Religion, as a consumable, shouldn’t come as a surprise given that we are living in a consumer driven society. Yet, I believe that people have become so acustomed to this way of life that they fail to see the dangers within the walls of the church. Miller’s book, Consuming Religion, examines the consumer driven culture of today’s model of Christianity, and theologies found in our world today. Churches experience growth as they meet the demands made by consumers, and some have been able to attract great wealth by appealing to the consumer’s emotions and needs. Just this week, a popular televangelist and church leader appealed to followers to raise $65 million to purchase a new private airplane for his ministry. Alternatively, there are thousands of churches struggling to pay their pastors a meager salary. All churches must learn how to operate in a manner that enables them enough funds to run ministries. To do so, they must engage in communication and marketing in order to speak in the language of today’s culture. There is a careful balance between operating within the consumer driven culture and turning faith and religion into an object to be consumed.
Miller’s book explains the concept of commodification. The dynamics of commodification cause people to “consume” religion instead of engaging in their faith. Religion, or Christianity, becomes something they can acquire just like any other commodity. Throughout my own life, I’ve seen many church scandals. False teaching, such as the “name it, claim it” gospel has urged people to give money, and in return they are told to expect blessings. Materialism is alive and growing within the church, and people will seek to buy their way into heaven. Many church leaders have used religion to attain personal gain. Almost every week, major scandal makes the news. Even leaders that started with good intentions have fallen into the trap of selling religion to get personal gain.
Even in church, people tend to place things at a higher level of importance than family, friends, and serving the needs within our communties. At the last church where my family ministered, many members had the mentality that nothing in the building could change. Change was very difficult for them. Everything from the old, broken organ to the painting of Jesus on the wall had become an icon. While these items weren’t overtly worshiped, people held onto them as a necessary part of their worship experience. They voiced their opinions with their money. They would raise funds and give money for their pet projects, yet they complained that they didn’t have the funds to support their pastors and missionaries. They spent thousands of dollars on a new oven to host their dinner events, yet said they had limited funds to feed the poor and hungry in the community. They justified their desire to have a new oven, but they didn’t weigh their choice in light of Biblical principles.
Christian leaders must understand the dynamics of commodification in order to be aware of the dangers – they must avoid the trap. Faith is not something that can or should be marketed or acquired. We need to carefully balance marketing efforts within our work to ensure we aren’t just driving for church growth, popularity, or financial gain. The focus must stay on Christ. If any symbol or communication within the church takes the focus away from Christ, then it should not be used. Things like capital campaigns and or building projects can easily turn the focus from ministry to possessions. People start believing things like “build a better building and people will come”. Many church leaders have been guilty of pressuring members to give more so that they can partner in the ministry – after all, they will be blessed, won’t they?
I also believe that many fall into the trap of consumerism because they have convinced themselves that our “free-market” society brings good. Cavanaugh, in his book Being Consumed, Economics and Christian Desire, asserts that a “free-market” society drives people toward individualism and away from considering the greater good. It is evident that many Christians live their day-to-day lives without any consideration of how their consumer behavior impacts others. It is a widely recognized problem, yet many church leaders refuse to address it. After all, if they do, it may impact the money flowing into the church and their ability to achieve personal or professional goals. Cavanaugh explains that our desires are detached from things that are good and meaningful. Our appetite to consume is never satisfied, when it isn’t based on the love of God and others. I’ve heard it said, “consume, or be consumed”, but it would better be said as “consume the things of Christ, or be consumed by the world.” Consumerism has become a sin that is infecting the church. Cavanaugh offers practical advice for Christians who want to begin the journey to living more responsibly.
Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in A Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2003).
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).