If you’ve been paying attention to the online arguments in the past few years, you’ve probably seen Christians arguing about how we should relate to the world around us. (If you haven’t, it’s okay, but I’m going to write about it anyway.)
Some argue for a form of withdrawal from society to catechize, where we function in distinct communities but still seek to serve the world around us. Others argue we should continue to go about our business on a daily basis and not differentiate ourselves overtly from the world; our presence in society as believers should serve to draw evangelistic interest. Still others have a more overt interest in Christianizing enterprises and doing them openly and overtly for Christ.
All of these are variations on a common theme. All of them are trying to answer a very important question:
“How do we serve Christ faithfully in a world that often actively and passively dishonors him?”
That question is a vital one, but it is too big for a single blog post. However, I argue that a significant part of honoring Christ in our daily lives, no matter our overarching understanding of the place of Christianity in the public square, is becoming Counter-Consumeristic.
What is Consumerism?
Definitions of consumerism vary depending on where you look and who you are asking.
For the sake of simplicity, I will define consumerism as an inappropriate concern for material comfort especially through the pursuit of material goods.
Consumerism is all about the buyer. The goal of consumerism is to buy whatever you need to make you happy.
In its best forms, consumerism leads to a focus on purchasing benefiting the needs of the customer.
However, consumerism is most often evidenced in Western society by acquisitiveness. Particularly in the United States, consumerism tends to be about getting more stuff or having better experiences.
Advertisers spend billions of dollars each year trying to explain why their product will make you happier, thinner, better, taller, prettier, or whatever.
Sometimes advertisers are marketing legitimate products that do offer real benefits. However, often, if someone has to advertise their product heavily, they are selling something you don’t really need.
Consumerism is a mindset that falls into the advertiser’s trap by believing that getting that new thing—whatever it is—will make life just a little bit better. Consumerism is a way of falling into the trap of believing that anything besides Christ is truly fulfilling.
Given my definition, with which you are free to disagree, you can see why I believe consumerism might be something to be resisted.
Others on the world wide web agree with me, and some of those others call for Christians to become minimalists. Minimalists are people who try to own only those items they need right now.
Minimalism is great if you are wealthy and can purchase multipurpose devices and be sure you will have resources to replace broken objects without digging a previous model out of the closet. (This is, incidentally, one of the reasons why hoarders tend to be poor people.)
However, Christian resistance to consumerism is less about not owning objects but examining the reason why we own them.
As Christians, we are called to do everything for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31) This is a truism and often over-quoted (perhaps even here), but in this context, it means that what we purchase and own should be done for the glory of God.
Therefore, owning a car is fine if we do it for the glory of God. Now, the task for the Christian is to explain why purchasing a shiny new sports car with heated seats, built in massagers, and a microwave to replace the serviceable family sedan glorifies God. Or, for another example, to explain why buying a semi masquerading as a pickup truck to haul the boat you use three weekends of the year glorifies God.
Counter-Consumeristic Christianity entails resisting the myth that more is better and that the next purchase will unlock your best life now. It doesn’t mean you can’t purchase objects that you enjoy or that make life easier, but it does cause us to evaluate our priorities. If you can find a way to justify how the sports car glorifies God, then go ahead.
The essence of becoming Counter-Consumeristic is creating an internal filter before spending money that asks, “How will this item, service, or experience glorify God in my life?”
If you don’t have a good answer for that, don’t spend the money. It’s that simple.
There are a couple of practical reasons to become Counter-Consumeristic Christians. First, consumerism often leads to unsustainable spending habits. Second, consumerism often leads to improper environmental stewardship and wastefulness. Third, consumerism often increases the work required to take care of our stuff; it makes life harder instead of easier. These are all good reasons to avoid consumerism.
More significantly, however, I believe that when Christians become consumeristic it sends a clear message that our hope is in something other than Christ.
When the only differences between our lifestyle and the world around us are that we go to a special building on Sunday and don’t swear, it really leaves us with very little real witness.
There’s more to a sanctified Christian life than being Counter-Consumeristic, but it is certainly part of the mix.