Discipleship in America, Part 2: The Problem with Individualistic Consumerism

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 25, 2006

I was hoping to sumbit my second installation of this series earlier, but I’ve been overwhelmed this week.  I have an event to attend this weekend (InterVarsity’s Breakaway) and am preaching at the Crossing at Woodland on Sunday morning, so I’ve been feeling spread thin.  Nevertheless, I am perhaps more committed to writing this series than I’ve been committed to anything I’ve ever written in this blog.  And so, here is part 2.

The Church should take a much more central position in how we conceive of our faith.  This observation is articulated by many many emerging church leaders.  When one reads the Scripture, it is helpful to keep in mind that it is the Church that is being addressed, not the individual.  This is more than just semantics.  The individual cannot read Scripture apart from the context of the Church.  And I am reminded by a comment that Eugene Peterson once made (I’m not sure where it comes from, but when I get home I’ll look it up and cite it in the comments) that prayer must first be a community enterprise and then an individual one.  We should come together and pray according to the mission, purposes, and needs of the church, and then, when we are at home alone, pray for our selves as though we were one part of a larger group.  This is contrary to the normal practice, where we build up a sort of prayer list in our private prayer sessions, and then come to church or small group or prayer meeting with the top 2 or 3 ready to be shared during prayer time.  At the end of the meeting, a big list is compiled made up of individual needs, and then maybe…maybe…there are prayers which center around the church.

We cannot begin to identify ourselves as a community of disciples until we can begin to break the bad habit of thinking of ourselves as individual consumers. 

At this point, I need to be very clear.  When I say "consumerism" I am not saying anything about materialism.  I am not refering to selfishness or greed…at least not directly. When I say "consumerism" I am refering to a specific way of seeing the world…one which embeds itself in our individual thought patterns.  Behind it is the assumption that I am first and foremost an individual and that I am autonomous and sovereign.  My identity is one of my own choosing. Consumerism tells us that my engagement with the world is primarily one in which I have sovereign choice to purchase whatever I choose.  And that this reality is a good one.

The problem with this, at least within the scope of my series here, becomes apparent when one begins to apply this sort of "worldview" to the Faith and to people.  We see belief and Christian practices as commodities that we can decide to purchase or not purchase.  We have the freedom to opt into or opt out of whatever we choose.

Through the lense of Individualist Consumerism, our identity exists independently from the Church. Please re-read what I just wrote.  This is important.  This way of thinking tells us that our idenity exists seperately from the Church, and therefore, we have a fundamental difficulty reading Scripture as a church.  How can we read Scripture as a church, when we conceive of ourselves as a group of individuals, each with a sovereign consumer will?  How can we take Scripture seriously when it tells us to "submit to one another?"  In fact, all the allelon ("one another") statements in Scripture come directly into conflict with Individualistic Consumerism. 

But we are not without hope.  We can subvert consumeristic thinking and be the Church.  We can be of the Church first, and individuals second.  But we first must stop "doing" church in ways that play to, or placate, the consumer impulse.  We must stop marketing ourselves to individual shoppers of spirituality and begin to reach out in other ways.  We must be disciples, students of the Way of Jesus.  We must discipline ourselves to read Scripture together.  We must pray together.  We must practice the economics of the Kingdom of God.  Once we begin to desire that, and begin to conceive of ways of practicing that, we will begin to understand how to be disciples in America.

for further reading . . .

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6 Responses to “Discipleship in America, Part 2: The Problem with Individualistic Consumerism”

  1. David Fitch on January 25th, 2006 4:00 pm

    Mark .. spot on … excellent writing. I love this description of prayer.

  2. Van S on January 25th, 2006 4:07 pm

    Thanks David. You’re book has been helpful in my thinking about these matters. I’m hoping to focus in on the question of Christian identity at the conference. It is a question that Missio Dei, my church, is struggling with right now. We’re about 1.5 years into things and we realized that we had to induce “pruning” of sorts so that we can become clearer about our identity.

  3. b-nut on January 26th, 2006 8:44 am

    You are right when you say that we need to read Scripture as if it was written to a community–because it was. The problem for many Christians, even those who member a church, is that their faith relationships are often too shallow and separate to support a framework in which to make many implications of Scripture meaningful. Good word.

  4. Mike on January 28th, 2006 12:33 pm

    You?re exactly right. The NT was written to the church, Communion was a community practice and not an individual one, where we consume the elements in an individual fashion. Prayer is also a community activity of the church. Sadly these things have been lost in the “kingdom of me”.
    The real question I have is how to we change our church culture from one of individualism to that of a kingdom community?

  5. Mike Noakes on January 29th, 2006 3:39 pm

    I used some of your post on a post I just wrote. check it out, if you want to.


  6. on January 29th, 2006 7:41 pm

    Discipleship in America, Part 2

    Mark Van Steenwyks second post in his series, Discipleship in America, is, in my view, even better than his first. As Mark thinks and writes about discipleship in the American context, he encourages the church to face one of its g…

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