Consumerism: I learned it by watching you

If you were a child of the 80s, or had a child in the 80s, you’ll remember the public service announcements they showed on daytime television, especially Saturday morning. I occasionally use the phrase “that’s one to grow on” when a show is particularly heavy handed in presenting a lesson.

These covered a lot of topics, with many of them about the dangers of drugs. Drugs were a big deal in the 80s, and the best way to keep kids away from drugs was to make short films that told kids in no uncertain terms that drugs were bad and that bad people do them. You don’t want a fried-egg brain, do you?

I’ve forgotten most of them, but a few have become part of pop folklore. For instance, the one about the dad who confronts his son after finding drugs in his room.

This came to mind as I was thinking about habitus the other day.  What is habitus? It’s habits. But why not say habits? Because latin makes it sound more profound, of course.  More than that, it’s not just habits as we usually think of them, things we happen to do.  Like putting my keys on the desk by the door when I get home, or forgetting to close the cabinet doors when I get a plate.

More, it’s really formational habits that shape us in a particular way. Like practicing a sport builds muscle memory so that when we play we respond without going through an intellectual process. The brain is slow, after all, and by the time it sorts through the various options and issues, everyone is on the other side of the field.

It’s the same way with morality and spirituality. In the moment, we respond. And our response reflects who we have been up to that point, what feeds into our values and priorities. Our habitus is reflected in our habits, priorities, use of time.

Why was I thinking about habitus the other day? I was reading a great book by Alan Kreider called The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, one of the best books I’ve read all year. In it, he talks about the habitus of the early Christians, how their intentional practices and rhetoric oriented them to respond with patience in the midst of a lot of chaos. That patience defined every aspect of personal and church life, allowing Christians to grow and spread in unimaginable ways.

That changed when Constantine came into power, and Kreider argues impatience became cemented into Christian habitus through the writings of Augustine. Things needed doing, heretics needed resisting, the state needed converting, and there’s no time to wait.

Impatience defines so much of Christian ministry even to our era, where everything is measured in the short term and immediate success of limited tenure ministers, who will move onward and upward as they are able. Buildings get bigger, bulletins get flashier, budgets get bloatier, numbers of all sorts of things and people (and people are often basically things) are counted and massaged.

The challenge for churches becomes a budgetary bloom, where people are called to give and give and give. This then is the primary expression of spiritual service. When money becomes center, and money is used to expand property or improve facilities or hire staff–none of which are bad things–it becomes an expression of a core spiritual discipline.

Then people who want to contribute to the life of the church develop ideals about how this can happen and how to live out their own lifestyle of displayed plenty.

Money brings nice things.  Those who have money get treated better and have more influence.

The odd thing is, as we build in this consumer mentality within church life, it coincides with a frustration about consumerism.

An impatient and consuming church contributes to an impatient and consuming society.

Which is me saying, it’s no use railing against consumerism in society until church growth models themselves stop being consumeristic themselves, consuming people, resources, time spent on frivolous activities.

Where did they learn it from?  Not from Jesus.  From impatience and societal displays of success that were intended to provoke awe and envy and competition.  And the more competition there is, the more people will be willing to shop around for the best product and value. They look for that which is celebrated by those who lead the churches.

Not all churches are like this, but those who aren’t, those pastors who aren’t, feel a constant tug to just give in, because that way is the way to honor and success in the church world.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

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