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consumerism | Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

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11-9-14 #WhyChurch: Equipping

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In an age of consumerism equipping and empowering the Church to live in the character and competency of Jesus is more important than ever

We Want What We Don’t Need…And We Like It!

“What you want is not what your need”

I testify to this maxim with some many parts of my life:

  • Diet: I need to be healthy and fit…I want Animal Style Fires
  • Purchases: I need retirement and a savings account…I want a trip to Paris
  • Knowledge: I need to learn more about the Greenback party (for the class I teach)…I want to read more about the latest political scandal
  • Time: I need to finish painting my house…I want to finish watching the last season of Homeland

We could go on; you can plug your own needs and desires in here. The point is that what we want is often different from what we need. Abraham Maslow famously penned his hierarchy of needs in descending order:

The Maslow Hierarchy

  • Self-Actualization
  • Self-Esteem
  • Affection
  • Safety
  • Necessities

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The Maslow Hierarchy shows our level of need – with things like self-actualization (creativity, originality, morality) and esteem (confidence, relationship with others) taking much more space in our lives than the pursuit of our basic needs for survival (this is only true in developed countries of course). In our poorest moments we spend vast amounts of capital and time on existential pursuits at the cost of our basic needs…purchasing expensive rims for luxury cars when we don’t have health insurance or buying scratchers and top shelf liquor while our children wear tattered clothes. These are exchanges of safety and necessity for esteem and self-realization.

The Welfare Inversion

The twist comes in our modern welfare state. Our federal benefactor provides our basic needs in part through cheep imitations that leave us in a heightened state of insecurity and scarcity. For example, we receive the illusion of safety through the stimulation of foreign war and the abdication of our personal freedom; we receive the illusion of provision through subsides of GMO foods and agro-industrial manufacturing; we receive the illusion of affection through endorphin releasing simulations of sanctioned pornography or tariff free, globally produced goods. Whether it is a $100 iPhone that should cost $2000 dollars or a $1 burger that should cost $11 we mollify our basic needs through the cheap substitution of subsidized products and experiences. The production of cheep foods in the US liberates more of the average income to pursue the higher “needs”; however, these same productions cost us in the quality of our lives by causing obesity, heart disease and cancer. Without these subsidizations we would be forced to center a greater amount of our capitals on basic needs…which may produce a greater degree of happiness and satisfaction.

Spiritual Feudalism

The spiritual realm is not so different. The world of churches has often turned into a realm of spiritual benefactors…providing goods and services for a populace that eagerly consumes them. Mike Breen calls this spiritual feudalism…alluding to the dynamic of client/patron relationships that take place in Western Christendom today. Churches often provide the illusion of spiritual depth, genuine faith and Christian living that indebt the client to the church while pacifying the actual needs of the soul. The false provision the Church proffers often corrodes the living soul. Purchasing the product of premature spiritual authority and realization means we will never actualize our spiritual  potential through the longue durée of following Jesus; acquiring the goods of a self-help or prosperity Gospel directs that we will never ascertain the depth of character found in the spiritual sojourners life. In an age of online sermons, digital worship, NYT bestselling books, and multiple satellite services we can curate our spiritual oeuvre to own liking and to our own detriment.

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 The Solution

How do we overcome the malaise of our multifaceted, postmodern, spiritual mural?

  1. The Church: We must cease functioning as a platform of competition for the religious affection of clients. If we are concerned about numbers we can play games and fish in one another’s ponds. We can continue the illusions of growth and depth to the detriment of the “client”…attempting to ever lure Christians into a better system of goods and services.
  1. The Consumer: I was once told “we don’t know our needs until they are met?” If this is true, it means we are responsible for seeking greater spiritual depth…to test the merit of our spiritual intentions against the profundity of Scripture and Spirit. Are we content to satisfy our hunger on GMO $1 burgers or are we longing for the depth of Spiritual food? The Apostle Paul called the church in Corinth on this in his first letter: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:2).

As long as we are comfortable with the provision of cancer creating, disease inducing food that is filling at a cheap price we will never be free of disease and premature deaths; As long as we are comfortable with the provision of cancer producing, spiritual pandering that creates spiritual dependents, we will never be free of the spiritual impotency and weakness that leads to consumerism and hypocrisy. If you look at the hierarchy that Maslow laid out…only after focusing on and realizing our basic (spiritual) needs will we realize our greater needs for realization and identity. We need a faith that is ready for the long haul of life in Jesus, awaiting the trials of trust and discernment and producing the determination of the committed, not the consumer.

Jesus Culture: The Best of Consumer Culture

Siting in the Gibson Amphitheater during the last day of the Jesus Culture conference, if you have been curious (as was I) about JC hopefully this is helpful. For my missional church friends who are having a gag reflex or moving to my Facebook profile to unfriend me…please read on.

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The past few days gave me reason to reconsidered my posture towards big conference, American-Worship Leader-Idol events. It is amazing to see 5,000 people from all over LA (and the world), from all types of backgrounds, from all sorts of denominations and demographics not only gather together to worship, but to pay so to do it. Let me bonafie that statement. We live in a consumer culture (which is actually different than consumerism). It isn’t inherently bad, it is just what we do…we buy things. We have the freedom to buy what we want, eat what we want, choose certain brands. It wasn’t always like this; thousands of years ago people had one set of clothes that were all the same color; they went to the one entertainment event (if there was even ONE); they ate the same foods every day; they did not have disposable income.

 

We are all quite use to this today though…so in a place like LA where there are literally thousands of things to spend money and time on to see thousands of people show up to spend money and time on Jesus and encountering him with thousands of other people is a totally awesome thing. In a consumer culture shouldn’t it be this way? Now I’m not suggesting we play into the consumerism that is rampant in the church these days (I will give you my money <tithe> and energy<attendance, volunteerism> and you will give me spiritual goods <salvation> and services <worship experience>). However, I think there is something to be said about leading a group of teenagers to a gathering of other teens and adults and showing them that spending their capital on Jesus and community is a great thing…it is an very tangible object lesson.

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The experience was certainly replete with pet-peeves and irritants, but let me start with some wonderful takeaways from the few days I spent there with our youth group.

  • The time spent with our teenagers and youth leaders was by and far the best part of this trip…as it should be.
  • Jesus Culture Band, The Torwalts, Martin Smith…all wonderful and amazing at leading a huge room of people in times of worship through singing…the sound system at the Gibson wasn’t too bad either.
  • There is an expectancy for God to move and meet with people…to see Kingdom stuff (deliverance, healing, salvation) happen and that we all participate in that. Everyone Get’s to Play.

Some of the most wonderful, theologically accurate things preached in the past three days:

  • To bear good fruit, you need to have a good root system
  • Our success isn’t based on our merit or talent, but on abiding in Christ and putting him first
  • We aren’t called to gather at conferences, we are called to disciple nations
  • Where ever we go, we bring the Kingdom of Heaven with us by declaring that Jesus is King
  • America is more than an offering plate for Africa; God wants to save America for the sake of America
  • If we aren’t bearing fruit, all of this is meaningless
  • Jesus is the same out there (city walk) as he is in here (conference)
  • Fruit that lasts is something that takes time…live long term, not just for the moment
  • Lots of awesome practical, down to earth training on praying for people and sharing Jesus with them
  • Lots of testimony from teenagers
  • An clear passion to pastor people, without the structure (local church) to do so.

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Of course, there was quite a bit of over-realized eschatology typical of charismatic conferences.

  • Quite a few “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs
  • Lots and lots of bumper sticker theology:
  • “you gotta claim your flame”
  • “The ABC of FAITH is that as we act, God acts.”
  • “Ain’t no party, like the Holy Ghost party, cause…” you get the point
  • “I want to kick the devil before I kick the bucket”
  • “Jesus is my co-pilot” (jk that wasn’t really said…I think)
  • Ecstatic and loud speaking in tongues during worship (not JC’s fault, just a casualty of public conferences)
  • Little to no explanation of spiritual gifts from the outset, required quite a bit of debriefing for our group.
  • A lot of the messages bordered on making physical healing the highest expression of the Kingdom

IMG_1059The bathwater wasn’t remotely close to stale enough to warrant throwing the baby out with it. I particularly appreciated Banning Leibscher bringing it home on the last night. It was a clear call to dig deep into the Bible and establish a relationship with God that is built on truth. Over all, this was a great conference and a really engaging experience for our teenagers. Will most likely return again…

Black Soul Friday

Black Friday closed 15 minutes ago…all I can say is “Really?” (insert SNL Weekend Update gag here).

The day after Thanksgiving became the premiere shopping day in America as a result of family leisure activity…families were together and wanted to stroll the stores and start the gift shopping early. Somewhere along the line it took a sharp, drastic turn.

Most of us are familiar with the nationwide insanity of overnight campers, fist-fights over deals and the mob mentality of Black Friday marauders  The news has been littered for years with stories of violence and even death when it comes to stampedes. 

But has it gotten worse?

  • The sales have gotten better
  • The violence more extreme (like this women pepper spraying all the other shoppers-including children-for an xbox)
  • The lines have started earlier!

At the Best Buy in my town people started lining up on Sunday for sales on Thursday!

We have moved the crazy 5am sales up to 9pm ON THANKSGIVING NIGHT!!!

Here is the rub – we are killing the thing we love. Instead of giving thanks for what we have, we leave friends, family and food to go to buy up the stuff we should be giving thanks for what we said we did not need! Thanksgiving is no longer a tradition of celebrating survival and cooperation; it has become a rite of passage on our way to consumerist hedonism.

When I see people abandon the most meaningful things in life, for the least, I cannot help but think of the wonderful people of Wall-E.

But think through this:

We hurt ourselves in the long run. Moving BF early not only destroys our oldest holiday, but destroys the retail we are trying to build! I told my sister-in-law (the Peet’s national barista champion who had to work at 4 am that morning) that it would be a slow morning; she went home early this morning because it was so slow. Store managers will continue with crazy tactics to impress their superiors, but this diminishes long term results.

We are stating that materialism is more important than people (Thanksgiving, meals, community, cooking…traditions of society for as long as we have been sedentary). To wait 4 days or even 8 hours for a savings of $200-300 means:

     a. we hate our jobs and/or family that we would rather would sleep in front of a store than work or be with our family.

     or

     b. we make so little that waiting for 3 days in front of a store and then assaulting others for the pitiful savings is worth it.

     Either option is horrible!

We have given marketing firms and retail corporations the highest level of power in our society. Greater than family, religion, tradition or community we let the Best Buy mailer direct our collective conscience! Have we created a demagogy of marketing?

We all look on with disapproval and smirking. But wait! You pity the Black Friday bandits, but take this “holiday” out of the picture and examine the American landscape – do you make outrageous concessions for small material gains? Do we work on our day(s) off for “pin money”? Do we chose things over people?

Entertainment Worship and Famine

Do our forms of worship reproduce in us what we are worship or how we are worship? Are we becoming more like Jesus as we worship or more like a fan at a concert?

Imagine my surprise as I am reading through an issue Critical Half: Annual Journal of Women for Women International dated back to 2003 in McDonald’s in preparation for a lecture in my “Women in US History Class” and I come a cross an article on Entertainment value in Church organization. When the whole article wasn’t centered on this, but a portion of Panacea or Painkiller? The Impact of Pentecostal Christianity on Women in Africa by Charlotte Spinks was. In it she discusses the pluses and minuses of Pentecostal Christianity for African Women.

The article is generally very  positive towards Pentecostal Christianity in Africa…but some of the things the author sees a s “positive” are rather scary. One of the benefits listed is the arena of “worship as entertainment.” Below is an excerpt:

The Pentecostal style of worship is exuberant, with an emphasis on singing, dancing, and the use of popular music. This participatory and exhilarating style of worship provides an alternative not only to the staid and traditional hymns of mainline Churches, but also a free version of nightclubs, where young women can interact without restraint. Some Ghanaian Churches even run their own music-label, and Zambian inter-Church conferences are easily mistaken for rock-music festivals.

Given the “dearth of other entertainment…the element of show time increases in importance.” Instead of spending scarce money on nightclubs, teenage women can dance, vent their frustration, and meet young men at Church.

It strikes me quite sad that the Entertainment value of worship can be seen as a positive in a land ravished with waste, despair, famine, rape, aids, genocide. What should be most alarming to my N. American/Western friends is that modern Pentecostalism is an invention and export of American culture. Is this new consumer spirituality of the American Church that has been shipped throughout the world a new “White Man’s Burden?

If you have a regular place to worship…question the entertainment value of your “worship” encounter. Does this produce the kind of life of the God you are worshiping? Or is it instilling and replicating a consumer spirituality? Though we may not suffer much from famine and disease, it is hard to argue that we are a spiritual and cultural wasteland – where things like community and originality are quickly thrown under the bus for a bigger slice of the proverbial pie. I’m not knocking Hillsong or Jesus Culture or anything else…just asking the questions

Do our spiritual lives and communities reflect the desire for encountering the living God or to consume something that will make us feel “fulfilled”?