I used to think that consumerism and religion had nothing in common. But it turns out that we can consume products and attend church for strikingly similar reasons!
Think about it: brands like Apple and Gucci do much more than sell computers and clothing. They also give us a sense of identity and belonging. Even if the feeling eventually wears off, we initially buy these brands to feel cool and fashionable. Marketing and branding intentionally turn a simple pair of jeans into an identity symbol.
Take for example Apple’s “Mac versus PC” advertising campaign in 2006. You don’t see a single computer in these ads. Instead, Mac and PC are actual people, thus reinforcing the idea that you are what you buy. While Mac is trendy, smart and cool, PC is awkward, out-of-fashion and slightly overweight. The embedded message could not be more clear: cool people buy Macs.
In a way, we don’t buy products out of pure materialism but to create more meaning in our lives. We are consuming identity by defining ourselves through the brands we choose. Dr Martyn Percy, principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon in Oxford, England, is right when he says, “The threat posed by consumerism to Christianity is not the material versus the spiritual. It is, rather, a competition between systems of meaning and identification.”
The consumer church
Because consumerism is not merely materialism but a permeating mindset, this worldview can leak into the way we think and feel. Unconsciously, we can apply shopping centre rules to the way we do church. Have you considered what type of church this consumer-oriented view would create? Let’s explore five characteristics.
1. The customer is always right
The first thing you learn in a sales job is to keep clients happy. Your aim is to ensure their satisfaction so they’ll keep buying from you and not from the competition.
While people should feel loved and welcomed at church, our desire to please the congregation should never supersede the desire to please God. If it does, we may end up preaching feel-good sermons to keep the status quo and avoid making waves. We may even shy away from words like accountability, sin andrepentance.
The gospel is meant to be unsettling. In the words of Christian minister, Oswald Chambers, “If by your preaching you convince me that I am unholy, I resent you. The preaching of the gospel awakens an intense resentment because it must reveal that I am unholy; but it also awakens an intense craving.”
Comfort is overrated. Growing always involves some degree of discomfort. Perhaps the church should be a place where we allow ourselves to be stretched, where we learn to embrace the uncomfortable.
2. Maximum result, minimal investment
As a consumer, a good deal is to invest very little time, money or effort but get a lot in return. If we apply this concept to our churches, we’ll design worship services in such a way as to require as little as possible from the congregation. The believers will merely be spectators.
Theologian Leonard Sweet calls this a “parking-lot” church. “Parking-lot churches are drive-to places where people get their needs met in a minimum amount of time and a maximum return in religious exaltation.”
It seems counterintuitive that Jesus would tell prospective followers to count the cost of discipleship (see Luke 14:25–33). It goes against marketing logic. Brands should make things easy for consumers. But Jesus was brutally honest and His message was clear: there’s a big cost involved in following Him—yet, people still flocked to hear His teaching.
3. Airbrush the product
Photoshop and other imaging software programs are widely used to erase any perceived blemish in products to make them look appealing. From time to time, a Photoshop disaster will make it into magazines or go viral online. These before-and-after pictures are shocking, showing completely different images.
If we were to airbrush Jesus, what aspects of His personality do you think we would suppress? Maybe His demand that we be willing to sacrifice our lives for His cause?
“When evangelism is retooled as recruitment,” writes Christian author Eugene Peterson, “then marketing strategies for making Jesus more attractive to a consumer spirituality begin to proliferate. Words or aspects of Jesus that carry unwelcome connotations are suppressed.”
The problem with this pick-and-choose approach is that we can easily emasculate Jesus, transforming Him into a pocket-sized, controllable God. Peterson is right when he says, “We need the whole Jesus. The complete Jesus. Everything He said. Every detail of what He did.”
4. Style over substance
In a consumer society, nothing carries intrinsic value only. That’s why objects of no real value can be sold. A prime example is eBay. Creative eBay entrepreneurs have found bidders for a used doorbell, an oddly-shaped cornflake and even rhino dung! In marketing terms, what matters is not the substance but the style or the experience it affords. This is great news for marketing companies, but for the church it means that as a society we have become accustomed to valuing style and experience above substance.
Of course, the style and experience of worship matter. But by placing an exaggerated emphasis only on these attributes, we may lose sight of the Substance: Jesus.
In his book The Divine Commodity, Skye Jethani writes, “In Consumer Christianity, our concern is not primarily whether people are transformed to reflect the countercultural values of God’s kingdom, but whether they are satisfied—often measured by attendance and giving.” Yet, the primary function of the gospel is saving us, not entertaining us.
5. Popularity equals success and legitimacy
Popularity is not intrinsically bad. In fact, admiring and even imitating someone’s nobler achievements can inspire us to become better people. However, in a consumer culture, fame is often detached from virtue. Celebrity becomes a goal in and of itself rather than a by-product of what and who we really are. From Facebook to red carpet events, we’re rapidly becoming obsessed with self-promotion and celebrity. Being famous equals being successful. Popularity is the ultimate seal of approval.
“In old-time denominations,” writes advertising expert James Twitchell in his book Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to in Your Face, “growth was not proof of value; stability was. [But today,] leading people in worship has taken a back seat to giving people a reason to come and, in turn, grow church membership.”
Like the world around us, we seem to believe that if we draw a crowd, we’re doing a good job. Ironically, Jesus did not seem very impressed with crowds—to the point of rebuking those who followed Him for the wrong reasons (John 6:26, 27). While we’re commanded to take the gospel to the whole world, the legitimacy of our work doesn’t come from the size of the crowd we draw. It comes from the One who called us. Jeremiah was very unpopular, especially with the religious and political leaders of his day, but he fulfilled God’s call.
On cultural relevance
How can the church resist the temptation to become a commodity and at the same time remain culturally relevant? And what does it mean to be culturally relevant?
One of the assumptions behind the idea of cultural relevance is that unless we give religious consumers something they consider of value, they’ll shop elsewhere. Thus, in order to attract people, churches must be consumer-oriented—creating worship experiences that are designed to satisfy people’s perceived needs and have people’s comfort at their core.
While this approach might be successful in drawing the largest crowds, it will not create mature followers of Christ. The emphasis—us—is simply in the wrong place.
Consumerism tends to make infants out of people, because the ideal consumer has the spending capacity of an adult but the narcissism of a child. As Jethani points out, “To believe that employing consumer methods in the church will produce spiritually mature Christians is delusional thinking akin to expecting a dog to hatch from a chicken’s egg.”
Ironically, when we transform the gospel into a commodity that’s used for the personal satisfaction and self-achievement of its religious consumers, we deny its cultural relevance. We deny its ability to challenge social assumptions and provide an alternative paradigm. The unadulterated gospel iscountercultural. The Pharisees (the religious leaders of Jesus’ day) wanted to murder Him because His life and ideas threatened the core values of their society.
Blurring the lines between worship and entertainment doesn’t make the church culturally relevant. In fact, it tends to create innocuous religious spectators. To remain culturally relevant, we need to stop thinking about worship from a utilitarian, transactional perspective and challenge the prevailing culture of entitlement and egocentrism. Worship is not marketing. Worship is not about us. It’s about God and our relationship to Him. It isn’t primarily about what we receive but Whom we honour.
We may use different music styles, different places where we conduct worship and even different cultural approaches. However, true personal worship always starts with losing ourselves in Jesus, the most beautiful One. He said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).