Having now been in a Church leadership position of one kind or another for over 45 years, I have come to the conclusion that the greatest ideological threat to the Church in the western, developed world is not atheism, communism or even false doctrines promoted by those who want to discard Biblical truth and faith. The greatest threat to the Church is the worldview of consumerism. In this worldview self is lord. This worldview sees life in terms of shopping: life should present me with the greatest number of goods and services for the least amount of personal expense. Life is directed by my desire to possess and acquire goods and services based on my personal choice. Life is one big shopping mall. The basic assumption is: “If I can have everything I want, and avoid that which I don’t want, then I will be happy.” This worldview has invaded the Christian mind. It afflicts every denomination from the most conservative to the most liberal.
Jesus Christ challenges this worldview. He says real life is about denying self, dying to self on a daily basis. Being a Christian means we stop living like we own ourselves and we give ourselves up to Jesus Christ, freely, voluntarily and willingly. We give up our autonomy in submission to Christ and His body, the Church. We live in holy obedience to Jesus and in mutual submission with our brothers and sisters. In that community we experience true freedom: freedom from sin, guilt, meaninglessness and death. But this Biblical Christianity is threatened by a subtle, deceptive, toxic and rapidly growing substitute: consumer Christianity.
Consumer Christianity is a mentality or worldview which is self-centred. One who is a consumer is concerned with the benefits to himself or herself of whatever they buy or believe or embrace. Therefore for the consumer to become interested in the product, service or belief system, it must appeal to their personal interests, concerns, felt needs and opinions. Consumerism has a mentality of control. As consumers, we only invest in that which we can control. We want to see results and monuments to our investment. The consumer always dictates the quality, style, nature and terms of the product or service they will purchase or support. They benefits which affirm their personal preferences and opinion. In other words, it is hinged upon our feelings and desires, not Truth.
This form of Christianity is idolatrous and unbiblical. It is an insidious, largely invisible cancer which is attacking the heart of the Church right now in this nation and across the western world. We see this in how Consumer Christians view their involvement in the Church: ‘Provide me with the service/product I want in exchange for my money, my approval, my time, my involvement and my commitment.’
The best analogy I can find in our day and age is McDonalds. In our society McDonald’s has become the epitome of the consumer experience. This wildly successful fast food chain has learned that to appeal to consumers you have to offer lots of menu choices designed to please many different tastes and appetites and it can’t cost too much. You don’t want to entangle the customer with any intimacy or relationships – they don’t have to form a relationship with a server, just step up to the counter, order, get the product and walk away. That way, once you’ve paid your money there’s no obligation, no requirements, no expectation from McDonalds that you will do anything other enjoy your meal and tell others about it. I wish this wasn’t such a good analogy for the modern Church – but it is.
Now, in order to retain members, the Church tries to offer what McDonalds does:
- Lot’s of menu choices designed to please our appetites and personal tastes. Give the people what they want.
- Hold down the price of commitment in time and money.
- Try to avoid intimacy and close personal relationships. That’s why many people love the mega-church environment where they can be anonymous consumers in a large crowd. You never have to get to know anyone and you most certainly want to avoid those intimidating relationship games people try to thrust your way.
That’s the kind of Christianity that so many people want today: McChurch. Unless we understand this threat, we will become a nation of McChristians and the Church will die from its addiction to spiritual fast food. When we are Christian Consumers:
- We want lots of choices which we pick from a menu of programs. Our decisions about Church are based on personal taste and preference and in this ‘enlightened’ post-denominational era in which we live, we can pick and choose activities across several Churches now. Listen to how a Church driven by personal taste and needs quickly becomes something other than an expression of real Christianity. Paul summed it up in: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
- We see ourselves as individuals who have no intimate relationship with others in the body of believers and when activities or programs emerge which are designed to break down barriers and encourage us to form those relationships, we resist them, or just stay away.
- We believe the reason for the Church’s existence is to meet our felt needs. We may never be so bold as to say so, but our actions reveal our heart. The Church is viewed as providing a product or a service: good spiritual feelings, self-help programs, activities for our children and youth, practical advice for living successfully etc.
- When we don’t feel like we are getting our money’s worth or the proper service; when our children’s needs or our needs are not being fully met, then we start looking around at other Churches and we select a youth group here, a service there, a mission tent over here, a home group there … until we end up committed to activities and spiritual ‘products’ … we don’t care where we get them from and we don’t seem to notice what that consumer attitude does to the fibre and relationships within the local Church. Instead, we just allow the spirit of the age to dictate to us: “Give me what I want and you will keep my business. Provide appropriate activities for my children or I will find them in another Church across town and send them there whist continuing to fool myself into thinking I am committed to this local Church.” I like Red Rooster’s chicken, Burger King’s Onion Rings and McDonalds Ice Cream … so I can just drive through each one, pick what I like from their menu and drive on to the next one. That’s fine for fast food outlets, but that attitude is killing Churches and robbing us the power we need to really take our nation for Christ.
- The consumer Christian’s motto becomes “Ask not what I can do for the Church, but what can this Church do for me.. and my children?” And if you don’t like the answer, then simply ask someone else in town!
- Our loyalty to the local Church can be like the loyalty we might have to a restaurant – if another restaurant offers more menu items or choices that please us more, then we feel no compulsion to remain loyal. Personal taste and preference rule our final choices … because we are consumers.
Christians who have not crucified the worldly values of a consumer society in their own lives will believe that the Gospel and Church is there for their personal benefit. They continually demand to be fed – consciously, but more often than not, subconsciously in the way they think, speak and act. If the ‘shepherd’ does not provide food to their tastes, they start grumbling and complaining, and stirring up strife against the pastor or teacher. Or if they love and respect the pastor and don’t want to speak ill of him … they simply slip away and have an affair with another pastor or two or three and feel that this is better than complaining or grumbling.
A hundred years ago, we had just a few Churches in each small to medium sized town. Now it is not uncommon to see up to twenty different groups in the same town competing for ‘consumers.’ Consumer Christianity has replaced New Testament Christianity. The concept of covenant commitment through thick and thin has been so largely eroded in the Western Christian mindset that if you even talk about local Church loyalty now, most people call you parochial or accuse you of peddling a denominational band-wagon. Worse still – they say you are against Church unity because you talk about being committed to one Church. They think Church unity is when you form superficial relationships with lots of Christians all over town … attend whatever exciting activity there is – whenever and wherever it happens and be all things to all men to such an extreme that they end up being nothing to nobody! Consumer sheep are not interested in covenant commitment. They are not concerned about God’s will (if it does not benefit them), for they are too pre-occupied with their own self-centred concerns. It is sad to say that prosperity gives people entirely too much time to be concerned about themselves rather than about God’s will and other people.
‘Successful’ consumer ministry is ‘evidenced’ by the numbers of followers and other carnal and societal evidences which follow the worldview of hedonism, materialism and subjectivism which results in personality cults, a prosperity gospel and emphasis upon the ‘evidence’ of experience rather than the Truth of the Word of God. A growing number of these ‘successful’ consumer ‘gospel’ teachers tell the people what they want to hear, and cater to their self pre-occupation and victim mentality. The moment they quit teaching in that manner, they lose the crowd. Consumer Christianity promises freedom and fulfilment through unlimited individual choices and ‘getting just what we want’. It is actually not freedom at all – it is slavery to personal desires. It appeals to the chains of the sinful nature: greed, covetousness, self-centeredness. There is no freedom in consumer Christianity. Instead you become a slave to selfishness. All those choices don’t offer fulfilment! Consumerism promises freedom and fulfilment in the self-centred life. But Jesus says that is a lie. Real life comes when we give ourselves away to Jesus and to others.
“ If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)
Following Jesus is not about pampering the self-will, it is about putting the self-will to death. But when we truly follow Jesus in this way, I testify to you that there is true joy, freedom and abundant life! In losing our lives, we truly do gain real life in Christ.
So are you a consumer Christian, standing at the counter of McChurch, surveying the menu and deciding what you will choose or commit to based on your own personal hunger and appetite? Or are you a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ who has made a commitment to God and to your local Church fellowship and signed up for whatever comes – whether you like it or not and whether it meets your felt needs or not? Is your Christian walk about having your needs met or giving your self away in service to Jesus Christ?
I wonder . . . if for just one week … just one week … every one of us made choices every moment of every day based on the needs of others and deliberately ignored our own tastes, desires, felt needs and personal preferences … I wonder how different life would be.
I wonder . . . what differences we would see if just for one week, this consumer mentality which permeates so much of what we do, how we think and how we live … could be removed.
I wonder . . . if this blog post will only serve to offend people’s minds and stop short of opening their heart.
I wonder … if you wonder about these things too.