Last week, I did a radio interview about Eschatological Discipleship, in which we discussed consumerism, one of the three rival eschatologies I write about in the book.
I’ve said before that the chapter on consumerism in This Is Our Time was the hardest to write. I often find writing or speaking on the subject of consumerism to be harder than dealing with any other challenge, even the sexual revolution, which is, arguably, more politically charged. Consumerism vexes me so because it’s the air we breathe; it’s the cultural waters we swim in. It is difficult to get enough cultural distance from the consumer mentality to fully probe its opportunities and challenges. (The irony is not lost on me that in writing about consumerism, I hope to sell a book with my particular take on the topic.)
Does consumerism even have an eschatology? I say it does, although it takes on a different shape than the eschatology of progress seen in Enlightenment thought, or the trajectory toward liberation seen in today’s proponents of the sexual revolution. Here’s a portion of Eschatological Discipleship where I explore some ways we as Christians must re-envision our lives in order to fight against a consumer mindset that would distort our faith.
Not the Joneses, but Jesus
If consumerist eschatology tells the story of the self-made individual moving from a place of financial poverty to wealth and status and success, then the church must tell the story of an individual moving from spiritual death to new life in Christ, from immaturity in Christ to representing him well before the world. Growth in holiness, from one’s conversion until one’s death or Christ’s return, must become the dominant narrative by which Christians live.
The goal of discipleship is Christlikeness; therefore, we cannot judge our growth or success by the world’s standards but rather by God’s. The question can never be, “Are we keeping up with the Joneses?,” but, “Are we looking more like Jesus?”
Individuals alone will not be able to reclaim this goal of discipleship. It will require the alternative story of the community of faith, believers who see both the danger of consumerism and also the opportunity. The danger is to recast Christianity in self-focused terms; the opportunity is to reclaim Christianity’s truly transformative vision for human flourishing. Instead of dismissing all consumer evaluations of a church (summed up in the question, What does this congregation offer me?) as if they are shallow and self-centered, we should rise to the challenge and offer serious answers.
The church does offer something transformative to the seeker, and instead of judging the seeker, the church should welcome the difficult questions that arise in a consumer culture. In fact, we may even find that a culture of choice is one in which commitment is stronger in the long run, precisely because the choice has been made consciously.
Beware of Consumer Colonization
Reclaiming the goal of discipleship also means we must see our discipleship efforts as taking place in a context in which freedom of choice reigns supreme. We recognize that the people we disciple, including our own children, will be confronted with a large number of religious and nonreligious choices. The danger of experimenting with endless variations of spirituality is that Christianity can become subservient to our pursuit of personal fulfillment and no longer be about leading people to, in the words of the Westminster Catechism, “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
The opportunity, however, is that once we are aware that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness” (in the words of Christian Smith and Melinda Denton), we are better equipped to help churches consistently and intentionally cultivate Christian identity as based in Christ’s cross and resurrection.
Proclaim Christianity as Public Truth
Reclaiming discipleship as eschatological requires us to avoid speaking of the gospel in ways that focus solely or primarily on therapeutic results to the exclusion or minimizing of the gospel’s public nature. To be clear, the gospel as public truth does not exclude therapeutic benefits to believers, but it is only because the gospel is public truth that those therapeutic benefits are available. Lesslie Newbigin warns:
There can be no true evangelism except that which announces what is not only good news but true news. . . . It is a very serious matter when the gospel is marketed primarily as a panacea for personal or public ills. We believe that it is indeed for the healing of the nations, but it cannot be this if it is not true.
In other words, present the gospel as true, and people will find it helpful. Present the gospel as merely helpful, and people will consider it to be neither.
The challenge of endless spiritual choices is not new for Christians. The early Christians in Rome lived in a time of moral decadence and religious pluralism. These Christians knew, however, who was the true King of the world, and they rejected the eschatology of Roman imperialism no matter how many coins bore the image of Caesar or how many priests exalted his glories. They belonged to Christ and his family.
Belonging, which goes beyond brands, status, and economic results, is key to overcoming the divisions fostered by a consumer mindset. New creation is seen in the death of prejudices and personal demands. The way for Christians to reclaim the goal of discipleship is to provide a foretaste of the eschatological feast, glimpsed in every celebration of the Lord’s Supper.