The Church of Stop Shopping
A prophetic documentary preaches a message that should be coming from the church.

Last winter Pastor Dave Swanson was Out or Ur's man on the street at the Sundance Film Festival. His reports sparked an excellent discussion about the impact of films on culture and theology. Swanson is back with a review of a new documentary about the evils of consumerism, and he wonders - why isn't the church preaching about this?

I don't remember when or how I first stumbled onto the website for Reverend Billy's Church of Stop Shopping. After watching video clips online of the reverend preaching his anti-consumerism gospel, I wasn't sure what to make of this secular evangelist. The confusion was cleared up last Friday evening after watching the new documentary about Reverend Billy, What Would Jesus Buy?

The film raises important questions, but first a bit of context. Bill Talen was born into a Dutch Calvinist family in the Midwest. After moving to the west coast to pursue acting, Talen developed the Reverend Billy character before relocating to New York City where the character would reach maturity. While other street preachers were condemning the sex shops in Times Square, the Reverend Billy was using his pulpit to preach against consumerism.

Eventually his combination of street performance, activism, and evangelistic zeal attracted enough of a following to loosely form the Church of Stop Shopping complete with an energetic gospel choir. This is where the film picks up the story.

Director Rob VanAlkemade follows the Church of Stop Shopping as they pile into two buses for a cross-country tour of music, protest, and their unique and often hilarious stop-shopping gospel. Because the tour takes place in the frantic days leading up to Christmas, the tour's message takes on greater poignancy.

To be clear, Reverend Billy's "church" does not believe everyone in America should completely stop shopping. Rather, their hope is that the songs and lively message will cause shoppers to question the quantity and necessity of their purchases. Other important themes for the tour are rising consumer debt, the slow demise of small towns, the affect of our consumption on the developing world, and America's "death by consumption."

As a film, What Would Jesus Buy? is very well done. VanAlkemade is excellent at pulling together a compelling story from what must have been an unconventional filming experience. Halfway through the documentary, Reverend Billy's wife collapses on a hotel bed and wonders aloud whether they are making a difference. Has even one person scaled back his purchasing because of the Church of Stop Shopping? It's a tender moment, and one that every minister can relate to. By contrasting scenes like these with news footage of frenzied shoppers maxing out their credit cards, VanAlkemade effectively draws us into his story.

December 11, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 10 comments


December 13, 2007  11:20am

Perhaps he's speaking truth where the Church refuses to step, and the reason his.../ahem..."ministry" seems to be...(wait for it)...G-d inspired is that...just perhaps, on a slightly possible plane of probablity, you know, where in all likelyhood the truth exists but we prefer the that G-d is "blessing" him with a message that is a) compelling, b) true, and c) in the churh's face. Which begs the question...if G-d is using the church to make Israel envious, is G-d using Rev. Billy and his comically, and yet profound Church of Stop Shopping to make his Chuch Jealous? Just a thought for the churches in America to ponder, because it seems to me G-d is getting his truth spite of the Churches effort to avoid it.

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December 12, 2007  10:42am

You ask why isn't the church the one proclaiming a message that addresses rampant consumerism? I think in a way it is. Dave Ramsay of Financial Peace University, has provided a wake up call for people to get their financial house in order so that we can fulfill our God-given purpose to be "givers" and not merely consumers. Ramsay insists that we most mirror God's character by being careful managers of all our resources so that we can be generous givers. As Ramsay says, "God is a giver." Many churches are taking this message into their communities through his Financial Peace course. Having gone through the course myself, I can attest that it's helped my family to carefully consider what we really need not necessarily what we really want.

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December 11, 2007  8:36pm

According to the fictional Reverend Billy ... "What we are seeing is the Shopocalypse. We are all buying, we are all dying, we are being consumed". He may not be all that wrong. And his evangelistic zeal on 'rampant consumerism', especially at Christmas, IS in stark comparison to the silence emanating from Christian churches today. Mind you, some of Rev Billy's quotes, such as "Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist" only add to peoples total mockery concerning what the Bible teaches about future events. For my own short Thought about the Christmas season, go to "Dec 2007" here ... For another Thought about "Hypocrisy in the Church" today, go here ...

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December 11, 2007  1:14pm

While I think the message is timely and extremely important, Brother Billy's performance may be too much like a televangelist parody to be taken seriously by most. The trailer is here: But I hope the message sticks.

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Richard Dennis Miller

December 11, 2007  12:57pm

"How is it that the Reverend Billy, who places himself outside the Christian faith, is one of the most intriguing and possibly prophetic voices regarding the affects of rampant consumerism in our culture today? Shouldn't the church in America be the one proclaiming this reality?" No, of course not. Our consumer culture provides only one aspect of the temptation to idulge the flesh, which we as Christians are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to resist. Resisting consumerism, however you define it, is neither a means to an end, nor even a desired end. It will be the collateral result of a life committed to Jesus Christ. Evangelism and discipleship are the mission of the church. Charity and compassion follow. There is no room for self-centered consumerism in a life committed to Christ.

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December 11, 2007  9:50am

reading Dave's post reminded me of this link:

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Paul Loeffler

December 11, 2007  9:40am

I hate it when the world is better at acting like Christ than I am. I agree with Dorsey (above).

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Sam Andress

December 11, 2007  9:36am

Prophets always arose from the margins. Always. They never arose from within the dominant socio-religious institution/economy. Why would we expect anything different today? But the question is, will the church institutional hear the prophet and change course and relinquish some of its percieved consumer power? Or will we be like Amaziah and warn Amos that he better leave the temple while he is still alive...

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Kevin Derr

December 11, 2007  9:17am

I have not seen "What would Jesus buy?" nor do I know Reverend Billy, but I am convinced that as a culture and as the church we are too closely tied to the consumerism. And, I have been lamenting recently that we often move toward a consumeristic model for the church. It is not hard to see the conversion sell as a transaction, rather than a relational exchange. Thanks for your thoughts. Kevin

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Dorsey Marshall

December 11, 2007  6:32am

All truth is God's truth.

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