A few years ago my wife and I celebrated two decades of marriage. During that twentieth year of our wedded bliss, we had two experiences that stirred a Saint Francis of Assisi-style angst within my soul.
You remember Saint Francis, don’t you? He was the 13th-century friar who was raised as the rich son of a successful merchant. An epiphany in his early 20s led him to forsake all his worldly wealth and align himself with the poor beggars of Italy. He canceled his Netflix subscription, went on a strict ramen noodle diet, and scrounged for sofas in the Goodwill dumpster. For all practical purposes, he was history’s first college student.
But I digress. My experience had nothing to do with dumpster diving. Quite the contrary, for a brief moment in time we were living in the lap of luxury. For a couple of years leading up to our 20th anniversary I had been saving for a tropical getaway. We’re talking sea, sand, and Shirley Temples with little paper umbrellas for flair. But for Christmas that year, my in-laws announced they were taking the whole family on a cruise in the spring, just a month prior to our anniversary trip. So if you’re keeping score at home, that’s a week on a cruise ship, followed by another week at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, all within a month. A kid could get used to that.
Except that this particular kid never quite got used to it. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the experience. Valets took our bags and carried them to our room. Waitstaff were at our table every meal, making sure that all of our gastronomical desires were indulged. On the beach, an entire team ensured that our lounge chairs were adjusted to perfection and our beverages never ran dry. When we returned to our room, the pillows had been fluffed, the bed made, the towels transformed into fabric origami creations.
It should have been the travel season of a lifetime. And in some ways it was. But those back-to-back experiences led to my own Saint Francis epiphany: it just felt wrong.
Maybe you’ve been there. Perhaps you’ve been the wealthy vacationer who depends on the daily wage-earner to wait on you hand and foot. Maybe you’ve traveled to your gated, exclusive, pampered community as you pass mile after mile of shantytowns and poverty. And somewhere deep in your seemingly rich soul, you just feel . . . well . . . wrong.
And it’s not just about lavish vacations and large savings accounts. We see the insidious creep of our desires in every area of our lives. Whether it’s going out to a restaurant instead of cooking (and saving money) at home, buying a fancy coffee drink at the corner shop, or just wanting to relax at home and watch television, we recognize that we always want our personal comfort to win out. Our desires are subtle and deeply rooted, but like the pampering at an exotic location, they can sometimes feel wrong.
That’s the cut of consumerism. The experiences we save for and strive for always leave us wanting more. Eventually they leave us empty. And if we’re paying attention, they leave us feeling a bit guilty about all that we have compared to what others do not have. Even if we don’t spend money on large-ticket items such as a vacation, the chances are that most of us—when compared to the rest of the world—are considered incredibly rich. A recent World Bank study showed that if you make $5,000 or more per year, you are in top 20% of wage-earners on the planet. Earn $12,000 per year and you just broke the top 10%. No matter how lavish or modest our dwellings, vehicles, and possessions, we are by all accounts very wealthy indeed.
But what happens when we shift the me-centric, get-more, do-more consumer attitude to the spiritual realm? What is the cost when we apply our beachside buffet, whatever-you-want mindsets to the local church?
I would guess that our immediate reaction might be one of revulsion. I’m assuming that we would agree the church is no place for consumers. I’ll bet that when most of us envision a faith community, we picture one that lives selflessly and sacrifices in order to serve the helpless, not the other way around.
But before we make a Saint Francis-sized jump, let’s acknowledge the obvious facts: the consumer who loves the perks of a Caribbean cruise is the same consumer who makes certain decisions when picking a pew. Perhaps you have a range of churches to choose from and can identify with what I’m talking about. We all naturally gravitate to places that make life more convenient for us. Whether it’s ease-of-use on a church website, convenient parking close to the building, ministries that meet our needs and stage of life, or even good coffee at the lobby cafe, we are drawn to places that give us a great experience.
Or perhaps some of us have lived on the flip side of that coin. We consider ourselves invested in our local church but are disappointed in the caliber of people who seem to be coming through the doors. We see consumers flit in and flame out week after week, seeking sparkle rather than substance. And it’s frustrating, because we know there is more to life than turning a relationship with God into a transaction.
Mark Waltz has written extensively about the curse of consumerism and the local church. In his book First Impressions, he says:
In the end, an appropriate approach to consumerism is to see not consumers, but people—people who matter to God. The motivation to make [an] impression is not to better everyone else in town. It’s not about stroking our egos, pleased with how excellent we are. . . . Impressions matter because people matter. What they think matters. What they believe matters. What they want matters. What they need matters.
When our guests know they matter, we’ve connected with them on a human level. It’s really the only place to connect. It’s where Jesus connects with us.1
I’m afraid we live in the in-between spaces that span what we want versus what we know is right. That’s true in much of life, but it seems worse when it comes to our church experience. A church that “meets our needs” is important because we want to grow spiritually. To grow spiritually we need to be discipled. Discipleship needs intentionality. Intentionality requires that a church has a plan, and if we are looking for a church that has a plan we end up feeling like shoppers rather than pilgrims.
But is that always a bad thing? Didn’t Jesus intend His followers to grow spiritually? When He commissioned His apostles at His ascension, He told them to make disciples and baptize and teach . . . all of which would involve some semblance of a plan. Could it be true that—2,000 years later—we as followers of Jesus have simply refined the plan and contextualized for our local communities?
Maybe. Or maybe not. It could be that we have adopted a “whatever it takes” attitude in order to reach more people. Or perhaps our contextualization is a cover-up for our comfort. It’s possible that our bells and whistles have become smoke and mirrors.
This may not be a current issue for you. Maybe you are blessed to be in a church that meets your needs and affords opportunity for community and service. But whether or not you’re looking for a church, there are people in your neighborhood who are. As a participant in church life, you may be one who has to help others answer the “What’s in it for me?” question.
The ideas generated in this booklet will at times be a tricky conversation, rife with landmines on the road to agreement. But the conversation is important for the sake of those still on the outside. It’s important for those of us desperately searching for community yet feeling like a consumer. It’s one that hopefully will show us a new way forward.
1 Mark Waltz, First Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church. (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2005).