I did not create as many messages in 2008 because I was gifted a four-month sabbatical. Before I left, I answered a question someone offered.
I want to answer a question that someone slipped into the offering box, which doubles as our question box. “What would a consumeristic vs. non-consumeristic church look like?” I suspect this good person picked up on a bias against consumerism around here, especially when it comes to people “church shopping.” Maybe they witnessed one of my random outbursts of rebellion about being treated like a “product,” and they wondered, “What’s with that? It is a good question. Ask some more.
So this is how I want to structure the answer, which what I often do when I make a speech. I’m going to set up the problem as I see it, tell you what the Bible might say about the problem, and then let’s think about how to solve it and do something about what we’ve concluded.
The problem: Living in consumer culture
The problem with the church in the U.S. is a lot like the other problems I can associate with being a consumer culture. It is all a lie. Life is not about buying and selling things. People and experiences are not products. Jesus can’t be bought or sold. The church and worship are not commodities.
On the contrary, the church is a spiritual-physical ecosystem; it is an organic thing. If you turn it into a product, you mess it up. Consumerism is not good for organisms, for creation, in general. For instance, we’re not sure we should raise animals in industrial contexts; animals are not mere products. Likewise, we’re not sure you should endlessly burn carbon fuels; the atmosphere is not a big trash can for byproducts. When we are run by what we consume, bad things happen.
I heard a story on NPR that provide a helpul example for everyone who wants to mess with organic things, like the church. You may have heard about the elephants, ants and a particular tree (which would be a bush in Pennsylvania).
Think of the church as the tree in this tale. African elephants eat a lot; they are big consumers. They like to eat trees. A certain tree found a way to protect itself from being eaten by exuding a tasty sap that ferocious ants like. When an elephant goes after this tree it just might get a snoot full of ants. So the tree is nibbled and not devoured.
A little aside, here:
- If this were an American tree it would find a way to pump up and get rid of elephants for good. You’d see this redundant commercial for “New extra strength anti-elephant sap.”
- If the elephants were American they might try to get rid of the ants so they could eat trees. The news story would say, “No Amnesty for Ants: The Freedom to Eat Trees Act has allotted 100 million dollars to capture and deport illegal, tree-invading ants.”
But back to the story. In a long-term experiment, a scientist cordoned off some of these trees to see what would happen if elephants were prevented from getting to them. He expected the trees to flourish. But instead of flourishing, the trees stopped producing sap, since the ants were not needed. The trees kind of dried up. They didn’t grow as much as when they needed to produce sap for ants and leaves for elephants. What’s more, without the protector ants, other bugs infested them and started drilling holes in their bark and hollowing them out.
The moral I draw from this story for the ecosystem of the church is, don’t try to turn the church into a feel-good, easy-buy, no-fuss, no-pain, instantly satisfying product. It won’t work. Just like the acacia tree needs the tension between ants and elephants to flourish, every living tree has giving, and taking, and hurting going on. If you mess with it, you will end up hollowed out. The church is a living tree.
Getting hollowed out is exactly what I think happens to the church that adapts to consumer capitalism. When the church gets commodified, people buy it, they find out it is not really what was advertised and the whole enterprise gets a little more attackable and empty. Isn’t that generally happening?
You can see what consumerism does to the church by seeing what people who are cultured to be consumers do to this meeting. This meeting is the most visible part of the tree, you might say. This meeting is where ants explore for sap and elephants nibble on leaves. It is a rather complex, mixed bag of a meeting and the church has always used it in a number of ways and leaned it in many directions. Is it a show that anyone can come and enjoy, or is it a disciplined spiritual exercise for the initiated? Should we tamp the deep things down so the spiritually hungry ants coming to sip will like it, or should we fill it full of meaty things so the ravenous elephants won’t get bored, move away or even starve? Needless to say, if you come to it looking for what you wish you had, you’ll probably be disappointed, at least a little.
I’m not sure we know exactly what we are doing with this meeting, either. But I don’t think we have just concocted a great product. This meeting is an expression of us. For us, it is the family’s public meeting. It could careen from light to heavy at any moment. In the course of five minutes one person might find it shallow and another deep. I might seem like a great show to some and a total flop to others.
It is kind of painful to hold a public meeting. Ants and elephants both live off this tree – but strangely enough, we thrive when our sap is eaten and our leaves are stripped.
Non-family are welcome at the family meeting — people don’t show up and automatically love us like family, so it hurts — people who feel connected don’t have all their needs met, so it hurts. But I honestly think it may be in the hurting that we are most valuable, so I am willing to do it.
People criticize what we are doing as if we are just another show when we are an organism. They check out our schedule of events to see what’s in it for them or to see if they fit, as if we were an investment or a pair of shoes – being treated like that hurts! I’m not $3.99 a pound, I am a cow!
What are you going to do? We are a nation of consumers. George Bush is famous for being interpreted in 2005 as saying our duty in the present state of warfare is to shop (redacted video above as evidence). The president of the seminary I went to wrote an article in the latest Christianity Today magazine that defended what some people label consumerist tendencies as more a matter of freedom to grow and choose than just being a slave to fashion or personal taste. He doesn’t think it is automatically bad to consider whether you want a Big Mac or a Whopper, a Pentecostal or a Catholic. He has a point. Since he is a philosopher, he probably IS making a choice and he is rich enough to make whatever choice he wants. But for the rest of us, I fear that an awful lot of us haven’t thought over how we choose and just go with what is going. We perpetually shop. That’s the problem. Consumers by nature make the church a commodity to be consumed in the typical pattern, and that kills the tree.
I have two Bible passages that tell us what to do instead.
The Bible speaks to consumer culture
The first quote encourages us to have our pain, rather than just go for “What’s in it for me.”
[H]old out (or hold on to) the word of life–in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:16-8
The basic example of Jesus, who is our model for being created in the image of God, is living a life of self-giving love. Living a life of self-giving love is our true destiny. Lust for self-getting should not drive us; the quest for a true self that lives in love and expresses love should drive us.
In the case of Paul and Jesus, they both think their highest calling is about being poured out in service and worship, not being poured into. Paul finds joy in his connection with God which transcends even the joy of seeing some fruit come from his tireless labor. He is filled with the Spirit of God and doesn’t feel an endless need to be filled. This is a very anti-consumeristic verse, wouldn’t you say? But I do think it is honest about the pain involved in being anti-consumeristic – not shopping feels like being poured out, without getting a good return. It is not a good deal.
I have told you before that in seminary I was actually taught (by “church growth experts”) that Americans will not come to your church (note “come to,” like coming to the show) unless you WIIFT them, as in “What’s In It For Them?” People must be WIIFTed; that’s how they work.
I think the experts are right about how to get people to come to the show, but they might be wrong about making followers of Jesus. If people are cultured in the church to always consider what’s in it for me, they’ll have more trouble connecting with God or others than they already have, because, as Jesus shows, to connect takes suffering. There will be pain to connect. I’m not sure there will be blood, but there was God’s blood. To paraphrase one of the Lord’s most basic teachings: If you consume as a way of life, you’ll lose your life, but if you pour out your life in worship and service, you’ll find joy.
Endless shopping and deal-making creates insecurity, even when you find something you like or you make a good deal. When we are always shopping, our relationships end up being about “Do I feel good?” or “Can I make you feel good?” We’re always pondering ourselves and never connecting, and then we wonder why we never feel connected and we wonder who or what might make me feel loved? It is endless.
If we endlessly shop, we end up looking around our cell skeptically, wondering if we should get in any deeper with these flawed people, since people in Phoenix are reportedly friendlier. We look at ourselves and feel ashamed, because if we were more saleable someone would have bought us by now. We think “No one shops in the extra-large or extra small section for love,” or “No one would want a used product like me.” Our value ends up based on whether we are a good deal. Shopping creates false expectations, good and bad, “I deserve the best” and “I deserve the worst.” You see how this goes.
Within my lifetime, Americans became mere consumers; they started being labelled “consumers.” People began raising their children as consumers. Like the children are even consumers of parenting. Like they need to be the best parents possible or their children will have gotten a bad deal and they will tell their therapist what bad parents they had and feel deprived. As a result, the children are predictably insecure and demanding; they never get enough, they are perpetual shoppers – and as a result they never pour their lives out, and have a tough time receiving and giving God’s love.
Given that self-giving love is at the heart of being a Christian, how can we make a non-consumeristic church?
Being consumed in the right way
Let me give you another verse. But first let me admit that I haven’t made a very clear definition of what consumeristic means. I don’t think consuming things is bad, of course, unless that is all you do. Being “consumeristic” is being a slave to consuming and organizing everything to be consumed effortlessly and as a top priority, regardless of the consequences. But like my seminary president says, not everything about church shopping is bad. I have been Baptist, been rather Franciscan, been pretty Pentecostal, and mostly Brethren in Christ, which is in itself, a little supermarket of Christian brands. I looked around. I grew. Life is not an either or. We need to choose.
But you can’t make good choices just by consuming. Eventually, you need to be consumed if you are connected to Jesus. Lately I have been talking to people who have tasted it all and they are sick of it all when it comes to Christianity. They are jaded consumers. They never got to faith. They tried to eat the wrapper and missed the candy bar, I guess.
Here’s the other verse for them and you.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-9
Maybe the difference between a follower of Jesus and a consumer of Christian products is that the follower is consumed by the Fire. A follower is filled with the Spirit of God. A follower is loved in the light. The consumer is considering whether they want it. The consumer is aspiring to get something more than they have. The consumer is trying it on to see if it fits.
Don’t take that the wrong way, if you are a consumer. Consumers belong in this meeting. Because if you eat enough rice you might learn to like Asian food. Before I went to Indonesia as a teenager, I could not choke down a spoonful of rice. I hated rice. The smell of rice cooking in my host family home in Semarang almost made me sick. But I was served rice constantly. I learned to love it and now I yearn for a spoonful. Consume the right thing and you might become like it. This verse kind of says, sit by the fire and you’ll get warm. Live in the light and you’ll have less shadow. Be in relationship with God and the Spirit of God will make you real.
The writer of Hebrews is talking about coming to the glorious kingdom of heaven that is far beyond the smoking mountain where God wrote the ten commandments with fire on Moses’ tablets. Jesus reveals how God is even bigger than his commandments. You can’t consume God, you can only relate to God, who is all-consuming. You can pour out your offering on the altar fire, like Paul imagined his life, and worship.
It is not like God is a consumer and you’re not. God is consuming, like the ultimate fire. We can’t put him in a box to buy, we can’t package her neatly (in the correct gender term), we can’t manufacture God, we can’t keep them on the shelf. God is. Jesus says, “I am.” We can be with him and do with him. If not, we might be consumed.
Making a non-consumeristic church
I think people are working with God around here and managing to pull off a non-consumeristic church. Rather than tell you what to do in theory, let me tell you about people who pour themselves out before God, who is a consuming fire.
For instance, we recently scrambled the Public Meeting Teams — the teams that make this meeting, our three acacia trees. The East teams had scrambled this and they kind of inspired and baited the BW teams to mix themselves up, too. Shake things up. Get the ants and elephants back to the tree. Cause some pouring out and needing God. Rachel and Angie took new leadership, here. Some of our valuable servants felt uprooted. New, even risky people were added in. But, all in all, it has been amazing how people are working out a weird thing. It hurts. It requires love. We’re not just keeping what we’ve got or just getting what we want, we are going for the consuming fire, trying to get beyond what’s typical. We’ll see what happens.
But whether it all works or not, at least those 30 people or so who make up our PM teams are not sipping to see if they like it. They aren’t sniffing around to see if they are welcome. They aren’t visiting. They are the church.
Likewise, look at the Council meeting we had yesterday anchored by our 43 cell leaders. It is very optimistic to expect such a high level of interest and commitment in the middle of a consumeristic culture. Can’t you people find a more exciting way to spend Saturday morning? You could be sleeping, working, going shopping, fixing the house, having sex, looking for someone to have sex with, being amused, doing as little as possible because you are always asked to do too much. There are a lot of other choices to make than pouring oneself out with an expanding group of people pushing along an enterprise that often seems like it is already out of control! We have a remarkable level of being – and we trust it. We don’t just wait around for someone to sell it to us, we build it. We don’t passively consume it, we are it. The Council meeting is another place we trust God very seriously. And if we do not have that trust, we expect to justly die.
That brings me back to the dual nature of this meeting. I think most people come in as consumers. We love them. God loves them. But we don’t conform to them. That means our relationships might need to develop. We might have conflict. We might even witness some elephants running off with a snoot full of ants, at times. There is a bit of pain on the way to joy. But we want to be that spiritual ecosystem that trusts the Creator to bring it all to fruit and put it in order just the way she sees fit. We want God to be the consuming presence of life in the midst of us — can’t shop for anything better than that!
Talk back – What Do you think? Questions? Further thoughts?