Chapter 12: Case Study: Consumerism
Tom Sine begins by acknowledging religious concerns about excessive consumption and diminishing spiritual and family values, and highlights the diversity within evangelical Christianity. On one end of the spectrum are more progressive evangelicals,
“such as the ‘Sojourners’ community, Anabaptists, and a number of faculty in evangelical colleges and seminaries, [who] are very concerned about issues of social justice, peacemaking, and changing patterns of consumption. There is also a growing interest among younger evangelicals in the care of God’s creation….On the other end, there is indeed the Christian Right, which is large….While they favor voluntary efforts to help the poor, they are strongly opposed to initiating government funded programs to that end. This group has little motivation,” Sire says, “to change their behavior regarding consumption. Moreover, a number of evangelicals, caught up in the prosperity gospel are very much focused on their own lives and tend to regard high consumption patterns as a sign of God’s blessing. Most evangelicals, however, are clustered between these polarities and embrace a compartmentalized faith that addresses issues of personal piety and private morality, but not patterns of consumption.” (55).
In regard to basic theological commitments, Sire says “evangelical Christians strongly emphasize the Lordship of Christ and try to order their lives in such a way as to reflect what they understand that Lordship demands. Usually that understanding impacts their moral behavior very directly but it seldom seems to impact their consumption behavior.” (56) Sire notes that “evangelical Christians believe that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ were central to the Creator God’s purposes to redeem a people and restore a world…Most evangelicals believe that God’s primary mission in the world is, through the grace of Jesus Christ, to redeem those who turn to Him in faith….Until the early seventies, American evangelicals believed that the mission of the church had to do almost exclusively with the spiritual dimension–evangelism, church planting, and discipling new believers. However, in 1974, the World Evangelical Fellowship convened an international conference on the mission of the church, and published the ‘Lausanne Covenant.’” (56)
“The Lausanne Covenant reflected a new, broader sense of God’s purposes in the world that were no longer limited to just the spiritual realm. The covenant stressed the relationship between evangelicalism and social responsibility. It read in part: ‘The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist.’… This document not only signaled a broadening view of mission, it also reflected an expanding view of the doctrines of creation and redemption stirring among evangelicals. Increasingly, evangelicals started developing a theology of creation” that includes recovering “the ancient biblical truth that the Gospel is Good News to the whole creation.” (57)
Intimately related to the theology of creation is the theology of redemption….More progressive evangelicals see God not only redeeming individuals, but also transforming structures and restoring all of creation:
A few choose to live in intentional communities that seek to flesh out values that look more like God’s kingdom than American culture….Most of us, however, still live in the same single family, detached residential patterns as everyone else. But a few more progressive evangelicals are struggling to change their lifestyles and patterns of consumption in ways that reflect what they believe are the values of God’s new order.” (58) A good example is “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle,” a document drafted by a worldwide group of evangelicals in 1980. “The concluding resolution reads: ‘…having been freed by the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, in obedience to His call, in heart felt compassion for the poor, in concern for evangelism, development and justice, and in solemn anticipation of the Day of Judgment, we humbly commit ourselves to develop a just and simple lifestyle, to support one another in it and to encourage others to join us in this commitment.’ Regrettably, this statement and its important message received very little visibility among American evangelicals. Most evangelicals,” Sire claims, “make virtually no connection among their patterns of consumption, their lifestyles, and their Christian faith.” (58) So even though some evangelicals struggle seriously with consumption and lifestyle issues, Sire thinks this remains a difficult issue with which to grapple for evangelicals.
Sire concludes by describing obstacles and opportunities for American evangelical engagement in addressing consumption. It may be the case that evangelicals, generally, were mostly ‘poor’ in the last 100 years, so gaining wealth has seemed desirable, but Sire says “evangelical Christians, like other people of faith, have allowed secular American values to determine largely the aspirations that drive their lives and the values on which their lives are premised. In other words, the fundamental problem is that most people of faith have allowed American culture and the upwardly mobile aspirations of the American dream, instead of the values of their faith tradition, to define their notions of the good life.” (59) Sire says evangelicals also face a huge obstacle to the extent that some evangelicals have “succumbed to the message of the prosperity gospel,” whose adherents “sincerely believe that higher levels of conspicuous consumption are evidence of God’s increased blessing in their lives.” (59) Sire also warns that some evangelicals remain solely focused on “saving souls” and feel little need to focus on issues like consumption. And he says that since some evangelicals allow conservative political and economic ideologies to influence them more than biblical faith, “they frequently blame the poor for their situation…and unlike evangelicals in other countries, they strongly oppose using government funds to initiate programs to help the poor.” (59) Sire says others have been influenced by conservative economists who “are in total denial that there are any serious environmental problems,” so they focus little concern on the impact of their consumption on the created order. (60)
Sire concludes that “if evangelical Christians are going to be drawn into a conversation on the topic of consumption and Christian responsibility, the issue cannot be attacked head on with much hope of success.” (61) Sire suggests a starting point is to address people’s time and stressed lives and the pressures they are feeling on their families. Then focus on a return to biblical faith and scripture to highlight alternative values that can shift lifestyles and enhance family life. Sire suggests that if we can build new models based on values found in scripture, “we can enable believers, in all our faith traditions, to create lifestyles that are both more festive and celebrative but also less driven and consumptive.” (61)