Consumer Culture and Christian Formation

This pastoral passage was written for LRBC for February 25 2018.

Trade, luxuries and wealth have always existed in societies. But a mark of western cultures (and increasingly of others) has been the emergence of what we have learned to call “Consumerism” – the continual impulse to buy more stuff and more experiences. Consumerism is versatile. All kinds of people, from all walks of life, have their vision of the Good Life, and they work and earn in order to acquire the goods and services that create that life.

I don’t want to talk about why consumerism is bad – I think we all know that we want to buy more stuff than we really should, and we all know that too much of the stuff we buy ends up in landfills or somewhere in the environment.

Instead I want to raise two questions: How does consumerism shape us as people?, and How does this inhibit Christian formation?

For a start, under consumerism, choice is supremely valued. Having options is more important than commitment. This ‘consumer mentality’ can affect the way we view church. We come expecting to get, or we don’t come. Christian discipleship should rather encourage us to participation even if we are not immediately getting what we are after. I suspect that through this we find a richer experience of community and maturation than we could as a mere spectator.

Furthermore, consumerism would have us find contentment in what we might purchase. Experience alone often teaches us this is not the case, but I think just as often we let our discontentment direct us to a new kind of purchasing rather than a new way of living. Progress in Christian formation would go further by having us seek contentment in the Lord and his service (cf. Ps. 4:6-7; Jer. 2:12-13).

Additionally, consumerism fosters identity building by acquiring particular goods and experiences. By buying certain clothes, having the right hairstyles, and listening to particular music (as examples), we can create an image of the kind of person we’d like to be seen to be.

The problem this can cause is that Christianity can become a ‘brand’ rather than a worldview that we live out of. Christian labelled stuff marks a person as belonging to the Christian ‘tribe’, but that stuff also begins to exclusively define that tribe.

This is a rather superficial presentation of the faith, and one that is easily rejected for shallow, albeit ignorant reasons. It is better that the gospel is made known by it being expressed in our words and by our actions. This requires a deeper engagement with the faith than buying the right brand and listening to the right music!

In an environment where we have learned to expect that the customer is always right, the challenge of discipleship is to make choices and judgements that reflect that it is Jesus, not the moneyed consumer, is King.