Following Jesus in a consumer culture

May 27, 2009

I AM committed to encouraging fresh expressions of Church and evangelism for the 21st century. So are many others. But the question is, what kind of discipleship are we bringing people into?

We live in a society where shopping is a picture of life. We shop for identity, not just for things. We buy into beliefs. This gives us the capacity (typical of New Age religions) to pick and mix a world view, to take bits and pieces that we like and turn them into a way of living that “will do for now”. Young people in particular want a society where they can believe one thing on a Monday and another thing on a Thursday because they’re with another crowd.

Personal choice has become our number one right, and it ranks higher than any concept of truth. Our freedom to choose and shed our persona has come to mean freedom itself. Years ago, you made sacrifices now for a better life in the future. Today it’s all now, and it’s all individual – how you can “construct” the person you want to be.

That’s what we, as Christians, are up against. Consumerism is a world view that effectively filters Christ out. People aren’t unbelievers because there’s a demon sitting on their shoulder – they don’t believe because it’s self-evident to them that they don’t need to.

But why is consumerism so effective, and why do churches in the West have such problems countering it?

I believe it is because consumerism counterfeits Christian spirituality. It evangelises and makes disciples. It offers a false worship, a false hope and a false assurance (I’ve deliberately used Christian language here).

Advertising strategies link products with our personal needs, desires and values. So when people feel something is missing in their life, rather than look to God, they look to getting something bigger or better. An addictive process happens, where people are made to feel happy, then quickly unhappy again until they are tempted into further purchases.

Christian spirituality has a godly dissatisfaction built into it, the inner hunger that whispers “There must be more!” Consumerism mimics this restlessness of our earthly pilgrimage. It keeps us dissatisfied but offers its own hope. Really, it’s a form of seduction, and Christian cultures find it very hard to cope with. There’s even the phenomenon of this working the other way and turning religion into a consumer experience – you “shop” from church to church for the best (temporary) buzz from God.

It evangelises and makes disciples. It offers a false worship, a false hope and a false assurance.

Have you noticed, consumerism has no place for the poor? It used to be said that the fruits of a society were seen in how it treated its poor. Postmodern society structures itself around consumers, and the poor can’t compete. For the first time in history, they have no function; they are useless in a consumer world.

The only way that consumerism can be effectively countered is by an alternative world view and an alternative pattern of living, which shapes our character. We have the resources in Jesus to engage with the world of consumerism and outclass it!

The crucial issue is discipleship – creating authentic followers of Jesus. A large part of the church in the West is middle-class and consumerist. You’re never going to counter this alone – it has to be a corporate stance. I suggest that we need long-term patterns of life, perhaps even a Rule of life, which can make the church into a community that develops Christian character and the capacity for discernment as we swim in consumer waters.

What we need is not more from God but the grace to take hold of what He has already given. He has already given the church everything it needs to be a powerful counter-culture. We will be radicals again, re-finding our roots. We will be back into prayer, personal accountability, a corporate life, sacraments, scripture – the lot.

The Apostle Paul writes: “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11). It is a learning process, but we have to get there, because it is this quality of contentment which cuts the vital nerve of “I’ve always got to have more”, on which consumerism relies. It wrests our relationship away from things and roots it back with God, whatever our circumstances. So my challenge to local churches is: how can you develop a pattern of life together that establishes godly contentment?

I challenge us all to study Paul’s letter to the Philippians as if it was (and it is) a manual on how to be an alternative Empire. In the middle of one system, we serve another. The first Christians stood up and said Caesar is not Lord; we must do the same with consumerism. Only Jesus is Lord (2:9-11). He outclasses everything, and whatever else clamours for our attention must be counted as dung (3:3-10, KJV).

Jesus was exalted because He emptied Himself – the very opposite of “I must have more”. We, too, have to get into the mindset of humility and self-sacrifice (2:5-9). Only then can we embody to people around a different and better way, ‘shining as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation’ (2:15). It is this that will, at last, tear the blindfold from people’s eyes and offer them a choice, a way of escape into a new, more fulfilling way of life. And it is in this way, I believe, that as churches we will once again live as the advance guard of the coming King, whose reign on the new earth will be full of His wonders.
Graham Cray is Anglican Bishop of Maidstone, UK and chair of the youth movement, “Soul Survivor”. This article is taken, with permission, from a talk given in March 2008 at the inaugural “Breathe” Conference in London.