Consumerism and the Church

by Carey Nieuwhof

“Consumerism and the Church: Reclaiming the Gospel From Our Most Powerful Religion” is written by Joe Terrell, content manager at Joe’s writings for Medium, Relevant, Carey Nieuwhof, and his personal blog, Instrument of Mercy, have been read by over three million people.

For the past six decades, the local and institutionalized church has positioned itself as a place to be entertained, discover your purpose, and “plug in” to community.

And it’s a strategy that’s been wildly successful.

Until now.

Echoing national trends of a growing distrust of “large institutions,” a 2017 Gallup poll found that only 41% of Americans view the Church as a “trustworthy organization.”

According to a Barna research study, only 2 out of 10 millennials believe church attendance is “important or worthwhile.

At the same time, nearly 40% of millennials consider themselves “Religiously Unaffiliated.” Additionally, members of Gen Z (the generation currently entering college) are twice as likely to identify as atheists than the general population.

What happens to large institutions when people begin to lose faith in large institutions?

In other words, what happens when miming secular culture finally leads the Church down a road it can’t follow without dismantling itself?

While high-profile scandalspartisan politics, and generational shifts in opinion regarding controversial social issues certainly contribute to the modern disillusionment of organized religion, I believe a much larger unifying force is at play here.

It’s called consumerism.
And it affects nearly every aspect of your life.

Consumerism has not only infiltrated our understanding and application of Christianity, but it is also essentially a religion in and of itself.

And, by almost every metric, it could easily be considered th

What is Consumerism?

Consumerism is a cultural ethic born out of the advent of mass production and further cemented by the advertising boom of the fifties and sixties. Consumerism hinges on the belief that if we only bought what we needed, our economy would collapse.

Therefore, the goal of consumerism is to create artificial demand for goods and services you don’t really need and probably didn’t even know existed.

Consumerism is so much more than an advertising strategy.

It’s a worldview that fundamentally alters the way we approach our bodies, our relationships, our mental health, and our religion.

The goal of consumerism is to create artificial demand for goods and services you don’t really need and probably didn’t even know existed. 

There is no aspect of the American experience that hasn’t been infiltrated by consumerism.

In The Shattered Lantern, Ronald Rolheiser writes,

“Our lives become consumed with the idea that unless we somehow experience everything, travel everywhere, see everything, and are part of a large number of people’s experience, then our own lives are small and meaningless.”

It’s an economic system that thrives on your lack of self-control and preys on your insecurities. We give magazines, home-makeover TV shows, and social media accounts permission to sow discontent in our personal lives and shape our desires for something better.

From diamond engagement rings to home ownership, we’ve been led to believe that “Bigger is Better” by corporations and financial institutions that profit from that very belief.

Our religious and national holidays have become excuses to shop. Products – like cars and smartphones – are purposefully designed to make you yearn for the newer model. One of the fastest growing real estate markets in the U.S. is storage containers – so we can fill them with stuff that can’t fit in our too-big houses.

We are taught through an endless barrage of advertisements that love is best expressed through the exchange of expensive gifts and purpose can be obtained by a trip abroad.

The consumer culture has slyly commodified conversations about happiness, contentment, mindfulness, and empowerment into conversations about individualism and materialism under the banner of “pursuing an authentic life.”

Even the virtue of simplicity quickly became the marketable aesthetic of minimalism – another ‘lifestyle’ only available to those wealthy enough to afford it.

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes,

“Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured. Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology (“Just do it!”) to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.”

Consumerism absorbsmodifies, and commodifies preexisting belief systems and ideologies. And Christianity is not immune.

Because, make no mistake, consumerism is a religion.

Our temples are malls and digital storefronts, our altars are checkout counters and online baskets, our priests are advertising agencies, our sacrifices are the dollars in our checking accounts, and God is our unmet desires.

Consumerism absorbs, modifies, and commodifies preexisting belief systems and ideologies. And Christianity is not immune. 

The Marriage of Consumerism and the Church

In the early 1970s, a generation was coming of age that didn’t seem to want much to do with their parent’s faith; church attendance among young people began to plummet.

(Sound familiar?)

The sixties and seventies were periods of immense social and political upheaval, and people were questioning the role of religion in the new cultural landscape.

At the same time, color TVs were making their way into every living room in America, and the entertainment industry was experiencing its heyday – some of the most iconic films and bands were born out of this era.

How could a stuffy church service possibly compete with Star Wars, the Rolling Stones, televised sports, and the bloom of New Age spirituality?

However, a few innovative pastors began to experiment with new ways of doing church. Instead of shying away from cultural expectations, these ministries leaned in and began crafting a church experience with something to offer everyone.

In How Churches Became Cruise Ships, Skye Jethani writes,

“The logic was simple: if the Baby Boomers did not feel the need to connect with God, then perhaps another felt-need would draw them into the church: the need for community, or entertainment, or help with their children and marriages. While they consumed the upbeat music, support groups, dramas, and therapeutic sermons, the hope was that they would find God as well.

Evangelical churches began orientating their Sunday morning services around worship experiences with an emphasis on production. In the 1990s, the emphasis shifted to offering programs, art, and services that mimicked the secular culture, but offered a “Christian twist.”

New churches stripped religious iconography from their exteriors and interiors and gravitated toward an architectural style that blended the aesthetics of a mall, community college campus, and movie theater.

Church could be anything, as long as it wasn’t boring.

And this cycle began to perpetuate itself: The growth and direction of the modern church were fueled and influenced by money donated by the congregations attracted by entertainment and conditioned by consumerism.

In The Forgotten Ways, pastor Alan Hirsch writes,

“Win them with entertainment, and you have to keep them there by entertaining them. For a whole lot of reasons, this commitment seems to get harder year after year. We end up creating a whip for our own backs.”

And this creates all sorts of weird problems.

For example, people become more prone to leave if the reason they were attracted to a church (entertainment, community, etc.) in the first place gets a sleeker and more productive counterpart in the secular culture (this phenomenon explains, in part, the surge of popularity in “community-based” fitness programs like CrossFit and SoulCycle).

Additionally, seeker-friendly churches that construct their congregational appeal around family-oriented programming often find it difficult to engage young professionals who don’t have children and re-engage parents whose children have left home.

It’s important to note that none of this was driven by ill intentions. It’s simply an organization responding to market pressure.

And a lot of these changes were for the better. Obviously, we shouldn’t try to make our church experiences more miserable and inaccessible to the average American.

And it worked.
God has clearly used (and is using) the attractional model to change countless lives for the sake of the Gospel.

But there was a cost.
And it’s catching up to us.

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