to regain a relevance to people's spiritual condition.

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Jamie Cain

July 13, 2006  11:59am

Thanks, Skye, for this excerpt. I think you've hit a nail on the head, but more than a few remain. Rank consumerism dominates the evangelical subculture (and has even made inroads into Catholic and mainline churches), as pastors and parishioners alike fight the seemingly inevitable shrinkage. More and more people are finding meaning in themselves, or a self-centered 'journey.' What I would like to see is someone pointing to a reasonable alternative. Guess I'm impatient; the tectonic shift embodied by people like Keith Green, Derek Webb, Hauerwas (maybe), et. al. just takes too long. Although he comes from what John Small would call a shrinking, dying church, Eugene Peterson is another prophetic voice, as is N.T. Wright. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus should rock consumeristic Christians to the core as it presents a Jesus too big and controversial to fit on a billboard or coffee mug.

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Tim Dunbar

July 12, 2006  9:33am

Ryan, thanks for the link to the church shopping article. Good stuff. For a more satirical approach, try Steve Taylor's song "Steeplechase", written in the early 80's.

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John Small

July 12, 2006  8:41am

I confounds me how people from self-centered, closed-minded, walled-up, aging, shrinking, dying churches talk so much, and write such eloquent long articles about the consumerism of some of today's growing churches. I'm a lay member of such a church, and trying to change the mindset of our members is made more difficult by a pastor who has a distrusting view of most growing churches in our area; charging that these churches have replaced the message with media, entertainment, etc., etc., etc. She preaches sermon after sermon to protect us from these kinds of churches while fewer and fewer people show up each week to hear her message. Instead of picking apart the growing churches' methods, the naysayers should be looking at their effectiveness. Are these growing churches reaching people in our culture and actually getting them to come to church (even if they are at a remote site watching the sermon on a screen)? Are they encouraging and equipping and empowering people for ministry and mission? Are they transforming lives by using the Gospel message to change hearts, minds, and bodies? The naysayers would do well to read Paul's words where he says he has become all things to all people so that by all possible means he might save some. 1 Corinthians 9:22. It's not about a competition between churches, it's a competition for souls. We need to be asking ourselves what the score is in that competition.

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