Phil Whittall, a writer and church leader in Stockholm, asks what kind of church could confront consumerism.
I am a consumer, we all are, it’s an unavoidable reality. You have to consume air, food and water just to stay alive, so there’s that. You have to consume resources and energy for food and shelter so there’s that too. Most of us do not grow our own food (or at least not all of it) so we work to have money to buy the essentials.
But life is more, much more than the bare essentials. Humans love to write, create, sing, paint, play, build, tinker, act, watch, listen, study, explore and every one of these delightful and rewarding activities creates things that we consume. Books to read, tools to use, plays and films to watch, albums to listen to and in turn each one of those requires someone to make them, companies to transport them, shops to sell them. This requires the infrastructure necessary and on it goes. For most of history this hasn’t posed too much of a problem. Not so today.
Now there are more people than ever before that earn much more than we need to just simply survive. We have disposable income and we dispose of it mostly on stuff. That’s a simple description of an economy centred around the consumption of goods (spending money on stuff). This growth and yes progress can be seen in the pages of Genesis and written throughout the pages of history but in our accelerating and the unprecedented scale of our desire for more stuff, we seem to have dug ourselves into a hole and burnt the ladder that could get us out.
This causes us severe problems on every level. An economy run this way requires not just spending, but debt (personal and national), it rewards waste and quantity over quality. We have a system that has created vast inequalities of dire poverty at one end and incredible excessive wealth at the other. It is endless, exhausting, polluting and hard to escape. The good life is not so good after all.
As environmentalists have demonstrated to death our way of life is unsustainable (and increasingly so) but this idea of economic growth seems locked in politically. We are addicted to growth. There are attempts to model something different but the path from here to there has the words too little, too late written all over it.
We also know the rich are less generous than the poor, we know materialism is bad for us and so is selfishness. As Christians we know chasing material ends is futile, that saving should not be hoarding. We know generosity is good, biblical, something we should do, and that neither poverty nor riches is reasonable policy (not that most of us in the West would ever consider ourselves rich though). Slight aside, too often when the church talks about increasing generosity, what it really means is increasing generosity to the church but that’s for another post.
I need some fresh dreams about the church
As I’ve been reflecting on this I realise I still have few answers and given my stage in life this is more than a little depressing. I’ve been thinking about this topic for twenty years and not a lot has changed in any meaningful way.
But I do keep returning to the thought that the church still has the potential to be something more prophetic, more bold, more joyful, more creative, more subversive, more unsettling, more dynamic, more sustaining, a bright city on a hill. I have this feeling that somewhere in the genius of the Christian view of church lies the seeds of hope. But of all the church traditions the evangelical tradition (of which I am and have always been a member) is the weakest here. The evangelical imagination gets a bit stuck at anything beyond Bible studies and church services.
The moment you start talking about something beyond these things, to many it all starts to smack of (gasp horror) the social gospel and they’ll urge you to just ‘preach the gospel.’ As if somehow Jesus Christ wasn’t Lord of All Things and that his reign isn’t all encompassing and isn’t all the more dangerous and thrilling because of it. But to give the cautious evangelical their due we should be honest enough to face the fact that plenty of the more creative expressions of church life tend to get a bit lost in the weeds when it comes to sticking to orthodox biblical Christianity.
So I think I need some fresh dreams about the church, some fresh imagination of the possibilities, the things that give a little taste of heaven beyond cool worship (and I love me some cool worship), that make me think, yes – that.
Isn’t it possible for the church to be centred around the person of Jesus, the historic teachings of Scripture, the life of the Spirit and model something new to the world? When it comes to family life, community life, money, giving, the environment, care for the elderly, adoptions, sustaining marriages, caring for the poor, encouraging arts, music, sciences, research, writers, thinkers, crafts and more the church has SO much to offer.
There must be a cross somewhere between L’Abri, L’Arche, Finkenwalde, The Simple Way, Redeemer, The Benedict Option and one of those churches with fantastic worship. Musn’t there?