I have been thinking lately, partly as I consider a teaching I intend to give sometime at church, about the issue of consumerism. While I am reluctant to articulate an essay that is primarily a reaction to an -ism, notions which are often notoriously clichéd and simplified descriptions of various thought processes, I think this particular belief system is sufficiently pervasive and pernicious that it bears addressing and examining. Of course, it may very well be that I have magnified it in my own mind because it is a thought process to which I often succumb, and my reaction to it may be from a desire to align my own mind to a proper understanding.
Recently I found a short description that I think rightly describes the mindset of consemerism; it is a mission statement really, the mission of one of our largest advocates of the consumer mentality, namely, Sam Walton, the founder of course of Wal-Mart:
"The secret of successful retailing is to give your customers what they want," Sam wrote in his autobiography. "And really, if you think about it from the point of view of the customer, you want everything: a wide assortment of good quality merchandise; the lowest possible prices; guaranteed satisfaction with what you buy; friendly, knowledgeable service; convenient hours; free parking; a pleasant shopping experience.
You love it when you visit a store that somehow exceeds your expectations, and you hate it when a store inconveniences you, or gives you a hard time, or pretends you're invisible."
I think this quote sufficiently highlights the three primary components of the consumer mindset; abundant choice, convenience, and low cost.
Personally, I don't have a qualm with these three components when it comes to your average outing to grab an extra gallon of milk or some ketchup; this task shouldn't require thoughtful consideration. What concerns me is how these three now dominate the thinking that goes into almost every aspect of our lives.
Consider finding a mate. This effort has historically been shaped and directed within one's family and community and church, the parameters of consideration being informed by common goals and values gained over the course of a lifetime, indeed over the course of several generations.
Not so now – the advent of modern communication, primarily the internet, has turned the process of finding a mate into an enterprise, and that enterprise is driven primarily by consumerist considerations – it provides a large pool of potential mates, it is exceedingly convenient to scan profiles and send e-mails for a quick meet-up, and there is relatively low cost, commitment or time-wise.
These are gains from the perspective of a consumer, but great losses from the perspective of the closeness and commitment for which marriage was intended. Indeed, the very aspects of marriage that we desire – common purpose shared over the course of a lifetime, are undermined by a process that does not even require those considerations.
And it is not only larger society that is affected by this; indeed, many online dating services are of course aimed directly at Christians. I saw this first hand recently on a recent short-term mission trip to Africa; some young women who had joined us there from the states wondered anxiously if they could find a place to get online so they could see if anyone was attempting to contact them through their online dating service. One wonders if their profiles allowed them to express a desire for someone who would, as Christ said, "put their hand to the plow and not look back".
And that may be the most problematic concern about consumerism. It is not a matter of a general opposition to modernism, but rather the fact that these three essential elements of consumer thought – abundance, convenience, and low cost, primarily contradict Scriptural principles for living a life pleasing to God; namely that we are satisfied with the much or little God provides, that we suffer long and thankfully through difficulty, and that we live sacrificially to serve others.
The narrow road, the pearl bought at great cost, and prodigal's father waiting daily at the end of the road all fly in the face of the Wal-mart-ization of our culture and church.
It's something we need to consider the next time we consider 'church-shopping'.