November 19, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Romans 12:1-2
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Contrary to a mentality of consumerism, when we gather for worship we should not be shopping for an experience. Worship is a response to what God has already done for us, and an act of love and obligation toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Worship is not about ourselves. It is about God, and about God’s people. The heart conformed to our culture turns worship and praise into consumer goods whose purpose is to satisfy the so-called worshipper. The heart transformed by God sees worship and praise as offerings we make to God.
In his letter to the Roman church, Paul wrote “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That does not mean that we shouldn’t follow many of the customs of a culture we live in (or are visiting). There is value in Saint Ambrose’s proverbial advice to Saint Augustine: When in Rome, do like the Romans. Learning a culture’s language and customs is an important way to show love to the people of that culture. It is a witness to the truth that God welcomes people of all races and cultures into His kingdom. Learning and following cultural customs can also be important in communicating the Gospel to a particular people in a particular place. What Paul’s exhortation does mean, though, is that we shouldn’t conform to the values of our culture (or any culture of this world). The Message translation captures this exhortation as follows: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.”
As I noted in yesterday’s devotion, one all-too-easy way to imitate or conform to western culture is in the realm of consumerism. We live in a consumerist society. We are constantly bombarded with messages that spending money and acquiring possessions or experiences will bring satisfaction; that our identity and worth are connected to how much money we spend and how many possessions we own; and that we should always have numerous choices, with our personal desires being the ultimate judge of what choices we make. (The “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” shopping orgies following Thanksgiving are a stark reminder of this.)
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with having numerous consumer choices for breakfast cereal, ice cream, a car, or a cell phone, the overall attitude of consumerism—formed in part by the constant reminders of our myriad choices and the messages that we deserve the best—is indeed harmful. It is one way that we subconsciously conform to our world’s pattern rather than be transformed by God’s work in our lives. We need to learn to think in a different way: to let our minds be renewed. One way to have our minds renewed is to engage in careful critique of the different ways our culture shapes us.
Yesterday I invited you to consider three ways that a consumerist mentality can shape us. Today I want to focus on a fourth way that is perhaps the most damaging. Where consumer patterns of thinking are particularly destructive is when they are so ingrained—when we are so conformed to think in terms of consumer choices and consumer goods—that we begin to apply consumer thinking to God, worship, and the church.
Have you ever walked out of a worship service and begun to evaluate it—the sermon, or the music, or some other aspect of the liturgy, or all of it together—based on how it made you feel, or how moving the experience was for you? I know I have. I have great appreciation for my home church, and yet I still find it an easy pattern to fall into. Since we are consumers, and the world caters to our tastes and seeks to please us to get our money, we easily begin to think church should also exist to please us: that our worship service should make us feel good; the music should uplift us and fit our preferred style; the sermon should satisfy us. Our personal tastes become our primary way of thinking of worship as though worship were an ice cream flavor.
We can even apply this not just to a particular service, but to the church experience as a whole. “Church-hopping,” as it is often called—moving from church to church whenever our current one no longer pleases us—is quite common in our society. We even apply this to God himself and our religious experience. We put God in the same category as the latest popular cell phone model, new car, or dream home: something to make us happy or bring satisfaction—something that, if it isn’t making us happy, we trade in for another model.
We began this devotion looking at Romans 12:2. I find it interesting that just a verse earlier in 12:1 Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” This may be the most important area not to conform to patterns of this world. Pause to consider that wording for a moment. Paul speaks of worship as a sacrificial act. Worship is not about how we feel; it is about what we bring to God: what we offer to God. And what we ought to be offering to God is our very selves. Of course, that requires work and effort. It is something we give rather than something we take. But that is true worship, Paul tells us. It is the opposite of being consumers; we become givers.
The author of Hebrews—possibly also Paul—says something similar about praise in Hebrews 13:15-16: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” I love the imagery here. It speaks of our lips bearing fruit. This metaphor is a sharp contrast with “consumerism” since the very essence of being “consumers” is “consuming”—that is to say, “eating.” In this Hebrews passage describing praise that is pleasing to God, instead of our mouths being used to consume, they are used to profess God and to praise God. Our lips bear fruit, producing something for the world (and for God) rather than consuming something.
When we gather for true worship, we are not going shopping for an experience. We are responding to Christ’s love that bought our salvation. Drawing near to God (in worship, especially in gathered communal worship and fellowship) is not a consumer act, done to make us feel good, or to have a particular experience. When worship becomes all about how it “feeds” us, or makes us feel, or what our experience is, then it’s easy to forsake meeting together the moment some better or more convenient options arises—the moment another better cereal or cell phone gets offered to us.
Worship is a response to what God has already done for us, and an act of love and obligation toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Worship is not about ourselves. It is about God, and about God’s people. When I as a participant of a service am constantly evaluating aspects of church and worship services, asking how they make me feel, or how they move me, then my so-called worship ceases to be about God and thus it ceases to be worship. The heart conformed to our culture turns worship and praise into consumer goods whose purpose is to satisfy the so-called worshipper. The heart transformed by God sees worship and praise as offerings we make to God.
Ponder the competing metaphors of lips consuming and lips bearing fruit. What might that look like for worship?
Have you ever found yourself approaching or evaluating worship with a consumer mentality, as though the purpose were to please you? How? What might it mean for you to approach worship as an act of sacrifice?
Consider the closing phrase above: “The heart conformed to our culture turns worship and praise into consumer goods whose purpose is to satisfy the so-called worshipper. The heart transformed by God sees worship and praise as offerings we make to God.” In what ways is your heart conformed to culture, and in what ways do you see God’s transforming work in shaping your approach to worship?
In the coming week, seek to participate in worship with a local congregation. Starting the previous evening, be intentional about preparing for worship and asking God what you can bring to worship (in addition to your presence). Enter worship with the goal not of consuming, but of bearing fruit.
Heavenly Father, I confess that I have often approached a service of worship as a consumer, considering not how I can serve you but rather what I can get out of it for myself. I recognize that in doing so I have conformed to the pattern of this world. I pray that you continue your transforming work in my life, especially in freeing me from a consumer mentality toward worship.
I thank you for your grace in bringing me to repentance and salvation. I thank you for your continued grace—that you never give up on me, and that you continue to love me and do a transforming work in my life, even though I am often slow to learn. I look forward with joy to the ways you will continue to transform me into your image. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Working Outside the Camp (Hebrews 13:11-25).
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Thank you for the musings on consumerism and worship. I agree that American consumerism colors far to much of our understanding of what it means to be Christian. That said, you might find I. Howard Marshall’s “How far did the early Christians worship God?” and Streeter S. Stuart’s “A New Testament Perspective on Worship” to be both fascinating and illuminating on this topic.