My wife, parents, and I recently watched a stage production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As I watched it I couldn’t help but imagine what the ghosts of church past (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), present (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), and future (Part One) might say to those of us who follow Jesus. This week we’ll look at what the future holds.
So, as we’ve seen in previous posts in this series, those who live lives authentically marked by faith in Jesus are a declining species. One response could be to go all in with regard to American culture. We, as the Church, could attempt to absolutely immerse ourselves into the consumerism around us, attempting to redeem it and use it for the kingdom of God.
I first encountered this idea in Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways. Here’s how he introduced it:
We try to redeem the rhythms and structures of consumerism as Pete Ward suggests in his excellent book on missional ecclesiology. He advises that, rather than reject or denounce consumerism, we should see it as an oppportunity for the church to rediscover her missional and redemptive nature. He maintains that in consumerism there is a massive search going on, and that the church cannot miss out on meaningfully communicating from within this context. He suggests, therefore that the church must radically reorganize around consumerist principles but maintain its missional edge. (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 111-112).
The book from Pete Ward that Hirsch is referring to is called Liquid Church. While there is much to like about Ward’s ideas in this book, such as the church being a flexible network instead of a rigid structure, the idea of trying to redeem consumerism seems entirely too risky. I love the way that Hirsch responds to Ward’s idea: “However, my warning is that if we are going to sup with the devil, we had better have a very long spoon, because we are dealing with a deeply entrenched alternative religious system to which Jesus’s disciples need to model an alternative reality” (The Forgotten Ways, 112).
In fact, some of the missional writers, thinkers, and practitioners argue that being a consumer runs counter to what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the first place. For instance, Hugh Halter, in And: The Gathered and Scattered Church, says this: “A disciple is not a consumer and a consumer is not a disciple!” (emphasis original, 75). Halter’s argument is that at its base consumerism is just selfishness in a different package; and Jesus explicitly calls people away from only looking out for number one.
So why will going all in with consumerism not work as a model moving forward?
- At its core, consumerism is selfish. — Consumerism has been defined as the attempt to acquire as many goods and services as possible at the lowest prices possible. Vance Packard’s pioneering work on consumerism called Waste Makers highlights the truth that all this selfishness and consumption is ultimately harmful in many ways. I think it’s pretty clear that we as followers of Jesus should avoid such things! We’re already tempted to view God like a cosmic vending machine, and going all in with consumerism would make that tendency even worse!
- Consumerism will push the church to maintain the professionalization of ministry. — In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul says that we’re all ambassadors of the ministry of reconciliation. But if we really want to imbibe consumerism then folks are going to demand that those who have the most training and skill at ministry be the ones to do it, ignoring the fact that God has given gifts to all of the church for the common good, not just some of it (1 Corinthians 11-13)! Again, we’re already having issues in the church with folks sitting on the sidelines; why would we want to make that problem more prominent?
- It will simply be too expensive. — In the end, how could the church afford to be an entity totally defined by consumerism? We’d be competing against Bud Light, the NFL, reality TV, and Hollywood. We don’t have the resources to compete in that market! We barely have the resources to maintain our paltry budgets now! The cost of competing against the big boys of consumerism is simply too high, which makes this idea for addressing America as a mission field completely untenable.
What do you think? Is it possible for the church to redeem consumerism? If so, why? If not, why? Let me know below.