The church and the consumer
Now we are groomed from birth to be an “individual” whose identity is determined not by being particular persons inhabiting particular times and places but by the undifferentiated role of producer and consumer in a global system of governance, accumulation, and exchange.[i]
Or, in simpler words, our identity is shaped wholly by our ability to choose and consume. If we deter from this economic identity, the whole world shatters. Harvey’s overarching point is that the church is meant to represent God’s in-breaking into the world, an in-breaking that radically redefines our relationship to creation. Yet we have privatized religion and made it a matter of consumer-driven acts and beliefs. You don’t like traditional music? The church down the street has contemporary songs. Is your church too conservative? No need to worry – there are plenty of liberal ones to choose from to fit your beliefs better. There are even companies that exist for the purpose of analyzing congregations and their communities in order to better tailor church programs and outreach efforts. Gloo, a company that boasts partnerships with a myriad of church research and building partners, claims that it “builds easy and powerful pathways so that every one of these participants can both give to, and benefit from the others.”
But is big data really the way the church should go about doing outreach? I am beyond uncomfortable at the thought of this type of approach. Yes, some may argue, it serves the need of providing communities with the service they need. If Harvey is right, however (and I am inclined to believe him), companies like Gloo and other big data purveyors are reinforcing this consumer model of the church. Are visitors coming because they want a relationship, be it however messy and difficult, with Jesus or are they coming because a church now offers a variety of “identity” serving classes?
As hard as it is, I appreciate being a member of a moderate Baptist church. Not everyone agrees with me politically or theologically. We have some members on the left, some on the right, and many simply in the middle trying to figure things out as they come. It is messy and hard. Even when I don’t want to be in the thick of it, I still find myself going through the motions because my involvement transcends the consumerist notion that to belong requires me to “buy into” every aspect of church life. Rather, to belong means to rethink my identity beyond my likes and dislikes, instead choosing to not choose the easiest and most desirable path.
Church is not about big data. Church is about showing up with a casserole to someone’s house, someone you would not know or even want to engage with otherwise. Church is a giant, uncomfortable at times, melting pot that goes beyond our preferences. Harvey argues that we must reclaim the relationship Christians have with creation in order to really reengage as the church. In 2022, it seems as though we have the fundamental choice to either employ big data or reject the consumerist entanglement. My hope is that churches veer toward the latter and become messy places once again.