Like many others, these days I’ve been swimming a sea of anxiety that only seems to worsen the more I read and hear. We argue vehemently over the right cause of our anxieties — but we share the experience of fear. Whether it’s the deep divisions in our nation, or the recent catastrophic natural disasters, or a sense that the comfortable lifestyles we (especially middle class suburbanites) hold dear are fragile and impermanent, we sense that the world is changing and not for the better.
In my reading and pondering, I’ve come to believe that our culture’s commitment to consumerism — not only in our relationship with stuff and money, but also in our relationship to community organizations (like the local church) — is part of the problem. Norman Wirzba put it eloquently in the September 27, 2017, issue of the Christian Century:
“The character of modern urban life makes it more difficult for people to have sympathy for anything other than themselves. The world and its many creatures have ceased to be a presence that compels recognition, respect, and responsibility. Life is navigated through shopping rather than through the care of land, plants, and animals. People’s imaginations are shaped by market and media-manufactured campaigns that install individual human wants as the only thing that matters.”
I’m compelled by Wirzba’s assessment, but so far have struggled to make any concrete changes to my life in order to tell a different story. I want my life to reflect trust in Jesus — which, to me, means making decisions not based on my individual wants and needs, but on the good of our planet and the wellbeing of all people. And yet, I keep driving my toddler to the park four blocks away, rather than walking there, in order to “save time.” I recently took my son to the mall and experienced great pleasure in buying stuff, not because we needed any of it, but because I wanted it. Even though I know in my head that buying stuff won’t offer lasting meaning for my life, it sure feels good to spend my money.
I observe a similar struggle in the congregation I serve. Our governing body, the session, is aware that the cultural landscape is changing. Even in Texas, people no longer come to church as a part of their cultural identity. We can’t assume that if we “build” the best buildings, programs or worship services, people will come. Our congregation is still relatively large in membership, but over the eight years I have served them, we have seen our weekly worship attendance slowly depreciate. Those of us who look at those attendance numbers know that if we keep doing the same things we’ve always done, we will likely no longer exist as a congregation in 20+ years.
So, we have dreamed about how our church, in this new cultural landscape, might look different. What might it mean to structure ourselves around Jesus’ call to “make disciples” outside the walls of our church building? Each time we dream, we run into the brick wall of a question we can’t seem to answer: “What will we stop doing?” Just as I have pondered what I need to give up in order to tell a different story, not centered in consumer expectations, so our church is nudged to ask: What ought we give up in order to fully invest in a renewed vision of making disciples, not centered in a consumeristic experience of “church”?
The fear is that if we stop doing anything that we now do, we will wound or disappoint members of our congregation who hold those programs dear. The consumers will find another religious community to meet their individual needs and wants. Plus, even for church leaders, it’s hard to give up what we want and think we need to spiritually mature. I understand this fear at a gut level. I have my own “sacred cows” — those programs and disciplines I hold dear because they have helped me mature (like silent retreats and Sunday school). I would grieve if those programs and ministries no longer existed.
I don’t have any good answers to this struggle at this point. But, I sense that what is necessary is not wholesale change all at once, but to take a next faithful step. And in my life, as I try to live a different story, one in which God is renewing the world through Jesus Christ, that next faithful step may be as simple as choosing to walk to the park and to the grocery store.
I do think the next faithful step will require a sacrifice (for example, the sacrifice of convenience). I have to sacrifice my needs and wants in order to say no to the consumer narrative that says my needs and wants are of ultimate importance. My needs and wants pale in comparison to the glory of God’s Kingdom that is slowly breaking in to our world through Jesus Christ. May we live a different story, even if it takes a million tiny next steps and many, many years.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.