In 2015, Americans spent 608 minutes of every day online. That’s almost 11 hours per day.(1) Of those 11 hours, at least an hour a day is given to online shopping.(2) I wish I could claim immunity from this statistic. I need a particular book, but then I begin to look at other products, like a new camera or a new outfit or piece of jewelry. Before we know it, we’ve spent an entire afternoon shopping for whatever is the latest and greatest product.
While some might feel great about finding the best deal after hours of comparison-shopping, I feel overwhelmed by the loss of several hours of the little bit of time I have in each day for leisure. In addition, I am suspicious that the more I indulge my desire to satisfy my purchasing power the more my identity becomes that of a purchaser. As Annie Leonard notes in The Story of Stuff: “Our primary identity has become that of being consumers—not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but of consumers. We shop and shop and shop.”(3)
How did we become a culture of consumers in the West? What began as a period of unparalleled optimism and prosperity in the United States, in particular, following World War II became a national obsession. Retailing analyst, Victor Lebow, expressed the solution for converting a war-time prosperity into a peace-time economy of growth and abundance: “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…. [W]e need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”(4) In addition, the chairman of President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.”(4)
Of course, the ever-accelerating rate of consumption as the main driver for an economy raises many questions. Is growth the only goal, the necessary goal of economies? Should the ultimate goal of the economy be mass consumption? Or can economies foster the creation of better societies regardless of monetary growth? However one answers these questions, it doesn’t take an expert to see the impact of consumerism on human societies. In the West, ours is a throw-away society, where what we currently have today is passé tomorrow. More insidious, of course, is the way in which a consumptive-economy works to make us feel inadequate if we do not have the latest and greatest shoes, clothes, cars, tools, technology, or gadgets.
Sadly, a consumer-driven mentality is not limited to the buying and selling of goods. It becomes a way in which we understand every transaction including how and where we worship. The seemingly casual language about “church shopping” belies the depth of a consumer mindset. It becomes more and more difficult to see the church as the present day representation of Jesus Christ; we are members of this organic body entrusted with mission and witness in the larger society. Instead, consumerism tempts people of faith to view religion and the worship of God as a product to be consumed. The faithful become “shoppers” examining who offers the best product. Following Jesus looks more like a marketing strategy for a better life, marriage, kids, etcetera, and we ‘shop’ until we find the latest and greatest product.
If belonging to a church is judged as a product to be consumed, the church must appeal to the consumer to “buy into” the product. What is sometimes proclaimed as the gospel resembles a self-help seminar. If you “buy into” product Jesus, you’ll find the answer to every need, solace for every discomfort, and escape from our every trial. Indeed, consumerism makes Jesus the ultimate product to provide us with the life we have always wanted: a life of comfort, convenience, and efficiency. As consumerism reduces Jesus to a commodity, there is more and more pressure to “sell” the benefits of following Jesus. The counter-consumer messages of the gospel are harder and harder to hear and often ignored or altered. But what did Jesus say?
Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth.
No one can serve two masters.
If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does life consist of possessions.
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves….for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.(5)
Indeed, in response to this last teaching of Jesus, John’s gospel reports that many of the disciples said that this statement was so difficult that they had no idea what to do with it except to walk away from him.
Who can hear the message of the gospel in a world that makes consumer confidence the measure of strength or weakness, success or failure? Who can listen to it when consumerism dictates the desire for a packaged Jesus, not too challenging and certainly comforting, ready and able to meet every need? Indeed, who can listen to the challenging words of Jesus in a world about the business of converting the buying and use of goods into rituals, and seeking our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption? Are we rightly consuming Christ or simply shopping for another product?
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Michigan.
(1) Jason Karaian, “We Now Spend More Than Eight Hours a Day Consuming Media” June 1, 2015. Accessed 27 July 2016.
(2) Matt Tatham, “For Every Hour Online, Americans Spend 16 minutes on Social Networks,” Experian.com, April 8, 2013. Accessed 26 July 2016.
(3) Anne Leonard, “The Story of Stuff,” www.storyofstuff.com.
(4) Victor Lebow as cited in “Consumer Culture is no Accident” by David Suzuki, Earth Easy.
(5) See Matthew 5:44, 6:19, 24, 7:1; Mark 2:17, 8:34; Luke 12:15; John 6:53-68.
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