As the upcoming election vividly illustrates, America has become more divided and divisive than at any other time in recent memory. However, regardless of political or religious affiliation, the vast majority of us are united in one unfortunate arena – consumerism. Americans have by far the largest amount of total household debt (over $16 trillion) of any nation in the world. The average American carries $100,000 in consumer debt and a debt-to-income ratio of nearly 150%. Just as division among churches and Christians has contributed to the fracturing of our culture, consumerism within Christianity has exacerbated America’s overindulgent spending habits…
America rejects our institutions and places more “faith” in its own (e.g. government and businesses) as Christian engagement with churches becomes more consumeristic and as lines blur between religious organizations and secular companies in terms of:
- Shifting the weight of expectations and accountability from members to pastors, reducing demands for discipleship while upping the ante on programs, performance, and facilities
- Shopping (and frequent “church hopping”) based on the comparative quality of “services” provided rather than the adherence of leadership and membership to the truth of Scripture
- Defining church as a place and not as its people, positioning churchgoers as “customers” to attract and retain instead of Kingdom “employees” to train and deploy to pursue the real customer (those who don’t know Jesus)
- Designing church growth strategies that breed loyalty and prioritize numerical growth over personal growth in Christ (e.g. replacing intensive discipleship with “sticky” small groups)
- Implying that joining, serving, and giving (within the comfortable confines of a church) is an adequate substitute for boldly risking prayer, care and share lifestyles in public view
Businesses advertise products they promise will transform consumers’ lives but fail to deliver. Churches promise life transformation, but surveys show most Christians don’t look much different than non-believers to the naked eye. America will continue drifting farther from God as long as church operating principles and consumer-driven practices converge with those of everyone else. No matter how content and confident non-Christians may appear, they earnestly seek the hope and forgiveness only Jesus can provide. However, pointing them back to the cross will require abandoning any vestige of commerce and consumerism from the functions of churches and lives of churchgoers.
America rejects our social criticism and commentary, heeding instead the counsel of secular media and academic leaders, when Christians lose their voice by appearing nearly as materialistic and apprehensive as those who do not profess faith and hope in Christ:
- Finding discipleship too demanding for church “customers”, and therefore not having the understanding or courage to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who was a servant not a consumer
- Professing belief in eternal life while (ironically) living for the ”dot” and not the “line”, fearfully store up worldly treasures
- Hypocritically judging the vanity and self-centeredness of society while not dying to self personally, often more concerned about our wants than the needs of others
Even those unfamiliar with Scripture understand Christianity is incompatible with the American Dream. Jesus was blatantly countercultural when it came to consumption, foregoing possessions and property. To the extent churches and believers amass wealth for personal gain and security, not exhibiting the faith Jesus modeled – relinquishing our rights and sense of ownership of assets as long as poverty and oppression persist – America will continue distancing from Christianity. However, when we take our faith so seriously that we value the relationship with our loving Father above all else, our light will illuminate the futility and shallowness of meaningless accumulation of belongings.
America rejects our example and leadership, elevating and listening instead to secular authority figures, when renowned pastors and Christian leaders seek the spotlight, garnering notoriety for themselves yet tarnishing the name of Jesus whenever they:
- Misunderstand the humble, servant leadership style of Christ, who at the height of His popularity, either went off alone to pray or preached His toughest message to weed out insincere followers
- Believe the path to reversing the course of our culture is to scale the tops of the 7 Mountains (e.g. education, government, media), an approach Jesus repudiated
- Establish hierarchies, increase influence, and build skyscrapers (gathering many but occupying a small footprint), bringing celebrity worship to churchdom
- Forget that the “bigger they are the harder they fall”, generating unwanted publicity from secular media waiting to pounce when prominent Christians violate God’s laws or society’s code of ethics
Any diversion of attention from our perfect Lord onto flawed human beings is a serious mistake. We misrepresent Jesus when we pretend we’re anything more than sinners in dire need of a merciful Savior. It can be difficult to see Christ through us if our egos block the view. Transparency through confession makes non-believers aware of their need for forgiveness. The path to church reform and cultural reform is one and the same – making disciples who live consistent with the faith they espouse, children of a loving Father mobilized to infiltrate and transform the body of Christ and their communities.
America rejects the Gospel and assumes it isn’t better than the “good news” offered by advertisers and educators when Christians “consume” the salvation message (for their own benefit) and hesitate to share it with those we claim are destined for Hell without it:
- Receiving a “free” ticket to Heaven, cheap grace without obligation for obedience simply by repeating a few phrases (the Sinner’s Prayer), implies that it’s not worth much if it costs us so little (though it cost Jesus so much)
- Wondering whether our cure for secularism’s terminal illness (sin leading to death) is credible if the average Christian tells so few people (even those they love) about it
- “Selling” Christianity to appeal to consumers through self-centered marketing pitches like ”Jesus died for you” and “Jesus came to give you abundant life”
- Questioning whether the Gospel transforms lives if it didn’t convince us to abandon consumerism and to love others enough to risk our social standing for their sake
A non-believer who knows anything about Jesus understands that His death and resurrection was not intended to be consumed or concealed but boldly proclaimed from the rooftops, not just by paid professionals but by all Christ-followers. Gen Z would be more inclined to believe Jesus’ story has real value if they knew we truly “bought what we were selling”. However, when the role of most churchgoers in evangelism stops short of the Great Commission, typically only going so far as to invite a friend to next weekend’s church service, we make the Gospel seem less important and interesting than their other options for how to spend a Sunday morning.
America rejects us and God (as the embodiment of love) and adopts its own definitions of “love” when Christians consume His love for them but don’t seem to pay that love forward in how we treat our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ, or those who persecute us:
- Watching to see if Christians reflect the love of Jesus, possibly open to a deeper form of (unconditional) love than the emotions, affection, and romance that often disappoint and never fully satisfy
- Not “earning” the right to speak to culture and mitigating the inevitable backlash against Christ-followers by leading with compassionate demonstrations of God’s love, particularly for the (materially) poor and oppressed
- Running “transactional”, seasonal outreaches that actually perpetuate poverty, create dependence, and double as church “advertising”
- Not caring for our own and loving one another due to theological differences or physical distance (i.e. the persecuted overseas), sowing division within our ranks
Many churches emphasize God’s love without giving equal airtime to aspects of our Father’s character (that flow out of His love) like high expectations for His children to dispense that love rather simply soak it in. Pointing fingers, politicizing our faith, and positioning God’s love as a one-way street may attract lukewarm attenders to our churches but invite ridicule from a society expecting Christians to live more like Jesus. The more self-centered, angry, judgmental, and divided the body of Christ appears, the more the world will follow suit. However, churches that return to their first love by valuing loyalty to the Father over loyalty to the institution will produce disciples who love others and one another in ways that draw all people to Him.
It’s Your Turn…
Did the chicken or the egg come first? Did churches treat parishioners like consumers (to sustain the organization), driving their consumeristic behaviors? Or were Christians infected by America’s consumer-driven culture, forcing pastors to accommodate more demanding congregations? Regardless of how it started, how has consumerism within Christianity undermined our influence and abetted our nation’s pursuit of the American Dream over God’s Kingdom?