Many people have written many articles about the church and consumer culture; I am certainly not the first, nor the most convincing, nor the most articulate. But I have been thinking about this subject for quite some time, and finally feel compelled to write out my own thoughts on the matter.
Especially here in upper-middle-class suburbia, our culture does little to help us distinguish wants from needs. Moreover, our culture does little to help us distinguish between rights and privileges. I see in people a general tendency toward entitlement - our is an "on-demand" sort of existence, where we expect that we can get what we want, when we want it, with as little effort as possible on our parts.
There is a distinct hubris to all of this. We each believe that we are the center of our universe, and that everything - be it schools, restaurants, stores, churches - should cater to us. We expect our institutions to compete for our business, and we expect to have the luxury of weighing our options and choosing to utilize those institutions that have done the most to win us over.
On one hand, it is good that we have choices in our lives. I appreciate that I can comparison shop when buying a new dishwasher, or that I have the ability to splurge on a cashmere scarf at Macy's while still buying laundry detergent on sale at Target. I appreciate being able to create and express my identity through the institutions that I associate myself with. But I firmly believe that putting too high a value on a consumeristic understanding of choice leads to the detriment of true community. Consumerism destroys the ethic of loyalty. We flit from one "brand" to another, we associate with people and institutions only as long as they offer us the "best deal," and we begin to view our commitments in a purely utilitarian light. We make our values and communities shallow by focusing on efficiency rather than on depth or quality, and by focusing on convenience rather than on authenticity or integrity. We want our goods to be cheap, fast, and useful, and so we begin to view other aspects of our life in the same manner.
And so, I think that we are losing the ability to understand the church as a community rather than as a vendor. People seek worship experiences that speak to their own individual interests, needs, and values rather than seeking worship that binds together the Christian community throughout the world, past, present, and future. People want churches with amenities rather than churches with solid faith and theological foundations. People seek communities of faith that uphold their own status quo rather than challenging it for the sake of the gospel. People seek churches that require little commitment or effort on their parts - we want our churches to subscribe to the consumeristic notion that "the customer is always right."
But this is not what the church is about. The first church was a place where people invested themselves deeply into building community with other believers. It is a place where serving one another was more important than wealth or status, and a place where the good news of Jesus Christ was so central and compelling that believers would orient the rest of their lives around that good news.
Consumer culture has taught us to believe that churches are to serve us, rather than to serve God. Consumer culture encourages us to seek churches that cater to our needs and interests, and to feel betrayed by churches if at any point we don't get our way. Consumer culture makes us believe that the church should give us what we want with as little effort as possible on our own parts. It makes us feel entitled to demand that the church serve our own individual wants and needs rather than the wants and needs of the wider community. It leads us to believe that the church should give us everything and yet demand nothing of us. Consumer culture tells us that getting what we want from a church (whether it be in terms of a worship experience or political ideology or socio-economic makeup of its population) is more important than building relationships and communities within our churches.
Those of us in church leadership are often faced with the question of how to grow our churches. Many churches believe that, in a consumer culture, we have to compete for "business" using the same tools as other institutions. We invest in marketing and gimmicks, the likes of which are often indistinguishable from other businesses (we try to sell churches the same way we try to sell cars and kitchen knives!). We try to make church appealing by making it low-commitment, safe, and familiar.
But what if we "marketed" the church by letting it be what it is: a deep, convicting, and even challenging place where we do real work together as a community in order that we might live deeply into our faith in a God who has shown us radical and unfathomable grace and love? What if we stopped trying to compete with all the other businesses out there, and instead tried to work toward intentional communities of faith, focused on service, on love of neighbors, of peace and justice, of deep (and even demanding) worship, of letting our lives be shaped by the good news of Christ? What if we told the truth about the church: it is a place where imperfect people gather, where faith and doubt and real life collide in important (but often uncomfortable) ways, where diverse people come together to worship and discuss and even disagree, where we cling to a faith that binds up the brokenness of the world into a profound hope in a God who has promised to redeem and restore all things? None of this is easy. None of it is sugar-coated, or convenient, or pre-packaged, or mass-manufactured. But it is essential.