For the past four decades, the local and institutionalized church has positioned itself as a place to be entertained, discover your purpose, and “plug in” to community. And it’s a strategy that’s been wildly successful.
Echoing national trends of a growing distrust of “large institutions,” a 2017 Gallup poll found that only 41% of Americans view the Church as a “trustworthy organization.”
According to a Barna research study, only 2 out of 10 millennials believe church attendance is “important or worthwhile.”
At the same time, nearly 40% of millennials consider themselves “Religiously Unaffiliated.” Additionally, members of Gen Z (the generation currently leaving high school) are twice as likely to identify as atheists than the general population.
What happens to large institutions when people begin to lose faith in large institutions?
In other words, what happens when miming secular culture finally leads the Church down a road it can’t follow without dismantling itself?
While high profile scandals, partisan politics, and generational shifts in opinion regarding controversial social issues certainly contribute to the modern disillusionment of organized religion, I believe a much larger unifying force at play here.
It’s called consumerism.
And it affects nearly every aspect of your life.
Consumerism has not only infiltrated our understanding and application of Christianity, but it is also essentially a religion in and of itself.
And, by almost every metric, it could easily be considered the most successful religion in the history of humankind.
The Hidden Forces Controlling Your Decisions (and Happiness)
Consumerism is a cultural ethic born out of the advent of mass production and further cemented by the advertising boom of the fifties and sixties. Consumerism hinges on the fact that if we only bought what we needed, our economy would collapse.
Therefore, the goal of consumerism is to create artificial demand for goods and services you don’t really need and probably didn’t even know existed.
Consumerism is so much more than an advertising strategy.
It’s a worldview that fundamentally alters the way we approach our bodies, our relationships, our mental health, and our religion.
There is no aspect of the American experience that hasn’t been infiltrated by consumerism.
In The Shattered Lantern, Ronald Rolheiser writes,
“Our lives become consumed with the idea that unless we somehow experience everything, travel everywhere, see everything, and are part of a large number of people’s experience, then our own lives are small and meaningless.”
It’s an economic system that thrives on your lack of self-control and preys on your insecurities. We give magazines, home-makeover TV shows, and social media accounts permission to sow discontent in our personal lives and shape our desires for something better.
From diamond engagement rings to home ownership, we’ve been led to believe that “Bigger is Better” by corporations and financial institutions that profit from that very belief.
Our religious and national holidays have become excuses to shop. We are encouraged by politicians to “stimulate the economy” by purchasing American-made goods. Products – like cars and smartphones – are purposefully designed to make you yearn for the newer model.
We are taught through an endless barrage of advertisement that love is best expressed through the exchange of expensive gifts and purpose can be obtained by a trip abroad.
The consumer culture has slyly commodified conversations about happiness, contentment, mindfulness, and empowerment into conversations about individualism and materialism under the banner of “pursuing an authentic life.”
Even the virtue of simplicity quickly became the marketable aesthetic of minimalism – another ‘lifestyle’ only available to those wealthy enough to afford it.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes,
“Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured. Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology (“Just do it!”) to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.”
Consumerism absorbs, modifies, and commodifies preexisting belief systems and ideologies. And, make no mistake, consumerism is a religion.
Our temples are malls and digital storefronts, our altars are checkout counters and online baskets, our priests are advertising agencies, our sacrifices are the dollars in our checking accounts, and God is our unmet desires.
How Consumerism Took Over the Church
In the early 1970s, the Baby Boomers were coming of age and they didn’t seem to want much to do with their parent’s faith; church attendance among young people began to plummet.
The sixties and seventies were periods of immense social and political upheaval, and people were questioning the role of religion in the new cultural landscape.
At the same time, color TVs were making their way into every living room in America, and the entertainment industry was experiencing its heyday – some of the most iconic films and bands were born out of this era.
How could a stuffy church service possibly compete with Star Wars, the Rolling Stones, televised sports and the bloom of New Age spirituality?
However, a few innovative pastors began to experiment with new ways of doing church. Instead of shying away from cultural expectations, these ministries leaned in and began crafting a church experience with something to offer everyone.
In How Churches Became Cruise Ships, Skye Jethani writes,
“The logic was simple: if the Baby Boomers did not feel the need to connect with God, then perhaps another felt-need would draw them into the church: the need for community, or entertainment, or help with their children and marriages. While they consumed the upbeat music, support groups, dramas, and therapeutic sermons, the hope was that they would find God as well.“
This became known as the attractional, or “seeker-friendly” model of church growth. And as a result of its success, it has become so ubiquitous most people can’t even imagine another way of doing church.
At the onset of the movement, seeker-friendly churches capitalized on something sociologists call “collective effervescence,” or the feeling of euphoria people experience with large groups in an emotional setting.
It’s what attendees experience at music festivals, political rallies, sporting events and religious gatherings (not at all limited to Christianity). There’s nothing inherently wrong with collective effervescence; it binds people together and creates a shared sense of acceptance and belonging.
Evangelical churches began orientating their Sunday morning services around worship experiences with an emphasis on production. In the 1990s, the emphasis shifted to offering programs, art, and services that mimicked the secular culture, but offered a “Christian twist.”
New churches stripped religious iconography from their exteriors and interiors, and gravitated toward an architecture style that blended the aesthetics of a mall, community college campus, and movie theater.
Church could be anything, as long as it wasn’t boring.
And this cycle began to perpetuate itself: The growth and direction of the modern church were fueled and influenced by money donated by the congregations attracted by entertainment and conditioned by consumerism.
In The Forgotten Ways, pastor Alan Hirsch writes,
“Win them with entertainment, and you have to keep them there by entertaining them. For a whole lot of reasons, this commitment seems to get harder year after year. We end up creating a whip for our own backs.”
And this creates all sorts of weird problems.
For example, people become more prone to leave if the reason they were attracted to a church (entertainment, community, etc.) in the first place gets a sleeker and more productive counterpart in the secular culture (this phenomenon explains, in part, the surge of popularity in “community-based” fitness programs like CrossFit and SoulCycle).
Additionally, seeker-friendly churches that construct their congregational appeal around family-oriented programming often find it difficult to engage young professionals who don’t have children and re-engage parents whose children have left home.
It’s important to note that none of this was necessarily driven by ill-intentions. It’s simply an organization responding to market pressure.
And a lot of these changes were for the better. Obviously, we shouldn’t try to make our church experiences more miserable and inaccessible to the average American.
And it worked.
God has clearly used (and is using) the attractional model to change countless lives for the sake of the Gospel.
But there was a cost.
And it’s catching up to us.
The Cult of Contentment
If you’ve been an active church member in the past decade, you’ve likely heard sermons about nominal (or “in-name-only”) Christians.
This is shorthand for the type of churchgoers who attend the Sunday service and participate in some of the programs, but live lives virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding culture.
And there’s a little bit of irony in this because the system that laments vapid and shallow Christianity is often the same system that creates vapid and shallow Christians.
In The Forgotten Ways, pastor Alan Hirsch writes,
“Whether we choose it or not, almost all expressions of church in the West are implicitly vulnerable to nondiscipleship, professionalized ministry, spiritual passivity, and consumerism. The problem is rooted in the profoundly nonmissional assumptions of the system itself.”
It’s fast-food Christianity.
It may get the job done, but – just like fast food – a steady diet of it will result in sluggish, unhealthy, and euphoria-addicted Christians.
Instead of the Church becoming a place where the people of God are “equipped for works of service,” showing up to church becomes an end unto itself. And, instead of becoming a launchpad into the world, Christianity becomes a belief system that insulates us from the world.
Consumerism trains our brains to treat products and experiences as disposable, and a church environment designed for consumption is no different.
In The Jesus Way, theologian Eugene Peterson writes,
“If we are a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure problem solving, whatever. [But] This is not the way in which we become less and Jesus becomes more. This is not the way in which our sacrificed lives become available to others in justice and service.”
Consumer Christianity places our needs and desires at the center of God’s universe.
And I’m not talking about the easy punching bag of the Prosperity Gospel – it’s far more subtle than you might expect.
In With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, pastor Skye Jethani writes,
“Religion is a means to an end – a more spiritual method of achieving our desires whether they are the products of advertising or of nobler sources. Those who relate to God as the Almighty Provider hold a decidly one-dimensional view understanding of him: God gives and we receive.”
In other words, the value of God in our lives becomes predicated on how well He fulfills our needs – whether that’s a better marriage, our emotional wellbeing, a meaningful life, or an enthralling worship experience.
Our view of God becomes something one study referred to as a “combination of divine butler and cosmic therapist.”
In the end, Consumer Christianity becomes a self-serving religion where the weekly highlight is a short concert and lecture on a Sunday morning.
It’s a recipe for spiritual disillusionment,
and a formula for a shallow faith.
Talking about consumerism and how it interacts with Christianity is extremely difficult. Like Dorothy learning the true identity of the Wizard of Oz, it’s hard to go back after peeking behind the curtain.
But the last thing I want from all of this is for people to walk away from their churches just because it happens to offer empowering worship, engaging sermons, and a great children’s ministry.
There’s nothing wrong with meeting people where they’re at (or appealing to their felt needs). The seeker-friendly church model isn’t the devil’s workshop it’s often portrayed as in modern (re: cynical) critiques of church culture.
But we should definitely ask ourselves if we are sacrificing any of God’s desires in order to satisfy our desires.
In Introverts in the Church, Adam Hughs writes,
“Many evangelical megachurches, in their hope to create comfortable environments for seekers and to grow rapidly, have stripped their sanctuaries and worship services of mystery and the sacred. Their fast-moving, high-production events may entertain us, and their avid employment of modern technology may dazzle us, but many times they cannot help us grow quiet enough to hear the voice of God.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Amos – speaking for God – delivered a scathing critique to the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
A modern translation of Amos’s message reads:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
In Sacred Roots, pastor Jon Tyson writes,
“In a “church as entertainment” culture, instead of seeking to be equipped as disciples of Jesus, we are slowly formed into consumers and critics who give ratings and reviews on a local church’s performance. But when we expect the church to entertain us, it limits the church’s ability to challenge us. Entertainment rarely transforms.”
I’m not suggesting you abandon your seeker-friendly church or megachurch. I firmly believe God will continue to use all models of church to bring about his Kingdom on Earth – no matter how hampered they are by human systems.
If anything, this could be a catalyst for you to become a more active participant in your local church and seek out opportunities to serve your community through the church.
Ask your pastor what you can do for your church, rather than criticize your church for what it’s not doing for you.
In today’s fracture and anxiety-ridden society, we need faith communities marked by moral depth, humility, and sacrificial love for one another more than ever. And those are the same characteristics that should separate us from a consumeristic culture.
Therefore, the correct response isn’t to disregard or do away with Church. But we need to come to terms with the reality that what worked in the past may not work in the future.
I’m not sure what the future of the Church will look like in America. But, unlike other cultural alarmists and doomsayers, I don’t think organized religion or the institutionalized Church is on its way out.
Remember, consumerism is a problem in the Church because it’s a problem in all of us. The Church was driven to consumerism because we willfully submitted to the false gospel of materialism.
We’re really no different than Eve succumbing to the serpent’s whispers at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent won Eve over because it awakened a desire in her for more, and then supplied her with a product to fulfill that felt need – the first advertising campaign.
Deep in our bones, we know Christianity isn’t going to be saved by better programs, larger facilities, or more celebrity pastors, just like we know we won’t find fulfillment in a new car, bigger house, or Instagrammable vacation.
In a letter to a struggling church in the ancient port city of Corinth, the apostle Paul says that God uses “the foolish to shame the wise” and the “weak to shame the strong.”
In a culture consumed with the idea that “bigger is better,” Paul’s words are eerily prescient. As we look toward the future and discuss the implications of current trends on the state of the American church, it’s easy to become bitter, morose, and disillusioned.
But I’m strangely hopeful.
I’ve noticed a quiet – but growing – trend of young (and older) Christians asking serious questions about their faith and its role in society and culture. And there are a lot of churches and ministries out there that are attempting to tackle the consequences of consumerism on their congregations.
I believe change is on the horizon. But it’s one thing to anticipate change, and quite another to become disheartened when change doesn’t come as quickly as you’d like.
But before you start chunking verbal grenades through stained-glass windows, it’s important to remember that institutional change doesn’t come without large swaths of personal change.
What are you doing to address consumerism in your life? What steps have you taken? Is your frustration merely a product of your consumeristic expectation that your church isn’t serving your needs?
In today’s polarized world, third-party criticism can actually be a barrier to change.
Volunteer. Donate. Participate. Serve. Dialogue. Engage.
Approach your church (and your pastor) with a servant-minded heart, not a need-driven hunger. And, in doing so, maybe we can truly start seeing churches marked by simplicity, humility, and service.
And, in today’s culture, what could possibly be more desirable?