Recently, USA Today published an article on how many in America are using the tools of consumerism when it comes to religion. Quoting statistics from noted researcher George Barna, whose work was part of the book unChristian, the article suggests that many people are deciding what they want, and what they do not want, when it comes to religion. In the article, Barna has an interesting quote saying that we are becoming a country with “310 million people with 310 million religions.”
So, what does this mean?
We are in an age of a consumer-driven model of religion. It’s been this way for some time, but it is becoming more pronounced. First, the consumer driven model of religion focused on what kind of church we went to. Did we want a traditional model of worship, or a more contemporary focus? Did we want to be in a rural setting, or a more urban setting? There are some thoughts worth saying about what the consumer-driven model of church attendance has met to the church, but, I believe, it is a subject that has been well written by others, and there is no need for me to add my thoughts, here.
Where I believe this consumer-driven model of religion is going now, and Barna’s research supports this, is toward selecting exactly what we will believe. We create the religion that best works for us, even if it means disregarding aspects of the faith that are challenging or ideals that go against our own political or philosophical beliefs. If we are conservative, we will likely ignore Christ’s call to love our enemy or care for our community. If we are liberal, we will likely ignore Christ’s teachings about divorce.
This isn’t new. As the article suggests, it has been occurring for decades. (Too many Christians, including many in ministry, feel no shame in disregarding the Old Testament, because Jesus is in the New Testament, or it’s just too hard to understand.) What is different is that many have no problem with adding beliefs from other religions to create a hodgepodge of religious beliefs. For instance, if we like something from Buddhism some have no problem of adding it to New Age philosophy, and applying it all to Christianity, even if it runs counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the process, a consumer-driven model of religion is created. In essence, one believes that understanding and accepting religious beliefs is like stepping up to McDonald’s and ordering from the Dollar Menu. You can have it your way, and feel no shame in accepting whatever religious beliefs. You still love Jesus, and that is what is most important, those who accept a consumer-driven religion believe and state.
There are some problems with this model.
First, it puts the individual as the center of the faith experience. We become the object of worship and the center of our religious needs. It is about us. It is about what we need to survive, or what we need to fully believe.
When we place ourselves in the center, we have lost what the true meaning of faith and worship is. Faith and worship is not about us. It is about God. Our faith and our worship is directed back to God. It is not about coming to a deeper understanding of ourselves, though that does happen, but about coming into a deeper relationship and understanding the depths and love of the Triune God. That cannot happen if we are at the center of our own existence. God must be the center of our lives, and the focus of our worship and religion.
(As a sidebar, I believe this individual mindset of faith is one of the reasons why church attendance has suffered in recent years. We have allowed people to believe they can experience faith outside of community, and ignore that it is within community that our faith is sustained and supported.)
Second, when we believe in whatever we want to believe we make a stand against what has been said and written about God for centuries. We do not stand on our own religious beliefs, but we stand in and with a long line of believers who have wrestled with what it means to follow God. We stand in that succession of great apostolic teaching of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ means, and what it means to follow. In today’s postmodern world, listening to what has been said in the past is seen as irrelevant. We want today to be the only guide in our understanding, because we believe we are smarter and more educated than those who have gone before us. This is another reapplication of a self-focused understanding of religion. The issues we face, such as caring for the poor and the needy, are the same issues that St. Chrysostom wrestled with in his ministry. We would do well in learning how other men and women of the faith wrestled with issues in their day, and apply those lessons to the issues we face today.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this issue of individually selecting our religious beliefs goes against Scripture and Christ’s teaching that the only way to the Father is through Christ himself. This is the aspect of Christianity that, I believe, many struggle with. We want to find every loophole we can to reaching God, even if it means not truly following the same Christ who we claim to love and serve. If we truly want to go to the Father, we have to follow the teachings of Christ. In those teachings, we will find that narrow road that leads to the Father. When we try to widen the road, we miss the point of following Christ, and, in the end, only follow our own idea of who Christ is.
As a church, we have some responsibility in this situation. Barna makes this clear. We have made the faith, he says, all about saying a prayer and believing in Christ. With that, we often leave people not knowing how to proceed in their faith from that beginning moment. Instead of making disciples, we are more interested in increasing conversion numbers. We have to get back to the business of making disciples for Christ, which is the harder work and requires a lifelong commitment. We have to get back to teaching what it means to following Christ, and do away with “self-help” sermons and “feel good” messages, which do little to proclaim the glory of the Lord.
If we are not willing to get back to what it means to make disciples, I fear this issue of consumer-driven religion will not get better, but will only get worse.