The eighth deadly sin?

I think we need to update the list of deadly sins – and  I vote that shopping just might be the greatest modern enemy to living the Jesus life.

The church in North America is in such a dangerous place and we hardly know it.  We exist in an environment of consumerism; it’s the air we breathe and so we hardly notice it – even in church.  The demon is in deep and we’ve been discipled into a consumer way of life instead of a Jesus way of life.  It shapes our expectations of church, our hopes for the Christian life, the desires of our hearts.  And I’ll be the first to own this: “Hi my name is Phil and consumer living has co-opted my allegiances and heart desires.”

We need to start frank conversations in churches about this.  There’s a few good books out addressing this reality.  For example, James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom explores how we are formed by our desires and less so our thoughts.  It’s a very important introduction to the reality of how we are formed, despite what we might cognitively hold to be true.  Skye Jethani’s The Divine Commodity is an accessible critique of the consumerism that grips the North American church.

And there’s a new book out I’m looking forward to reading called The Renovation of the Church.  Here’s a soberingly good quote from the book:

I don’t know how to say this in a gentle way, but we should not assume that those people who are attracted to our church have been captivated by the message of Christ and his alternative vision of life. In truth, most North American Christians are not riding courageously on warrior steeds with swords waving wildly in the air, crying out, “Let’s change the world for Christ.” Rather, they come in the air-conditioned comfort of their SUV or minivan with their Visa card held high in the air, crying out, “Let’s go to the mall!”

We should be more truthful with each other here. They come because their high-school kid likes the youth program, or because their children don’t get bored, or because they like the music, or because the pastor preaches the Bible the way they believe it should be preached, or because they happened to be greeted by a smiling face one day, or because the worship leaders looks like Brad Pitt.

This is the hard, raw reality of life in the North American church. The people who come to our churches have been formed into spiritual consumers. This is who we are. It is our most instinctive response to life. And you can hardly blame us. Almost everything in our culture shapes us in this direction. But we must become deeply convinced that this is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the one who invited us to deny ourselves and lose our lives in order to find them. If we do nothing to confront this in our churches, we are merely putting a religious veneer over consumerism and nothing is changed. We offer no real, viable, attractive, alternative way of living. And what is worse, our churches become part of the problem. By harnessing the power of consumerism to grow our churches, we are more firmly forming our people into consumers. Pastors end up being as helpful as bartenders at an Alcoholics Anonymous convention. We do not offer what people really need.

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  1. #1 by slapper7 on September 25, 2011 - 10:44 pm

    So this begs the questions – what does the author believe that people really need? Organs, hymns and dry preaching? Century old traditions that have lost their meaning to most? What of the church that drives us, and our children, away from Jesus because we don’t fit the status-quo – why not welcome everyone into his open, loving arms, right where they’re at – warts and all? Accept them and help them through their struggles instead of judging them for having the struggles? What of GRACE?
    I say, if people are coming to Jesus and understanding the sacrifice he paid for them and are fully giving their lives to him – why does the method in which it happens need to be judged?
    Sorry Phil, on this one, I disagree… I’ve seen too many salvations in the last 3 months to believe otherwise… and nary a one in the 4 years prior…

    • #2 by phil on September 26, 2011 - 6:21 am

      Thanks Lucretia – and it will be interesting, when I read the book, to find out more of what he thinks the church should do. But I think he makes less a point about the method than about the culture around us. I don’t hear him argue, or hint at, the things you mention. I think his words are more of a prophetic caution, and I think a legitimate one – our culture has captured us in ways that often we can hardly notice and we need to be wary of it. Great to hear that you’ve seen so many conversations lately – for me, that’s like gas in my tank.

  2. #3 by slapper7 on September 26, 2011 - 8:09 am

    It would definitely be a challenging read for me… he’s already pricked a nerve, obviously. 😉 But I am curious about what he has to say. The church he describes in this passage, and the reasons he gives for people going to such a church, are bang on with where I’m at and why we’ve changed churches recently. So am I, then, just a spiritual consumer? I would hope not… the truth is found in the fruit I suppose.

  3. #4 by blythewhite on September 28, 2011 - 12:22 pm

    Hi Phil. What a convicting post! I have been chewing on it for the last day or so, trying to untangle motives and consumeristic preferences. I have also been shaped [perhaps polluted would be a better word] by consumerism, and it does manifest itself easily in the church. Having moved around the States a lot while I was growing up, seeking fellowship at churches turned into “church shopping”. We really called it that. Oy.

    Ideologically, I’m excited about the idea of a non-consumer-based church. Practically, how would it look? Perhaps this is where the missional model of groups reaching out, putting the needs of others above their own really does make sense. The idea is foggy for me, but one thing I know is true: it would need to be a climate of humility.

    • #5 by phil on September 28, 2011 - 4:43 pm

      Blythe – great that you stopped by (and a real pleasure to meet you this past week). The issue is really big and how it looks practically is the important next step. I’m not sure how it will look other than a renewed commitment to live out what Jesus teaches us. I think the spiritual practices will be really important – those practices that weave the gospel into our daily living. I think it will also be more of a posture than anything – I mean that the church can still offer programs, still lead inspired worship, but our posture towards all those things will not be the consumer-driven “meet my needs” orientation but rather a posture of “how might I meet and live out Jesus” in all these things.

      And a climate of humility for sure. Living the Christian life is not only coming to Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life, but also following in the way of Jesus – living as he lived life.

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