About a week ago I posted a blog post about how there is a lot of rhetoric that keeps people in bad churches, and keeps them from feeling freedom to look for a new one. After I posted that post, someone on FB replied simply that he “didn’t like the defense of church consumerism” in the post. Now, there are a variety of things that the term “church consumerism” evokes in peoples’ minds – for instance, going to a church just to take and not to invest anything of yourself or give anything is one thing that that term could mean – and I would agree that that is a very poor approach to church involvement. But unfortunately, usually when I hear the term used it seems people are denouncing that churchgoers would dare be choosy enough to “find a church that meets your needs and best suits you before deciding to invest yourself there,” as if looking for a healthy and vibrant church experience is in and of itself too selfish to be spiritual.
That really got me thinking – I really don’t believe that I *had* defended church consumerism in that post, at least not directly. But now that the idea was mentioned, I just couldn’t resist. Ergo, I shall now begin this post as an all-out “Defense of Church Consumerism” – at least according to the latter definition of it in the above paragraph. Why? Because the meme that “picking a church that is spiritually beneficial to you – (ala, church consumerism) – is an awful, nonspiritual, wrong, detrimental thing which has no place in the life of a true disciple of Jesus who loves God and His people,” just seems like it needs to be dealt with.
If you’ve been living under a rock somewhere (a pleasant rock, mind you – I mean no disrespect to anyone who has found a nice, mossy, warm rock to live under) you may not have heard the term “Church Consumerism” and been exposed to the revulsion and fear that such a term is meant to evoke in your soul. But for the rest of us, sans-rock, we have undoubtedly heard or read the term flung about as something heinous, evil – a vile thing to be avoided at all costs. And that is because, sadly to say, I believe the term functions unfortunately as propaganda: the assumption being that any person with true spiritual principles at work in their unselfish soul would instantly recognize that “Consumerism” of almost any sort is a deadly thing to true Kingdom virtues, echoing with the tainted colors of such things as greed, materialism, self-centered decision making, and even *gasp*…capitalism. It is, certainly nothing that anyone who follows Jesus should embrace as spiritually positive, no less to put it in the same phrase as the word “Church” which evokes the concept of community, a place to be poured out for and with others, a place to encounter Someone who so deeply transcends anything marketable, and a place of relationship with people.
Is there any room to be “consumeristic” in the face of such values as relationship and being part of a corporate expression of Christ on Earth, or in the face of something as ancient and holy as “the church?” Without any further explanation, the person who merely mentions “Church Consumerism” has already made his or her point, simply by using that ugly second C word and pairing it up with “Church.” Woe is us if we dare to have whatever internal value “Church Consumerism” could represent – that would make us one of “those” kinds of people, and we don’t want to be like “that!”
Except, this just isn’t right…on quite a few levels. So let’s explore this negative presupposition for its assumptions and overlooked blind spots, starting with a look at “consumerism” from a spiritual angle. For one thing, perhaps you’ve noticed that the moment I switched from pairing “consumerism” with the word “church,” to instead subtly pairing it with the word “spiritual” – it doesn’t sound quite AS bad: “Spiritual Consumerism.” Still not a great term, but somehow a tad bit more in the realm of plausibly useful, viable, valid as an idea. If you’re not agreeing that far with me yet though, hey, it’s ok. Let’s just keep going.
If “spiritual consumerism” was indeed ok, or even sanctioned by God and the Scriptures, would that mean anything to the bigger discussion of “church consumerism?” Of course church consumerism and spiritual consumerism are not completely the same thing, but are they related enough as to have a bearing on one another? We’ll figure that out as we look at it. For one – let’s define what we mean by “consumerism” – simply put, it has to do with making purchases or investments based on what one finds most valuable. You are a consumer because you have the ability to buy things, and to make choices about what you will buy. ConsumerISM has to do with being discriminating – choosy – about what you are purchasing, trying to get the best value for your money. Is this bad?
Here’s some verses where Jesus seems to encourage us to be wise “spiritual” consumers –
“I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.” (Revelation 3:18)
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)
I don’t want to belabor this to the point of ridiculousness – but I hope that it is obvious that at least the concept of being a wise consumer is present in these verses- particularly towards spiritual things – and is not in and of itself unspiritual.
So what then about “church” consumerism?
Part of the issue at the onset is confusing who we ARE as an expression of the Church with the various groups in a town that have their own structure, way of meeting, programs, and formats. We all know that the Church isn’t about a program, and that we are the church – but when you pick a “church” to go to, you are picking a certain type of program, a certain way that people will get together every week to do things – during a Sunday service, for the most part, the show will go on much the same way whether the congregation shows up or not.
So, unfortunately if we put idealism aside – when we talk about picking a church, realistically we’re talking about picking a format – a program, in which you get to have spiritual and social interactions that even allow you to experience being the church to any degree – and every church differs in what degree that occurs. The bate-and-switch of this unfortunately in many cases, church is PACKAGED as a product – much like a private school is a product, or concert tickets are a product. The program is designed a certain way for certain people’s sensibilities in the church – and those folks wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. (Very few churches are just simple expressions of family and community walking together in Christ) But then, even though churches are designed the way a product is – people are told they do wrong to be consumers and choose which one to go to. There is something wrong in that logic.
Specifically, is it right to encourage people to berate themselves for looking for and going to a church that provides them with a sense of…
…edifying relationships with others?
…opportunities to serve and use one’s giftings?
…leadership dynamics that are healthy and safe (rather than unhealthy and destructive?) …opportunities to gather where one is gaining experience with interacting with the Lord corporately, getting to know Him and His presence better?
People are in all different stages of maturity. Spiritual maturity is represented allegorically as corresponding to stages of human lifespan maturity, so with that in mind, it is worth considering that as a human infant, one needs to be fed. To tell an infant that he or she needs to feed his or her siblings and stop crying that no one is feeing him/her would be labeled as child abuse and that infant would probably be removed from the home, along with all of his or her siblings – as the state is a “consumer” to a small degree, making decisions about what homes are or are not appropriate for children.
Likewise, people who want people who were just recently born again and are therefore infants in spiritual things to “feed themselves on Christ and stop looking for the church to feed you” have a screw loose – or two. Yes, even a newborn follower of Jesus can be carried by the Lord if all others abandon him/her, but do we really want to suggest that this is the way the Lord wants infants to get their start in His kingdom? If someone isn’t “getting fed” by their church (whether by leadership or in their friendships in the congregation) and there is another church up the street that is doing a great job feeding new believers, why on earth would we be so brutish as to tell an infant that he/she needs to subsist on scraps and feed others? After all, there is a difference between telling someone “go feed yourself” and actually teaching people how to feed themselves on the Lord – (which in the Kingdom, usually means learning how to eat corporately as well.)
But that isn’t even the main point. Most people reading this are not going to be spiritual newbies. You’ve been around, you’ve grown, you know a thing or two and hopefully you even know Him. So here’s something to consider then: when we tell people that they don’t have a right to feel they want or need anything from their church, but their job is to suck it all up and be there to only to give – I believe we are actually encouraging them to have the very attitude that Paul tells the Corinthians is a wrong attitude to have: to say of the members of the body, “I have no need of you.” Or rather, we’re encouraging people to say, “I have need of being in this church with you, even though I don’t need to receive anything from the body by being here.”
Do you ever notice that? The same folks that will tell you how important it is that you are part of a church because you NEED the body of Christ and the body needs you, will tell you it’s wrong for you to expect to get anything from the body of Christ – that you need to go to Jesus for your needs, not the church and not other people. Huh? Isn’t there a contradiction here somewhere?
And yes, it seems spiritual and self-sacrificing to tell people to come to church to give and not to get, and yes, we want to equip people to be mature and strong “givers” of the Lord and His spiritual bounty to others. But do we want to puff them up with pride by suggesting to them that they don’t NEED to be receiving anything at all from the church they are participating with, that having an “I have no need of you – because I’m a hand and my only role is to give to you” attitude is the right one. It’s not. Furthermore, we have no business encouraging people to be “givers” if we aren’t edifying and equipping them to be powerful, spirit-led, effective givers – and giving them authority in a church to do that type of giving.
So here is the question: If you aren’t getting what you need as a hand, or an eye, or a foot, from the body you are gathering with – do you believe that the type of giftings that you can offer will equip the church you are gathering with to become the sort of group that WILL be able to give you what you need? If not, you probably are not being a wise spiritual consumer. Staying in a group in order to “give” of yourself, if the opportunities to give really aren’t there – while at the same time you are dying of need – is not being a wise consumer. The first rule of being a rescuer is that you have to make sure that you can safely do so (in other words, you don’t jump into a swimming pool to rescue a victim of electrocution until/unless you can first turn the power off – otherwise you have no chance of saving them and sacrifice yourself to no avail.)
It’s ok to let bad churches die. They need to. Jesus goes into his vineyard and prunes branches that aren’t bearing fruit – this isn’t because he doesn’t care about people, rather, it’s because he does. If you have a platform and the mix of relationships and giftings necessary to really turn a lifeless church around – then go for it. But if you’re just staying somewhere because you’re afraid to go somewhere that actually meets your needs and wants lest you be a “consumer” – please rethink that.
I believe that healthy and strong leaders will actually encourage people to be savvy church consumers – because humble and mature leaders are ready to have everyone leave them and their group if their people would be better served somewhere else and if another leader or group in their town has a better handle on the Kingdom of God. Good leaders are looking out for YOU, not for how many people they can get to resign themselves to feeling stuck being part of their group.
Jesus is worth being a consumer (or any other pejorative someone might throw at you ) about – and if you aren’t continually growing in Jesus with a church, there is no point to being there. The body of Christ is the one and only place on this planet where everything is supposed to be about people growing in Jesus and being one in Him together – it’s not wrong to want the reality of that as your goal for your church experience. “Go where you are getting fed, and have opportunities to grow in your giftings” is just good spiritual advice – if everyone followed that, we’d have vibrant and strong congregations all over the place – because as people get built up into the Lord and equipped in using their giftings, the entire church grows and edifies itself as it is meant to:
“…. grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Ephesians 4:15-16
Therefore, “church consumerism” in the body of Christ is to some degree our friend – it is one way the Lord weeds out groups that don’t function adequately AS the church, and strengths congregations that are doing great things in how they relate to Christ together. And this is how it’s meant to be. And congregations and leaders that have themselves been bad consumers of spiritual riches, will end up experiencing this downfall:
“Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver. To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.”
And that’s not because He’s mean. It’s because He’s good.