Garage Sale Jesus
By Mike Erre
Alan Hirsch notes: “I have come to believe that the major threat to the viability of our faith is that of consumerism. This is a far more heinous and insidious challenge to the gospel, because in so many ways it infects each and every one of us.” I am one among many who agree with his assessment. Consumerism has become the Caesar of our age. The mall is now a place of worship. Hirsch argues that “[if] the role of religion is to offer a sense of identity, purpose, meaning, and community then it can be said that consumerism fulfills these criteria.”
Consumerism is the new lord that demands our allegiance, and its tyranny reaches every one of us. I think of it this way. Does a fish know it’s in water? Of course not—it knows of nothing else. Because it is immersed in water its whole life, it knows of no other option than being where it is. For a fish to have (in theory, anyway) a knowledge that it is in water, it would have to have a place outside of water from which to draw that conclusion. The point of this minor exercise is to understand that because we are immersed in consumerism, we struggle to leap outside of that mind-set to really see how much it controls all of us.
For many, the revolutionary Jesus has been replaced by the garage-sale Jesus. The term Christian was originally a noun; now it’s also an adjective. We have Christian pocketknives, pens, purses, T-shirts, potpourri, board games, Halloween costumes, suckers, chocolates, bandages (with a picture of Jesus on them so “cuts heal faster”), wrapping paper, dog collars, energy drinks (“infused with the fruit of the spirit”), fans, key chains, calculators, watches, staplers, golf balls, jelly beans, MP3 players, bath salts, breath mints, bubble gum, lighters, guitar picks, tennis shoes, air fresheners, poker chips, yo-yos, socks, soap, moisturizing lotion, shea butter repair cream, tea, belt buckles, candles, sunglasses, nail clippers, water bottles, protein bars (“inspired by Scripture”), underwear, bottled water, packing tape, perfume, shot glasses, coffee filters, acne medication (effective because it contains “powerful faith Scriptures and a victory prayer”), tire rims, alarm clocks, tire gauges, and (one that I am particularly interested in) Christian hair-growth products!
This is big business. If it can have a Bible verse, be made in a cross shape, or have Jesus’ picture on it, odds are that some enterprising retailer has stamped it as “Christian.” In 2006, Christian retailing was a $4.6 billion business. Beyond the shallow theology most of this represents, it raises questions about the way this business reflects the consumerist tendencies of American religion. We seem to have simply Christianized the secular American values of opportunity, success, ambition, and greed.
Advertising now promises to give us what religion used to deliver: meaning, purpose, significance, and identity. Ads no longer appeal to only the qualities of the product but now show us the kind of life the product leads to. Advertisers now intentionally play on the spiritual vacuum of American culture by enticing us with images of community, coolness, adventure, health, romance…things that most of us thirst for but never significantly achieve. Experiences of life are now commodified products. I don’t just sit down for a cup of coffee; I have a Starbucks experience. And as Christianity has been pushed further and further from the center of American culture to the margins, these experiences and products take the place of what had earlier been considered sole purview of religion.
Now the church must compete with other institutions and experiences for a place in the hearts and priorities of people. It no longer holds sway over most of our culture. It no longer has privileged status among ideas, experiences, or even religions…
We end up playing by the rules of the marketplace (and therefore reinforcing them) in order to compete with everything else. We usually justify this in the name of winning people to Christ. Because we are no longer in the center of culture, we have to earn our way into the hearts of people. And certainly there is some truth to this. But at what cost?
Church growth experts have shown us the value of surveys and marketing techniques. We have learned to listen to our target demographic to see what barriers keep people from coming to church, and we adjust our churches accordingly. We cater to life stages and worship preferences and allow people their choice of time and venue. I hasten to add that not all of this is bad by itself, but these individual choices may add up to a capitulation to the consumerism we are trying to fight against in inviting people to be disciples of Jesus. We shop for churches because the church has been reduced to a once-a-week event that is aimed entirely at attracting people. We position people to be consumers, so they respond like consumers…
We are now realizing that the monster of consumerism in the church is the monster we helped create. We built the church on a consumerist model, which focused on comfort and convenience and attracted a middle-class audience that demanded safety and security. In effect, people came to the services to be fed. The church became a feeding trough, and the members grew comfortable, fat, and lazy. This made embracing the need to focus outward and be missional a tough sell. Ironically, Jesus took just the opposite tack—following Him was dangerous and costly. He didn’t always make His messages easy for everyone to grasp. He didn’t make people comfortable, and He was often carving away followers rather than attracting new ones. Sadly, in today’s church, the vast majority of the church’s growth comes from “church hoppers”—people who move from one church to another based on comfort and preference. In other words, we’re stealing sheep instead of going out and making new disciples.
This shapes our gospel. The gospel is grace—it is a gift—that has nothing to do with any sort of exchange or transaction between human beings and God. God trains us to align our perceived needs to His agenda for the world because we simply can’t determine for ourselves what it is we need.
So what should we do? Should we somehow use people’s consumerist tendencies against them and give them what they think they want in order to lead them to Christ? Or should we seek to embody countercultural community that prophetically challenges the consumer mind-set that holds us captive? We’ll discuss this further in later chapters, but I think the way is clear on this one. We radically underestimate the power of consumerism if we think we can give people what they think they want and help them on their way to being disciples of Jesus.
The church has always been called to be a subversive counterculture that stands against the values, structures, and norms of this world as a witness to their emptiness and futility. Ultimately, the church is called to embody the upside-down way of the kingdom of God. We have lost sight of this truth, however. This is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the current mess we’re in. Without a deep theology of what the church is (its essence), we can’t adequately discuss and discern what the church does (its function). Most of us lack such a framework, so we turn to pragmatism (roughly, the view that something is good because it works) to justify our models and methods of church. Thankfully, we have much more to lean on.
Taken from Death by Church, by Mike Erre. Copyright 2009 by Mike Erre, published by Harvest House Publishers; used with permission. To purchase the book, click here.