The Gospel in a Consumeristic Age

Dear Church Family,

In the sermon this past Sunday, I mentioned “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). You can read more about it through the hyperlink to the Wikipedia article. For our purposes on Sunday, however, we talked about just one of the tenets of MTD: “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

It strikes me that this tenet is a result of and reinforced by most all of the marketing strategies that we encounter in our present-day Western culture: in order to get people to buy their products, marketers attempt to convince potential buyers that their product will make us happy and make us feel good about ourselves. This sort of marketing strategy has unfortunately become so common and second-nature to us that we often fail to see it. Even worse, this marketing strategy has infiltrated our churches such that the gospel of Jesus Christ is packaged and presented as just another commodity on the open market that will meet this therapeutic goal.

As I was thinking on these things, I was reminded of an article that I read years ago by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson entitled, “Jesus Is Not a Brand: Why it is dangerous to make evangelism another form of marketing.” I encourage you to read the article, but at this point I would like to summarize and interact with his main points.

Understanding Our Consumeristic Culture

Wigg-Stevenson defines marketing as “all the activities that help organizations identify and shape the wants of target consumers and then try to satisfy those consumers better than competitors do.” And his main premise is this: “Marketing has problems if it makes the consumer pant for the dead opposite of what you are trying to sell.”

If the prime directives for the church are to be disciples of Jesus Christ and then to make disciples of Jesus Christ of all the nations, then the question that we, as a church, must ask ourselves is this: How do we ensure that the ways in which we present the truth claims of Jesus Christ are commensurate with the message that we are trying to communicate? “Marketing is not a values-neutral language” writes Wigg-Stevenson, and since many people have been shaped by marketing strategists such that they will naturally filter what Christians say through consumerist eyes, we must be careful to not portray Jesus and the gospel as “just another brand.”

Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” Specifically, McLuhan had in mind that the means of communication usually overwhelm and often displace the actual content of the message. In other words, how you communicate something is just as important, if not more important, than what you are trying to communicate.

So, what’s the answer? Well, to use another term coined by Marshall McLuhan, we can’t change the ways in which our “global village” operates. Wigg-Stevenson puts it this way, “All communication will be perceived as marketing. All self-presentation, even church advertising, will be perceived as branding. And all outreach will be viewed as sales. There is nothing we can do to change this context.”

Yet, Wigg-Stevenson suggests a two-fold answer to the dilemma of a marketing-saturated world: First, we must recognize “the attributes and values of consumerism.” Second, “the church can then intentionally develop practices of discipleship that cut against them, so that we will not unwittingly bow to the altar of Brand Jesus.”

Interestingly, we find that this is precisely the methodology which was employed by Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. As Jesus pressed His Disciples to come to grips with who He really was, He forced them past the false interpretations of the world (some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets) to embrace Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13-16). When Paul stood before the elite of Athens in the Areopagus to declare the “new teaching” that he was proclaiming, he began with statements that showed that he understood their false beliefs, but then he immediately cut against their polytheistic world-view to declare that there indeed is one true God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who created man in His image and who will one day “judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed” (Acts 17:19-34).

Combatting the Assumptions of Our Consumeristic Culture

Yet, the question remains: How, in our culture, do we intentionally develop practices of discipleship that cut against the attributes and values of consumerism? Wigg-Stevenson describes four key ways in which the “spirituality of consumerism” conflicts with the Christian life:

1. Self-creation: “I am what I buy” vs. the Lordship of Christ. Often, preaching and evangelism focuses on the benefits of becoming a Christian (which is actually very much like the sales-pitches that one finds in the market place). We present Christ this way because we recognize that everyone is in search of meaning in their lives. Instead of becoming salesmen, however, we ought to present the Gospel not as a ticket to heaven, but as a doorway into the whole story of God – that we belong, all that we are and will be, to God.

2. Discontent: Discontent vs. the sufficiency of Christ. Marketers know that if their product meets all one’s needs and makes one content, then the consumer will not need to come back for more. So, planned obsolescence is built into every product. This puts consumers on a perpetual quest for comfort and happiness-inducing products that don’t do what they say, and in the end, can’t bring contentment at all. Through a persevering commitment to the life of a disciple of Christ, however, we learn that life in Him is about becoming satisfied with just one thing: the Lord who gives us strength (Philippians 4:11-13). God calls us to diligently pursue rest in Christ such that we may learn that only His love will satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.

3. Relativism: Brand relativism vs. the supremacy of Christ. If we were to honestly compare competing brands of like items, we would recognize that quality is based on the criteria of the consumer. Whether a sports car is better than a sedan is based, not upon something in the car, but upon the criteria by which you judge that car. In the Christian life, however, Jesus is objectively superior, regardless. Jesus’ value is not relative. One of the places that we see this most evident is as we celebrate the Lord’s supper, celebrating His matchless worth as our Redeemer and Lord. When Jesus says, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19), He is calling us to recognize His objective worth, and how His worth makes us worthy.

4. Fragmentation: Fragmentation vs. unity in Christ. Among contemporary church growth philosophies, targeting niche groups of people (based on age, race, socio-economic status, family status, etc.) is common. Gravitating toward those who are similar to oneself will naturally happen, but in the church, we ought to do everything possible to reach all peoples, and to incorporate all peoples into as much of the life of the church as possible. We know that “there is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11). Union with Christ is therefore universal.

A Biblical Counter-Consumerist Strategy

Again, I encourage you to read this very interesting and thought-provoking article; however, here are my own thoughts and applications. Three things that we ought to emphasize as a church in defiance of the wisdom of the age.

First, we must emphasize the ordinary means of grace of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. These are the means that God has given to His church for the gathering and perfecting of the saints (WCF 25.3). Though they hold less outward glory, yet in them God provides more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy of the value of Christ.

Second, we must emphasize the importance of the Christian community as the only community that will last. “You can’t take it with you” is an obviously true cliché, but often we don’t live like it. Jesus calls us to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). As the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth, investment in His people, the church, is an investment with eternal rewards.

Third, and finally, we must emphasize that the Christian life is one in which God calls us to die to ourselves. In contrast to the false notion that “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself,” the life of faith is marked by the daily taking up of one’s cross and following Jesus (Luke 9:23-24). If a person has experienced the glories of rebirth then “you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). In contrast to the call of the world to live for ourselves, God calls us to pour out our lives for Him (Philippians 2:17).

Conclusion

In a marketing-saturated culture, we are bombarded daily with savvy pitches and empty promises to fulfill and satisfy us. But, God has highly exalted His Son. The name of our Lord is not a name to be blasphemed and marketed as just another brand among other similar products. God has bestowed on Him the name which is above every name. May we all, corporately and individually, seek to ensure that our methodologies match the value of our King. In this way, we will glorify the name of Jesus, as King of kings, and Lord of lords.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch