Consumerism & Disciple Making Pt. 4 - Systems Demand Our Identity

Today John is waking up to his dream come true. After decades of coloring inside the lines and playing by the rules, his reward has finally arrived. The journey that started in kindergarten continued to college and then through decades of faithful toil as a business professional has led him to this day. Retirement. And for John, today and tomorrow will be amazing, but soon his euphoria will give way to a deep sense of dissatisfaction.

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At first, John will think he’s just adjusting to retirement. He’ll fill his days with golf, friends, and other activities. He’ll find them to be suitable distractions, but not solutions. That dissatisfaction runs deep. As the days stretch into weeks and months, he’ll decide to return to work, having come to this disturbing conclusion; he doesn’t know how to feel whole without his jobwhat was a means to this end has become his identity.

Today we continue to explore both what it means to live in a consumeristic culture and how that culture impacts our disciple making. After examining the first two tenets of consumerism (1. Satisfaction Can Be Purchased 2. Purchasing Power is Primarily Found in Systems), I hope you’ve seen the power consumerism has to shape our beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors. Make no mistake, your culture is discipling you. 

We’ve defined a consumer as “someone who has surrendered to other people or institutions the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life.” Consumers believe that satisfaction can be purchased. Whether the desire is for a product, time, or skill, money is the power through which the problem of dissatisfaction is solved. In consumerism, our money is found through employment in systems or institutions. Over time, immersion in these systems erodes our values. We quickly lose perspective on the human needs that institutions deem unnecessary, such as relationships. 

Many, like John, wake up to the impact of consumerism’s systems when they retire or vacation. Not only has their participation afforded them purchasing power, it’s also changed them to the core. It’s demanded their very identity.

I realize that’s a bold statement and I’d soften it if I could, but the loss of identity is a reality for John and millions of others. Here’s how it happens:

In order to institutionalize (to break something down into individual parts, systematize, and then manage) both producer and consumer must be depersonalized. Employers look to hire people with specific skills to plug into their production process. As soon as robots are able to do the job more efficiently then humans are replaced. The human is there to produce, nothing more, nothing less. Consumers alike must be depersonalized since the individual needs of the masses are too diverse to be met. So the many needs are compressed into one or two that can meet.

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The depersonalization of workplace culture denies the humanity of its workers (by stripping away personhood). First, anti-fraternization policies openly and explicitly discourage personal relationships. These policies are borne out of the company’s fear of relational conflict. Companies aren’t afraid of all work relationships, it’s just that they never want them to interfere with productivity. And so, workers are expected to maintain a “professional distance.” They must choose production over people and check opinions at the door. The result, are cultures where competence trumps character and uniformity trumps uniqueness. 

Dwelling in these cultures impacts our values. We learn to form nice comfortable relationships, not real relationships. But since nice relationships don’t fulfill our need for significance, we adapt by developing significance around our skills (i.e. our value to the production process) rather than our personhood (i.e. our value to others whom we both give and receive love). In this way what we do becomes more important than who we are. Workers are trained to believe that production is more important than personhood. 

Over time John, like so many others, surrendered two crowns of his identity—self-expression and creativity within the context of loving relationships. He didn’t do it intentionally or even consciously, but the consumeristic culture slowly changed him. Are you being changed in the same way? If you can relate in some way to John’s nagging sense of boredom and aimlessness, here’s why… 

Boredom is the result of living in a consumeristic world. When I say bored what I really mean is that we have become boring. We no longer know how to love our world and have it be enough. We have become both passive and sedentary. In a culture that demands repetition and predictability, we’ve lost the ability to relate to our own heart and create. We’ve lost the ability to live relationally and move into the lives of others. The solution consumerism offers for this condition is a band-aid on a gushing wound; entertainment and consumption (McKnight & Bock, The Abundant Community)

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Consumerism teaches us to fill our non-productive time consuming.

What do you do in your free time? Netflix, video games, shopping, sports fanaticism? Another form of consumption? Too often, I do. I indulge in entertainment and find myself hungry for something different, something more. Our boredom has become so ingrained that the thought of spending our free time actively creating or sitting in silent reflection feels anything but relaxing.

So how does this impact the church? Disciple making?

1. Pervasive Passivity in the Church – Consumerism has taught us that if we’re not working then we should be consuming what another has produced. So, church becomes a place to consume the fruit of the pastors’ work, not a place to actively engage. It’s no wonder every church I’ve ever worked with is frustrated by their lack of volunteers.

2. Disconnection from the Heart – When identity is reduced to a skill set, people bury the pain of relational disconnection in distraction. For most that distraction takes the form of consuming entertainment/media (movies, TV, music, pornography, video games etc.). Without the ability to connect to our own heart we are unable to meaningfully connect and minister to the hearts of others. 

3. Inability to Believe God Desires to Use Us – If we don’t believe others have a use for us, outside of our expertise, why would God? It’s this line of thinking that prevents many from believing that abiding in Christ qualifies us to minister to others. Despite this challenge, some are able to move out in faith that God will use them, but still, most will never see themselves as equals to “professionally trained” ministers. 

So what can be done? As sobering as these realities are, you don’t have to surrender your identity to consumerism’s systems. The disciple’s identity is rooted in a relationship with Jesus and others, in order to live as He lived and to love as He loved. Unfortunately, that lifestyle is far more costly than binge-watching Black Mirror or distracting yourself with whatever sport is in season. Consumerism constantly lies to us, “Just relax, you don’t want to bother people by inviting them to do things,” “You’re boring, people don’t want to spend time with you,” “You don’t know how to make a disciple,” and “You don’t know enough to…” 

The lies can be replaced with truth by regularly reflecting on God’s word. You can develop relationships marked by transparency. And You can choose to create in ways that help others discover their inherent human value.

Is today the day you wake up? What will you do about it?