Consumerism and the Church

Black Friday shoppers in Seattle, 2010. Photo by John Anderson via Flickr, Creative Commons
Black Friday shoppers in Seattle, 2010. Photo by John Henderson via Flickr, Creative Commons

(This post was originally published as “Have It Your Way? When the Church Embraces Consumerism” in The Banner, April 22, 2002, pp. 28-30.)

A new church recently opened in my neighborhood. How did I know? Well, it was hard not to notice when you were bombarded with letters, postcards and phone calls. I am happy that another church has opened its doors. What bothered me were the marketing techniques used. Besides the intrusive telemarketing approach, the postcards I received pushed a very clear message: we give you what you want. Anything from famous TV personalities and energetic music to fresh hot Starbuck’s coffee waiting for you at the front door! And I am not kidding. The Starbuck’s coffee was one of the church’s “selling points.”

I am not against good coffee or TV personalities. I am concerned that well-meaning Christians and churches are buying into consumerism, which says, “anything you want (not what you need), you got it.” Theologian David Wells, in his book God in the Wasteland (IVP, 1994), argues that North American evangelicals have allowed consumerism to turn the God of mercy into a god at our mercy, satisfying our wants (p. 114).

I want to take a closer look at consumerism. What is it? And how has it affected North American Christianity? Can the church use consumer and marketing models without compromising its faith?

The Idols of Consumerism

Consumerism happens when a culture allows consumer values to dictate and shape cultural values rather than the other way round. Instead of a culture’s values shaping our decisions on what, how and why we consume, we let our consumption choices shape what we value in art, technology, education, etc. For instance, universities, increasingly, are run as commercial enterprises, with the students as customers, the professors as service providers and the degrees or diplomas as the products. The students are consumers, choosing a university based on which one will best give them what they want in life – the big job with the big salary, the big car, the big house, the big TV, etc. Within this consumerist model, universities teach what students want, such as skills and strategies, not what they need, such as truth and character.

There are, at least, three core values in consumerism. First of all, individual freedom of choice reigns supreme. The freedom to choose is an absolute good, and anything that hinders this freedom is evil. For example, not only is sex being marketed as a product for consumption in magazines, videos and websites, but worse, consumerism insists that the individual’s freedom to consume this product cannot be curbed by morality or legislation. You cannot ban the production of sex magazines and videos or Internet porn sites. In fact, you must allow free market competition to create a wide variety of sex products for the individual consumer. Thus, freedom is no longer tempered by responsibility and love.

Secondly, the customer is boss. We have already seen how consumerism satisfies what the consumers want rather than what they need. If the customer rules, then it does not matter if the product is good or bad, as long as it satisfies the customer. It doesn’t matter if we turn God’s gift of sex into a commodity because individual consumers pay good money for it. It doesn’t matter if students graduate from university with little or no knowledge about history, philosophy, literature and aesthetics, as long as they can get a job.

Consumerism’s third core value is that the consumer’s wants cannot be allowed to be fully satisfied. This may sound contradictory at first. Consumerism lives to satisfy what the consumer wants. But, in order to continue ‘living’, so to speak, consumerism must count on those desires to be unlimited and insatiable. Consumers must not be allowed to stop consuming. If people already have big homes and big cars, then they need to get bigger homes and bigger cars otherwise consumption will decrease. But how do you make consumers to keep wanting more? This is where marketing plays a key role.

Marketing these days is rarely about giving true and accurate information to consumers so that they can make informed choices about their products. Instead, marketing is all about creating a need where they isn’t any, in creating the perception or feeling in a consumer that they need certain electrical appliances, fashionable clothes, delicious meals, entertainment programs, etc. Next time you see a TV commercial, think about how it is trying to tell you that you need its product. Is it too much work to scrub the bathtub? Then you need this easy-to-use-no-fuss spray cleaner. Are you stuck in a dead-end job? Then you need to study for this degree or diploma at this great institution.

In fact, often, the marketing isn’t about the products themselves. For instance, many fast food chains promote toys. Kids, they say, you need this latest toy from the latest hit movie, and you can only get it if you eat at your local fast food joint. It doesn’t matter if the food is unhealthy or unappetizing.

The advertising world, as a whole, promotes a worldview story. It tells a story that begins with the individual who lives to consume and ends with the dream house, the dream car, the dream job, etc. We obviously live in a culture of consumerism. Alas, rather than simply being in this consumer culture, we Christians are fast becoming of this culture.

Consumer Christians

In a culture dominated by consumerism, even religion is turned into a product for individual consumption. Consider the phrase, “church shopping.” Increasingly, Christians choose a church based on how it will fulfill their needs rather than on other considerations, such as, doctrinal truth or opportunities to serve.

When I explained this concept of “church shopping” to a graduate student from Latin America, his reaction was of surprise and disbelief. “What about loyalty and tradition?” he asked. In consumerism, loyalty and tradition take back seats to individual choice and preference. So many Christians today choose churches based on their individual preferences in music, décor, programs, sermon styles, congregational demographics, etc. Few choose based on convictions and beliefs. Or, more often, they mistake their preferences for convictions. Such confusion is a natural outcome of consumerism’s marketing ploy to confuse wants with needs.

Consumer Churches

Not only are individual Christians succumbing to a consumerist outlook, but churches too are buying into it. Like the new church in my neighborhood, churches increasingly function in a “customer is boss” mentality. We give what the seekers, the churchgoers, want. Instead of “Christ is the head” as our motto, we have stooped to fulfilling what people feel are their needs (felt-needs).

Even the concept of “felt-needs” is consumerist. It may sound nice, but essentially, it is confusing preferences and wants with actual needs. A need is there even if you don’t feel it. Children need to learn discipline even though they don’t feel like it. People need to hear about sin and brokenness at some point even though they don’t like it. Sometimes, a felt-need is not a need at all but a preference. Lots of Christians feel that they need wonderful music in order to worship meaningfully. Music is good, but more often than not this felt-need is really a musical preference in disguise.

Many churches have adopted a consumerist model in outreach. They survey the surrounding community to discover what the felt-needs are. Then they structure their church programs, their worship services, their sermons and teachings to meet those felt-needs. I am not saying that we shouldn’t meet people’s needs. Christ did that in his ministry. But Christ did not confuse felt-needs with real needs. He always touched people at their deepest needs. He never pandered to the crowd’s wishes or desires. By uncritically adopting the consumerist model, churches have pandered to people’s preferences and desires rather than meeting their real needs.

Churches that use the consumer marketing approach often confuse church promotion with evangelism, marketing the church with bearing witness to the gospel. The church, and sometimes the gospel, is reduced into a commodity to be marketed to religious consumers. Thus, churches are in competition with each other and with other religions for customers.

When churches bow to these idols of consumerism, then they will be shaped more by consumerism than by the biblical worldview. We would, unwittingly, promote individualism and freedom of choice over community and responsibility. We will create an environment that suggests that Christians and/or seekers are the center of attention, where worship and programs are entirely shaped and bent to their preferences and wishes. Christ, the head of the church, who should be the rightful center of attention, is in essence left outside knocking on the front door to be let in again (Revelation 3:20)!

Finally, churches are getting caught in the vicious cycle of insatiable and unlimited wants. If your main means of getting people into the church is to satisfy a felt-need, then how do you keep them in the church after that need is satisfied? Consumerism’s answer, of course, is to keep creating or finding felt-needs to fulfill. So, we need better and bigger church buildings. We need more entertaining music, better speakers, livelier presentations, more programs, more conferences, more retreats, etc. Or worse, we begin to make people feel inadequate and guilty. You are not living a victorious Spirit-filled life, we say. Join our Spirit conference and retreat. You need to experience God’s power. Attend our healing sessions. And so on. Ultimately, the energy and expenses of the church are focused on maintaining the church and its programs, rather than on fulfilling its mission of spreading the gospel, of discipleship, of nurturing a relationship with God.

But, you ask, is consumerism all bad? Can churches not use consumer models beneficially?

Proper Use of Consumer Models

Consumption is not inherently bad. For everything God created is good (1 Timothy 4:4). Humans need to consume in order to live and enjoy life. But consumerism wants us to live in order to consume. Firstly, the church needs to resist adopting consumerism’s core values as its own. In place of individual freedom of choice, the church must preach communal responsibilities and love. Instead of the customer’s felt-needs, Christ and his desire to serve should remain the center of policy making. The church must say no to the temptation to manufacture artificial “spiritual needs” and focus on real needs while proclaiming that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). The cycle of insatiable wants must be broken for the health of both people and creation.

Secondly, the church, in using consumer models within Christian values, can derive some benefits from them. Consumer models, properly used, can help a church focus on serving the real needs of its community. The marketing concept of gathering information and data on the make-up of a community can help local churches understand and be in touch with the minds and needs of people in its neighborhood. Provided, of course, that the survey’s aims and methodology are to identify real needs, not felt-needs.

Churches can also gain a clarification in their vision and mission. Of course, our mission comes from Scripture. But within the call to make disciples and to worship God, knowing a community’s specific needs can help a local church flesh out that general calling into more concrete action plans and strategies. The key is not to let the needs alone determine the vision. Christ as the head of the church, and the gifts and strengths of its members shape a church’s vision as well.

Such a concrete vision can give direction to a local church for the short-term (since communities change and so do their needs). It is beneficial for churches to have both long-term and short-term vision plans. Vision plans also help shape a congregation’s sense of identity and purpose. It helps a church to clarify to itself what makes it different from the other church down the road. This leads into the concept of “niche marketing”. The redemptive value of niche marketing is that it recognizes the need for diversity. The temptation is to copy a “successful” model. Thus, churches increasingly start to copy the methods and styles of mega-churches. This results in a McDonald’s syndrome where churches all begin to look and act alike. This would be a great mistake because diverse people need diverse styles and methods. Not everyone, for instance, is comfortable with laid-back contemporary style worship. Some seekers are looking for spirituality in rituals, symbols and mystery.

While rejecting the underlying worldview and values of consumerism, the church can still redeem consumer models within a Christian framework.

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