26 October 2007

Christianity by Consumerism?

Thanks to Get Religion for directing us to an interesting review in the Wall Street Journal on consumerism in religion. In her review titled "A Congregation of Customers" Naomi Riley discusses the book "Shopping for God" by James B. Twitchell. Judging from the review, Twitchell seems to believe that things religious in America can ultimately be boiled down to a consumer-driven "brand allegiance," even for men with their love of sports. (Hey, I like my sports too, but give them to me "straight up" when I'm at home, not mixed in with the more meaningful - and "meaty" - matters of faith and life with God.) Appeal to the consumer in Americans, so the notion goes, and those Americans will gladly become Christian, or at least religious.

However, we can rejoice that Ms. Riley questions this consumeristic presupposition. First, she questions that a merely "evangelical 'product'" can truly draw folks into a meaningful - shall we say "authentic" or "genuine" or "real"? - kind of faith or spirituality. People do willingly sacrifice for truth, but not for fads and ever-changing consumer products. Ms. Riley says:

But what is it about the evangelical "product" that makes it so desirable? Any number of scholars have noted that, in recent years, it has been the churches that demand the most of people--tithing, bowing to firm doctrines, observing strict rules of conduct--that have grown the fastest. There seems to be something in our nature that requires from religion not just feel-good spirituality but strong moral direction. We are willing to make sacrifices to live by the dictates of a religiously grounded truth.

Ms. Riley then concludes her review by intimating that true, authentic faith and religion must
come from somewhere other than "brand allegiance." She says:
If you can find a way of seeing religion primarily as a form of consumerism--skipping the (how to put it?) faith and truth part of religious belief--then Mr. Twitchell's analysis makes some sense. And in fact there are churches out there self-consciously engaged in marketing. They hire consultants and public-relations experts to "grow" their flock, and they obey a market discipline. Mr. Twitchell notices a sign hanging in Mr. Hybels's megachurch office that quotes Peter Drucker, the business guru.

But consultants can only do so much, and the point of church outreach surely has less to do with improving "brands" than with saving souls. Mr. Twitchell concludes by noting that, "in the Land of Plentitude, the customer is king." Thus he asks: "Why should religion be different?" The answer to that question comes from another book.
While many people may indeed value their religion/Christianity in much the same way they value shopping at Target or Macy's, or dining out at McDonald's or Burger King (or whatever "fine dining establishment" you prefer), there is something more - so much more!

There is true, real life, historic Christianity - you know,
  • the one handed down through the centuries (What passing consumer fad can claim that?),
  • the one that maintains her long-standing, historic creeds and confessions, such as the Apostles', the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds (How many "consumer creeds" end up in the trash or paper shredder when "Christian customers" get home and throw the "worship folder" away?)
  • the one for which millions have sacrificed themselves in times of persecution (Something tells me that future persecutors in America won't haul Christians away for having a coffee shop in their church - or turning their church *into* a coffee shop!),
  • the one that keeps its liturgical roots firmly planted by the streams of living water, Jesus Christ, and in the fertile soil of the Church's historic practices (I dare any liturgy that's new week after week to feed people on Jesus Christ in order that they can be rescued from sin and survive the sleep in the grave!),
  • the one that focuses on converting lost, dead sinners into found, living saints before God (You mean there's something more to life than feeling good for the moment?),
  • the one that focuses on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the restored life with God for all eternity (It's not about "having it your way"; it's about receiving Jesus and His gift of life with God!).
No amount of shallow, fad-driven consumerism and customer-pleasing-mindset can compare with the steadfastness of God's mercy given through His Son, the Word made flesh! No amount of "brand allegiance," however religiously it may be packaged, can compare with the love of God in Christ Jesus - the "Calvary Love" as one pastor called it - authentically wrapped up in Baptism, Absolution, Eucharist and the preaching of the Gospel.

I for one easily tire of the consumer fads and gimmicks launched my way just on TV and the radio. Why would I want such shallowness insinuating itself into the Church and infecting my faith? Give me Jesus Christ, with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and the precious, soul-soothing liturgical life in His Church any day! Some pastors may strive, plan, and "vision" for a "congregation of customers," but I'll take God's gift of a congregation of sinner-saints and faithful sheep who want to hear the voice of their Good Shepherd Jesus any day!

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