Two days ago I was in a village in Central India. We dedicated a small Life Center for the use of the Believers there. Village church buildings are called ‘Life Centers’ since it becomes a resource in the hands of the congregation to reach out to the community to meet various needs during the week. New Believers are trained and equipped in health, education and vocational skills through which they can impact the community. Right next to the Life Center we dedicated a deep bore well and an overhead water tank to provide clean drinking water for the community. It was one of those thousands of rural communities that did not have immediate access to potable water for which people had to walk long distances each day. A small effort on our part made a huge difference to the people. The church is there as the incarnational presence of the Body of Christ, sacrificing and sharing rather than receiving. It was a very rewarding experience. During this time I was reflecting on my reading of Miller and a phrase that I have heard commonly used in the West: ‘church shopping’
I heard the phrase ‘church shopping’ for the first time in the U.S. It was so nonchalantly dropped during the course of a casual conversation but it sent a chill down my spine. I have heard it often since but never without feeling the same disturbing emotion. The use of that phrase and the message it conveys goes against every grain of the Biblical definition of what the Church is, what it is meant to be, what its mission is and the role and responsibility of every member of the Body. Church shoppers look at the church as another commodity that will fulfill their desires and wants. They are very much in line with Miller’s claims that commodities have been tied to human needs and desires. It is all about seeking gratification, about the possibilities of choices, the liberty to choose and be happy. It is narcissistic, it feeds the emotions, based on validation of feeling, it is about being unique, successful, sexy and belonging to something special. (Clarke n.d.)
Church shopping is one good illustration of the sweeping infiltration of a consumerist and acquisitive mindset into the Church and the commodification of Religion. Of course there is no denying that members of the Body do receive a lot of spiritual and social benefit from the Church not the least of them being a strong sense of community. But the church shopping mindset looks for more than just that, overlooking the fact that being a part of the local church is primarily to give and contribute individually to the Body and corporately to the community. Vincent Miller in Consuming Religion discusses the influence of consumerism on Western religion particularly the Catholic church. “Westerners, Miller argues, now engage with religion on an ad hoc basis based on individual ‘needs’, rather than as part of a community; they are interested in religious ‘products’ and ‘techniques’ rather than pursuing the deeper meaning and truth of Christianity.” (Clarke n.d.)
My ministry is centered around the poor and deprived who survive without enough food and without access to clean drinking water. We often come across instances of ethnic and religious prejudice that threatens to wipe out those who are different; we see the sick and the infirm who have no access to health care or even simple medicines. We have to constantly struggle against corruption and rampant exploitation of the many for the pleasure and comfort of the few. Those who challenge the reign of wealth, power, privilege and corruption are demonized. It is very obvious that the remainder of this twenty-first century will see the increase of populations and decreasing store of resources to nourish them. This is not only the case in India but a good part of the world. On the flip side there is another world that revolves around a different set of values and moves on, completely oblivious to the reality of these dire needs and daily struggle for survival of millions. Its ever increasing and relentless consumerism and greed fuels the dichotomy which permeates our society and the world. The crisis of consumerism is infecting every culture of the world, most of which are now emulating the American lifestyle. (Brown n.d.) The tragic reality is that the Church is no exception to this vicious and growing trend.
I liked the way Miller draws out the similarities and differences between consumerism and religion and suggests remedial measures. It is true that cultivating, promoting and sustaining desire may be at the root of both. However, it must be understood that consumerism is narcissistic and desires self gratification, whereas Christianity is an outward and God focused desire. Religion and particularly the Christian faith is not all about desire, acquisitiveness, materialism. It is more about giving, sacrificing, sharing and being. The desire associated with the Christian Faith is the desire to share, to reach out and give and not a desire to acquire and hoard. It is the desire to help others and the desire to seek community. I wish the phrase ‘church shopping’ will never fall on my ears again.
Brown, Judith Simmer. The Crisis of Consumerism. http://www.mro.org/mr/archive/21-3/articles/crisisofcon.html (accessed February 19, 2013).
Clarke, Terry. Book Review. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/274035272?auto_login_attempted=true (accessed February 19, 2013).
Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith And Practice In a Consumer Culture. New York, New York: Continuum, 2003.