We are all born into a culture that gets to shape us—in fact, disciple us—from the time of birth to death.
The overwhelming economic and social environment in which we are raised in the West profoundly impacts us all. The truth is that Western culture at the dawn of the twenty-first century is a particularly potent culture because of the omnipresent pervasiveness of media and the predominant role of market forces (with associated money and consumption) in our lives. We have simply to assume that the prevalent values and perspectives of the culture are being downloaded into each one of us from an early age; some of them are clearly good, some of them not so much.
The problem with these cultural ideas is that we generally can’t “see” them. Culture is invisible to those immersed in it; it’s like asking the proverbial fish to define water. We assume its rightness until we are confronted with an alternative vision of reality that calls it into question. It takes a fair bit of self-reflection, and I would say a very proactive, untamed discipleship in the Way of Jesus, to discern the darker sides of the culture. This is why the kingdom of God can only be experienced as a conversion from one system (kingdom) into another (e.g., Col. 1:13; 1 Thess. 1:9).
The point of this unnerving piece of information is that we simply have to be more aware of our own largely middle-class, and profoundly consumerist, biases if we are going to be effective missional agents in our time. Once again, it’s not that being middle-class is wrong per se; it’s just that it has some values that are consistent with the kingdom of God, but make no mistake, it has others that work to undermine Jesus’ mission and purpose in the world.
Obsession with personal security or the desire for increasing amounts of money and power are problematic when dealing with the Lord Jesus. Even something as seemingly right as “getting an education” can become an idol that is designed to secure ourselves and resist God’s will for our lives. Let me be clear here: I am not saying that education is wrong—far from it—but just like all things, it can become a means of disobedience and rebellion. Education is real social power and capital, and the fact is that we middle-class folk use it all the time; it’s unlikely to be spiritually neutral.
Likewise with consumerism, to buy things is basic to survival in a market-based economy like ours, but to be defined by what we buy is another thing altogether. The truth is that marketing exploits our deepest fears and desires in order to sell products. They have to. The factories and the economy produce much, much more than we need, so to keep the system operative, to make the capital work on its own terms, we have to keep the fires of consumption burning. To do this, marketing has to create desire and then seek to fulfill it through the purchasing of products.
I am not being snide, cynical, or anti-capitalist here, so please don’t dismiss what is being said for reasons of defensiveness. This is patently the case; consider how much of what you buy today will still be used by you in six months’ time. Research says that only five to ten percent will still be in use in six months; the rest is either thrown out into the garbage or becomes someone else’s product—mostly thrown out. Track what happens to the Christmas toys you buy for the kids or last season’s fashions to make the point.
Heck, we all go into debt to buy things we don’t really need. Ever asked why? What’s really driving us? Well, the aim is to create need in order to keep the factories, and therefore the economy, firing. But this takes a significantly spiritual twist in our own day—because in a more and more competitive environment, marketers have to reach deeper and deeper into human motivation to be able to sell us things we don’t really need. There is no doubt that when we go shopping, something akin to spirituality is at work. We buy not just to live and survive but also to fulfill a search for meaning, identity, purpose, and belonging. And here is where consumerism clashes with the claims of the kingdom.
Why is all this important? Well, apart from the serious implications for discipleship, global justice, and the environment, it’s important because it’s our culture, and sometimes to be faithful agents of the King, we simply have to subvert it. Also, we need to demonstrate and witness to a more righteous way of life.
The fact is that all the consumption and the relative wealth of people in the West haave not made us happy at all. Depression and suicide are largely problems in Western cultural contexts. The children in America are more likely to kill themselves than those in a Brazilian slum! This has to say something to us. It’s a big elephant in the room, and it has to be confronted if we are going to be missional Christians right here, right now.
Suggestions from Alan for further reflection:
- To explore the various hindrances that keep us from being revolutionary disciples, read Alan Hirsch and Debra Hirsch, Untamed.
- Watch Mark Sayers’s stimulating video (with book and study guide) The Trouble with Paris with a group of people and discuss.
- View and discuss the online video The Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.com). For implications of consumerism on Christian spirituality, read Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity.
- For Christian authenticity in the suburbs, explore books by Albert Y. Hsu, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty, and Dave L. Goetz, Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul.
Do you have more questions about personal discipleship within your community or small group?
–> Join the online community, ask questions, and get answers from seasoned practitioners.
–> Check out some of our video content: