At the beginning of his dissertation, Evangelicalism and Capitalism, Dr. Jason Clark asks this question: “Has my church, and my Evangelical kin, become captive to a mode of ‘dispensing religious goods and services’ to consuming participants?” Recently I have had several conversations with my housemates about what we have been studying in regards to capitalism and Evangelicalism. While on the train with one of them, we began to discuss the consumeristic nature we have seen within the church. Both of us have struggled in the last several years to find a church that we feel like we truly belong to, but have settled on the respective churches we attend (for better or worse; almost as if it’s the best of a group of not so good options). However, it is how we arrived at our respective churches that has caused me to reflect on how we choose a church.
Whether we realize it or not, the church tries to sell Jesus. If the church is often run as a business –with the pastor as the CEO – Jesus is the product it is selling. We do this through programs, through outreaches, etc. Different denominations/people try to market Jesus in different ways: Jesus as Lord, Jesus as the ticket to heaven, Jesus as your friend, Jesus would smoke weed with you, etc. The question I ask is whether or not our “market Jesus” is true to the accounts of Jesus within Scripture. Do we make or portray Jesus in our image? Or do we echo Jesus’ words in John 1:39: “Come and you will see?”
Perhaps one of the biggest metaphors we hear within the Christian context is the notion of “church shopping.” By “church shopping,” I am talking about the process by which people will visit various churches in order to find one that suits their needs/wants/desires. What I find interesting is how the church itself has become a commodity. We want the next best thing when it comes to our churches. Have an old, tired out pastor? “Well, if we get some fiery young blood behind the pulpit, we’ll increase our attendance!” This church just has an old pipe organ. “Well, the church next door has a fog machine, strobe lights, and full band!” What we tend to find is that there are bits and pieces of different churches that we like and those that we dislike. More often than not, we choose a church based on what we perceive we need or where we feel we may not be noticed and can consume what is being offered there.
For myself, when I first moved to Hong Kong I was attending Church A (I’ll remit the names of the various churches). I attended Church A because, at the time, my housemates all attended this church, so it made sense to go there as well. Here I found a strong community among the young adults and was quickly brought into the fold. However, the church itself had many issues that would ultimately lead the small group I attended to migrate to Church B. At Church B, I still had a strong community and the music was great, but in regards to preaching I found it did not stimulate me. After discussing this with my mentor, he suggested a third church. As Church B met on Saturday nights, it wasn’t an issue to attend Church C on Sunday mornings, where I found the preaching to be something that spoke to my soul. Add to this that I was still serving with the youth group at Church A once a month, I had a full church rotation.
To summarize, there were specific things each church produced that I was picking and choosing for the “best church experience”:
- Church A: Serving
- Church B: Community and Worship
- Church C: Preaching
Following my fallouts with Church B and C, I cut my losses and ended up back at Church A, where I have found once again a community in addition to my service with the youth group (although the church still has many issues, there is also the fact that no church is “perfect”). When my housemate asks me how things are going at Church A, my reaction is rarely positive. The question that typically follows is, “Well, when are you leaving?” to which I shrug and say, “I don’t know. There isn’t really a better choice. I can’t go to Church B and C for reason XYZ. I could check out Church D, but then there’s also this problem or that problem.”
I share this story because there’s a competing sense of individualism that drives our consumeristic tendencies within the church. The mindset is “I want what’s best for me.” In reflecting on Polanyi we buy into the fictitious commodities that the church offers (i.e.,, community, preaching, faith, worship, service). And yet, we do this as a means of finding some sort of assurance to our faith. I cannot count the amount of times I have heard a sermon that talks about how the mark of a Christian life is service and volunteering on a team within the church. And while I agree that it is important for people to be involved within the local church, it should be done out of a sense of love and obedience for Christ and not out of a sense of forced obligation.
With all of this said, what does it take to not necessarily combat consumeristic tendencies or its relationship with capitalism, but rather to redeem it? Perhaps one of the first steps is simply to reimagine our relationship to the church and with other people. Perhaps it begins by moving away from our Western individualism where we think our choices only affect us and toward a more communal nature. Perhaps it means putting away our own selfish desires and putting others above ourselves. What will it take?
 Jason Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism,” PhD diss., (University of Middlesex, 2018), 1.
 My first Sunday at this particular church was the day that the senior pastor announced his resignation after a series of conflicts with the elder board.
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, (Boston: Beacon Press).