“Don’t let the world around squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.” (Romans 12:2 in J.B.Phillips)
We thought last week about how dramatically the world has changed over the last century. We now live in a Post-modern world where the only thing we can be certain of is that we aren’t allowed to be certain about anything any more. The influence of Christianity as a dominant factor in culture has been eroded and so sociologists describe society as Post-Christendom. We referred to the effects of secularisation, pluralisation and privatisation. All this is explained on the notes from last week. This evening I want to turn the light of Scripture on just one more enormously powerful influence on our lives at the start of the 21st century – the false god of Shopping.
Consumerism and consumption are central motifs in this post-modern world. There isn’t time to talk about the appalling global effects that consumerism has upon the environment, economy, society and world poverty. I want to focus on the effects which the false god of Shopping has on US – the shoppers.
Shopping and Lifestyle
A few years ago Freeport Designer Village in Braintree was advertised in a poster which said simply this.
“Ours is a shallow meaningless consumer society where we are defined by our possessions. Enjoy!”
People nowadays seem to be “born to shop”. Shopping is now officially Britain’s number one most popular recreational activity. More people spend their leisure time in shopping Malls or garden centres or DIY superstores than doing anything else.
Article from Scottish newspaper The Herald.
“Shop Till You Drop” is the maxim millions adhere to every Saturday afternoon as they seek to dispose of cash at a frightening rate. We are a nation of shopaholics, say the experts…We shop to live, we live to shop. In fact we are in danger of replicating the American trend where self-help groups exist for shopaholics and 6% of the population are estimated to suffer from this addictive buy, buy, buy disorder”
The last quarter century has seen the rise of a new phenomenon. I don’t know whether the label was coined by an advertising genius or a comedian but the phrase is “Retail therapy” The idea that we NEED to shop, that shopping is GOOD and HEALTHY for us, the idea that when we are sad or depressed, the best thing we can do is go out and spend, spend, spend!
A recent survey reported that 81% of people want more than they earn. 89% of people expect to “have it all”. Yet at the same time 94% of people believe we are all too materialistic! Apparently consumerism does not make us happy. We are ten times more depressed than we were in the 1950’s, and forty times more violent. People are rather naïve if they really think that possessing more things, and having more and more choices, will actually make them either better people or happier people. As Jesus taught, “What is a man advantaged if he gains the whole wide world, yet loses his soul!” We are called to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and IT’S righteousness. We should set our hearts on treasures in heaven, not treasures on earth.
Luke 12:15 “Watch out and guard yourselves from every kind of greed; because a person’s true life is not made up of the things he owns, no matter how rich he may be.”
‘Beware! Don’t be greedy for what you don’t have. Real life is not measured by how much we own… A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.’
The Times columnist, Bernard Levin (who is not a Christian) once wrote: “Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, and yet lead lives of desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they put into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with…it aches.” In other words, happiness will not arrive in a M&S carrier bag, in a BMW or in a pair of Reebok trainers. We cannot fill the hole in our souls by putting a hole in our purses and wallets.
Luke 12: 16 Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was once a rich man who had land which bore good crops. 17 He began to think to himself, `I haven’t anywhere to keep all my crops. What can I do? 18 This is what I will do,’ he told himself; `I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I will store my corn and all my other goods. 19 Then I will say to myself, Lucky man! You have all the good things you need for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself!’ 20 But God said to him, `You fool! This very night you will have to give up your life; then who will get all these things you have kept for yourself?’ ” 21 And Jesus concluded, “This is how it is with those who pile up riches for themselves but are not rich in God’s sight.”
Human beings have a higher and much more noble destiny that to be “born to shop”. As Christians we should be standing out against the futility of consumerism which is so often just a respectable expression of greed – for which “enough is never enough”.
I will never forget the time a pastor from Romania visited Tunbridge Wells. We asked him if there was a gift we could give him to help in his ministry back home. Hesitantly Emil described how every weekend he travelled from town to town on the train to preach and how convenient it would be if he had a briefcase to carry his Bible and his sermon notes and his razor and toothbrush in. So we bought him a rather nice briefcase.
You can imagine how embarrassed I was when the first time Emil opened the briefcase the catch broke. It wouldn’t close. So I offered to take the briefcase back to the shop to exchange it for a new one. But I almost had to prise the briefcase out of Emil’s hands. He really couldn’t believe that it was possible to exchange faulty goods for a working replacement. In Romania he would just have to live with something he had bought, even if it turned out to be broken. But in England we just take for granted that consumers have rights. Satisfaction guaranteed – or your money back.
That is the first thing underlying our consumer society which everybody takes for granted nowadays: satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. And the second thing people expect and demand out of life is freedom of choice. The way some people talk you would think that these things were basic human rights – the “right to guaranteed satisfaction” AND the “right to freedom of choice”. And the influence of these expectations spreads much wider than merely our shopping habits. They affect our attitudes to relationships and our attitudes to religion as well!
Shopping and Relationships
For thousands of years human relationships have been based on one simple factor – geography. Family life and community life have been forged around location. But the increased mobility which the last century brought, and not least the inventions of cars and telephones, has seen new kinds of relationships become commonplace – relationships based not on location but on shared interest. People commute to work. People take their leisure away from their neighbourhood. You don’t have to work hard at building and maintaining relationships with the people down your street any more – or even with your own family. You can always build new relationships with people like you, who think the same way you do, even if they live hundreds of miles or even a continent away. The difference is between being in a community of people you cannot choose to be with, which can be hard work, and being in a community of people you select for yourself, which is much easier!
So in relationships, as well as in shopping, people have come to expect freedom of choice and they also expect to be satisfied all the time. These are the reasons why traditional communities and family life are breaking down and crime is increasing. This is why people are finding it harder to trust each other. Just as we are consumers of goods, so people have become consumers in relationships. Consumers have no obligations to their suppliers – and so people have no sense of responsibility towards each other. We demand choice and satisfaction – or we will take our friendship elsewhere. This is one reason why Christians who are locked into a consumer lifestyle are not as good as we should be at showing Christ’s love for each other and for our neighbours. Showing true unconditional love for each other cuts across our freedom of choice, and offers no guarantees of satisfaction.
But as Christians we should stand out against the tide in these things! We must show the world that we are prepared to sacrifice our satisfaction and give up our freedom of choice to show Christ’s love! The church must show the world what true community is all about, before everybody forgets completely!
Then there is Shopping and Religion
In today’s shopping mall culture our neighbours are much more likely to be worshipping in the Temples of Lakeside and Bluewater than in Christian Churches. But the assumptions of “a right to freedom of choice” and “a right to be satisfied” have spread into areas of morality and religion as well.
In MORALITY people have become Moral consumers. In Christendom a century ago our society used to have shared moral values and a moral framework that was based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition (including the Ten Commandments)
Today this is no longer the case. Instead people (and particularly the media) say that there are no absolutes and the most important value is tolerance. People have become ‘moral consumers’, choosing their own moral positions, rejecting any attempts to impose a morality on them, rejecting any idea that there is absolute right or wrong. One major result of this is a loss of respect for institutions (police, government, education, church). But as Christians we have to say people CANNOT just pick and choose their own morality. Right is right and wrong is wrong! And God is Judge of all people – whether they acknowledged his laws or not!
BETWEEN RELIGIONS – we now live in a multicultural multi-faith “pluralistic society”. The last decades have seen the rise of ‘alternative spiritualities’ to produce what we could call a ‘spiritual supermarket approach to religion’. Whereas a few generations ago, the only choice was what kind of Christian church you attended, today there is a huge and confusing range of choices on offer. Christianity is only one stall in this spiritual market place. And the problem is that so many people opt out of religion.
As I was once quoted in the Brentwood Gazette as saying, “Faced with the difficult challenge of making an informed decision about which religion to believe in, many people take the easy option of not believing in anything at all.” Ask a friend what they believe about spiritual things. They may say. “I don’t buy into any of that!” Religion has become something people can choose to buy into – or choose to ignore! But as Christians we have to say that people CANNOT just choose there own way to God! Jesus is the only way, and the only truth and the only life. No-one comes to the Father except through Jesus. (JOHN 14:6)
And let’s be aware that there is even consumerism WITHIN CHRISTIANITY and in the church
Sociologist David Lyon (POSTMODERNITY 1994:OUP) comments “Christianity has largely succumbed to consumerism as a leisure pursuit.”
He isn’t just thinking of the huge growth in Christian worship music, so that the songs which are supposed to bring us closer to God and express our worship to Him are reduced to the level of entertainment we listen to in the car or doing the washing up. Consumerism affects our whole attitude to worship and to the church.
“How can worship hope to impart meaning when the very thing which is supposed to give ‘weight’ and ‘depth’ has become the central rallying point of Christian consumerism.”
People used to choose their church on the basis of the doctrines the church believed, whether it was preaching the true gospel and interpreting the Bible correctly. Nowadays very many people choose their church on the basis of the style of worship almost to the exclusion of anything else.
Someone has written “Worship in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Worship is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church. For others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent for Christian entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so, somehow, expand our otherwise humdrum lives. We’ll try anything — until something else comes along.”
In church, Christian consumers demand THEIR choice and they demand satisfaction guaranteed. If they don’t get to sing their kind of songs, if the minister doesn’t meet THEIR expectations, consumer Christians complain until they get their money back – or they take their custom elsewhere! That is not discipleship! That is consumerism. That is Christians bowing down to the false god of Shopping.
Lifestyle – Relationships – Religion – we are NOT born to shop. In the face of the consumer society around us our hearts and minds must be made completely new!