Christ and Consumer Culture: Small Groups and the Body of Christ
At Conciliar Post, we bring together a lot of Christians from various traditions who love to read, write, and think. This is a beautiful thing. On this website, we want to challenge people to understand the gospel more deeply, appreciate the riches of church history and wisdom, and begin to see our daily lives and current events with the eyes of Christ.
As much as I wish it were not so, this way of doing the Christian life is insufficient (“The Idol of Truth”) . The gospel is first about having ears to hear and eyes to see the grace of Christ. Second, it is also about the Spirit’s empowering and the Church’s leading to live a robust life of following Christ. This is why I am so encouraged when I read articles like Laura Ehlen’s “Five Ways to Pray in Everyday Life,” because it reveals specific practices of the Church that challenge and enable us to embody the truth we preach. Theory and practice (faith and works) cannot be divorced in the life of the Christian, as much as I wish it were easy to just pick one over the other.
Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion is a condemnation of the Church for divorcing its theology from its practice. According to Miller, the Church has done this, not by insufficient teaching, but by its own theologizing. Christian theology, Miller argues, is very adept at explaining a confession of the Christian faith, the meaning behind its liturgies and prayers, and the interpretation of its texts. Further, it is also well-equipped to explain how the beliefs of the world run counter to the faith of the Kingdom of God (Parts 1 and 2 of this series can be seen under this goal). However, and this is the key point, the Church is ill-equipped to examine “the social structures and cultural habits that threaten to reorient legitimate religious desires into the service of furthering consumption.”1 You see, consumerism (like racism, classism, etc.) is not primarily a set of heretical beliefs or a culture of sinful meaning making, but are “a set of habits of interpretation and use—that renders the “content” of beliefs and values less important.”2 In other words, Christians can do theology all they want, even good theology that realizes the inherent problems within consumer culture. But, if this theology isn’t tied to specific counter-practices rooted within a tradition, then the beliefs Christians espouse will bear no weight on their formation within a consumer culture.
In this article, I want to examine specific practices of the Church that can work to mitigate/counter the problems I’ve examined in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. It is not enough to say, “consumers in the American economy are lured into believing x, while the Church believes y.” First, this statement is insufficient for it does not engage with the fact that consumer culture is comprised of both distorted beliefs and habit-forming structures. Second, it is insufficient for it blindly assumes practice will follow from belief. We must be able to engage how Christians are to navigate within a world that lures us into sinful habits within structures, not merely say what it is we are to believe and expect practice to follow. I want to propose two counter-practices of the church that can serve to form Christians into habits that go against the grain of consumer culture.
First, the intimate communion found within a good-ole small group is a strong place to begin. Evangelical scholar Ronald Sider, in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, longs for small groups to be an arena in which all of life is to be shared. He laments,
“Though the numerous small groups flourishing in the churches today are useful and valuable, they seldom go far enough. Participants may agree to share deeply in one or two areas of life, but they do not assume responsibility for the other brothers’ and sisters’ growth toward Christian maturity in every area of life. Hardly ever do they dream that truly being sisters and brothers in Christ means unlimited economic liability for each other or responsibility for the economic lifestyles of the other members!”3
These communal spaces, though rarely lending themselves to the kind of vulnerability Sider envisions, I believe can and should be utilized to bring all of life, including our consumption decisions, into imitating Christ. Small groups should not devolve into time for socializing or mere interpretation of the scriptures. Rather, these weekly times are opportunities for life to be shared, and for habits and practices that glorify God to be encouraged and celebrated.
Second, the liturgy of the Church4 should serve to orient the parishioner toward certain actions in the marketplace. In contrast to a world of frantic freedom to purchase and ever-increasing feelings of what we “need,” the rhythms and habits of the liturgy of the church orient us into a distinctive way of being in the world. The corporate confession of the creeds each week, for example, proclaim that our identity is found in Christ who proclaims our worth in His image, not in the products that distinguish ourselves from others. The weekly time of corporate confession and exclamation of forgiveness orient us into habits of rest in a God who forgives our past, and spurs us into righteousness in the present.
The climax of the service, the receiving of the Lord’s Supper, brings all of the Church together in an act of consumption. William Cavanaugh explains the ritual’s immense importance for the Christian in a consumer culture,
“the act of consumption is thereby turned inside out [in the Eucharist]: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it…In the Christian view, we do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation—appropriating, consuming, and discarding. In the Eucharist we are absorbed into a larger body. The small individual self is de-centered and put in the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life.”5
In the weekly practice6 of the Eucharist, the Christian is called to find the ultimate satisfaction of all of our desires in Christ, to taste and see that the Lord is good. Further, the Christian is called into a corporate body7, the very body of Christ that is then to go out into the world, consumed by the body and blood of Christ.
To conclude, both faith and works are required of the follower of Christ. Too often, the Church simply assumes that correct doctrine will lead to faithful practice. This is certainly not so, for sin runs deeper than unbelief, seeping into the rhythms, habits, and structures of everyday life. If consumer culture is comprised of both beliefs and habit-forming structures, then the Church must be able to counter this with both orthodoxy and counter-practices that then form the Christian into faithful consumption. The intimacy of the small group and the habits within the liturgies of the church service can serve as two of these counter-practices.8