3 ways consumerism is killing the church

Consumerism. It’s so ingrained within us, within our culture. So it’s not surprising that it has bled — or maybe even flooded — into the church.

Often when the issue of consumerism is addressed and confronted from the pulpit, we tend to shrug it off. Our minds race to those we consider more consumeristic than ourselves.

Part of reason why we don’t acknowledge our own consumerism is due to the way in which we narrowly define the term. We think it only refers to the accumulation of material goods or services. While this definitely is the main part of it, and something we constantly need to address in our lives, overconsumption can also speak to a way of being, or the kind of posture we assume.

Here are three ways consumerism can creep into our ways of thinking about church.

1. Church as a drive-thru

This person pulls up when he’s spiritually hungry. He orders exactly what he wants; it better be right, speedy, and satisfying. He comes to church demanding that it has every good and service he might want. He only goes when it’s convenient. And if the order’s ever wrong, he speeds away, bad-mouthing it to anyone who will listen.

(Can you believe that parking lot was full? I was only five minutes late! Can you believe they didn’t make me a deacon? I am so godly! I just want a wilderness adventure ministry funded by the church, full of my potential BFFs, is that too much to ask?)

This person hops angrily and merrily between different churches to satisfy his hunger for community, worship, preaching, or a special ministry. Committed to none, satisfied by none, he demands, consumes, and complains his way through town, more resembling a Viking raider than someone looking for a home. This is upfront consumerism, and it’s probably the most common.

2. Church as a garbage collector

Garbage collection is a funny thing. You put it at the curb on a certain day of the week, the people come, they are allowed five feet into your yard; the garbage is collected and compacted into the truck, and then they speed away, with only the grunts of engine to signify their departure.

Sometimes church is treated like a trash collector. When a person has junk piling up in her life, it starts to smell, others notice. So she drags her spiritual, emotional, and relational garbage to the curb. She expects the church to pick it up and make it all go away.

In some ways, church is the place to bring her junk. But if church members get too close, she’s calling the cops. If they try the front door, she’s gripping the baseball bat. She just wants the inconvenience, the smell, or embarrassing parts of her life swept away, no questions asked. 

3. Church as the tax man

This person is a member of the church. He tithes his money and time. He nods at sermons, and he’s proud to follow his church on Twitter. He even attends special events sometimes.

But it’s superficial. His heart is far from loving the church; instead he treats it like the IRS. He pays what’s required, nothing more. Instead of being filled with the radical and scandalous love for God, living sacrificially for those around him, to this person, the church is a legal transaction. This scenario is formed by guilt (he must do these things). It is perpetuated by shame (he must not be exposed as a sinner). And underneath the surface, he hates for God and His church (he’s a good person and he doesn’t need either of them).

As Christians, we have a hard time loving the church because deep down, we have no idea what it really is.

We are the church. If you are in Christ, you are the church. When the church gathers into committed local communities, that’s a local church. Every Christian is called to band together for life and mission.

There has to be an end to this cycle of consumeristic attitudes towards the church. Here are a couple ideas on how.

First, join a local church that makes sense for you. Does the church believe what you believe? Will you be able to make friends there? I’m talking about making actual friends, because a friendless experience of church is miserable. You may be asking, doesn’t this first suggestion sound like drive-thru consumerism? There’s a tension here. Therefore, avoid the extremes. One extreme is to never commit to a local church, and treat them all as a drive-thru smorgasbord. The other extreme is to make yourself a martyr by attending a church you don’t enjoy. Try to find the balance.

Secondly, think through the last time (or next time) you are disappointed, angry, or frustrated with your local church. Reflect on why you were angry. Was it a legitimate issue, or was it one that in some way stemmed from consumerism?

When we abuse the church, we actually abuse ourselves. God has called us to the opposite of consumerism, to sacrificial love. So let’s start challenging our consumeristic mindset within ourselves and within our churches. After all, when we lose our life, we gain it.

Photo (Flickr CC) by John Starnes.