A consumer society can be defined as “a society in which the buying and selling of goods and services is the most important social and economic activity”. Most of us would recognise this description as a dominant dynamic in our communities. We easily assimilate the assumptions and outlook of the consumer as they abound all around us.
This poses a unique challenge both for the Church and for individual Christians. As a Church offering “services” – an unfortunate coincidence of words – people often respond to us as one leisure activity amongst many which competes for their attention. The problem with this response is that Christian worship easily becomes viewed as one form of “entertainment” which competes for the leisure time of Sunday consumers alongside football, rugby, or going for a walk on Ilkley Moor. We have become familiar with language which talks about Christian worship in terms of whether it suits my “likes” or “dislikes”, or whether it meets the “needs” of a family. It may also be discussed in terms of the individual “spiritual satisfaction” or “emotional or aesthetic needs” it provides. We easily become immune to the ways in which these are consumerist responses because we are increasingly unfamiliar with any other approach. We are even encouraged, broadly for good reason, to describe the different styles of worship which Churches offer across a town as a “menu”, options from which the willing spiritual diner can choose. One of the ways in which the Christian Church has always thrived has been by being able to adapt itself to the culture it serves. To do any other is to limit the call to outreach, mission and evangelism.
However, the mortal danger is that we collude with an attitude to faith that is wholly contrary to the call to discipleship presented by Jesus in the Gospels. He asked his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me”. It is hard to think of anything further removed from such discipleship than Christianity viewed as a self-pleasing leisure-time activity.
As a Church which seeks to be faithful to its Lord we walk a careful “tightrope” in honouring the call to outreach and mission in this day and generation, and yet at the same time not making that presentation of our life little more than one alternative in a menu of self-serving “spiritualities”. Christ called each of us as followers to a dedicated, day by day, discipleship. Such discipleship involves commitment, sacrifice and self-giving faithfulness – words rarely found in a consumerist discourse. As Christian individuals our call to follow Christ will undeniably involve each of us in challenging our own consumerist attitudes. The more we accede to a consumerist mentality, the more our discipleship is likely to suffer, and the more Christ’s body the Church is going to bear its destructive consequences.
Your friend and parish priest