The days of being buried in the church where you were baptized and married are long gone for most. Ours is the age of the McChurch.
There are realities embedded in that truth that are good and bad alike. Every cultural location has its own blessings and challenges.
Believe it or not, I don’t think that the problems attendant with our consumerism are wholly bad. Imagine, for instance, how difficult it would to have your congregation embrace the truth that each member is part of a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9) in France circa 1200 AD. Why would that be so difficult? Because in that culture serfdom would have permeated the identity of the congregation. In a congregation of serfs, it may be easy for them to understand their identity as servants of Christ, but far more challenging for them to internalize the truth that they are priests.
Let’s consider then how our cultural identity as consumers impacts the way we engage with the local church. How does our McDonald’s world shape us?
Here are five statements that shape us as consumers:
1) “I’m broken, therefore I shop.” We look for churches that latch onto our deficits, insecurities, and offer fulfillment to those desires. The pulpit has always been a place where the timeless truth intersects with the cultural questions of the day, but that reality has been heightened in a consumer-driven world. The blessing of this is that the Word of God does offer healing for our brokenness. The problem is that we can be drawn not to the whole counsel of God, but only those portions that we believe help us at any given moment.
2) “I shop with others.” Our consumerism is driven by our pre-existing social networks. Unless you are completely new to a town and without a social network, your church shopping is driven by your network of friends. We go where we are already connected and accepted. In fact, it is totally normal that one frequents several churches where one connects with different sets of friends. The gift of this is that we can step into connected life together in the family of God more naturally. The problem with this is that the family of God is far more than just those who look like us and have similar interests. And our commitments to the people of God ought to be far thicker than even our commitment to our friends.
3) “I shop therefore I am.” Consuming shapes identity. We the consumer ask that the hour and fifteen minutes we spend in the worship center on Sunday morning create and be sufficient in shaping our Christian identity and experience. It should provide for us the feelings and catharsis we desire. The goodness in this is we come with the expectation of an identity-forming experience. The problem is that we are not willing to do the work to become the people we are called to be the other six days.
4) “I am in control.” We are in charge when we shop. We choose the product, the store, and even how quickly it is delivered. We will serve the church and engage in calls to action, but only when we feel as though our needs are being met and that we can trust the leaders. The gift of this can be a healthy sense of ownership. The problem can be the lack of a servant’s heart and submission to authority.
There are a number of weaknesses attendant with trying to be faithful Christians in the culture we live in.
What would it look like to truly live lives where we are so invested in one another that we are characterized by our exhortation of one another (Heb 3:13), by our consistent commitment to gather together (Heb 10:25), by our sharing meals and possessions with one another, and praying with one another (Acts 2:42-45)? That community would stand out starkly from the world we live in. Perhaps that strangeness might have a compelling quality. Is it something that you long for? I bet there is something in you that wants to experience that type of community.
This engagement and giving of ourselves to our brothers and sisters in meaningful long-term relationships cannot happen as long as we are consumers of the product of our local churches and not participants and ministers of the gospel (Eph 4:12). When we stand as consumers of a product that is offered, we will never engage and own the ministry to which we are called. To paraphrase (rather cornily, I admit), John F. Kennedy, we should ask not what the church can do for us, rather ask what we can do for the church.
Churches and congregants alike can’t avoid the reality of the consumerist sea we swim in. But both those in church leadership and those who fill the worship centers are called to an awareness of and to fight against our impulses. We are no mere spiritual shopping mall, but are in fact “living stones… built up as a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:4). Let us not, fellow Esaus, sell our birthright for the McStew offered us by McChurch.