the shape of leadership

You Can’t Buy Jesus

Being the Church in a consumer culture

Joseph Lear on June 3, 2019

Jesus buys us. As Paul puts it, “you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). Yet somehow we have come to portray Jesus as a product we can buy, and our churches have become consumer paradises.

Like Walmart, we have designated greeters at the door. Like movie theaters, we invite people to enjoy concessions of coffee and a doughnut before they take their seats. Like theme parks and shopping malls, we direct people to information kiosks. Like nightclubs, we offer VIP parking for first-time visitors. There are even door prizes.

Being a friendly church is clearly important. And many of the examples I just gave are simply a part of expressing friendliness and showing hospitality. However, we need to think critically as church leaders about what message we are sending.

Do our actions say that Jesus is simply another product in the marketplace? Are we communicating to non-Christians that visiting a church is no different than trying out a yoga studio or steakhouse? If so, we’re in trouble, because Jesus buys us; we don’t buy Him.

The Pressures of Consumer Culture

Of course, most of us are not trying to suggest by our friendliness that Jesus is just a product. Rather, the reason we have begun including all these creature comforts in our churches is because of the pressures of our consumer culture.

I remember having a casual conversation with a pastor more seasoned than myself about when, how and where I should implement a coffee hour at my church. He remarked, “It’s one of those things, isn’t it? People have just come to expect that there will be coffee waiting for them when they walk through the front door of a church.”

It’s true. Church leaders are worried that people might never come back because the coffee wasn’t hot or the doughnuts weren’t fresh enough.

Unfortunately, these consumer-oriented fears can also translate into our preaching. To be sure, we want people to know that Jesus loves them, that He cares for them, that He wants to heal them, and that He wants to give them eternal life and happiness. After all, the Scriptures do say, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Yet Jesus said some fairly unappetizing things, like “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23) and, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Luke 18:22).

Jesus asked His followers to leave their homes, sacrifice their livelihoods, and endure suffering and persecution for the sake of the gospel. Do we avoid these passages because we might deter people from “buying in” to our church and the Christian faith?

The Problem of Consumer Culture

So how do we keep from communicating to our consumer culture that Jesus is a product? The first step is to diagnose our consumerism problem.

Consumerism is a false religion, much like Islam or Hinduism or the many manifestations of animism around the world. It is a religion for several reasons:

Do our actions say that Jesus is simply another product in the marketplace?

First, it has a god, and that god’s name is “money.” Jesus warned us many times about this god. He said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). Consider how this false god manifests itself in our world. Elections revolve around economic promises. The rich put their money in offshore accounts to protect what they have. The poor pine day in and day out for what they don’t have. People exploit one another for money. Some lie, cheat and murder for it.

Second, consumerism seeks to tell us who we are as human beings. In other words, it has a theological anthropology. As author Katrine Marçal has said, the religion of consumerism tells us we are each an “economic man.” It tells us that at our most fundamental level of existence, we are people who act solely out of our individual economic interests.

The religion of consumerism says we are people made in the image of the consumerist god. If money is a god, then humans made in its image are all competitive economists seeking to grab, take and consume as much as they can, as quickly as they can.

Finally, it fosters hate. God is love. Anything that opposes His truth arises from hate. How is consumerism a religion of hate? As theologian William Cavanaugh has said, the real problem with consumerism is not that we love our stuff too much; it’s that we love our stuff too little. Indeed, we hate our stuff.

Consider how much we all hate our Samsung Galaxy or iPhone as soon as a new model comes out. We hunger for the newest technological advancements to the extent that we look with disgust on our current devices.

We always want a new car, a new house, new workout gear, new everything, because what we have is never good enough. And this is the way our consumerist religion would have it. It wants us always to feel a sense of discontent. You don’t like what you bought? Return it without a receipt for store credit. But whatever you do, keep shopping.

Faithful Witness in a Consumer Culture

What should we do? Part of the solution is simply to tell people they have been duped into following a civil, state-sponsored religion called consumerism. As the saying goes, everyone worships something.

We need to be as passionate about preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of consumerism as we are about preaching it in the face of all other false religions. We need to remind people that they will become what they worship. If you worship the god of money, you will inevitably become like it. Cold, hard cash has no love for its neighbor, and neither do its worshippers.

In the same way, we become like the one true God when we worship Him. He is a consuming fire, after all. God consumes us; we don’t consume Him. Jesus buys us; we don’t buy Him.

But our preaching against consumerism will be lost if our actions still communicate to visitors that we are trying to give them the best customer experience possible.

How can we oppose consumerism with our actions? Different churches will answer that question in different ways, but we must ask the question!

We can serve coffee, but we should not serve it in a way that invites people to take their coffee, sit down, and enjoy the show. Coffee and every other creature comfort ought to be occasion for us to challenge one another to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

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