On October 18, 2010

Touring Church

So for the last few days, I’ve been reading “Not Buying It” by Judith Levine. It’s a well written memoir from the life of one lady who decided to step outside of consumerism for an entire year. Her husband and she made the decision to not make one purchase for 12 months, and then they journaled what that experience was like…Their journal turned into a book, which, ironically, sold quite well.

One of the things that I appreciated about this read is how honest they are about it. They love the things they want to hate, and aren’t too pretencious to admit their hypocrisy. At times, during their year sans-shopping, they fought, lied to one another, and even (self-proclaimed) cheated just to get around their rules. But what I thought was interesting was why they did it. Levine writes that, contrary to popular belief, shopping is not just something we do from necessity, or boredom. Shopping taps into something much more primal:

“Consumption is an exercise in hope-hope for more happiness, more beauty, more status, more fun”

Shane Hipps, a popular pastor/preacher writes about a time in his life when he walked away from a lucrative career in advertising. He worked in the branding department for a luxury automobile company. His job was to get focus groups together, and coerce them to inadverently tell them things they really didn’t want him to know. What the people in the business call, “levarageable insight. ” Look at how Hipps talks about this:

“[We Learned] That when you tap into the most intense or emotionally poignant experiences, you discover the trigger for all consumer impulses. The next task was for the creative team to find a way to associate that deep spiritual or emotional experience with our brand. If we were successful, the consumer soul would imprint to our brand the way a newborn babe imprints to a mother while nursing.”

Have you ever noticed how many commercials are really trying to sell something more than their product? It’s not beer, it’s a date with her. It’s not a baby monitor, it’s being the parent who loves their kid that much. It’s not hot dogs, it’s a backyard party populated with great friends.

Now I should probably stop here and let you know that I am not a communist. In fact, yesterday, in between chapters, I broke down and went to the Mall. All this talk about not shopping made me want to…well, shop. But Levine’s is a prophetic voice for me, and I bet for you too.

Because she reminds us that, despite everything we’ve been taught, we are not just consumers.

_________

Recently, I read an article that talked about something that at first seems unrelated, but actually has quite a bit of overlap to this. It was about a new business that has developed in churches in Harlem, New York.

The business is Tourism.

I wish I was joking. Basically what has happened, is the churches that were once famous for being vibrant, counter-cultural, communities of faith are now places where people pay admission to come visit. Harlem churches were especially big deals with international visitors. They had heard about these places that had been springboards for so many great Gospel artists, and they wanted to experience that culture. But, and here is the point of the article, business is starting to dry up.

People aren’t wanting to pay admission anymore.

But what is the most disturbing to me, is what the parishoners of these local churches are saying. A lot of them are glad that business is bad. Because it didn’t feel like church. One guy said, “It feels like going to a Safari, and we’re the Zebra’s.”

And here is the point.

I’m thankful for overt stories about approaching church like this, because I think it holds up a mirror for us to see the danger of approaching church the way we’ve been conditioned to approach everything else.

Think about the language you hear people use to talk about church. We’ll say, we want to be fed, which I get. Or we want to make sure there is great programming for our kids,which I get.  Or we want to get something out of the worship. And I get all of that. I want to be a part of a community of faith that works to be excellent at all those things, But….

Here’s the problem with that. Church is not, and never has been about those of us who show up for an hour a week. It’s the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her. Church at her best is the one place where consumerism just doesn’t work. Because the gospel never claims to be something that will make your life easier, but it does mean it could make it a life worth living.

It means that you can be a part of a community that challenges you ways to lay your life down. The church, at her best, is a group of women and men who ask each other the hard question, “How are you living out a cross?” At it’s core it is anti-consumerism because it is about what God calls us to give, not primarily what we gain.

Which is of course, the only way to gain anything.

But try and put a price tag on that.

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  • Kathy

    I’ve no problem with selling a brand as long as that brand is Jesus, and Him crucified. :)

  • http://feetwasher.blogspot.com/ Philip Cunningham III

    More of THIS. Especially as we grow closer to Christmas :)

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  • http://djiverson.com dj

    We have a saying here that has developed from the ‘not being fed’ comments. “Grab a fork. Better yet, grab two and feed someone else.” I’m a huge fan of subtlety.

  • http://dustcoveredtalmid.blogspot.com/ Dan Gill

    You seem to contradict yourself, Jonathan. You say, “I wish I was kidding” about the tourism in the Harlem churches, but then you say it disturbs you that the members of those churches are glad it’s slowing down. If it’s a bad thing, we should be glad with them. If we’re not glad with them, it would be a good thing.

    Personally, I think it’s a bad thing. Charging admission of tourists is not what the church is about. Yes, we are to be focused outwardly. We are also to be focused inwardly. We exist for other and for each other. Of course we primarily exist for God.

  • paul murphy

    It has amazed me of what a huge difference it makes when you go into a church with an attitude of “What can I help?” instead of “What can I get?” I think its amazing to see what happens when families, communities, and churches start putting other’s first, it seems like so many of the other problems go away.

  • http://www.changedwithin.blogspot.com Maynard

    I don’t fault church goers for the mindset of “what can i get?” but once they get it, I do take issue with them/us/the church for not spreading the good news to others outside of the four walls. Ya gotta get it before you can give it, but too often I think we stop just there. We get it, keep it, sit on it, judge others for not having it, feel righteous for having it.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Phillip, have you seen What Would Jesus Buy? I think you’d like it.

    DJ, that’s a great saying. It reframes that whole mindset.

    Bro. Danny, probably just some miscommunication on my part. I know that surprises you, what I was saying is that people touring church was a bad thing. Basically what you said. Thanks for helping me clarify.

    Paul! Good to hear from you! I agree, I think that is church at her best.

    Maynard, that’s where I am at. I think we can swing the other way and forget that church is also a place of healing for the broken, and equipping for people to minister outside of her four walls. It’s not either/or. Good hearing from you buddy!