The Dangers of Consumer Christianity

When we first moved from Oakland, CA to Colorado some seven years ago, I was tremendously impressed by how quiet things were here. By how I could easily find a parking space near a store or outside the mall. By how quickly I could simply "pop" into the local Costco and make a purchase on my way home. Less traffic, no lines, friendly service--how strange and startling! What I realized is that there was an ambient noise- and stress-level in the Bay Area to which I'd grown accustomed. In fact, more than that, I didn't notice it any longer. It was only through the out-of-state move that I learned the beauty of a quieter, less congested, less frantic life. Sometimes things are so close to us, so pervasive, so much a part of our existence, that we barely notice them. But they shape us tremendously.

So it is with our consumer culture, where buyer is king (or queen). Where individual preferences and customized experiences reign. Where we can shop around literally or virtually for the best deals on the planet. Our wants and needs become the dominant criteria for our choices, our lifestyles, indeed, our very lives.

Skye Jethani's recent book The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Zondervan, 2009) does a marvelous, if not disturbing, job in pointing out just how captive most of us Christians have become to our consumer culture. His fluid, engaging prose and his use of Van Gogh's artwork provoke the mind and fire the imagination. His primary point is to show how we've tended to commodify God and reduce God to a genie in a bottle, who exists primarily to fulfill our wishes for our lives. As an antidote for these tendencies, the author makes a creative case for the use of historic Christian spiritual disciplines. Jethani, a managing editor of Leadership Journal ( and a suburban Chicago pastor, engages popular culture, art, history, and academics in emphasizing his points. Here are some quotes from early in the book which give you a flavor of his writing:

"Consumerism is the dominant worldview of North Americans. As such, it is competing with the kingdom of heaven for the hearts and imaginations of God's people" (p. 12). "Consumer Christianity, while promising to strengthen our souls with an entertaining faith, has left us malnourished with an anemic view of God, faith, church, and mission" (p. 14).

Jethani reminds the American church that, according to most surveys, American Christians are no different behaviorally than their unchurched counterparts. The reason, says Jethani, is that such believers have failed to be transformed by their faith; their imaginations are stunted and shaped more by consumer values than by biblical realities. This is tragic for the church and for the world: we Christians settle for watered-down religion that parrots our purchasing habits and the world is deprived of vital, life-changing examples of how we are in love with and transformed by the power of Jesus.

What's particularly provocative for me as a pastor and church leader is Jethani's indictment of churches who uncritically accept business principles and marketing techniques to grow their congregations. This is so tempting for us! Certainly, we can learn from business practices--but these need to be filtered through the criteria of the Bible and historic Christian spirituality in order to discern their proper roles. We must beware our American penchant for pragmatism and our myopic view of history. Church history and theology can be very relevant for spotting the potential pitfalls before us.

Here are some pointed excerpts: "This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies--Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade...Ministries that focus on manufacturing spiritual experiences, despite their laudable intentions, may actually be retarding spiritual growth by making people experience-dependent" (pp. 78-79).

This is a great book to be read by small groups and particularly by those under 50 who, like me, can be so conditioned by their culture that they hardly notice it shaping them at all. It's also an important read for those in my congregation who are journeying through a pastoral leadership transition: what kind of church is God calling us to be and what kind of vision and leader should lead us? Key questions right now!

For more from Skye Jethani, visit his blog:


John said...

one of the symptoms of this that i've seen is "church hopping." something you don't like about your church? change churches. it's as easy as changing brands of toothpaste.

over the past 25 years, i've certainly gone through phases with my own church. but i've always felt that my presence there was more about god choosing me, than me choosing it. even though i'm not a "traditional" guy, i've been going to the same "traditional" service, even after we added contemporary services to the mix. it's just where god called me.

i'm grateful i haven't had to be put in the position to go church shopping. it must be a horrible experience in many ways. i can't imagine trying to find "the perfect church for me", as if that really exists!

Allan Harvey said...

Sounds like I may need to add another book to my "to read" list.

As I'm sure you know, Carl, there's much overlap between these thoughts and those in the book Missional Church. Also overlap with things we've been promoting in Lay Ministries about the church being an interdependent body rather than laity seeing themselves (and being seen by staff) as consumers of religious services being dispensed by the professionals who do the real ministry.

I'm reminded how Willow Creek discovered a couple of years ago how their consumer-driven ministry was not producing mature disciples, but I haven't heard how they are trying to fix that.

So how do we make worship services less about consuming an experience (or consuming Jesus in a "me and Jesus" way) and more about galvanizing transformation of the community (as Mark Labberton advocates in his book)? In what other ways have we adopted a consumer culture rather then being a "family of grace"? If we identify areas where we have bowed to the idol of consumer culture, how do we wean the church away from it?

Tough questions, but important ones to wrestle with as we seek to discern what God is calling our church to be.

Carl Hofmann said...

I'm struck again by the most pithy comment from Rick Warren's The Purpose Drive Life: "It's not about you." Ironically (or at least counterintuitively), when we make worship and discipleship about us--we tend to lose sight of God and ourselves. Keep the focus on God, instead, and we get both!

These tendencies are so deep and pervasive in us (in me, at least) that it will take a major work of God to continue to release us from their grip.

Thanks for visiting, guys.

Allan Harvey said...

There's a good discussion on this book today at Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog

Lonnie said...

Shouldn't any book titled "The Divine Commodity" at least be available as a free download?

Carl Hofmann said...

GREAT comment, Lonnie!!! I'd only add: "It may be free, but it'll cost you everything."
Thanks for visiting,