We live in an American culture whose values naturally steep a lifestyle of isolation and loneliness. We’ve already taken an in-depth look at individualism and its effects on community. This week, I want to focus on a value we’re all too familiar with:
Consumerism in itself isn’t bad. All of us need to consume stuff in order to live. The problem is when it becomes a hunger for more and more, an ever constant pursuit of satisfying one’s wants to unhealthy levels. America’s obsession with consumerism took off with the economic boom following World War II, eventually producing a people who work extreme amounts of hours to earn multitudes of money to consume products that meet personal desires and express individuality. However, if the product doesn’t satisfy one’s expectations, then it can always be returned.
The mentality of living in a consumerism-driven culture, as author Skye Jethani puts it, is that “the world will accommodate to your desires,” and “you shouldn’t settle for anything less than the fulfillment of your precise expectations.” When this mentality socializes a people group, then it consequently perverts their view of relationships.
In a consumerism-drive culture, people become products we use to benefit ourselves. We stay in the relationship as long as it makes us feel good, but as soon as it fails to meet our exact expectations, we’re tempted to give up on the relationship all together. This makes it people’s search for significant community pretty difficult. Skye Jethani puts it this way:
“[People] make calculated decisions about which community will offer the most comfortable environment, and [their] commitment to that group lasts only as long as the comfort endures…. it’s the tension between choice and commitment, between comfort and community.”
Relationships become only another method of satisfying the self. And if those satisfactions aren’t met, the relationship can be abandoned altogether, or set aside in a metaphorical “storage room” of long-forgotten products that are no longer useful and out of date.
This is where our American culture and our design for community collide. Americans want a perfect, idealistic product that precisely meets their expectations. But true, authentic community and friendship flies in the face of consumerism because perfect community doesn’t exist. The legendary 20th century theologian Dietriech Bonhoeffer calls this the problem of “community idealism.” Bonhoeffer essentially says that anyone who strives to search for a perfect, idealistic community with no problems or discord or discomfort simply will not find it. Contrary to popular belief, it is actually the very dysfunction and discord of authentic community that makes it so valuable to begin with.
Andy Root summarizes Bonhoeffer’s thoughts “that there is no ideal church, that there is no ideal church-community, but only the embodied actual physical communities in which we live. And actual living communities, made up of physical, embodied persons, always wrestle with discord, walking the precarious wire above the pit of dysfunction. This, Bonhoeffer says, is normal and necessary.”
In other words, as soon as things begin feeling uncomfortable and dysfunctional—ding ding!—congratulations, you have found community. Consumerism says you must cut out immediately when you reach this point. But Bonhoeffer argues it is through the discomfort and less than ideal elements of being gathered with a bunch of nitwit human beings that actually sharpens us and grows us to look more like Christ. Iron sharpening iron is a dangerous, painful process. It’s the conflict of rubbing against other people’s sin together that the Spirit of God uses to form us into Christ’s image. It’s what being a part of the body of Christ is all about.
The thing that draws us away from community, according to consumerism’s standards, is the very thing that should draw us towards it. Embrace people’s mess. Welcome the tension. Wrestle with each other’s sin. Confess to one another. Don’t let that scare you. Don’t return this product. Because you need other people more than you could imagine. It’s our God-given design.