For the past couple of years, the holidays have sent me into an uncomfortable examination of consumerism. My consumerism. Your consumerism. Our consumerism. This over-attention to “stuff-ness” starts with a bang on Black Friday and then backbuilds through Advent before exploding all over itself on Christmas morning.
Each year brings some new stomach-turning twist. The advertisements are darker and darker–like the department store commercial that turns misfit shopping behavior into a cutesy musical number,
or the electronic goods chain who is running a series of “game on Santa” spots
and the behavior of the consumer follows suit. People pepper-spray their way through crowds of shoppers to get the best deal. They mob one another for discount waffle irons.
A.J. Swoboda, in a message he gave at Theophilus Church on Sunday, Nov. 27, observed that “Black Friday has become our culture’s new Good Friday.” That’s a problem. And it is infecting our churches. Consumerism is alive and well in our faith communities and more often than not it, not the gospel, is in the driver’s seat.
In an email last weekend, prompted by my post on Jim Collins’ Good to Great, my father remarked,
Church members want a pastor with charisma who energizes them rather than a pastor who teaches the word so the Holy Spirit can change their life. They want music with melodies pleasing to them rather than words which praise God. They see themselves as stockholders and the deacons as the board of directors which means everyone is accountable to the member and the church’s role to bring them an ROI – a return on THEIR investment.
I think he’s right on. We are good consumers and we expect our churches to provide a steady diet of things for our consumption. Tim Suttle wrote a wonderful piece for the Huffington Post in which he describes the “one-two punch” of consumerism as sentimentality and pragmatism. More and more, churches are looking to feel-good Sundays and corporate growth strategies to increase their bottom line–which is usually butts in the seats and dollars in the plates. And that makes me sad.
But I am still hopeful. One of the reverberations from the market crash 2007-2008 is a growing distrust for large, faceless corporate organizations. In October 2011, around 650,000 people abandoned big banks for smaller, local credit unions. The Occupy Wall Street movement is one example of people expressing their feelings about large corporations. The rise of Etsy and the recent invention of “Small Business Saturday” are others. It is hard to know, and be known by, an organization. I think that people are moving progressively toward valuing that which is small and simple, over large and complex.
That will necessarily impact how we “do” church. I think that the bell is tolling for megachurches. They’re not too big to fail, and many will. But what will step in to gather together those displaced by the collapse of these huge faith “communities?” Smaller churches, sure, but it won’t be enough to just be smaller.
Instead, we still have to deal with the way that consumerism shapes our desires and expectations. The gospel isn’t a product, the pastor isn’t a CEO, the elders are not a Board of Directors, and the congregants are not the customers. Christ is the head of the church. The gospel is his mission. We are his workforce.
For leaders, this means a radical shift in how we view ourselves and our roles within the church. Gilbert Fairholm’s Perspectives on Leadership, a seminal and important work on the difference between leadership and management, is helpful here. He takes the reader through past paradigms (which he calls “virtual environments”) of understanding the role and task of leadership–Leadership as Management, Leadership as Excellence, Values Leadership, and Trust Leadership–before offering his proposal: Spritual Leadership.
Fairholm asserts that we want–we need–leaders who are aware of the spiritual implications of their role and the work in which we are engaged. He discusses problems with applying spiritual leadership in a business context, namely that it can lead to a perception of the leader as lacking professionalism, it interferes with the ambition to succeed, and it forces a leader to deal with her shortcomings. But these obstacles are not nearly so great in a church leadership context.
When it comes to spiritual leadership, church leaders can take the lead, so to speak, on creating models and best practices. Let the businesses and corporations learn from us, for a change! People are still searching for meaning in their lives. More and more they are waking up to the reality that consuming the latest retail goods doesn’t satisfy their appetites. We have an opportunity to offer a wonderful counter to the buy-consume-buy cultural norm. But to do that, we have to imagine faith communities that engage in a counter-rhythm. I think that small, spiritually-led communities are key. What do you think?