Consumers Unite!

By Bob Hiller

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It would seem that there is no greater boogey man in the church today than that unconquerable demon of consumerism. The church is filled by consumers, that is, those who simply come to church to “get something out of it” rather than serve, give, or whatever. It is said that people come to church simply to take what they want and once they lose their interest, they do not see a need to come back. There is no investment into the life of the church, no sincerity in their worship, no level of commitment to their brothers or sisters. There is just a need to have some spiritual itch scratched. They treat church like I treat NCAA March Madness.

I love this time of year for college basketball. There are a lot of great games and there are a lot of great championships, but there is nothing quite as compelling as the road to the Final Four. Sixty-four of the nation’s top basketball teams play in a sudden-death basketball tournament to see who is the best in the land. In one “David and Goliath” scenario after another, teams from unheard of colleges and universities take their shot at upsetting the major programs. Often, the contests are decided in the last two minutes of the game, which makes for captivating television. The competition is fierce, the games are thrilling, the student-energy is electric, and the product is completely satisfying. (The revenue is also obnoxiously high and the treatment of the athletes is disgraceful…but that is another blog altogether.)

And I will consume all of it. My bracket is filled out and I am ready to watch this greatest of all American sporting spectacles! I have two computer screens in my office and one will have the games showing while I…ahem…work on the other. The chances I have of winning my pool with the teams I’ve picked is very small. Because, you see, I have watched virtually no college basketball this year and have absolutely zero investment in any of the teams. I simply just watch and participate for the thrill of the show. This tournament captivates my attention, but it is the only time college basketball does so. I just don’t care about investing my time in college basketball outside of the tournament. I am a March Madness consumer of the worst sort.

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This attitude which I carry toward March Madness, we are told, is the same one the average American carries towards church. People will come, so long as it is entertaining and useful to them, but they have no real desire to actually invest in a congregation and zero interest in what the church may actually have to say. What matters is what I get out of church, what applies to me, and how can I use this? If I don’t like the show then I’ll just find something else to do.

But, I am beginning to wonder if this is really the case. That is, is consumerism really the problem? Setting aside the irony that I’ve gleaned this little analysis from church “experts” trying to sell me and my fellow ministers (i.e. consumers) on ways to fix the problem, I do see the danger here. But, what troubles me is the way churches respond to this evil consumerism. Yes, it is easy to pick on the church which caters to the consuming masses by giving them what they want: entertainment instead of worship, self-help instead of baptism, programs instead of discipleship. But, what troubles me more is the response that shoots too far in the other direction and says, “The church is not for consumers at all!”

This bothers me for a few reasons. First, show me one person in a pew who shows up to church for all the right reasons. Jesus has a parable where one guy thought he had it nailed, but he wasn’t the one who went home justified. At least consumers don’t operate under the false assumption that they go to church to do something for God! Second, let’s not be too hasty to knock consuming. After all, being a part of a church, and going to worship, is primarily about receiving, not giving. The main way God deals with us is by giving us gifts to receive. He mercifully and joyfully gives us forgiving words in our ears and His own body and blood in our mouths…yes, to be consumed! Before we get all bent out of shape that people come to church just to take, we should remember it is Jesus who told us to, “Take and eat…take and drink.”

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The difference here between the consumer mentality and the giving of Jesus is that Jesus doesn’t give based on market research. He works for you on His terms; He doesn’t do whatever might work for you. And, unlike the church that is ready to cater to the consumer’s needs, Jesus has no problem saying, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53).  The problem isn’t merely consuming something at church; it is idolatry. People simply want something besides what God has to give: the crucified and risen Jesus.

This is why we should not be so upset about consumers being in our church. When they are there, Jesus comes to give them something they will find nowhere else: death to sin and life in Him. Lord willing, they will find a preacher and a church full of people who point them to Jesus. Which, by the way, is why you need to be there too, you proud, non-consumer! One, because you need to repent of judging specks in the consumer’s eyes while ignoring the self-righteous plank you’ve purchased. And, two, because they need you there with them to walk alongside them to the altar where you will both receive forgiveness for your sins.

At the end of the day, I’m a consumer and so are you…so let’s all praise the Lord! Frankly, the church needs to stop labeling our neighbor’s problems with market research and start proclaiming  Jesus’ absolving words to the actual human beings we encounter in real life. We need to carry the burdens, sorrows, and sins of our sisters and brothers, whatever sociological label they may have, to the Jesus who gives Himself to us. He offers Himself in Words to be believed and bread and wine to be consumed so that we will be forgiven and raised to a new life.  After all, unless we consume this Jesus, there is no life for any of us!

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