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How Should the Church Engage in a Consumer Society?

“To be prophetic is to host a world other than the one that is in front of us.” Christians, as theologian Walter Brueggemann so eloquently wrote, ought to be set apart, practicing faith and life in a way that is unique and attractive to those outside of the body of Christ. Consumerism, an idol of the West, aspires to control the appetites and patterns of its practitioners, orienting their desires toward itself. As Matthew 6:24 cautions, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Thus, it is time for Christians to examine the influence of consumerism on churches and ecclesiastical culture, not with fear or distrust, but with wisdom, understanding, and prayer.

In L.O.K. Lategan’s Remarks on the Church in the Consumer Society: Similarities and Dissimilarities, he urges, “Church renewal cannot ignore the experience of consumer society; yet where businesses should compromise on their products to secure a returning clientele, the church can never compromise on the contents of its message.” Lategan’s remarks ring true. I attend Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. In a town of around 50,000 people, there are 75 places of worship from which to choose, making it the city with the second most churches per capita in America.

In a town flush with churches, it has been interesting to note the evaluation process my fellow students have utilized to select their places of worship. Throughout our first year, we visited multiple churches, comparing and contrasting different qualities we found attractive or disengaging. We read reviews, talked with older students, and called the process ‘church-shopping.’ While there is nothing inherently wrong with the process of selecting a church based on one’s preferences, reactions, and comfort, it is interesting to note that the undertaking was approached with the same method and language that we approach other consumer oriented transactions.

However, lest you think that this methodology was just the nature of first-year college students, a 2016 Pew Research Center study found that over 70 percent of Americans who have looked for a new place of worship claim that either the quality of preaching, the welcoming nature of clergy and lay leaders, or the proximity and location of the church were the determining factor in their choice of a new church. Again, while these considerations are not inherently bad factors, they play into one clear revelation that is troubling; people see the church as a vendor of religious goods and services primarily existing in order to serve its members’ tastes and preferences.

In his essay, Lategan acknowledges that there are some benefits to understanding the church through the lens of consumerism, namely, that it “opens our eyes to the advantages that consumerism holds for revitalizing churches and church activities.” This can be done through rebranding churches that have historically been dead in their faith or hurtful to those on the margins, because the branding of the church can express “quality theology and true love.” However, there is a large and pernicious danger, as Lategan writes, “The negative influence is the dominating effect of consumerism.” He defines consumerism as an ideology, and as an ideology it is, “a premise taken from reality, which dominates man’s understanding and experiencing of reality.” If the fickle nature of consumerism is the lens through which one views the church and its teachings, then it would precariously put the church under the auspices of an ever-changing ideology. The church is not about you or me, what we want, or what we think is right. It is about the will of God, the salvation of sinners, the message of the Gospel, and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

Consumerism, churches, and choice have all been called into question despite being posted on a website about capitalism and the public life. As someone who values and has benefited from capitalism, I am not here to critique the system. However, I am here to ask all of us to collectively evaluate the way we view the intersection of church and culture. As Rev. Dr. Karina Kreminski argues, “The church does not exist for the sake of itself but rather is an agent which God works through in order to accomplish His mission.” Thus, “Our identity is therefore as children of God sent into the world to join with God on His mission.”

Using capitalistic vocabulary, we can incorporate Lategan’s remarks that the church is in the advising and service business. It is only the church, through preaching and living the Gospel, that can “provide a true vision and reflection of an alternative society – that of God’s kingdom.” Through service, the church can be a conduit to care for people and to change their lives positively. God is not interested in an inward facing church that is concerned with only the needs and inclusion of its members. The Bible commands an outwardly focused and altruistic church. James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” It is a blessing that we may be hands and feet in the service of the King.

Furthermore, Mark 8:34 recounts Jesus enjoining his followers to deny themselves in order to take up their crosses. Though this calling is outside the scope of consumer logic, we are mandated to give up some of ourselves for the good of others. Whether it be through the incorporation of church practices foreign to us but beneficial to the congregation as a whole, through the use of our capital to help the disadvantaged, or denying comfort for the sake of the church’s efficacy, the practice of humility and self sacrifice strengthens our bond in Christ. Stripped to its core, the church should be closely associated with Christ, it should promote a close relationship between the body of believers, it should be characterized by the righteous acts of the community of faith, and it should be filled with hope for and joy in the promise of the second coming of Christ. All else is secondary, all else is supplementary.

If consumer characteristics promote the missiological nature of the Gospel, then utilize them, and if they hinder it, then find a new way to incorporate the Gospel into culture. In Acts 17, Paul famously demonstrated this effective approach through his sermon on Mars Hill. He stood in the Areopagus and discussed Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, and even cited Greek poets, leveraging his knowledge of Greek culture to relate to his audience in such a deft manner that he was still able to clearly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, he did not allow himself to be confused with a Greek philosopher, rather he elevated the message of Christ above any sort of comfortable compromise. Similarly, only when we infuse consumerist culture with the church, and not the other way around, can we claim the prophetic work of establishing Christ’s kingdom as not yet here, but yet to come.