The rise of consumerism since World War II has had a pervasive and profound impact on the Christian religion of the West that is changing some of the most fundamental, and foundational values of the Christian Church. The typical church agenda for helping the needy and oppressed, seeking unity in diversity, and finding spiritual identity has been replaced by agendas for defending the middle class and wealthy, growth through target marketing causing segmentation, and buying into consumer identities. What is in effect happening is a paradoxical battle between charitable mentality and indulgent mindlessness.
A New Economy of Salvation
To illustrate the acuteness of the change taking place, Martin E. Marty, a writer for the Christian Century Magazine, argues that the ancient phrase and idea of an “economy of salvation” referring to divine stewardship has given way to a different meaning: one of many choices or marketing for something “cheap”. Two particular strategies of church growth are compared to show the contrasting ideas. “The first offers an economy of salvation on the cheap…let people know that ‘all are welcome’; ‘come as you are’ implies that there will never be demands…Yes, there are some prices: church members have to give generously. But in this economy God promises commensurate rewards…The second offers an economy of salvation that is expensive. There is more biblical warrant if less marketing finesse in this approach. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it The Cost of Discipleship, picking up on Jesus’ stories that command, for the sake of the kingdom, that we sell all that we have and give to the poor.”1
In an editorial from the Irish Independent, the battle is seen as one religion clashing with a new pseudo-religion—consumerism:
You become a consumerist when you start to believe ‘I buy, therefore I am’, and to think, ‘I am what I buy’. Everyone needs something on which to hang their identity, from which to derive a sense of meaning and purpose.
That sense used to come from belonging to a particular religion, or a tribe, or a nation, or a clan or some combination of all these things.
But modern individualism encourages us to construct our identity, our sense of meaning, for ourselves, and that’s where consumerism comes in. It encourages us to construct an image for ourselves from the things we buy, an image we can then present to the world for its judgment…The true consumerist, the true victim of affluenza, always views themselves through the eyes of others.
The advertisers are their priests, telling them how to live their lives and construct their sense of
Advertisements are their catechism and their fellow consumerists are their fellows believers. It is they [who] will judge them and place them among the consumerist saints, or sinners according to how successfully they have built their image.”2
Descartes idea of ‘I think, therefore I am’ is now giving way to a new postmodern consumer way of thinking: I buy, therefore I am. The hailed ‘purpose driven life’ is losing ground to the ‘purchase driven life’.
Since this shift took root after World War II, the Christian Church has found itself facing one of the biggest disharmonies in it’s history. As suburbs began to sprout overnight along with the grand entrance of the mega-malls and shopping centers, two important things have occurred. One, is that the value of the traditional identity in family was engulfed and wiped out by the value of a new consumer individual identity. As an individual consumer, you are free to define yourself and write your own life story. In a study on consumption and identity Peter Jackson notes, “identity is a reflexive project…sustained through narratives of the self…Consumption can play a vital role in the articulation of such narratives.”3
The unique thing is that this self-directed and self-made narrative in the new consumer society is dependent on the amount of money you have. The second thing that has occurred is the migration of the middle and wealthy class peoples to the suburbs. The shopping center suburbs have provided a utopic hope for anyone—so long as you have the money—to realize the American Dream of individualism. What makes this significant is that these middle class and wealthy families that once filled the cities, were predominately white. When many African Americans moved out of the south into the major cities, the middle class moved out of the cities to the suburbs. In fact, suburbia was designed to favor the white middle-class men, as the mortgages, credit, and tax benefits were catered to them.4 The poorer, who could not afford to live in the suburbs, had to find their places within the city where it was cheaper. In A Consumer Republic, Lizabeth Cohen writes, “Race was intrinsic to the process of postwar suburbanization, as the steady influx of African Americans to northern and western cities during the war, and the Second Great Migration out of the South that followed it, helped motivate urban whites to leave.”5
These issues bring us to the main question at hand: Has this altered the face of the Christian Church? Has this consumer individual identity and segmentation creeped up into the sanctuary? Looking further into the specific studies done on the subject, we find that not only has consumerism affected the Christian church, but has infact defaced a large portion of it. Professor Paul Metzger of Multnomah Biblical Seminary writes a provocative book arguing that a major factor of consumerism’s effects within the Christian community has to do with race and class divisions: “the approach taken by the Religious Right, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and the like over the last few decades…exemplifies an adherence to political and social policies that give the appearance of being fixated on conservative, middle class American social values.”6 He goes on to say that “many evangelical leaders give the appearance of going to battle to maintain…a certain standard of living and way of life—even a Kinkadian-like utopian vision of upward mobility and homogeneity.”7,8
Through pragmatic reductionism as well as political reductionism, many evangelical leaders have given up trying to bring unity and diversity to their churches and communities and have instead settled for what seems to work best and easiest. No longer is the lobbying or defense equally for all—including those who are poor, orphaned, widowed, oppressed, downtrodden, homeless., etc, but increasingly exclusive to those who are prosperous and well-off in the suburbs.
Looking back on the new meaning that “economy of salvation” has taken on in the 20th century, the question of church growth now comes to mind. What are the implications of the ‘new economy of salvation’ on church growth? In reference to the American economy, Lizabeth Cohen quotes Jack Isidor Straus, board chairman of Macy’s in 1963, who proclaimed that “Our economy keeps growing because our ability to consume is endless.”9
The more consumerism there is the more apparent growth. With meaning and identity up for sale, target marketing and reductionism have become part and parcel to church growth where the path of least resistance has become ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ and little consideration is given to those outside the target groups.
In his book The McDonaldization of the Church, John Drane juxtaposes the well-known thesis of “the McDonaldization of Society”10 to the the modern Christian evangelical Church and seeks to show us that this social and structural change in society is also happening in the Christian community. The concept of “the McDonaldization of Society” was coined by sociologist George Ritzer in 1993 and referred to “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurants are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.”11 Ritzer explained that these principles can be traced back to Henry Ford’s methods of the assembly line and mass production where complicated tasks were broken down into many smaller and simpler ones. Efficiency was the key to success. These methods were later adopted by Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s to break down hamburger cooking into a precise and efficient process.
The effect of “McDonaldization” can be seen everywhere. Sociologist Michael Farrall from St. Edwards University responding to Ritzer’s work writes, “this process, occurring throughout society, is transforming our lives. Shopping malls are controlled environments of approved design, logo, colors, and opening and closing hours. Travel agencies transport middle-class Americans to ten European capitals in fourteen days, each visitor experiencing exactly the same hotels, restaurants, and other predictable settings. No one need fear meeting a “real” native. USA Today produces the same bland, instant news – in short, unanalytic pieces that can be read between gulps of the McShake or the McBurger.”12
Four points are made by Ritzer as to the effects of McDonaldization in society: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. According to Drane it is the dimension of predictability that has transformed the Church the most:
of the four major traits of McDonaldization identified by Ritzer, this is the one which is most
easily identified in the Church. Ritzer defines it in the following terms:
“In a rational society people prefer to know what to expect in all settings and at all times. They neither want nor expect surprises… In order to ensure predictability over time and place, a rational society emphasizes such things as discipline, order, systematization, formalization, routine, consistency, and methodical operation… It is these familiar and comfortable rituals that make fast-food restaurants attractive to legions of people.” (Ritzer, McDonaldization of Society)13
One of the main dysfunctions of the McDonaldized predictable church is the increasing importance of quantity over quality. When quantity becomes the rule of thumb by which the success of a church is measured it can very easily become the agenda leaving little room for quality. In effect, members become mass produced through means of prepackaged and highly pragmatic methods. Ritzer argues that the “rationality” of these processes are ultimately irrational: “Most specifically, irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them.”14 Such methodical processes for producing high growth not only yield products of cheap quality, but undermine basic humanity and human reason. The difference can be as wide as a handmade product versus a mass-produced one. As Drane states, “There is a widespread tendency today to equate quality with quantity in many different areas of life….Christians are not immune from this obsession with numbers and quantity.”15 As the core values of the Church begin to revolve more around quantity, many Christians are beginning to question the leadership and cast doubt on their abilities and motives. Many Christians have also left the Church in untold numbers due to these problems.16 But if the church agendas and success are become quantity centered, other values begin to emerge. “The issue of power and control is at the heart of all the other factors that are at work in a McDonaldized style of being. Numbers become all-important to church leaders, especially in the American context where churches are self-consciously competing with one another for market share, because they endow clergy with status both in the local situation and also in the wider denominational contexts.” (p.54) Drawing a connection between the church leaders motives in numbers and the dawning of consumer individual identity, there is a strong sense that church leaders are seeking their own consumer identities incited by new ideals of church leadership. There is, in addition to consumerism among the lay people of society, also a consumerism within the realm of leadership. Religious and academic status are ascribed to the number of books you write and sell, the number of sermons you preach, the number of lay people in your pew, and even how many possessions you own.
However, this, as the “out-of-church” Christian movement suggests, is not working very well. In the short-run, the marketing seems to work, but, as Alan Jamieson points out, most “out-of-church Christians” have left a church they’ve been a member of for over 15 years.17 In the long-run, the effort to process prepackaged models and mass-marketing schemes to gain numbers is having adverse effects. The idea of target-marketing by churches is discussed in depth by Metzger. On the one hand, reaching out to and helping the community requires an attitude of inclusion or what is sometimes referred to as contextualization. He argues however, that contextualization and demographic targeting are not the same. To embark on a path towards a specific demographic, is to “militate against whole-person and whole-community analysis…I would hate to be the person attending a purpose-driven church who comes to the realization that he is not the kind of person that the church is targeting. The fact that my likings are different might very well mean that the church might not really like me.”18 This very issue brings full circle to the problem of consumer market segmentation and the class and race divisions it has unwittingly promoted.
The Suburban Church
The suburban church especially has seemingly found success—as far as numbers go—through this McDonaldization where individualism and consumerism reign. Going back to Metzger’s study, our attention is turned to John Perkins, an African American evangelical Christian leader speaking for the inner city working class minorities who asserts that many churches “have substituted a gospel of church growth for a gospel of reconciliation…so the most segregated racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers…oblivious to the fact [of] the dismemberment of the body of Christ…”19 It the movement has been more toward isolation than toward inclusion. In a recent study it was found that in the last couple of decades, American’s have found themselves with fewer real friends or confidants outside the family.20 “The study paints a picture of Americans’ social contacts as a “densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family. That means fewer contacts created through clubs, neighbors and organizations outside the home”.21
The same study also revealed social network stratification according to race and class. Through the paths of least resistance, churches have isolated and stratified themselves much in the same way where fewer and fewer contacts are made outside the church as well as between races and classes.
For decades the Christian Church has been deeply affected by the trends and movements of consumerism and its insatiable desires for more. What this means for the Church’s future is uncertain but perhaps closely related to the future of the consumer society at large to which it is vehemently attached. The patterns of consumer society have lured the best of churches as the polarization of suburbs and city widen, and the means of growth McDonaldize. The epidemic is global. When traditional and religious values come into contact with consumerism and capitalism, the offspring becomes a diffused mix of each with capitalism being the dominate value. The scene in China is a good foreign representation of the patterns found here in America. Bin Zhao writes, “In today’s China, pragmatism has triumphed over other ideologies; the quintessence of this stance is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s ‘cat theory’—’it does not matter whether the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the mice, it is a good cat.’ For most people, it no longer matters whether the cat is ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ or ‘capitalism with Confucian colours.’ As long as it works for China’s development, it is regarded as a ‘good-ism’.22
If Confucian community intermingled with capitalism and begat a “capitalism with Confusion colors”23 as Zhao states, then what can be said for the Christian Church intermingling with it? In a general point of view from the issues discussed it very much appears like capitalism with Christian colors.
1Marty, Martin E., “Bagged for Jesus”, Christian Century 10/16/2007, Vol. 124 Issue 21, p71
2“Affluenza is new religion and its creed is spend, spend, spend” Sept.2006: Irish Independent
3Jackson, Peter, “Consumption and Identity”, European Planning Studies, 7:1, 1999. p.29
4Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, New York, Vintage Books, 2003. p.200
6Paul Louis Metzger, Consuming Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. p.33
9Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, New York, Vintage Books, 2003. p.261
10Ritzer, George, The McDonaldization of Society, Pine Forge Press, 1993.
12Farrall, Michael. “The McDonaldization of Society.” . Accessed 27 May 2008.
13Drane, John, The McDonaldization of the Church: Consumer Culture and the Church’s Future, Smyth & Helwy’s Publishing Inc., 2001. p.48
14Ritzer, George, The McDonaldization of Society, Pine Forge Press, 1993. p.154
15Drane, John, The McDonaldization of the Church: Consumer Culture and the Church’s Future, Smyth & Helwy’s Publishing Inc., 2001. p.44
16Jamieson, Alan, A Churchless Faith: Faith Journeys Beyond the Churches, Pilgrim Press, 2002.
18Paul Louis Metzger, Consuming Jesus, Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. p.53
20Hicks, Sally, “Americans Have Fewer Friends Outside the Family, Duke Study Shows”, June 2006. http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/2006/06/socialisolation.html
22Bin Zhao, “Consumerism, Confucianism, Communism: Making Sense of China Today”, New Left Review, Vol. A, March 1997.