It’s no longer a point of debate that, in the West at least, we live in a consumer culture. Yet this culture, where we are defined more by what we consume than by what we produce, has grown ever more powerful. So much so that this way of life is deemed to be ruining the entire planet. It has its own ‘ism’ – consumerism and this approach to life is generally deemed to be at odds with the gospel.
There are of course places where Christianity has sought to co-opt the spirit of the day but in general ‘prosperity’ teachings have shown to be a shallow, damaging, falsehood which in turn has spawned its own creative parody. You can find places within Christendom examples where I genuinely believe Jesus would be turning over the tables but we should be careful not to gloat.
The response to consumerism from the western church has been rather on the weak side or in some cases totally absent. I don’t quite agree with John Stevens when he writes,
What won’t work is to simply speak endlessly about the moral evils of consumerism, as if this were the real problem. All too often this is the only thing the church is heard to do – especially as we approach the secular festival of consumption and indulgence that is contemporary Christmas.
But I think he asks the right question when asks,
Are we really content in Christ, or do we live as if our identity, value and happiness is determined by our wealth and possessions? Our preaching will be undermined if our lives are no different.
We spot the dangers that are the result of churches full of believers whose daily lives are shaped more by the consumer world they inhabity than the Gospel they proclaim. We’re neutered, hamstrung, comfortable and anaemic. Those who live in an altogether harsher environment, like my friend Simon Guillebaud, see the dangers all too clearly.
I don’t want to criticize Western Christianity, but as products of our consumer cultures we invariably end up conforming rather than being transformed (Romans 12:2), acting as thermometers which reflect the reality of the environment rather than thermostats which set the very temperature and alter the whole environment. Thus we often unwittingly craft ourselves a more comfortable consumer cross (click here for a sermon I gave on that, tenth one down), and our whole worship experience can end up feeling shallow and anaemic. It’s so easy to turn to comfort (Facebook, chocolate, TV) rather than to Christ.
The problem with talking about consumerism is that it can be a safe word and one we can deal with, without it making us too uncomfortable. Being asked, as the Bible asks us, whether or not we are greedy is far more uncomfortable – especially when the honest answer is yes.
As Matt Hosier says,
Our reluctance to recognise the reality of greed in our lives is a consequence of living in an affluent western society. Greed is probably the sin we are most blind to because of the abundance we take for granted.
So what is greed?
A good definition of greed is that it is placing ultimate value in possessions and finding identity in them. Put that way, probably very many of us in the west are guilty of it. Think of the messages communicated to us in scores of advertisements every day. Think of the power of consumer brands. Consider the way in which shopping is a recreational activity for so many of us.
We’re quite used to checking the web browsing history as a way of seeing whether there is a problem with pornography or lust, but the same history will probably show up whether there is a problem with consumerism and greed. How many shopping sites, travel sites, ‘research’ for new gadgets, cars, homes?
So what then is the antidote? What is the response of the people of God to dealing with consumerism and greed?
Generosity (*the link is to a sermon by Terry Virgo*).
It’s giving freely because we have freely received. It could be giving money to the poor or to your church but it will mean giving money. I know, I know we can give time and talents but for most of us that won’t deal with the issue that is at root and that is we haven’t surrendered to God the right to decide what should happen with our money.
The Kingdom of God offers a different vision of the way the world should be. Rob Bell writes about the church in Acts and says,
According to Luke, one the most direct results of the grace of God at work is people taking care of each other’s material needs. Food, water, clothes, shelter, health care, that sort of thing. Grace to Luke is not an abstract theological concept but a reality that leads people to take action on behalf of each other. Grace has implications. Grace leads you somewhere. Grace creates a human connection and community, one grounded in real needs being met by real people in real ways.
Alistair Roberts puts it well as he reflects on Isaiah 55:1-5,
All alike are invited to partake of God’s food and drink at this table. There is no one percent in God’s kingdom. Like those to whom this prophecy was first directed, the Church is called as a witness to the nations. Not only are we to live out this vision within the life of Christian communities, but we are to be the heralds of this vision to a wider world, those who both announce and serve as a foretaste of the promise of God’s new kingdom, those who work and pray to establish the patterns of this heavenly kingdom in the lives of our earthly societies.
Giving generously frees us from the power and hold of idolatrous dreams, and the love of money and all that it could do for us. It’s possibly the only thing that can – it’s God’s antidote to consumerism. In this Christians are called to live the gloriously free lives that Christ has won for us, sharing what we have with complete confidence in our Heavenly Father and trust in His family.