It is almost an axiom now that we will be met by advertising wherever we go. A trip to the mall, driving on the highway, watching television, and surfing the web all host their respective advertisements, ready to spin clever slogans and brand you a loyal customer of your favorite manufacturer. We adapt to this constant barrage of competing marketers. Some may balk at the consumeristic habits of our culture and dedicate themselves to living simply, buying locally, and breaking the system. Others may choose to participate in the cultural buying spree, but carefully designate where every dollar goes, following the saying, "Every dollar is a vote." The debate over which, if either, of these lifestyles is more effective will continue. We expect that our culture is consumeristic. What is frightening is when the church becomes so.
Historically, the church has put great emphasis on the spiritual disciplines. A short list of these usually includes prayer, personal study of the Scripture, fasting, solitude, and service. Of course, there are many more practices that could be considered spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are normally regarded as critical to a Christian's growth; perhaps more significantly, they are critical to the health of a community of Christians. Practicing the disciplines not only efficaciously makes individuals into the types of people who represent Christ, but also makes the church a unique community. Joining the great cultural sales event by marketing and selling these disciplines is akin to casting aside the identity of the church.
When I walked into chapel on August 29, I was expecting a common exhortation toward some behavior, or an exposition on a familiar Bible passage, or possibly even a piece of wisdom that I could think on and apply. Instead I was met with a sales pitch. I heard advice about what method to use to approach God and the overwhelming advantage of having a prayer journal with four columns and three rings. I was walked through the steps to setting up such a prayer journal, being told that we need answers to prayer in order for prayer not to be futile. Finally, I was told that I could buy a nice prayer journal after chapel for ten dollars. How convenient. I am sure that many people would be helped by having a prayer journal. This does not lessen the fact that one can pick up a perfectly functional notebook for fifty cents or less.
We are all tired of televangelists shamelessly getting rich off of naive followers. There's no serious debate over whether that behavior is wrong. Perhaps, however, a more pressing problem is the consumeristic mindset we easily shift into. The life of the church should be a radical alternative to the cultural zeitgeist. When we market various aspects of the Christian life as products and services, we cheapen the meaning of our practices. If we expect to purposefully engage the culture, we cannot make identical movements with it.
Even the calendar we live by is important to consider. Take Christmas, for example. Certainly the consumerist saturation of Christmas has been decried enough for us to be quite familiar with it. Even so, our gift giving does not often take the form of simplicity and symbolism. What was once a poignant picture of Christ giving himself to humanity, this sharing among a community, has become a major capitalistic project. Brands and products get thrown in our faces, and the time of celebration of Christ's incarnation becomes a celebration of production and enterprise. Our culture has a calendar. Each time of year is marked and slotted with a new theme to adorn the constant sales event, and the church molds its worship around this cultural calendar. What if we chose to reject this calendar? What if we chose to follow the church calendar instead, one that would define us not as consumers but as worshippers? Organizing our year around the times of incarnation, denial (Lent), burial, and resurrection would profoundly affect our thinking about life and choices as consumers.
It seems that we are trying to live as Christ lived. That is, at least, the claim of most Christian individuals and institutions I know. Cedarville University is certainly no stranger to this concept. Christ, however, was not concerned with having money or a luxurious lifestyle. Perhaps our infatuation with consuming things and branding ourselves is a deterrent to living as Christ did. Perhaps God would be more pleased with us giving away our possessions to the poor than selling Christian t-shirts and hardcover prayer journals and tickets to Christian conferences. When I think about what I need in life, most of the products being advertised during Christmas do not come to mind, nor does a pretty four-column journal. I would encourage all who associate with Christ to carefully consider what their consumer choices are saying and how their lifestyles organized around a particular calendar are affecting the efficacy of the church. The Christian community's interactions with the culture depend on it.