We all go to the store, even in this age when we can buy almost anything online there are things we have to get ourselves. I don’t think the technique is under debate: we find a place with products we trust and prices we find reasonable, then we get what we want and leave. Some of you will tell me that wandering around and looking at things is an important part of shopping, and that’s fine; I’m usually a typical guy who wants to get what I want and leave.
Of course, as good consumers we want to get the best deal possible. George Carlin had a great quote to show the obviousness of this: “No, I want to pay a fortune for crap!” This drives a lot of us in all our dealings, we want to spend the least amount of time to get things done, even if we can’t think of anything else we need to be doing at the same time. I know I don’t want to sit around waiting for oil changes, doctor’s appointments, airplanes, in fact, if there’s a long line for something, I’ll sit and wait for it to get shorter and avoid standing in it as long as I can.
The issue with being Consumers is we are not creators, we are not contributors, we are not citizens of something larger than us. Everything comes to be outside us, and we pay for it if we feel like it. Members of Churches are participants in God’s continuing creation, citizens of the City of God.
There’s a huge problem with being a consumer of religion: the distinction between wants and needs is blurred if not erased. The energy of Faith gets spent in the superficial, surface issues. We’re not perfect, but nothing really effectively challenges that. We do things we know we shouldn’t do, we do things we know aren’t good for us. We tend to take the easy explanation, the easy way of doing things, the easy method of participation. We want to think we’re always right and moral in everything we do, and we’re permitted exception to any rules we don’t want to follow (rules are for other people, aren’t they?) We want to know exactly what we need to do to get the Heaven, and not do one thing more. We want to treat our friends as good Christians, believe they’re people Jesus loves too, and we want God to hate and condemn anyone who bothers us or deprives us to Hell without fail, and not take any responsibility for their fall on ourselves. We don’t want religion to bother any other part of our life except the little sliver we make available to God alone.
This interview of Thom Rainer by Religion News Service’s Jonathan Merritt illustrates the challenges of church membership today. When we see ourselves as consumers of religion, we aren’t really being a member of a Church. Membership means shared responsibility and shared leadership, a commitment to a group that we’re going to stay with through all the ups and downs. When we take the role of a consumer of religion, we tend to tell our churches: “Give me what I want or I’ll take my business elsewhere.”
Churches that give people what they want are incredibly popular. The Megachurch movement is huge, and some of these churches do some incredible outreach to the poor. A Protestant seminary in my home area is moving from its campus in a marginal neighborhood to a Megachurch campus in suburbia. It’s tempting to think God rewards True Faith with success. Does God give us success for believing the right way, for doing what’s popular? If that’s true, how do we cope with the book of Job, the stoning of Paul outside Lystra, the passion and death of Christ? How do we cope with John 6, when Jesus tells his followers that unless they eat His Flesh and drink His Blood they will not have life within them, and many of them, maybe most of them, leave at that point?
As a Christian, we’re called to follow Christ, and that means more than following Him on Twitter. We’re called to imitate Christ, shape our lives around His model. If getting what we want means being more perfectly like Christ, then I’m all in favor of this. But how can we commit ourselves totally to Christ, give our lives completely to Him and His Mission, and insist on getting everything we want exactly as we want it?
Consumer Christianity is almost certainly an oxymoron. Surveys about preferences of church goers can be helpful for ministers, but they can’t dictate Faith, only Christ can do that. Letting consumers determine belief means anything we feel uncomfortable with and anything we don’t feel like doing gets left out. The Seven Deadly Sins such as Greed, Pride, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth get recast not only as virtues but moral imperatives. The Gold Standard of Faith becomes enthusiasm, and lack of enthusiasm the major heresy.
Working out how to follow Christ isn’t easy, and has to deal with some messy situations, cope with some painful failures, walk through long nights of doubt and dark. It means walking away from common wisdom at times, as well as popular opinion and the drive for success. I think it means taking success out of our language of Faith as well, for just as Pope Francis said that the triumphalism of the Church stops the Church, success also can make us complacent, cause us to prioritize the wrong things, tempt us to lose ourselves in the fleeting and superficial.
Taking a consumer attitude toward faith, belief and spirituality puts the focus on ourselves. True Faith is about unselfish focus on God, and letting our success be in authenticity of the journey.