Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Can the Church Survive in a Post-Consumer Culture?

The United States, and for that matter, the world, is not really post-consumeristic. All living things consume and if we stop consuming what it takes to sustain life, then we die.

However, the current economic meltdown is causing some economists to question the sustainability of economic systems (like that of the USA) that rely significantly on consumer spending. As evidenced this holiday season, when consumers spend less at Christmas, the growth of the economy suffers. The Christmas spirit is viewed less by worship and reflection on the birth of Jesus, and more on how to part with money we don't have for more things that we don't need.

The current crisis is significant and has to be addressed. But for we who follow Jesus, this may also be the time to self-critique; to have the courage to dismantle what we think has sustained our church systems and learn in fresh and new ways what it means to be the church for the sake of the world.

In highly developed societies (again, like the USA), there is an increasing lack of awareness of the relationship between production and consumption. Ask a young child where eggs come from and she might name the local grocery store rather than the chickens in the back yard. We work jobs and then spend money on things that have no apparent link to the work we produce. Very few of us grow the crops or raise the livestock that feed us. There are so many levels between production and consumption that the relationship between the two is often foggy.

That's why we can continue to demand more and more without regard for the price to be paid when consumer demand outpaces the ability to produce (not to mention that much of what we demand is non-essential. Guitar Hero and iPods may be cool and entertaining, but they are not essential to life. iPhones, yes. iPods, no).

If we begin to look closely at how that perception has leaked into the church we might be disturbed. People shop churches as though they are buying cars. The church experience is seen as the meeting of a demand, whether it is program for kids, sermons that inspire or entertain, music that is appealing and little or no requirement for participation. People leave churches with the same kind of consumer mentality that characterizes our shopping-oriented life. If the church up the street is more attractive, has better music, spicier programs, then we move, dismissing the significance of Christian community with no more concern than when we choose to shop at Target over WalMart.

This is a systemic problem in the church (of course, I am over-generalizing here in order to make a point or two), in that churches have often come to see themselves as vendors in a competitive marketplace. We construct "services"* in order to attract more people, and we don't really care where those people come from, and most of them come from other churches. 
We too often develop highly-produced musical aspects of worship not because we seek to draw people into the beauty of worship but rather in order to keep and attract our customers--I mean, members. We think we are somehow creating environments that will draw people seeking faith, but most of our movement in church membership comes from with the ranks of people calling themselves Christians who find it easy to move from one church to the other. 

In seeking to find needs and fill them we easily pander to consumeristic tendencies that have already created a massive problem in the culture--and the world--at large. And for all our efforts, we find that much of what we do is simply for us and not the world. In fact, the world out there doesn't really care how cool and trendy our "services" are (Click here for one atheist's view of the nature of Christian mission).

Brothers and sisters, this is not sustainable. And it has little to do with the essence of what it means to be the church.

What if, during these difficult times, we as the church began to look deeply at who God has called us to be, and then prayed for the courage to act on some newly discovered convictions (look here for a creative challenge to holiday consumerism)? What if we ran the risk of losing attenders by searching out God's desires and intentions for us and then forming our corporate life around those intentions? Would we consider our churches to be successful if we had smaller, more deeply devoted members who understood that we don't "do church" for ourselves but for the sake of the world? That to be a worshipper of God also means that we are lovers of the world?

If we USAmericans are waiting for things to get back to "normal" economically so we can get back on our debt and spending machines, then we have learned nothing. If the church at large doesn't use this opportunity to re-evaluate and reform both its inward and outward life, then we also will have learned nothing.

Returning to normal is not what we need. What we need is a new normal. 

*Note: Worship gatherings are not called "services" because they serve us. The idea is that we serve God in our worship. From there we go, as many churches include in their weekly benedictions, to love and serve the world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thinking about the Birth of Jesus

Christmas is about a week away. All the rhetoric about whether or not we can say "Merry Christmas" in public continues to bless my dark little heart. Yes, indeed--why would we ever say such a thing? Why not say "Merry Shmerkins"? BECAUSE IT ISN'T SHMERKINS DAY, THAT'S WHY! Check the calendar. You'll see that I'm right.

Nevertheless, Christmas time it is. This is supposed to be a big deal for we who follow Jesus. And yet, we get sucked into the same cultural non-Christmas stuff as much as anyone else. We need to work on that. We might start by reflecting on why celebrating the birth of Jesus is important to us.

Of course, it's important to us for a lot of reasons. It causes us to think about what it means that such a one would be born in a very human way, yet conceived, we are told, by God. We think about the amazing things that will come in the ministry of Jesus. We consider what sorrow will come to him and to all who come to love him.

There is another thing that is wandering through my mind this season: That Jesus' birth signals the unimaginable claim that God, in entering fully into human existence in the person of Jesus, will experience all the inevitabilities of that existence: Life, joy, sorrow, pain, suffering, and ultimately, death. Jesus is born--it is now a guarantee that Jesus will die.

Sometimes we think that the Romans and Jewish leaders who condemned Jesus to death on a cross were responsible for his death--that without them, Jesus would not have died. While it's true that they were the instigators of his death at that point in time, it was God who embraced the inevitability of human death when Jesus was born. For every birth announcement there will one day be an obituary.

Jesus did not come as an innocent "other" who stands between God and the human race, somehow shielding us from what God really wants to do to us. No, Jesus came with all the fullness of God, so that it is God himself who lives, loves, suffers and dies. Remember that Jesus is linked with the ancient Jewish title Emmanuel--God is with us.

Christmas is good. Buy some presents that mean something for people you love, but don't go into debt and don't be dopey about what you buy. Bless your neighbors and co-workers. Find environments of worship and reflection that draw you deeper into the mystery that is the incarnation. Learn about Advent. Live in the story.

Merry Christmas. Hang on for Easter.