Incarnational Practice 2: Practice Strategic Consumerism

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : August 9, 2005

"Strategic consumerism" is basically the idea of choosing where you shop (drink coffee, buy groceries, get your car fixed) based upon where you are most likely to mingle with the people you want to know, rather than according to personal taste.

This is most effective at "Third Places"–places where people naturally congregate. It isn’t enough to spend time there, though.  You must engage people there.  This is where it gets sticky for people.  We don’t naturally make friends in public places like that…though it is socially acceptable to do so.  Many people hang out in "Third Places" because they want to connect with a neighborhood and their neighbors.  These are the general rules of social interaction that I have "discerned:"

  1. If you see someone at your favorite place a few times, you have permission to give them the "nod" of recognition (or subtle wave).
  2. If you’ve recognized their presence a couple times, it is socially ok to say "hello."
  3. Once you’ve said hello to someone once or twice, it is ok to make comments like "hey, it sure is nice today" or "is that book you’re reading interesting?" [if someone is deep into reading their book, it may be rude to interrupt them, but if they look up on occasion, it is probably ok to talk to them]. 
  4. After you’ve broken the ice, you can introduce yourself.
  5. Once you’re on a first-name basis.  You have social permission to have normal conversations with them…and things develop from there.

Here’s the thing: most of follow this sort of interaction in settings like school or at church, and it is perefectly normal there.  Just realize that it is ok to do those sort of things at third places too.  If you are a bolder person, you can skip steps.  It isn’t offensive to have polite chit-chat with strangers.  It is only rude if you do it when they are in the middle of something that requires attention.  Even then, most people won’t decide you are a butthole, they’ll probably just think your a ditz.  And that is better than not knowing them at all.

Recommended Reading about Third Places:


for further reading . . .

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4 Responses to “Incarnational Practice 2: Practice Strategic Consumerism”

  1. Michelle on August 9th, 2005 3:47 pm

    Do you think this should only happen in same gendered situations? Or else how do you avoid them thinking your intrested in something more?

  2. Van S on August 9th, 2005 4:08 pm

    I think it can happen cross-gender, but only carefully. I think it is much easier to focus on people of the same-gender, but if a connection is made accross gender-lines, that is fine. Just be discerning and try to introduce some of your male friends into your newly forming relationship.

  3. Chris on August 12th, 2005 1:46 am

    I guess I still have a lot of problems with strategic consumerism. (1) We’re basing evangelism around where we buy things, not necessarily who we expect to meet. (2) Like you said, we don’t normally make friends in public places. (3) One may be foregoing personal taste in favor of location, but a person still buys things according to personal taste, making it a form of affinity-based evangelism. (4) Poor people are less likely to frequent businesses that rely on customers with discretionary income (restaurants, coffee shops, bars, etc.), the very businesses that encourage congregating. (5) In the end, a strategic consumer’s options for meeting people are limited to other regulars. If I visit a coffee shop every day, the range of people I may get to know doesn’t include everyone in the coffee shop. It includes every who frequents it nearly as much or more than I do. In addition, if I’m trying to draw that person into my neighborhood focus, they also need to live in my neighborhood. So the list is shortened to regulars who live in the neighborhood (who are there the same time I am).

    It’s not that I’m rejecting the idea outright, it’s just that I find it to be quite unnatural and troubling in the details.

  4. Van S on August 12th, 2005 2:10 am

    Hmmm…it certainly isn’t the end-all-be-all. But for people who haven’t got any confidence about connecting with people, it is a place to start.

    (1) I think the whole point is basing it around meeting people. YOu don’t have to buy things to do strategic consumerism…at least not much. (2) If we don’t make friends in public places, where else is there? Work and circles of friends. These should be done, to be sure, but where are the equivalents to doing mission in the synagogues and marketplaces? I think cafes, bars, and some bookstores are great connecting places… (3) I don’t think we should only consume according to taste. We should hang out in places where we are most likely to connect. (4) I know lots of poor people that spend time in book stores and coffee shops. They just don’t buy much. Also, we can practice “strategic consumerism” at libraries. Maybe the word “consumerism” is throwing this all off. I don’t think you have to spend much money at all to engage in this stuff. (5) I understand where you’re coming from. It certainly isn’t a perfect system. And it isn’t for everyone. For some it might be a waste of energy (like many introverted people). The basic idea is this:

    Spend time hanging out at places where people spend time hanging out. And then figure out ways to get to know them.

    Unless we try things along these lines, then the concept of neighborhood outreach becomes increasingly difficult. Without connecting with people in common places, we are only left with networks of existing friends and co-workers. That is fine. But for those who would like to engage people in public settings (and more of us are able to do this than we think…which is why I encourage people to give it a shot) it can be a very helpful thing.

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