Pastor Evan McClanahan
The other day I bought myself a new vacuum cleaner. A nice vacuum. A German vacuum. I decided I’d had enough of bagless vacuums and I wanted one with an ideal attachment for wood floors. So, in what may be called by Millennials an “adulting” enterprise, I went to a store that only sells vacuums and paid a little extra for the real deal. My floors have never looked better.
Of course, we had a working vacuum at home. So my wife’s question was, “Why did we need another vacuum?” I told her not to worry about it, to just consider it my birthday present. Oh, and the wood-burning smoker I bought earlier in the year? That’s my Christmas present. See how nice I am? No one even has to shop for me because I buy myself everything I need!
We are near the Thanksgiving season, the time we deliberately take time off to reflect on what we are thankful for. I suppose taking for granted all that is good in our life – most notably life itself! – is a historical reality for man so being intentional with this time off is necessary. Still, I wonder if it is not harder than ever to truly be thankful in this consumerist age. After all, we have everything we need. So is it harder to be thankful when we are so sated?
I think it is. Americans live primarily as consumers. Like Pavlov’s dog, we have been trained to be consumers since we were born. Capitalism (a perfectly moral economic system, mind you) has been the system through which men and their corporations have sought to make a profit by selling you a product that you need…or want. And since having the freedom to voluntarily purchase the products we want is a far better alternative to being forced to buy products we do not, capitalism it is! I mean, do any of us desire a Soviet-era car or do we seek to emulate North Korean-style farming production? (That’s not to mention the lesser-than-outright-communist examples of socialized welfare, medicine and education that leave a lot to be desired.)
Still, even if capitalism is the best game in town, it at the very least produces a cycle of innovation, marketing, and purchasing. Much about that cycle is good. But there are the frequent sideshows of coveting, greed and corporate/government manipulation that accompany that cycle. The housing bust of 2008 is a perfect example that kind of interruption in a “pure” capitalist cycle. So we have, then, an imperfect way of collecting information, manufacturing products or offering services and purchasing them as consumers. And we have an absolute barrage of marketing campaigns thrown our way from birth to death to get us to participate in that imperfect system.
With such marketing campaigns comes the comfort of being the envy of the corporate world. They all want us, you see? The car company, the toy manufacturer, the grocery chain…they all want something from us and to get it, they appeal to us. They spend millions on focus-tested messages. They tell us the “customer is always right.” They generate sales and coupons for us. They hope we had a “great experience” with their product and they hope to “see us again”. In short, consumers are pampered. And we are nothing if not consumers.
It should be obvious that that kind of pampering and marketing to religious consumers has taken over the American evangelical church. It should be obvious that historic, confessional churches that remain committed to the Bible and do not cater to religious consumers face an uphill battle in “attracting” adherents. And it should be obvious that those committed to being consumers will naturally have very little to be thankful for. For, don’t you know, they already have everything they need because they were catered to, marketed to, and sold to?
It is possible, even if hard, to defend a free market and to preach against a consumerist mindset. And the Church must do both of those things well. For in the end, a free market reflects a free people, and people with dignity are worthy of freedom. But when it comes to consumerism, we should know that God will not cater to us, pamper us or appeal to our needs. Yes, He is loving, and merciful and just, to be sure. But He is also holy and true and uncompromising. So we cannot be consumers of God, and we cannot even dare to approach Him with such a mindset.
For behind the vacuums, phones, televisions, cars, guitars, houses and furniture that we consume is the God of the entire creation. This Thanksgiving season, let us try to set aside our freedom as consumers for just a moment and acknowledge our debt to God.