Carder warns church of dangers of consumerist practices

Marketing surveys and long-term recruitment and growth strategies may be important competitive tools for business and other institutions, but they have no place in the church.

Kenneth L. Carder, resident bishop of the Nashville area, United Methodist Church, warned of the dangers of an increasingly consumerist church during his Jan. 9 keynote address at Candler School of Theology's 60th Annual Minister's Week.

"As in the marketplace of contemporary consumerism, growth in terms of institutional expansion drives much of the church's life, from worship to mission, from proclamation to publishing, from evangelism to education," said Carder. "Marketing surveys, management techniques, sociological extrapolations and visioning processes have become the stock and trade of an institution trying to regain its market share. The language of the consumerist economy is replacing the language of faith as people become `customers' and discipleship is approached as though it is the product of a system of quality control.

"Mega institutions offering multiple options to the bargain hunting religious shopper are marketed as the best hope for the church's future," Carder continued. "`Bait and Switch' has become a popular method of evangelism. The assumption is that we can appeal to people through consumerist logic, and then they will respond to the logic of grace. The result, however, is an institution captured by the consumerist culture which uses the language of the gospel to support the practice of consumerism."

The threat of consumerism

According to Carder, consumerism, or economism, has created a growth-driven spiral that has done unprecedented harm to the environment.

"A major threat of the exchange logic of consumerism is its reduction of the earth and all therein to commodities to be traded, exploited and consumed," Carder said. "The exchange logic reduces creation to a commodity to be exploited by human beings. Natural resources are viewed as mere means of human ends. Plants, animals, land and water are treated as expendable objects to be used in the pursuit of human goals."

In addition to its threat against natural resources, consumerism also reduces human beings to commodities. "Consumerism and the market logic consider human beings as consumers who are prized for their exchange value," Carder said. "They too become pawns of the market. Human worth lies in the contribution human beings make to the economy, what they have to exchange. Governmental policy is formed by and for the advantage of those who have the most power and wealth to exchange."

Carder said the current debate in this country over a middle class tax cut is only one example and result of the pervasiveness of a consumerist anthropology. "More of the most vulnerable creatures, including our sisters and brothers who live in poverty, will die," he said. "The likelihood is that their deaths will be blamed on their own failure to participate in the economy, rather than being seen as a warning that a deadly poison has entered the collective household's environment in the form of an idolatrous consumerism."

"The free market and exchange economy have a role to play in our common life," explained Carder. "The danger lies in the idolatrous nature of economism and consumerism. When they become the central organizing principle of our life as creatures of this threatened earth, they cease being tools and become gods, which usurp the sovereignty of the Creator God, who gives all creatures a right to a name and access to `table.'"

God the Economist

In his book God the Economist, M. Douglas Meeks explains that economy literally means "the law or management of the household."

"God's law of the household is the economy of life against death and cannot be disregarded by our economy without impunity," Meeks wrote. "God's righteousness means God's power to create/liberate life out of the power of nothingness. God's economy is fundamentally about God's struggle with death, the power of nihil. Will the cosmic household live or will it fall victim to God's enemy, death, which seeks in every moment to disrupt the distribution of righteousness in the household and thus to close out life?"

Carder explained that grace, not exchange, is at the heart of God's economy. "Creation itself is God's gift, freely given, not a commodity," he said. "A gift is passed on and shared. Gifts are valued primarily in relationship to the giver. The earth and its creatures and resources are gifts of God, whose dominion is expressed in giving and sharing, in contrast to the human propensity to dominate by hoarding and consuming."

The role of the church

"The church seeks to be a visible manifestation of God's dream for creation, and that dream includes a healed earth and a reconciled human-ity," Carder said. "Rather than being a visible manifestation of the economy of God, the contemporary United Methodist Church in America tends to reflect the prevailing economism and consumerism of society, more preoccupied with its own institutional survival and domination than the survival of the earth. The church adopts uncritically the methods and strategies of consumerism as though they are value-free and theologically benign tools for religious expansion."

Carder said the church's role in a threatened creation is best fulfilled by being the church, "a community shaped by the logic, and sometimes illogic, of grace. In a grace-shaped church, growth is seen as a deepening of the human capacity for service to the earth. Rather than measuring success by institutional expansion, growth in love for and service to the earth as God's gift intended for all people will be evidence of our faithfulness. Solidarity with the most vulnerable in earth's household will be a surer sign of strength than the size and opulence of our buildings and the number of the world's rich and famous in our membership."

Revolutionary petunias

The morning after Carder's address, Minister's Week worshippers were challenged to be leaders in emphasizing God's command to care for the earth during a sermon, "Revolu-tionary Petunias," by Beverly Shamana, associate director for Ethnic, Justice and Outreach Ministries, the California-Pacific Annual Conference. "We must awaken the imagination of our people to hear God's divine call to partnership in sustaining the earth," she said.

Shamana related the story of a group of California high schoolers who turned the fallow ground behind their high school football field into an urban garden. The students sell their produce and have even created a natural-ingredient salad dressing, which is sold in supermarkets. Profits from this "Food From the Hood" project are shared between homeless shelters and a college scholarship fund for those who work in the garden.

"According to Alice Walker, petunias have challenges the like of which we'll never know, in order to bloom against the elemental crush, but these young people, the hope of tomorrow, have found a way to stave off the ills that threaten their future," said Shamana. "It comes from the ground up - as they till the soil of the earth, the furrows of their soul... they've become connected to the planet in a new way and to the truth that the nature of their flowers and their greens and their rutabagas is to bloom. We are the ones to fire the hearts and imaginations of our followers to bloom in spite of the elemental crush."

She also exhorted the crowd of 200 Candler alumni and students to broaden participation in the church among those active in caring for the earth. "Who's going to reach out and move among the marginalized populations to invite them to the table," she asked. "We know we can bring a broader spectrum of people together to sustain our earth."

--Dan Treadaway

and Jan Gleason