This is a re-post from earlier this summer. Consumerism is theological problem and a major one at that.
The following is from an editorial written for the Evangelical Magazine:
“The big theme of the story that follows is the defeat of politics by shopping...Consumerism has shouldered aside other ways of understanding the world—real political visions, organised religion, a pulsating sense of national identity.” So begins Andrew Marr's bestseller A History of Modern Britain. It is this consumer mentality that is bleeding to death Christian service.
Tragically much of this has been self-inflicted. No amount of exhortation to passionate, sacrificial service will alter the mess that we are in. In fact no amount of actual serving on camps, overseas mission trips, beach missions, or attending conferences will change it either. Instead it will simply mask over the problem. The real problem is that we have adopted a consumer mentality when it comes to thinking about the Church.
There are some threats to the Christian faith that are unsubtle and obvious. You know where you are with books like The God Delusion that make a direct attack on the truth. Yet there are dangers that are far more subtle and devastating. One of the dangers is the way in which living in the West in the 21st century has changed the way we think about God, the Gospel, and the Church. We live, and move, and have our being in an atmosphere where individualism, consumerism, and felt needs shape our approach to the Church.
By God's design the Church is the means of grace, of Christian growth and nurture, of teaching and training, of outreach, accountability and service. We, however, have succumbed to a mind-set that sees this as optional at best, or an impediment at worse. Instead of the Church being the context for growth, service and outreach we have come to terms with finding input and output elsewhere.
This crisis has been a long time coming. Dr. Lloyd-Jones identified it as a loss of nerve by Christians in the 19th century when faced with the intrusion of error into the churches. Their response was to set up movements as outlets for united service instead of facing down the false teachers infiltrating the sheep fold. Today, the error driving our Church crisis is the triumph of shopping.
The sign that we are not thinking biblically on these matters is that we are asking all the wrong questions about Christian activities. “What's in it for me?” is the unspoken assumption as we listen to sermons and sing God's praise. Our reasons for choosing a church, or even staying in a church, can be exactly the same as the reasons we have for choosing a product. How does it make us feel? What are the personal benefits? What activities are on offer for the children? A further sign of wrong thinking is that a culture of criticism about church activities is tolerated.
When was the last time that you went to church in order to do others good spiritually? Is that your deliberate aim? The Bible is full of images that describe Christians as part of a greater whole. We are sheep in a flock, parts of a body, members of a family, bricks in a building. Each image undermines the idea that we can think about being, and acting, as a Christian apart from the Church. We are to build one another up in love, to spur one another on to love and good deeds.
Think of the impact that individualism and consumerism can have on growth and nurture. There is no need to be dependent on the local church for teaching when there are so many books, downloadable sermons, and conferences available. Not, of course, that these things are wrong. It is the use that we make of them that is the issue. We gather as God's people each week to listen to his Word. This demands that we respond to and apply the Word together in a way that isn't the same when we listen to recordings or attend conferences. There is an accountability upon us in the local church that is lost when we are in the big conference surrounded by people many of whom we don't know, and others that we see once or twice a year.
The same danger can be seen in evangelism. Being involved with camps and beach missions can be a great opportunity to learn and serve. Nevertheless we are all aware that living the Christian life in that context is somewhat artificial. It is far more demanding to build good relationships and tell the gospel in the week by week context of church life. By God's design it is the local church that displays the lived out reality of the Gospel. The local church is the place where you see the God of grace at work as people love one another, carry burdens, and forgive each other.
The challenge to do this is there for ministers too. As a friend of mine put it “ministers need to cut it at the local level.” It is easy to pour our energies into wider activities to the neglect of building up, in love and in numbers, the local church.
Involvement in the local church is not “another” option on the spiritual menu for 21st century Christians. To belong to God's people, to be part of God's family, is the high privilege conferred on God's children. Here is the place where God dwells by his Spirit. Here is the place where God assembles us, speaks to us, and sanctifies us. Here is the place where he has given gifts. Here is where we are to serve him, serve one another, and display the Gospel. It is time to put consumerism back on the shelf.