Christ, Consumerism and the State of the Church

A Comic Strip illustrating the Church in Consumer Culture. It helps that Jesus is talking to Kevin.

My friend and mentor Kevin Martin recently wrote a "State of the Church" address in which he painted a dichotomous picture of the health of The Episcopal Church (hereafter TEC). His "macro" analysis is basically that TEC, as a national organization, is crumbling under the weight of its outmoded institutional structures and oversized financial obligations, in light of its dwindling membership base. His "micro" analysis is that there are "a thousand points of light" (to quote the elder President Bush) in countless individual parishes and faith communities, regardless of the overall implosion of TEC.

While I largely agree with Kevin's macro/micro analysis of Church health, I think we also must expand our scope and have a "meta" analysis of the TEC in Western Culture as well. And the metadata seems to show that our culture is in the midst of a turn toward the secular. Tobin Grant recently did a good summary of dozens of studies on the sociology of religion which be found here.

The only types of religion that seem to be thriving in our culture are the ones that either tend to deliver a specific spiritual "product" (i.e. prosperity, ecstatic experience, hope of healing, etc.) or create fear of "the other" and promote themselves as a path to be on the right side, against "them", in our common culture war. Both types of religion-- "product delivery" and "fear based"-- seem to grow in the midst of consumer culture, because they operate on the logic of consumerism. But their growth does not offset the loss of membership and vitality of older Churches (i.e. the growth in consumerist Megachurches does not equal the decline in Mainline Religion).

I think the truth is that we live in the midst of a Consumerist Babylon in which utilitarian pleasure and anarchic individualism are worshipped in order enslave us to the powers and principalities that run the Consumer system. The system is set up to divide us into disconnected individuals, without significant connection to family, geography, ideology, religion, or any other type of allegiance that might sustain us socially. It does this so that we are reliant completely upon the consumer system to provide everything-- from meals to meaning-- that traditional forms of community used to provide for us (and with us).

The long term decline of religious communities, and the momentary flourishing of religious vendors who function according to consumer logic, are all symptoms of how effective the system has been at dividing and conquering us.

The question for me is whether or not we can offer any viable alternative to being human which cannot be commoditized by Consumerism? Can we have a genuine identity in Christ which can effectively challenge consumerism in the long term? And if this is possible, is there a place for our communal identity as Episcopalians, or will we have to re-orient our identity in a way that goes beyond the denominational tribes we find ourselves in today?

I confess I do not know the answer to all the questions I raise. But I am convinced that our current genitally-obsessed proto-schism is a distraction from us actually dealing with the real powers and principalities with which we actually battle. In fact, I believe that Consumerism will be the primary ideological and spiritual enemy of faith in the 21st and 22nd century, in the way that Secularism, Fascism, and Statist Communism were in the 19th and 20th century.

In the midst of such spiritual warfare, it is wise not to loose heart, but to re-appropriate what Saint Paul said to first century Christians struggling with the proto-fascism and proto-consumerism of the Roman Empire:

Ephesians 6.10–18 [10] Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. [11] Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. [12] For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. [13] Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. [14] Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. [15] As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. [16] With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. [17] Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [18] Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.