I was chatting with a friend last night about church. He told me that he’s been thinking about the ways that our churches have been negatively shaped by consumer culture. I think my friend is on to something, too: many of our church gatherings are consumer-oriented and consumer-driven. It is uncommon for church communities to be groups highly collaborative, committed contributors. So why is this the case?
Broadly speaking, we should acknowledge that we have all been deeply influenced by our consumer culture. I think the influence is so profound that none of us can truly appreciate the full impact that consumer assumptions have had on the ways we think and live. In our time, many peoples’ most foundational basis of existence could be summed up as, ‘I consume; therefore I am.’
The spread of consumerism is ‘deep and wide,’ to use the words of an old Sunday school song. So deep and wide that it’s fairly obvious how its assumptions and measures of success have shaped the purposes of many church communities. It is incredibly easy, if not even encouraged, for the average church attender to be a casual consumer. To show up and quietly slip in the back, unnoticed and unnamed. To sit down and to consume the religious entertainment put on display—and perhaps even a coffee and a muffin too—all of which has been made available at multiple times and services for their convenience. And if the religious goods and services create a high degree of satisfaction, then attenders will choose to consume Jesus, too.
Many church leaders are aware of how challenging it is to motivate people out of consumer habits. From my experience, many leaders are also discouraged by these consumer trends and the challenges that come with them. But attenders are not the only ones who are responsible for creating a church culture that’s consumer-driven. The average leader is responsible for creating it too. Ironically, many leaders actually worsen their own struggle by unwittingly forming their gatherings and gauging their success according to consumer norms. They foster the very habits that frustrate them. Or, in other words, their designs sometimes encourage the consumer behaviour that is the source of their own discouragement.
So what needs to happen to change this consumer-church-culture? What do we need to do to best form collaborative communities of committed contributors? I don’t pose these as mere rhetorical questions. If we are concerned that consumer habits have had a negative impact on our church communities, then we should honestly ask ourselves these questions. And as we press in, we should ask even more questions. This is an important first step because the problem will not change if we do not adequately identify it.
Personally, I’ve come to the point where I strongly suspect that tweaking and adjusting what’s current will not be enough. I think many churches may need an entirely different paradigm.