Consumerism & Disciple Making Pt. 2 - Purchasing Power is Found in Systems

Most Americans bend their lives to the almighty dollar, not the almighty God.

Today we continue to explore both what it means to live in a consumeristic culture and how that culture impacts our disciple making efforts. Last time we examined the first tenet of consumerism, “Satisfaction Can Be Purchased”. In a nutshell, consumers believe that they don’t have what they need to live a full and satisfied life, but what they need is available for purchase.

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Consumerism answers a few questions sequentially. The first is “How do I get satisfaction?” Its answer is to purchase it. Whether you want more comfort, time, or experiences, a consumeristic culture offers it for a price. This makes money the most powerful force in consumerism and life. Money was a powerful force in Jesus’ time as well which is why eleven of His thirty-nine parables talk about it.

Unsurprisingly, the second question consumerism answers is, “Where do I get the power to purchase satisfaction?” The answer is also the second tenet of consumerism: “Purchasing power is found through employment and participation in institutions/systems.”

Since institutions and systems meet the needs of the masses then masses are needed to staff those systems. Perhaps one of the most dominant characteristics of a consumeristic culture (and certainly American culture) is the prevalence of such systems.

Think about it, we are groomed for a system life. Most of us arrive on the earth within the context of a system. We’re not born into the arms of a loved one, but rather into the arms of an obstetrician.  Many times neither the mother or father has met that doctor before. The baby’s then passed to an unknown nurse who takes measurements and performs basic tests mandated by the hospital or governmental system before finally being passed to the mother or father.

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Not only does life begin in a system, it continues that way throughout our earthly lives. We go to schools designed to ensure a common core of basic knowledge and skills regardless of their natural talents. Upon graduation, we enter a new system (a business, corporation, group, firm, etc.) and function as an employee for decades. When we retire, we turn to the medical system to help us ward off our exit and then enter hospice system when that fight becomes unsustainable.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with systems or institutions. In fact, they do us a lot of good. Compared to a non-system way of life systems provide consistency and control as well as safety and scale. Let’s look at Chipotle as an example. Because of systems, you know when you walk into a Chipotle in another city, what to expect. You know they will have burritos and burrito bowls. You know that ordering will be the same as the one you know in Dayton, Ohio. Since there’s a center for public health, you know that the food will adhere to the same health standards.

Unfortunately, systems do as much harm as good, especially to a Christ follower. Here’s why, “The system way whether it’s health, psychology, education, horticulture, child care, etc., is to elementalize, curricularize, and manage.” (McKnight & Bock pg. 61). In other words, systems make relationships optional. The systems don’t need people to relate well together, but God made humans for relationship with Him and one another (Genesis 2:18).

Prior to purchasing power being found in systems, it was found in relationships. Two hundred years ago a shoemaker couldn’t succeed by just making shoes. He also had to learn how to develop trust and respect with both suppliers and customers. Today shoes are made by big companies and an individual worker’s purchasing power is completely separated from the customer.

System life impacts the way we relate to one another, to our work, and to ourselves. System life eliminates artisans in favor of automatons. An artisan builds a relationship with the customer and focuses his efforts on quality of craftsmanship and adding more value than he takes. An automaton doesn’t need a relationship with the customer and focuses his efforts on producing quantity and taking more value than he adds.

So how does this pillar of consumerism impact the church? Disciple making? Here are two quick thoughts:

1.  Many pastors and church leaders are so focused on providing religious services for the masses that they can no longer see the value of individual relationships. In fact, many are taught to keep people at an emotional distance in order to enhance efficiency. The ministry of most churches is patterned off of Ford’s assembly line (a treasured ideal of consumerism) as they break discipleship down into basic elements, building a curriculum around those elements, find workers for each element, and then manage their newly created system.

2.  Individual disciple makers are significantly affected by this tenet. Many are unable to give time to disciple making because their time and attention are focused on a job that demands 24/7 availability. Others won’t start because they haven’t been formally or systematically trained. And still others, have been trained but don’t know how to make disciples relationally with or without a discipleship curriculum.

There are surely many other ways this tenet impacts our life with God and disciple making. How have you seen it wear on you and others?

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Living in a culture of consumerism means we constantly soak in ungodly messages and must seriously consider:

  • Can satisfaction really be purchased?
  • Does purchasing power have to be found in an institution or system?
  • Is there a way to work within a system without becoming “systematized” in our relationships and perspective?
  • Where is God in all of this?