iChurch: All We Like Sheep

by Skye Jethani

Is our insistence on choices leading us astray?

I don’t drink coffee but that hasn’t stopped me from using the Starbucks across the street from my church as a second office. I sip my overpriced beverage in the armchair near the window. On this afternoon I was meeting Greg and Margaret* – members of our church I’d worked with closely for the last few years.

“We’ve decided to leave Blanchard,” Greg started. “For two months we’ve been church shopping.” Church shopping—where did that dastardly term come from? I thought while gazing out the window at the swarm of suburbanites fluttering between The Gap, Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble, and Williams-Sonoma.

“We really love Blanchard,” Margaret added to soften the blow. “It’s been a great church for our family, with a wonderful children’s program. Greg and I really like it, but our boys are teenagers now and they prefer the music at Faith Community*.” I took a sip of my preferred drink—a tall, no whip, Tazo chai latte. Maybe I should have gotten the low cal, non-fat, grande Earl Grey, with Splenda.

Margaret continued, “Faith Community has so much to offer our family, and I think it’s really important to go someplace the boys like. When your kids are teenagers, you’ll understand.” Having played the evangelical trump card (the kids), Margaret sat back in her chair believing no further discussion was necessary.

“What are you going to do when your boys leave home in a few years?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” said Greg. “Maybe we’ll come back to Blanchard.”

“I hope you don’t,” I replied, meaning no malice. I did, however, relish the stunned look on their faces, if just for a moment. “I hope that you commit yourselves so fully to Faith Community – building strong relationships, serving with your gifts, participating in its mission – that you could never see yourselves leaving. I really believe God grows us most when we are committed to a community.” For the next hour we had a difficult but edifying conversation about their decision to leave. Then I prayed for Greg and Margaret in the middle of Starbucks, and watched from my chair by the window as they drove away in their SUV, a chrome fish on the tailgate.

From Lord to Label – Christian critiques of consumerism usually focus on the dangers of idolatry—the temptation to make material goods the center of life rather than God. This, however, misses the real threat consumerism poses. As contingent beings, we must consume resources to survive. The problem is not consuming to live, but rather living to consume.

We find ourselves in a culture that defines our relationships by our purchases. As the philosopher Baudrillard explains, “Consumption is a system of meaning.” We assign value to ourselves and others based on the goods we purchase. One’s identity is now constructed by the clothes you wear, the vehicle you drive, the music on your iPod. In short, you are what you consume.

This explains why shopping is the number one leisure activity of Americans. It occupies a role in society that once belonged to religion—the power to give meaning and construct identity. Consumerism, as Pete Ward concludes, “represents an alternative source of meaning to the Christian gospel.” No longer merely an economic system, consumerism has become the American worldview—the framework through which we interpret everything else, including God, the gospel, and church.

When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it as a comprehensive way of life, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express our identity.   And the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means that to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences—music, books, t-shirts, jewelry.

Approaching Christianity as a brand (rather than a worldview) explains why the majority of people who identify themselves as born-again Christians live no differently than other Americans. According to George Barna, most churchgoers have not adopted a biblical worldview, they have simply added a Jesus fish to the bumper of their unregenerate consumer identities. As Mark Riddle observes, “Conversion in the U.S. seems to mean we’ve exchanged some of our shopping at Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and Borders for the Christian bookstore down the street. We’ve taken our lack of purchasing control to God’s store, where we buy our office supplies in Jesus’ name.”

I Can’t Get No – During my conversation with Greg and Margaret at Starbucks, I asked how they came to choose Faith Community as their new church. “Did you pray as a family about this decision?” No.

“Did you involve your small group or seek the wisdom of an elder in the decision?” No.

“Did you investigate the church’s doctrine, history, or philosophy of ministry?” No.

“Did you base your decision on anything other than what you ‘liked’?” No.

Believe it or not, Greg and Margaret are educated professionals capable of making intelligent decisions. How then do we make sense of their impulsive church shopping?

Being fully formed in a consumer worldview, Greg and Margaret intuitively accepted that the personal enrichment and fulfillment of desire is the highest good. As a result, they chose the church that best satisfied their family’s preferences without bothering to consult their community, the Bible, or the Holy Spirit to gauge the legitimacy of those desires. After all, in consumerism a desire is never illegitimate, it is only unmet.

People have not always lived this way. Consumers, like the goods they buy, were made not born. The advent of mass production during the Industrial Revolution created previously unimaginable quantities of goods—far more than the market needed. Manufacturers suddenly needed a way to artificially increase demand for their products. Advertising was born.

Ads became the prophets of capitalism—turning the hearts of the people toward the goods they didn’t know they needed. They subtly or overtly promised more comfort, status, success, happiness, and even sex to people who purchased their wares. In 1897 one newspaper reader said that in the past we “skipped ads unless some want compelled us to read, now we read to find out what we really want.”

Today, according to The New York Times, each American is exposed to 3,500 desire-inducing advertisements every day promising us that satisfaction is just one more purchase away. Rodney Clapp writes, “The consumer is schooled in insatiability. He or she is never to be satisfied—at least not for long. The consumer is tutored that people basically consist of unmet needs that can be appeased by commodified goods and experiences.”

This constant manufacturing of desires has created a culture of overindulgence. Obesity, sexual promiscuity, and skyrocketing credit card debt are just a few signs. Although lack of self-control has always plagued humanity, for the first time in history, an economic system has been created that relies on it. Now, if people began suppressing their desires and consuming only what they needed, our economy would collapse. To prevent this, satisfying personal desires has become sacrosanct.

During World War II, for example, the government severely restricted public consumption of certain goods needed for the war effort. Following 9/11, however, Americans were repeatedly told that to refrain from buying, traveling, and continuing our lifestyle was tantamount to “letting the terrorists win.”

For consumers, fulfillment of desire is the highest good and final arbiter in making decisions – even deciding where to worship.

Kingdom Competition – It isn’t difficult to see the incompatibility of consumerism with traditional Christianity. Scripture champions contentment and self-control, not endless pursuit of personal desire. Unfortunately, teaching and modeling these Christian values is not a high priority in most churches. In fact, many churches use the same techniques pioneered by consumerism to draw people through their doors.

Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, co-authors of The Churching of America, 1776-1990, argue that ministry in the U.S. is modeled primarily on capitalism, with pastors functioning as a church’s sales force, and evangelism as its marketing strategy. Our indoctrination into this economic view of ministry may prevent us from recognizing how unprecedented it is in Christian history.

According to Finke and Stark, the American church adopted a consumer-driven model because the First Amendment prohibited state-sanctioned religion. Therefore, faith, like the buying of material goods, became a matter of personal choice. And “where religious affiliation is a matter of choice, religious organizations must compete for members and … the ‘invisible hand’ of the marketplace is as unforgiving of ineffective religious firms as it is of their commercial counterparts.”

This explains why marketing strategies and secular business values are pervasive in today’s ministry—we’re in competition with other providers of identity and meaning for survival. We must convince a sustainable segment of the religious marketplace that our church is “relevant,” “comfortable,” or “exciting.” (One billboard in my area proclaims, “Kids love our church. It’s FUN!”) And we must differentiate our church by providing more of the elements people want. After all, in a consumer culture, the customer is king.

When I arrived at Starbucks to meet with Greg and Margaret, I first went to the counter to order a drink. The simple menu on the wall is deceptive. There was a time when ordering coffee meant regular or decaf, cream or sugar. Today, Starbucks provides literally 20,000 beverage permutations. While enjoying our drinks of choice, Greg and Margaret proceeded to explain how Faith Community Church had multiple services, including Saturday, so they could choose a time that fit their busy schedule. Blanchard only has three services—all on Sunday morning. The youth group had multiple worship teams for their son, a drummer, to play on. Ours only has one. And, because Faith Community was “way bigger” than Blanchard, it had more to offer Greg and Margaret too. Ironically, they had come to Blanchard years earlier from a smaller church. What goes around comes around, I guess.

Decisions, Decisions – One of the core characteristics of consumerism is choice. With each new option, the shopper is better equipped to construct his unique identity. Customization, creating a product that conforms to my particular desires, has driven businesses to offer an ever-increasing number of choices. This trend is seen most clearly in the iPod. No longer is a listener required to buy an entire CD to enjoy just one song. You now have instant access to millions of songs, and download them individually for a personalized playlist. The demand for more choices also drives modern churches. The goal is to provide religious consumers with as many individualized choices as possible. The latest permutation is “video venues.”

At one church, upon arriving each family member can choose the worship setting that fits their personal desire. Simultaneously, grandma can sing hymns in the traditional service, mom and dad can enjoy coffee and bagels in the worship cafe, and the teenagers can lose their hearing in the rock venue. The value of shared experience and congregational unity is drowned out by consumerism’s mantra of individual choice.       “The inspiration for what this church is doing,” one journalist reports, “comes from a place where freedom of choice and variety are celebrated: the American shopping mall.” To which the pioneering pastor responds, “I am very comfortable with a consumer mindset and use that tool to help reach people.”

To Meet, or to Discipline Desire? – Consumers demand options, but this poses a problem. Formation into the likeness of Christ is not accomplished by always getting what we want. In ages past, choice was not heralded as a Christian’s right. In fact, relinquishing our choices by submitting to a spiritual mentor or community was prerequisite to growth in Christ. Believers were guided through formative and corrective disciplines—most being activities we would never choose if left to our desires. But surrendering control ensured we received what we needed to mature in Christ, not simply what we wanted.

In consumer Christianity, however, church leaders function as religious baristas, supplying spiritual goods for people to choose from based on their preferences. Our concern becomes not whether people are growing, but whether they are satisfied. An unhappy member, like an unhappy customer, will find satisfaction elsewhere. As one pastor enthusiastically said, “The problem with blended services is that half the people are happy half the time. With a video venue, you can say, ‘If you don’t like this service style, try another one!’”

Ironically, this demand for choice that has fueled the consumer church may ultimately be its undoing. According to George Barna’s book, Revolution, 20 million Americans are no longer satisfied with the options available at institutional churches. Instead they’re “choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.”        It’s the logical conclusion of consumer Christianity: iChurch.

The new breed of Christian consumers, Barna’s “revolutionaries,” customize discipleship the way iPod users customize a playlist. They might find encouragement at a community support group, worship at a Third Day concert, listen to a podcast sermon, and read about the topic of the day at the Christian bookstore. While the church as we’ve known it fades into memory like vinyl LPs.

Divine Butler – Ultimately, our greatest concern should not be consumerism’s erosion of the church, but the commodification of God himself. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most of the food, clothing, tools, and furniture people used was made at home or by someone nearby. Every item had a story and person attached to it that was known by its user. A rocking chair had value not only for its comfort, but because Uncle John made it.

Today, as I sit in my favorite armchair at Starbucks enjoying my tea, I have no idea who assembled the chair, who grew the tea leaves, who designed the cup—I barely know the guy with the nose ring behind the counter who poured the hot water. Consumerism has stripped the goods I use everyday from their context—they have no story or value apart from my consumption of them.

Tragically, consumerism has led us to commodify parts of God’s creation, too. Sexuality, for example, is commodified through pornography and prostitution. Human life is commodified when we begin thinking a person has a right to live only when wanted. In our society the only value something or someone has is the value I give it. It of no surprise that in our culture God also has no value apart from what he can do for me.

Christian Smith, a leading sociologist of religion at the University of North Carolina, after five years of researching the spiritual lives of American teens, concluded that the faith of most teenagers, including those who attend evangelical churches, is MTD: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Smith explains:

“By ‘moralistic’ I mean being good and nice. … By ‘therapeutic’ I mean being primarily concerned with one’s own happiness in contrast to focusing on glorifying God, learning obedience, or serving others. Finally, by ‘deism’ I mean a view of God as normally distant and not involved in one’s life, except if one has a problem one needs God to solve. In other words, God functions as a combination divine butler and cosmic therapist.”

Most teenagers hold this self-centered perception of God because it is the faith most American adults have as well. This god of consumerism shows no resemblance to the Consuming Fire described in Scripture. People may say they believe in Jesus, but the archaic Lord, who calls forth sacrifice, promises suffering in this life, and demands obedience for his glory, the one Barth described as “wholly other” is not what they have in mind. They’re thinking of the Jesus that adorns t-shirts and SUV tailgates.

Any resentment I had toward Greg and Margaret quickly waned. Like many others at my church, they were simply doing what they had been formed to do. I may as well be angry at a fish for swimming. Immersed in a consumer culture, Greg and Margaret were simply living like consumers. The truth is I failed Greg and Margaret. I failed to teach them that the core values of consumerism are incongruent with the Christian life. That making choices to satisfy immediate personal desires is not the goal of life.

The church does not exist to supply comfort, ease, and convenient services to religious consumers. And God is not a commodity that exists to make you feel better.

Perhaps I failed Greg and Margaret because I was too busy being a spiritual barista, not a pastor protecting Greg and Margaret from the 3,500 wolves in sheep’s clothing they encounter every day. Whatever the reason, because of my failure, that responsibility now rests with the leaders of Faith Community Church.

Skye Jethani is assistant teaching pastor at Blanchard Road Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois. * Names have been changed.  Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.