Challenges of a consumer culture

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I’m intrigued when I go to Bunnings on a Sunday morning. People check their children in for a craft. Dads go to a DIY class. We give to a community cause and have a fellowship BBQ as we aim for a makeover like the one we saw on TV. Why Bunnings? Well, it has far more choice than the little family hardware store that used to be down the road. For many, a trip to Bunnings is a spiritual experience.

Australia is one of the most consumer driven cultures on the planet. We live in what Mark Sayers describes as a “hyper-real consumer culture”. Each day we see more than 3000 advertisements that tell us we need to be something different or that we need more. In our culture, consumerism has taken the place of what sociologists call folk religion. Folk religion is the thinking grid that we live within to determine our identity, actions, meaning and hope.

Consumerism shapes our sense of identity and personality. We are sold the lie that we are a purchase away from happiness. We continually think “I need more” and that somehow “I am missing out.”

Some people might be very wealthy by our standards, but score low on consumer scales—they realise what they have is all from and for God and doesn’t actually belong to them. Their self-identity is not tied up in what they own. Others might have relatively little, however their driving desire and hope is for what they don’t yet have. Like greyhounds racing after a fake rabbit, they run real hard after the elusive promises of consumer culture.

Consumerism teaches me that things exist to make me happy, that I can have gratification now, and that products are disposable and always being updated. Sadly, we don’t just treat products this way. We commodify people and can end up using them as products—for our happiness, to meet our needs, disposable or needing an update. I want my “needs” met now, regardless of who is hurt or mistreated along the way. Consumerism puts me at the centre and makes me think life is about my own little story and everything is for my glory. I disengage from the wider stories of religion, history and a world in desperate need, to pursue my own little empire of self-happiness.

We even start treating God and church as products. Church becomes an event I watch, rather than a community to be involved in. The main measurement becomes, “did I like it or not?” The Bible becomes a book of consumable suggestions rather than a big story of God’s love for humanity. God becomes a cosmic prosperity vending machine to provide me with more rather than a loving Being who desires a growing relationship with me.

Our rampant consumerism also has environmental and social implications. We are consuming non-renewable resources at an alarming rate and see the natural world as raw material for production rather than God’s creation to be cared for. We source products because they are a bargain, and forget about stewardship of the natural world and the dignity of people in the process. We are obsessed with economic growth at the expense of fairness and wellbeing. We care about battery hens but have forgotten about battery people—trampled in the producer/consumer story.

God had a lot to say about empires that dehumanise and crush people.

Paul writes in Romans 12 that we get “conformed to the patterns of this world” without even thinking. Paul wasn’t writing about consumerism but he was talking about how the dominant values of the empire have a way of moulding who we are.

Consumerism is a modern institutionalised expression of the same selfishness that has always been the problem. As Christians we are called to live with a different hope and desire, and remember we are shaped for a greater purpose.

Jesus spoke often about the challenge of consumerism. Sure, there weren’t all the advertisements, brands, cosmetics and fashion magazines in New Testament times, but He did explain in Luke 12 how things have a way of taking hold of our hearts and becoming our master. He talked about how we can so easily give our heart to the wrong treasure, define ourselves according to the wrong grid and end up serving money.

So how do we find a way out—live in the world but not be of it? The reality is that we are going to consume. We will buy shoes, clothes, food and more. Consumerism is not so much the fact we buy, but rather the meaning we place in the process. The biblical story of Daniel highlights how we can live, and even thrive, in Babylon—an empire that symbolises false worship. Daniel purposed in his heart that he belonged to a more significant empire. He prayed with and sought support from friends with similar values. He re-calibrated around God’s purpose for him often—at least three times a day—and remembered that everything, including his intellect and ability to interpret dreams, was from God and that only God was worthy of ultimate glory. When we start with knowing we exist for God’s glory we view the world differently.

As the Church in Australia, we are taking steps to address the challenge of consumerism in this country. [pullquote]

We’re creating healthy church resources that focus on building loving, biblical communities. Our schools and our churches are lifting the “serving temperature”, which grows people to be less consumer driven. We’ve developed a faith-shaper children’s engagement strategy, which includes fostering intergenerational connectedness.

Our Youth Engagement Summit, which is planned for late May, will work through strategies to re-engage the home and family as the primary place for discipleship. This will include addressing the consumer culture that chokes out discipleship in the home. We’ve developed discipleship resources, produced especially to explore consumer culture and what it means to live beyond it. And our new Pioneer book series engages children into the story of our Church with a focus on servanthood. Engaging in our story is one of the best ways to address the consumer challenge.

As Christians we are called to give our life to a different story. Rather than be conformed, we are to be transformed (Romans 12:1-3).

We will find our hope, desire and identity in Jesus and, ironically, find our life by giving it away—shifting from our agenda to serving God’s. We will value people, take time to grow, serve, share and worship in ways that resist commodification. We will live to God’s glory in a world that focuses on self. This is the starting point of a significant life that matters for now and eternity.

Tips for living beyond consumer culture

  • Think about what advertising is telling you and why you might be choosing a particular product.
  • Focus on people. Intentionally slow down to spend time with family, church community and neighbours.
  • Lift your capacity to serve in your home, church and world.
  • Be generous with your time, talents and treasure. Generosity breaks the hold of consumerism. Tithing 10 per cent of your income is a great way to guard against the greed of consumerism and remind you that your bank account is actually for God’s glory.
  • Celebrate Sabbath. The Sabbath stands as a mark against consumerism and reminds me I exist for a bigger purpose of growing, serving, connecting, sharing and worshipping.
  • Spend time with older people who have stories but are often overlooked.
  • Spend time in nature. People who do are often less consumer-driven and more likely to value creation.
  • Take some time to recalibrate around what really matters. Put in place some heart-building habits that connect you with God.

Pastor Brendan Pratt is Ministerial Secretary for the Australian Union Conference.

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