How Consumerism Reshapes All Our Relationships

In the United States, the average amount of consumer debt, not including housing, is nearly $20,000 per household. The majority of that debt is credit card debt.
Each year, over one million people declare bankruptcy.
According to George Barna, thirty-three percent of Christians feel that it is not possible to get ahead in life because of debt.
Each year, John and Sylvia Ronsvalle produce The State of Christian Giving, a report on the financial habits of Christians. They reveal a steady decline in tithes and offerings since the 1960s. So, even though American Christians have amassed greater wealth than at any time in the history of the church, they spend more on themselves and less on the church. Robert Wuthnow said, “Perhaps our faith has become so narrowly defined that it seldom pricks our conscience when pocketbook issues are at stake.”

Something in us wants to acquire. We will spend ourselves into oblivion in order to collect and consume. James Collier said that it is natural for us to want possessions but “only small children believe that they should have everything they want – or so it used to be.” We believe we have a right to the things that we want. Rodney Clapp was right to wonder if people who once consumed to live now live to consume.

Is it so wrong to want to consume? Will it really undermine our spiritual transformation if we desire to consume? The short answer is yes. When we embrace consumerism, we fail to understand that consumption reshapes all of our relationships.


Let’s face it, many people use purchasing new products, and the thrill it brings, as a way to prop up a deflated self. With every purchase comes a new excitement, a new opportunity to reinvent oneself, and a new chance to possess. Dallas Willard said possessions are “an extension of the body and of the self, for through them our will and character extend their range.”
Those who sell us products are well aware of how to manipulate our desire to consume from our earliest days. In her book Born to Buy, Juliet Schor says: “Contemporary American tweens and teens have emerged as the most brand-oriented, consumer-involved, and materialistic generation in history…A survey of youth from seventy cities in more than fifteen countries finds that 75% of U.S. tweens want to be rich, a higher percentage than anywhere else in the world except India…Sixty-one percent want to be famous. More children here than anywhere else believe that their clothes and brands describe who they are and define their social status.”
Former strategic planner Thomas Kouns said, “We have a message which says to be worth anything, you have to have the product…Brands are about giving you value, giving you self-esteem.”
Brands develop image and ultimately image becomes something we sell to the world. We see ourselves as a product that needs to be sold. We give up being ourselves because advertisers have told us we cannot be ourselves and find acceptance. Instead, we cultivate an image. To make it in a consumer world, image is everything. John Kavanaugh said our whole perspective changes: “Will I sell? Will they buy me?” He says we are told we must get diplomas, talents, and skills in order to be worth anything to the world. If we cannot sell ourselves in a consumer world, we are worthless.
So people polish their images through the internet, the clothes they wear, the style of their hair, and the way they model themselves after the latest media creation. Honestly, there are times I wonder if there is anything beneath the facades so many put up. David Wells sums up the issue by saying, “Image and appearance assume the functions that character and morality once had.”
We mock the Pharisees for their hypocrisy on the one hand while creating our own mask on the other.

The great irony of consumerism is that it does not satisfy so we consume more hoping it will fill what is lacking. Charles Colson says, “Practicing the religion of consumerism is like drinking salt water: the more you drink, the thirstier you get.” The market wants us to feel this way. It wants us to need more. Vincent Miller says, “Consumer desire is not focused on particular things; it is constantly enticed to go beyond what has been acquired to consider something new.” Solomon understood this and said, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income.” If our income rises, so does our standard of living. We are no longer satisfied with where we were, we must not only maintain where we are but move upward yet again. “We soon adapt to the success,” David Myers says. “What was formerly positive is now only neutral, and what was formerly neutral becomes negative.”
On May 7, 1915, a German submarine sunk the Lusitania. In the desperate moments after it went down, there were hundreds of small, dramatic fights for survival on the Atlantic. That afternoon, a woman was floating in the water, holding a purse. She yelled to several men on a box, “The purse contains nothing but money, and I will give it to the person that saves me.” A man responded that he would help. She threw the purse to him. But, as he reached for it, the shift in weight caused the box to flip and everyone on it fell into the depths.
This is exactly what happens when we embrace consumerism. As we reach for it, it flips us over and the soul sinks. In fact, a materialistic philosophy brings us into a senseless world plenty to live with yet nothing to live for.


On May 18, 1986, Wall Street tycoon Ivan Boesky stood before the University of California’s business school graduates to give the commencement speech. By many accounts, the speech was boring and full of clichéd platitudes. All of that changed however, when Boesky paused, looked up from his notes, and said, “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” The students cheered.
Perhaps Boesky did feel good about himself. But no one else felt good about him. In December of that same year, Boesky made the cover of Time magazine with the title “Ivan the Terrible.” Even though he became an informant for the Department of Justice, he still spent two years in prison for insider trading and had to pay more than one hundred million dollars in fines. His in-laws called him a piece of sewage. He and his wife divorced. She called him a rat and said he ruined her life.
When we give into consuming as a way of life, we compromise our relationship with others. Consumerism spoils our relationship with others by provoking covetousness and envy. Covetousness and envy are similar, but they are not exactly the same. Robert Pyne points out covetousness “wishes to possess particular people or objects,” but envy “wants to trade places with those who possess those things.” If I see my neighbor has a new car, I want that same car – mine is no longer satisfactory. My desire is to go to the dealership and buy what my neighbor has. This is covetousness. If I see my neighbor’s wife and I want to take my neighbor’s place as the husband, that is envy. When I view my relationships through the lens of consumption, other people become my rivals. The consumer culture not only condones such desires, it encourages them.
Consumerism spoils our relationships with others through gains and losses. As long as we see others as beneficial, we will build relationships. Once others outlive their usefulness, we throw them aside. Consumerism undermines all relationships because the bottom line is not the relationship, but the gain the relationship might bring.
This reshaping of our social relationships has even crept into ministry. Recently, I attended a missionary commissioning service.
At this meeting, missionaries were told that they should network for evangelism. I’ll be honest, from the moment I heard the phrase it didn’t sound right to me. Being the word geek that I am, I looked up ‘networking’ and Webster says, “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.”
I wonder if the people who decided we should “network for evangelism” knew what the word network means. I hope they did not mean that we are to cultivate relationships for employment or business. I hope they do not mean that I should reach out to people because it will help my business (church) and my employment (pastor). The concept behind the word revealed how they viewed relationships.
When we embrace consumerism, we wind up seeing our relationships in terms of advantages for advancement.


Jesus confronts those who believe we can serve God and the material system. “No one can serve two masters,” He said in Matthew 6:24. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” The commentator D.A. Carson said, “Attempts at divided loyalty betray, not a partial commitment to discipleship, but a deep seated commitment to idolatry.”
Once we commit to consuming, we fall prey to consumer desires. Once we commit to consumer desires, we exalt objects. John Kavanaugh said that in a consumer society we relate to things “as if they were our gods, giving us meaning, purpose, and a reason for living.”
If we exalt consuming, we ultimately oppose God and His system. We become greedy, set on personal gain. Psalm 10:3 says, “The wicked one boasts of his own cravings; the one who is greedy curses and despises the Lord.”
When we look at God and His system through the lens of consumerism, we want to know what God can do for us. God becomes another competitor in the marketplace. We are sovereign and He works for us. A wife of a Michigan megachurch pastor once explained her past church experience in this way, “It had worked for me for a long time. Then it stopped working.” Many people I encounter view spirituality in the same way. They expect God and His church to work for them. They say, “What will my church, my faith, my Bible, and my God do for me? How will these spiritual things work for me? And when they stop working for me, where else will I look?”
So, while the statement about malls becoming cathedrals may be extreme, it may very well be that the greater danger has occurred: the cathedrals have become malls. The mold of the consumer mentality has shaped our spirituality. Donald Miller is able to express the problem of the consumer church mentality best when he says, “Did they have to talk about spirituality like it’s a vacuum cleaner…I wish they would just tell it to me straight rather than trying to sell me on everything.”


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