29 July 2013
Millenials, Consumerism in Church, and the Idolatry of God
Recently, Rachel Held Evans published a post at the CNN Belief Blog entitled "Why Millenials are Leaving the Church" and gives as clear and complete summary of those reasons that you'll find. It's a must read for ministry leaders.
One of the reasons she identifies is consumerism in the church. That is, when the church treats itself like a product and potential members (and current members, for that matter) as consumers.
In light of declining attendance and cultural irrelevance, she says, churches think the answer is to repackage and rebrand themselves so young adults (and others) will want to come. She writes this:
Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.
But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.
This critique of consumerism doesn't get much play in conversations around the church. Why? Probably because we are so ingrained in consumer culture (work, politics, economy) that we can't even tell that we are part of the system. Like fish in water, it is our whole environment. We don't even notice it.
At the same time I read Held Evan's post, I picked up a copy of Pete Rollins' latest book, The Idolatry of God: Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. Pete takes this consumerism head on, outlining how we sell the church, and sell God, and how it hurts the people we intend to help.
Rollins argues that people long for (really, are addicted to the need for) satisfaction, wholeness, perfection, and escape. The consumer market prays on this deepest need by offering products that promise to give us these things—and that the church does the same thing with itself and God.
Pete writes, "instead of offering freedom from this type of thinking, the church has simply joined the party and placed its own product into the machine. Their god-product takes its place alongside all the other things vying for our attention with their promises to fill the gap in our lives and render our existence meaningful. Take one or mix and match: luxury car, financial success, fame, or Jesus; they all pretty much promise the same satisfaction."
So, we wind up making the same promises about God or church that Apple does about the latest iPhone—this is all you need to make your life complete, transcend, be happier, more productive and efficient, avoid traffic, ignore calls...escape suffering and the mundane.
God as Iphone
People complain that we treat technology like God, but the nasty twist is that we treat God and churches like technology—like the iPhone—the latest and greatest product in the religious consumer marketplace—a God and church that we promise will take away all your problems. And what happens when problems arise for people? They move to another product, they yell at customer service (clergy!), you lose brand (church) loyalty. They want a refund. They give up on God. Because often what they were promised God would do for them is really a false promise.
Even when we operate on doctrines of grace and the theology of the cross we can still fall into it. Because its so pervasive. Because we really want people to join our churches and want to show them how great we are—that we are the best product on the market—and maybe because we want the same things for ourselves. When this happens, our marketing strategy undermines our theology.
God in the Real Stuff of Life
Rollins writes that Jesus never promised certainty, satisfaction, perfection, and escape from our suffering. People tried to make him king, emporer, and he refused. Jesus "is constantly depicted as doing things that undermine this idolatrous way of relating to him. Showing weakness when people expect strength, powerlessness when they want power, and humility when they want majesty." Jesus rejects it, all the way to the cross.
Jesus didn't come to the be next celebrated product. He came to liberate us from our endless thirst for satisfaction. Rollins: "instead of God being that which fills the gap at the core of our being, we... discover something more amazing and liberating: namely that the God testified to in Christanity exposes the gap for what it is, obliterates it, and invites us to participate in an utterly different form of life, one that brings us beyond slavery to the Idol."
And so, the freedom we find in God is not trading one Idol or another, but stepping out of this consumer culture, enabling us to God in our daily living with all its unknowing, complexity, suffering, brokenness, and routines.
I think this is what Millenials want. A Jesus who won't be neatly packaged, who offers true freedom, who exposes the myths of consumerism, and who can be found right in the midst of their real lives, not some imagined life. It's what I want. It's what people in our pews want. But we have to stop selling long enough to listen and share it with them.
Here's a short video of Pete talking about the Idolatry of God:
photo credit: Steven Depolo