Rescuing the Church from Consumerism
Author: Mark Clavier
Publisher: SPCK Publishing
I’ll nail my colours to the mast at the outset and say I am fairly anti-consumer culture. In fact, I had qualms about acquiring a book that has at heart a critique of consumption. I have felt for a long time that Christians have a role in promoting a different way of life. We are stewards of our environment, so we should use resources wisely. The world is my neighbour, so I should not turn a blind eye to others’ lack whilst I have plenty. So I was interested in the idea behind the book, setting out a way for the Church to reclaim its identity from a Western consumer culture.
In some ways I feel underqualified to properly comment on the thesis presented here. I don’t know if the theology or the solutions are sound or realistic. I suspect one argument in return might be that realistic is defeatist – this is a radical call to a new way of thinking about Church, and nothing radical is realistic. It is a hard line prescription for a church that should not give away membership lightly but educate its members into faith, looking to past structures of family and household to provide a structure in which our identity is more than a selfish consumption.
At one point I found myself wondering whether the analysis for the church today as described really is the equivalent of the child who sees the emperor is naked, or whether it is a dystopian and perhaps unhelpful criticism of the way the church is. But perhaps that is because I feel I want to defend the institution against the criticism. Yet I know I approach the debate from a place of relative ignorance.
The first part of the book sketches the history of the consumer society we find ourselves in. Clavier compares the rites of society to those of the church, suggesting that children are baptised into the consumer lifestyle via early exposure to branded goods, as they once would be baptised in the church. Consumerism and individualism has therefore pervaded all parts of society. Spirituality is conflated with well-being; both are now located within the therapy culture where we pay professionals to fix us. Individual self-actualisation is now less a psychological process and more a process of creating an identity based on what we wear, eat, shop and drink. This very ideas of self, and choice, and freedom for us consumers has the effect of locking the poorly-paid producers into a life of no choice or freedom. And the church, now peopled by second- and third-generation consumers, has become completely absorbed into this culture – and by being absorbed is being diluted and fading away. The argument therefore is that the church needs to find a distinct way of being – rediscovering its place as a community anchor, the household of God.
Clavier criticises current thinking as being too rooted in the very consumerism the church needs to be retreating from, so the ideas of Messy church or café church are not distinctive enough – to paraphrase, they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And speaking of babies – Clavier suggests those who freely baptise all comers are cheapening the sacrament, and that baptism ‘needs to be reclaimed as a sacrament rather than perpetuated as a cultural relic.’ (p118). Earlier in the book he suggests that the families’ narrative – a significant event – collides with the church’s narrative – a sacrament – “resulting most often in awkward moments in which families and the regular congregation dance clumsily around each other as each gropes for different goals: the families for a significant event and the congregation for new membership” (p78).
Clavier’s battle cry is thus:
It is long past time for the Church in the West to open its eyes to the world in which it now ministers, to see how much it abets the very forces that have diminished its witness and to begin to be a home for those called by God into his kingdom. Consumerism is arguably one of the most destructive forces ever devised by humankind…Only when the Church is again the alternative to dehumanizing forces in human society can it once more proclaim Christ crucified to a world that yearns, as it always has, for the generous and eternal embrace of God (p129)
I can’t decide if the five guidelines are genius or a prescription for a decline – again, I feel my relative ignorance precludes me from an opinion (well, there’s always a first time…). The tentative roots the church puts out via Fresh Expressions and church that is relevant to the unchurched is criticised for pandering to consumer culture – but it is the language people speak – so how do we get people into a place where they can be catechised into faith, to experience the ‘strange and foreign’ Eucharist (p120) before they feel at home?
Even if you did not agree with Clavier’s prescription for the Church, I believe we all need to hear the message about the way we are assimilated into a consumer culture without even noticing it. I think it is time for someone to expose the emperor, as it were – to call us to a distinctive living, to be the ‘resident aliens.’ And the discussions and debate that disagreement might spark off do, in themselves, have a role to play in how we understand our role in society.
(I was also pleased to find this blog post looking at how we can, individually, think more about our own consumer behaviour)