Friday, January 29, 2010

"Guilty of consumerism in the pews"

Part II of "Work and Leisure" is still coming, but in the meantime...

The title of this post is a quote from someone on a message board (in which I used to be a regular participator) that jumped out at me when I read it.

As someone who has done a lot of thinking lately about our consumer culture, and has felt disillusioned about how our country seems welcome to turn back to consumption as a way out of our economic mess (and subsequently setting itself up for yet another collapse), the way this attitude has crept into our thinking about church came off the screen at me in a way I hadn't thought of it before.

It's not as if I have been unaware of the tendency of American Christians to "church-shop." Even within the name itself is an implied consumerist attitude, and with it all the same attitudes that come with, say, shopping for a car. If it doesn't meet your exact specs, you'll keep looking until you find something that does.

Once again, there's something to be said for finding a church that you feel like is a good fit for you - it lines up with your beliefs about the Bible, it is a place that welcomes children, it's outward-focused and driven by missions, it has a healthy worship service with a style you enjoy, etc. That's completely acceptable. However, finding a church ought to be more like your search for a spouse than your search for a car. And once you make a commitment to a church, leaving it ought to be as serious to you as considering leaving your spouse.

But I'm less concerned in this post, really, with the trend of church-shopping, but rather the source of where this attitude comes from and what it tells us about ourselves. If we can boil down our selection of our spiritual community to a shopping decision, like whether we buy an F-150 or a Tundra, or go to Church A with the rockin' worship band or Church B with the phenomenal preacher, what does that tell us about our perception of what church is?

At least one thing it tells us is that we view church as a product like any other, that we believe it will make our lives better or happier when we buy it. And while this may be very true, to base the entire concept of church attendance on whether it meets your standards and makes you happy is flimsy and unbiblical, going against the very reason church exists. Church was meant to be a body - not a filling station or a fast-food joint. Church wasn't meant to be something you "attend," but something you belong to and live in and are a part of. The church is the body of Christ, His hands and feet on earth, and the idea that church is something we "go to" on Sundays is wrong-headed.

So we begin from the wrong starting point: rather than looking at the Church as the whole and us simply a part of it trying to find where we fit, we look at ourselves as the whole, and the Church as the sustenance for our singular body. This in turn leads us to see ourselves as far more important than we are. Church becomes a thing upon which we make demands it can't meet. Since we think, or at least act like, it exists solely to give us food and nourishment (which it does exist to do, don't mistake what I say here), we then approach it like we approach anything else in our lives that feed us. Church becomes an extension of our consumption: another product we buy to keep us fat and happy, just like Safeway or Red Robin or Blockbuster. And if it stops serving our favorite burger or we find a better deal on potatoes somewhere else, what's to stop us from leaving? Brand loyalty?

And while it's hard to tell which came first - "attendees" viewing the church as a product or churches viewing themselves as competitors with the world for members - the current response by churches has been to accept themselves as products and then act accordingly. They market themselves with advertisement and programs, trying to create essentially a brand image that will appeal to target demographics - just like any "good" corporation. They feed into the willingness of Christians to treat them like a product to be consumed by reducing themselves to just that.

Until we see Christians willing to believe that the Church is not something one optionally participates in, but is a part of by nature of their salvation and participation in the universal Body of Christ, we will continue in this unhealthy trend of "church-shoppers."

The church cannot function in this way. If indeed Paul knew what he was saying when he talked about Christians as "members of one body," the Body of Christ, who worked together and suffered together and lived life together, can a person truly experience being a part of the Body if he jumps from church to church, or just "attends" on Sundays? Paul made no mention of the "pew-filling" part of the body, only active, participating, valuable members who each have a unique function. There is no separation between the leadership, members, and attendees, but rather equally important roles with differing responsibilities. Christians must realize that in fully participating in the body, there is inifinitely more satisfaction found in church. Christians who are invested in their local body are Christians who love their local body and the people who belong to it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Work and Leisure, part I

I've been (too) slowly coming to the realization that work is unavoidable, and even good.

One of the problems with the way Christianity relates to work, I think, is that it looks at it as a consequence of the Fall. Christians assume that labor is a result of sin, based on God telling Adam that he would have to struggle to raise food from the ground. While the Fall did affect the harmony between man and nature, bringing in blight, disease, and pests, it did not introduce work. Work predates the Fall; Adam was given tasks by God - to tend the Garden, to name the animals, etc. God Himself works, doing the work of creation, the work of salvation, the work of maintaining our existence. He commissions us to "do good..." what? Good works. We are, Paul says, "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

There is nothing wrong with the act of work, just as there is nothing wrong with the act of leisure. The problem arises with the type of work or leisure one does, or the priority one places on either one over the other.

In the process of writing about this I've realized that it would be best to split this piece into two parts. I'd like to examine in this piece what kinds of work and leisure we involve ourselves in, and in the second look a little further into why it is that we've adopted as a culture a negative attitude to (certain types of) work.

I'll say right now, I'm a product of the first generation to really grow up with personal computers in nearly every home and a video game console in every entertainment center, and as a result, I enjoy time playing computer/video games about as much as anyone else. I've never been a "hardcore" gamer, and I've never been one to rush out and buy a game the first day it hits the shelves, either. In fact, this past month is the first time I've ever owned a brand new gaming console, the Wii. But given all that, I still manage to find games I like - and subsequently become addicted to. Civilization (II and III), Baseball Mogul, the Sims, Alpha Centauri, Need for Speed (Underground and Most Wanted), to name a few. I can play these for hour after lost hour, always seeking to get to that next level - acheive cultural dominance, win that fifth World Series in a row, get that promotion, defeat the Hive, trick out the WRX, etc. This is my preferred method of spending my leisure time.

But at the end of the day, there's nothing tangible to show for all that time spent. I can't take my World Series rings to the pawn shop and get cash for them, I can't really command anyone to nuke London into submission, I can't drive my pimped out Mustang to the grocery store to pick up milk. I have spent hours refining skills and setting goals and breaking records for a fantasy world that has no lasting impact on this world. I have, in essence, done nothing but wasted time and electricity.

I'm not trying to argue that all video and computer games are bad - I'm not convinced they are all horrible. But I do think it is bad to spend unlimited, or even significant (more than a couple consecutive hours), time on them, especially when there are other, more "productive" things to do. There ought to be something to show for our time. And I'm not just talking about games. As Christians, our lives aren't our own, and to be using the time here on earth that we've been given to master video games or sate ourselves on TV shows – or, for that matter, go out fishing for hours every weekend or spend hour after hour researching baseball stats and trades (guilty of that one, too) -- doesn't make sense from that perspective. We ought to be using our time to create things that will have an impact on the kingdom - that will produce a lasting, positive result.

I have two passions in life that I hope to replace my more base leisure activities with: my writing and woodworking. Both will, I hope, produce things of lasting value that others can enjoy - far more than attaining any skill level at a game. But they require work.

It is excruciating work to write - it sometimes comes naturally and easily, but most times, in order to keep forward progress, it requires a diligent slogging forward through sometimes ill-constructed sentences and poorly-worded thoughts written down only to maintain momentum. And while this can be painful, there's joy in it, and the end result is something that will last and (perhaps) enrich the lives of others.

And I suppose that's reallly the lesson I've been learning: that true joy comes only with pain, and that to work at something that will last costs something, but ultimately leaves you with much more than the cheap and easy way. The difference I feel between hours spent writing versus hours spent vegging out in some form or another is incomparable. To play games leaves me afterwards feeling stressed about time lost, guilty that I was not doing other, more important, things. To write, or to work on a wood project, leaves me with a sense of satisfaction at the end, that I have done good work and it has made me a better man in the process of doing it.

That's really the sum of it: do we continue in a trend towards pointless leisure that leaves us stressed rather relaxed afterwards, or do we involve ourselves in activities that may be work, but will ultimately leave ourselves and others far more satisfied?

I think back to other eras - our practice of using technology as leisure is one that is relatively new - and consider the ways that they relaxed. Of course, every era is susceptible to its own irresponsibilities, but a) the increase in leisure time and b) the sheer volume of options we have for entertainment make our current environment unique. How did people entertain themselves before the advent of TVs and computers? And are we better people and a better society because of their existence, or has it made us worse: lazy, uneducated, apathetic, because we can sate ourselves on something generally mindless and indulgent?

I resolve, therefore, to fight the harder against the temptation to pacify myself with computer/video games, and other forms of technology, and to sharpen my mind with reading and writing, and to hone my skills at woodworking, so that I can be a man at peace with himself and his God. I urge others to examine their own convictions on the matter and do likewise.