We’re preparing for our National Conference in Dallas, Texas, August 18-20th and focusing on our theme: From Consumerism to Community. Our upcoming blogs (including the one below from Junior McGarrahan) will be helping us think more deeply about community in the Body of Christ. Join us in August and register TODAY.
By Eunice McGarrahan -
With my sleek MacBook Pro, I am simultaneously writing this article and watching the PCUSA’s General Assembly. When GA is on break, I open up iTunes and choose a playlist to have in the background. Earlier, without leaving my computer, I ordered pizzas for a meeting with a group of teenagers. While working, I have consumed church news, music and prepared to consume pizza. When I left for the pizza meeting, I grabbed my iPad so that I could Google stuff that came up in that meeting. Driving home from the meeting, I tuned in to an Old Time radio show via satellite radio. My day was an exemplar for a consumer society. How was your day?
Being consumer-driven affects us personally and it affects our congregations. We’ve known this for a long time. We’ve talked about this for a long time. And Burger King’s Have it Your Way ad campaign became the embodiment of an on-demand consumer culture. We know the effects of consumerism in our congregations as people move in and out on the basis of getting their needs met.
But when I come to church just to get my needs met, I diminish what a church should be.
If our congregations are to be places in which the life of Jesus is on display, self-focused attitudes of acquisition will tarnish the image of Christ.
And the things we seek to acquire are not always material. There are those who live very simple, plain lives but who, quite frankly, are voracious consumers. Often without even realizing it, they are selfishly seeking intangible things – feelings of closeness to God, approval of others for their sacrificial manner of life. Paul describes this kind of consumerism quite well in I Corinthians when he chastises that church for its desire for status, for spectacular spiritual experiences and for an elite practice of the faith that excuses them from ordinary moral demands.
So, Corinth became a community that shut out those who didn’t measure up to their false standards. Chaos, infighting and division were the markers of the church. This made it a place you avoided at all costs – why would you associate with that group? It was also a stain on God’s reputation in the city. Consumerism is not a modern phenomenon.
Isaiah 58 contains the perfect description of a community that is consumer-obsessed. The people of God wanted to take in as many of God’s blessings as they could. They wanted things to go their way – that was their definition of justice. They wanted to feel close to God, comfortable in their spirituality. The end result, however, was not a community that was well ordered or content. Thinking that God’s blessings were a means to self-satisfaction, they were at each other’s throats. Instead of intimacy with God, they were alienated from him and, as they asked for more, always more, God refused to give their requests the time of day.
But God does not refuse to give to them. He offers them so much more than they ask as he promises them an unimaginable life if they will only stop living for themselves. If their desire is satisfied by him rather than by secondary things, the results will be joy. In A Hunger for God, John Piper addresses this when he says:
If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.
All of us have read or written articles, book and blogs about the nature of consumerism and its impact on the church. Much of that work proposes replacing consumerism with something else. Relationships need to replace ‘products’ in the church…we need to be the church rather than going to church…we need to think outward rather than inward…we need to learn to give rather than to take. Many of the answers to consumerism include some form of doing away with consuming, and there are times when that is just what we need to do.
Trying to get rid of desire, however, will not solve the problem because we are, at our very core and by design of our Creator, consumers.
Consuming is a function of desire and appetite. From the very beginning, we see that humanity’s desire for food was met with a garden full of delicious fruit…not just functional fruit – delicious fruit. Eden itself means “delight,” so delighting in having our desires fulfilled is not the problem. The tragic story of Eden is that our first parents sought self-satisfaction and rejected God-satisfaction. That first, tiny human community was devastated by blame, confusion and shame. Hiding from God and one another became the new normal as anger, pain, disappointment and death marked the family.
This story tells us that God is not concerned with whether we eat but with what we eat. Ezekiel is commanded to eat the scroll. We are asked to taste and see that the Lord is good. And at the feasts of feasts, we are asked to eat this bread…not another kind of bread, but this bread.
The New Testament describes not only the fragmentation of community resulting from selfish consumption (e.g. the church at Corinth), it also paints a picture of the community that feasts on the Lord. The primary result is a loving unity in Christ. In Acts 2 and 4 and Philippians 2, that unity is centered on having the mind of Christ. Out of that, flowed the tangible marks of the church: generosity, care for the poor, God-focused worship and an effective witness to the character of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The answer to consumerism is not to stop consuming but to consume the right things.
Our created human nature has been warped by sin, but God does not obliterate it. God redeems it and brings it back in line with his intentions. So, for example, our competitive urges are not supposed to be suppressed, they are to be re-routed into a competition for “love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24) Likewise, the antidote for selfish desire and its destructive results is a desire for God and the abundant life that flows out from it. Selfish consumerism will tear the church apart but the church that feasts upon the Lord will be knit together like, oh…vines on a branch.
Lest you think this is too peppy an assessment of what could be in the common life of the church, remember that even in churches that were satisfied in and by God, there were times of conflict.
Their life together was not perfect, but the corrective was not to go separate ways. What they were able to do was to see that the Christ in them was also the Christ that was in the other.
Blaise Pascal, long before modern advertising created desires for the unnecessary, said this:
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. (Pensées,148/428)
So, let the church consume. Since God is “infinite and immutable,” there will always be enough to go around…enough to satisfy us all. We don’t have to grasp for anything and that makes our community peaceful and content and able to give without giving out. Let the church feast on Jesus and the word. Let us set a banquet for our congregations that makes them want to be consumers of the things of God.
Rev. Eunice “Junior” McGarrahan is Director of Parish Associates, First Presbyterian Church, Colorado Springs. She formerly served as Associate Pastor for Christian Formation & Discipleship at The National Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC. Junior has been married for 46 years, and is a mom to a grown son. Junior and her husband Dick were also co-founders of Military Community Youth Ministries, a joint endeavor of Young Life and Youth for Christ which ministers to military dependents around the world.