I Shop Therefore I Am: Consumerism and Its Impact on Christian Life and Ministry

“My concern is not materialism, strictly speaking, or even the consumption of goods—as contingent beings, we must consume resources to survive. The problem is not consuming to live, but living to consume.”

– Skye Jethani  ((Skye Jethani, “Leader’s Insight: From Christ’s Church to iChurch – How Consumerism Undermines our Faith and Community” in Leadershipjournal.net [accessed July 7, 2008-].))

“The gold bit on your horse, the gold circlet on the wrist of your slave, the gilding on your shoes, mean that you are robbing the orphan and starving the widow. When you have passed away, each passer-by who looks upon your great mansion will say, “How many tears did it take to build that mansion; how many orphans were stripped; how many widows wronged; how many laborers deprived of their honest wages?” Even death itself will not deliver you from your accusers”

– John Chrysostom  ((Quoted in Justo Gonzales, The Story of Christianity. Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of Reformation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 197.))


In a conversation with my friend Ali who is part of a Muslim Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), he shared his observation that many Muslims as well as people today are caught up in focusing on materialism rather than the transcendent mysteries of God and life. He sees his mission as a practising Muslim working through the particular NGO that he is a part of to correct this problem. As a pastor and a Christian, I could not help but resonate with his concerns, because it appears that the Christian community in Malaysia (not to mention other parts of Asia) is also entrenched with the same preoccupation. It seems to be more concerned with the tangibles of the “good life” than it is with the intangibles of the “godly life” in Christian discipleship.

However, what lies before us is more than a preoccupation with material goods. This is but symptomatic of a deeper root cause, in which Christian life and ministry is perceived primarily through the lens of consumerism, a system, mentality and tendency with consumption at its centre.  ((Consumerism here is defined as (1) an economic system which places extremely high value on incessant production and consumption of material goods and services at an even higher level of physical convenience and comfort; (2) an accompanying mentality which assumes that such a system is the best or only one possible; and (3) a related tendency or even drive to find much, sometimes most, though rarely all human fulfillment in providing and consuming material goods and services. Christopher Kiesling, “Liturgy and Consumerism,” Worship 52, no. 4 (July 1978): 359.)) I propose that while confronting consumerism critically is a must, a parallel focus on an alternative vision of who we are as a church, as well as relentlessly embodying and expressing the missional call of God on the people of God for the world needs to be accented more than ever.

Beyond Relevance and Resistance

“Relevance” has become for many the rallying cry of the church today. The church strives hard not to be left behind as an archaic and irrelevant institution, unrelated to the everyday lives of people. While seeking to be relevant is arguably part of the missionary posture of the church to those living in a non-Christian or even post-Christian environment, one wonders if what started off initially as a sincere attempt to build bridges to the world has been overtaken by a consumer-centred marketing posture, particularly as we appropriate uncritically the tools of marketing and management?  ((The classic proto church growth movement seminal work by Donald McGravan, The Bridges of God, was birthed out of his missionary experience. Donald McGraven, The Bridges of God:A Study in the Strategy of Missions (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005), or “The Bridges of God” [accessed July 7, 2008].))

A quick glance at the church’s life and ministry today suggests that perhaps we have bought into a consumerist mindset unconsciously when it comes to what we do in church and what we consider important in church.

First, the growth of the Christian, Gospel, and Worship music industry is the most phenomenal example.  ((Joe Morris, “Christian music industry foresees record year,” Nashville Business Journal, http://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/stories/2001/11/26/story2.html [accessed July 7, 2008]. Gospel Music Association, “Christian/Gospel Music Albums sales rise in 2006” [accessed July 7, 2008].)) In a year end report from the Gospel Music Association (GMA), we read the following:

According to Nielsen SoundScan’s 2006 Year-end report the Christian/Gospel category of overall album sales joined classical, soundtracks and Latin as the only genres that grew in sales in 2006. Christian/Gospel music sales are the largest of those four genres and represents 6.75 percent of all album sales.  ((Gospel Music Association, “Christian/Gospel Music Albums sales rise in 2006” [accessed July 7, 2008].))

The reasons given for the increase in sales are noteworthy:

2006 was a good year for Christian/Gospel music. Album sales were up, albeit slightly; digital sales continue to rise and most importantly, the impact of the Gospel through music reached beyond even what our sales reveal. Everywhere you look, in books, games, TV and movies, music that is inspired by faith seems more prevalent than ever before,” said John W. Styll, president and CEO of the GMA. “There may be many reasons why this is true, but I think chief among them is that people seem to be drawn to the inspiring and compassionate message of Gospel music amid uncertain times.”  ((Michael Glitz, “American Idol ‘Shout to the Lord’: Controversy and Results,” The Huffington Post [accessed July 7, 2008].))

Perhaps it was to meet the people’s need for inspiration that prompted producers of the television reality show, American Idol to feature on its 2008 “Idol Gives Back” episodes the popular worship song, “Shout to the Lord,” by Hillsongs worship leader Darlene Zschech.  ((Jean Kidula, “The Rise of the Religious Music Industry in Kenya: Gospel From Roots to Rap,” interviewed by Siddhartha Mitter, Afropop Worldwide [accessed July 7, 2008].)) The growth of the Christian music industry (some might prefer the word “ministry”?) is not just limited to the North; it is true in Africa as well.  ((Sarah Rodman, “The music industry takes sales as gospel,” The Boston Globe [accessed July 7, 2008].))

While the creative and artistic use of music and the arts is strongly encouraged in corporate worship, questions are raised when there is a convenient marriage of consumer interests with what may have been originally creative or contextual expressions of gifts in the church. Authentic worship can unfortunately be overshadowed or even swallowed up by commercial interests.  ((Quoted in Philip D. Kenneson, “Selling [Out] the Church in the Marketplace of Desire,” Modern Theology 9, no. 4 (October 1993): 331.))

Second, the dominant use of Church marketing and management categories in church life today is another case in point. This is not just confined to the so-called “mega-churches,” which have often been criticised for the adoption of managerial practices. Even in discussions on church planting or new church development in the so called “mainline churches,” it is not uncommon to find such discussions overwhelmed by matters such as survey proposals, strategic plans, timeline charts, budgets, and policies. Not all see this as something necessarily bad. George Barna for instance sees “marketing” in neutral terms as he makes an apologetic for its use in church ministry.

Church marketing is the performance of both business and ministry activities that impact the church’s target audience with the intention of ministering to and fulfilling their spiritual, social, emotional, or physical needs and thereby satisfy the ministry goals of the church. The emphasis of this definition is on using marketing to serve the best interests of ministry. While the definition indicates that certain business activities may occur in the process of marketing the church, those activities are undertaken as a necessity to help the church achieve its ministry potential. The practice of marketing has no intrinsic value. For the purposes of the church, its sole value is derived from its ability to enhance church expansion.  ((Quoted in Philip D. Kenneson, “Selling [Out] the Church,” 336.))

What Barna expresses here may well be in the minds of many pastors and church leaders today. This is not surprising, especially for those who are already well-versed in the language of business and find it natural to relate this to the church:

First, the Church is a business. It is involved in the business of ministry. As such, the local church must run with the same wisdom and savvy that characterizes any for-profit business. As in the business world, every church must be managed with purpose and efficiency, moving towards its goals and objectives. Our goal as a church, like any secular business, is to turn to profit. For us, however, profit means saving souls and nurturing believers.  ((Kenneson, “Selling [Out] the Church,” 337-342.))

Has the business model become the predominant paradigm in “doing church” today? In his provocative article, “Selling [Out] the Church,” Philip Kenneson highlights some presuppositions often present in the way many modern churches engage in ministry. One of these presuppositions says: “That the church is a business, and more specifically a service agency.” Embedded in this are the following operative assumptions:

  • That the church’s goal (or ministry) is to meet (unmet) felt needs.
  • That the church should be consumer driven.
  • That the individual is primary, while the church is secondary, if not tertiary.  ((Robert A. Kelly, “Lutheranism as counterculture? The Doctrine of Justification and Consumer Capitalism,” Currents in Theology and Mission 24, no. 6 (December 1997): 497.))

While the rhetoric of many seminars and conferences today may be about “ministry” and “service,” the underlying presupposition is more often than not “the customer is king,” rather than “Christ is Lord” over our lives and ministry.

Third, we note the dominant influence of American Evangelicalism on Asian Christianity, which often comes clothed with strong consumer-capitalistic ideas. Whether it is old “Positive thinking” school of Norman Vincent Peale, the “Possibility thinking” of Robert Schuller, or the reinvented “prosperity gospel” of Joel Osteen, one finds the same body of ideas presented, albeit in different garments. Many of the proponents of the different forms of “victorious” or “success” Christianity are excellent communicators. Peppering their presentations with enough Bible verses to support their overall vision, they find a ready audience amongst Christians living in economically growing settings like Malaysia and Singapore. Robert A. Kelly, approaching the subject from a “counterculture” perspective, gives a needed caution: “Evangelicalism is not a problem because of praise songs, but because it is thoroughly enmeshed in consumer-capitalist ideology and confuses success with the eschaton.”  ((Jason Clark, “Consumerism as Religion – Part I : The Dinner Party Test” [accessed July 7, 2008].))

It is frightening to contemplate the possibility that the versions of Christianity we have “bought” into uncritically are in fact versions that have been syncretised with consumerism. A greater danger lurks around the corner, and that is the possibility that we may be replacing our faith with another “religion,” despite couching it with “Christian” terminology. Jason Clark, a Ph.D. candidate who was a church planter but now serves as a pastor and speaker in the United Kingdom, seeks to explore “how consumerism functions as a religious system, and the effects that has on people who want to form Christian identity, in particular in relationship with other Christians as the Church.”  ((Eugene Peterson, Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) is a good modern classic to start with.)) His intuitive concern which guides his research echoes my own intuition of the challenges we face here in an Asia swimming in a globalized world.

Repercussions from Living in a Consumer Culture

There are some who react against the drive to “relevance” and retreat to the old-time religion of the past (in whatever form we remember, whether high church liturgy or revivalist expository preaching) as a way of “resistance.” While going back to pre-modern resources in history is a helpful measure, an uncritical appropriation of the past that ignores the present seems to be a dead-end as well. The wisdom of Danish philosopher Søren Kiekergaard when applied to the church is needed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

As we reflect on the repercussions from a consumer-driven Christianity, we do so from a posture of “repentance,” i.e., to first pause and stop, and then change our life and ministry direction as the Spirit leads us, hearing the call of Jesus to commit ourselves afresh to honouring the Father on earth in our time and location. This is an ongoing and life-long process.

First, the people and leaders of the church are too busy keeping up with the latest and the most improved trends and solutions. We are often swept along by whatever new waves of fixing church that come along, rather than step back to reassess our unique contexts and reengage the Gospel for the formation of our own personal and corporate identity. We engage in “copying” the programmes offered rather than go through the slower creative process of working things out for ourselves. In my own limited experience in being a part of a church restart with a small group of fifteen adults and two children, I made a conscious decision to refrain from running to one seminar or conference to another in search of solutions or formulaes for church growth. This opened up space for a thorough re-examination of my own ministry values and discipleship.

Second, it is a tragedy when Christians unconsciously define themselves as “customers” while the church is seen as “producers.” While these words may not be used openly, in practice, spiritual formation or discipleship is often demonstrated through one’s consuming of the various programmes that purportedly cater to every conceivable need. Thus, discipleship is understood less in relational and communal terms than it is individualistically and in terms of ‘producer’ and ‘consumer.’ It is common for many pastors to burnout because they are unable to meet the growing unspoken expectations of church members whose “felt needs” are endless. Eugene Peterson’s phrase, “un-busy pastor” seems to be an impossibility in today’s pastoral ministry. Being seen as one who is “busy” about God’s “business” has become the reigning mindset that has imprisoned many of us in pastoral ministry. When I was fresh out of seminary, the books that occupied my imagination were church growth and church management resources. But what really ignites my imagination nowadays are readings in theology and missiology, and more significantly, the wisdom of pastoral theologians like Eugene Peterson who has saved me from more hard knocks.  ((Tom Sine, The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).))

Third, the preoccupation with church marketing and management techniques, besides being symptomatic of our uncritical embrace of the prevailing consumerist culture, actually distracts us from the spiritual discernment needed to be surprised by God in the messiness of ministry. Being in control is the modus operandi of a consumerist paradigm; yet we live and serve in a world that is increasingly chaotic, confusing and unpredictable. The way forward to be faithful in living out the Gospel and sharing the Gospel in word and deed is more about discernment on where God is already working, and consciously confronting mindsets and values which place our consumer interests at the centre. It means allowing Christ, who is the centre and the narrative of Scripture, to revise the script of our lives in the light of the future of the new heaven and new earth. A thorough theological reorientation is needed in ensuring that the methods and ethos we employ in church ministry are not defined in consumerist terms.

A “Revolutionary” approach?

There are currently encouraging developments in what Tom Sine calls “the New Conspirators,” that are expressed in emerging, missional, mosaic and monastic streams in the church today.  ((René Padilla explains, “The expression integral mission (misión integral) came into use principally within the Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL) about twenty years ago. It was an attempt to highlight the importance of conceiving of the mission of the church within a more biblical theological framework than the traditional one, which had been accepted in evangelical circles due to the influence of the modern missionary movement. In the last few years the expression has been used so widely that the literal translation into English, integral mission, is gradually becoming a part of the vocabulary of those who are pressing for a more holistic approach to the Christian mission, even outside Spanish-speaking evangelical circles.” In What is Integral Mission anyway? [accessed July 7, 2008].)) Brian McLaren’s observation on the young Christians in the emerging stream, where “It’s not about the church meeting your needs; it’s about joining the mission of God’s people to meet the world’s needs,” looks promising as a starting point to detoxify the church from our own consumerism. However, to avoid the agenda being set by the world’s needs, it is crucial that we focus on the mission of God. For years, René Padilla has been an important voice for the concept of “Integral Mission,” which provides a framework which points us back to thinking in more “theological” and “missionary” terms rather than in “marketing” or “management” terms.  ((René Padilla, What is Integral Mission anyway? Para. 22 at para. 14-15.)) When concepts like social justice and a holistic understanding of the implications of salvation are highlighted, consumerism begins to get uprooted and the seeds of the kingdom can then be planted. Padilla, in agreement with McLaren, expands the implications of “Integral Mission”:

When the church is committed to integral mission and to communicating the gospel through everything it is, does, and says, it understands that its goal is not to become large numerically, nor to be rich materially, nor powerful politically. Its purpose is to incarnate the values of the Kingdom of God and to witness to the love and the justice revealed in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, for the transformation of human life in all its dimensions, both on the individual level and on the community level.

The accomplishment of this purpose presupposes that all the members of the church, without exception, by the very fact of having become a part of the Body of Christ, receive gifts and ministries for the exercise of their priesthood, to which they have been ordained in their baptism. Mission is not the responsibility and privilege of a small group of the faithful who feel called to the mission field (usually in a foreign country), but of all members, since all are members of the royal priesthood and as such have been called by God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1Pet 2.9) wherever they may be. As Brian D. McLaren aptly states,

[For Christ, his “called ones” (which is what the Greek term for “church” really means) will also be his “sent ones” [or missionaries] … In this line of thinking about the church, we don’t recruit people to be customers of our products or consumers of our religious programs; we recruit them to be colleagues in our mission. The church does not exist in order to satisfy the consumer demands of believers; the church exists to equip and mobilize men and women for God’s mission in the world.  ((Advent Conspiracy [accessed July 7, 2008].))

As we revise the vision of our core identity and ministry as a church, there are some disciplines that I find helpful which can serve to fortify us against the seductive influence of consumerism in ministry. The way forward is to counter the practices that breed consumerism with disciplines that create a fertile ground for the transforming work of God’s Spirit. There is no short-cut for the long-term work of conforming to the image of Christ as individuals and as a church.

First, a good start would be to attend to the disciplines of fasting combined with giving. At the end of 2007, our congregation drew on the practical ideas from the “Advent Conspiracy.”  ((David E. Fitch, The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and other Modern Maladies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 153-179.)) It was a call to relook at how we prepare ourselves as we move towards Christmas as a church. The “Conspiracy” comprises four simple practices to help us re-orientate our vision during the festive season, i.e., worship more, spend less, give more, and love all. During that season of sales, congregation members were challenged to spend less, especially on themselves, as a version of fasting to confront the consumer-tendencies in us. And even in the gifts for others, members were encouraged to be more creative and personal rather than extravagant. Balancing the disciplines of giving, worship and love was important. That was the goal. It was not simply about spending less. David Fitch suggests a longer term approach and calls the church to reinvigorate the practice of the Benevolent Fund as a step to help the church grow as a community in but not of Capitalism.  ((Christopher Kiesling, “Liturgy and Consumerism.”))

Second, reengage the disciplines of corporate worship and consciously guard against self-centred consumerist tendencies. This begins with a thorough examination of the lyrics that we sing and the songs that we choose. In addition, a process of reforming our liturgy, order of worship, and the contents of corporate worship is needed. We can draw from the contemplative tradition, which emphasizes reflection on the meaning and mystery of God’s redemptive love, and integrate this with the social justice tradition which confronts us with the needs of the poor, the needy, and the marginalized.  ((Jason Clark, The Rediscovery of Ritual in the Emerging Church)) We need to replace the “consumer-driven” rituals with rituals which form kingdom values and vision.  ((A new helpful booklet on the importance of friendship is expounded by Soo-Inn Tan, Friends in A Broken World: Thoughts on Friendship From the Emmaus Road (Singapore: Graceworks, 2008).))

Third, relook at communal formation beyond small group programmes. Placing a strong emphasis on relationships or friendships as the context for discipleship and spiritual formation as the goal is key.  ((Most of Todd Hunter’s rationale and practical examples can be found here http://www.3isenough.org/ [accessed July 7, 2008])) While we want to avoid the preoccupation with programmes and methods, we also recognize that discipleship is always intentional; thus some level of organization is needed. We must be cautious not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to small groups. What is needed are more relational models, like for instance the Three is Enough (TiE) Groups by Todd Hunter.  ((A good example of connecting Biblical narrative with current day concerns is found in Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004).))

Fourth, relearn the language of Christian life and ministry through the disciplines of Biblical meditation and theological reflection. Changes in the practices relating to our ministry and spirituality ultimately are undergirded by a robust Biblical-theological framework, which means that Christians need to hear the scriptures uncensored. Stories like Jesus’ encounters with the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19) must not be spiritualized that we miss the discomfort that they bring to us. Passages from the Old Testament prophetic books like Isaiah on fasting (Isaiah 58), and Micah on the requirements of God from his people (Micah 6) cannot be ignored. The reintroduction of the lesser known histories of the early church fathers and the monastic movements in church history serves to provide additional resources in reprogramming the corrupted “software” that we operate with today. I recall the disturbed faces of my church members when they were confronted with the words of John Chrysostom and the lives of the desert fathers during a church history class. Once we get over the initial discomfort and inertia that comes with exposure to the unfamiliar, we come to appreciate the rich resources that are there within the Christian tradition that can help us cultivate discernment in dealing with the subtlety of contemporary consumerism.

The reflections and practices above are not meant to be exhaustive. They are but a sampling of what many pastors like myself may be wrestling with today in the secret chambers of their hearts. Many might already have felt intuitively the nudge to make some needed changes in their ministries. Very often, we face battles when no one is looking. What is written in this article is nothing really new, and yet, perhaps that which seems most mundane, ordinary and insignificant may be the most “revolutionary” starting point for the rest of God’s purposes to be realized in our lifetime. Was it not our Lord Jesus who said, “The Kingdom of God is like a Mustard Seed” (Matthew 13)?

This was first published in “Church & Society in Asia Today” – A Periodical concerned with Christian Ministry and Mission in Asia Today, Published by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore. Reproduced with permission.

One Reply to “I Shop Therefore I Am: Consumerism and Its Impact on Christian Life and Ministry”

  1. The reminder of “fasting combined with giving” is a good one. This is because many people, including myself, often fall into thinking that we can atone for our greed in excessive shopping by being extra charitable, in much the same way that some dieters think that eating a bowl of salad magically cancels out the calories from a bowl of fried chicken.

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