Consumer Culture and the Liturgy

I am very pleased to introduce Timothy Brunk as a new contributor on Pray Tell. Timothy Brunk is associate professor of theology at Villanova University. He teaches courses in sacramental theology and in pastoral care of the sick. His major research focus at present is the interplay of consumer culture and sacramental worship and he has four articles in print on that subject.

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Liturgy is always celebrated in a particular cultural matrix; there is no liturgy in the abstract. In Western culture in general (and in the United States in particular) popular culture is saturated with consumerism. Ads bombard us with the idea that we must use this product or that service in order to be the right person (or to meet the right people). We are told to assess others and ourselves according to their and our consumer purchases. Among others, Vincent Miller has written about how a consumer culture forms people in the habit of choosing now this commodity and now that commodity in a manner that provides no contact between the consumer and the social and economic contexts under which the commodity was produced.

How does this rooting of identity in consumer purchases affect the Christian sense that identity as a child of God is rooted in baptism? How does the practice of choosing, and choosing, and choosing again in the world of consumer goods affect the stability of one’s sense of self? How does the fact that very few of us know the full story of the clothes or cellphones that we buy affect our willingness and our ability to keep celebration of the sacraments always in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ? How does the existence of an economy that places a dollar value on just about everything—in conjunction with the idea that just about anything can be bought—affect our capacity to understand God’s grace as pure and simple gift and our ability to resist the Pelagian sense that we have “earned” the sacraments just like we earned the money to buy a book, a toy, or a meal?

For example, do we find ourselves (or members of our assemblies) thinking about the Mass in terms of what we put in and what we deserve to get out of it? I wonder sometimes if we think in terms taking an hour or so out of our busy lives, listening to what the presider has to day, putting our money in the collection basket, listening to a prayer, shaking hands, and then getting what’s coming to us: the Body of Christ.

I wonder if we sometimes view this event as a discrete transaction, entire and whole unto itself like procuring a pair of socks from this department store this morning and an iPhone from another store in the afternoon, events that have no intrinsic connection to each other.   Is the Eucharist in danger of being flattened out and evacuated of its meaning as the source and summit of Christian life?

Vatican II itself warned (Gaudium et spes, no. 43) about the split between the faith people profess and the quality of the lives they actually live, calling it one of the more serious problems of our times. I think consumer culture works to accelerate that split. What are your thoughts out there in the Pray Tell blogosphere?

9 comments

  1. For the whole of its history, Universa Laus, the international study group for liturgical music, has been very clear that all liturgy takes place in a cultural context, although in their early years they were attacked by those who did not want to admit that liturgy is culturally conditioned.

    The problem with a consumerist approach to liturgy, which undoubtedly exists, is that the usual recommended remedy in fact takes us right to the other end of the spectrum, to the idea of the liturgy as a kind of ontologically discrete manifestation, completely disconnected from everyday life. This notion is more likely to be found in circles which favour the EF, and it also seems to have formed part of the belief-system of Benedict XVI. It completely ignores such things as the fact that the concept of reverence can differ widely in different cultures.

    The more we try to sever the connection between liturgy and life, the greater the risk that the liturgy takes place in a state of “splendid isolation”, eventually becoming irrelevant to the needs and concerns of the people who are trying to celebrate it. What we need to do is find a balance between the rite and its celebrants, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived malaise.

  2. I have been noticing lately just how much of our “church culture” has been truly infested by consumerism. Any church musician or liturgist has likely had to confront demands of consumerism. But more than this a general consumer (or “check the box”) attitude seems to be an underlying issue in the quite obvious complacency of practicing Catholics (and of course non-practicing). In my husband’s family it is often said that by the time I retire I will have gone to enough masses that I won’t have to go anymore because I go two or three times on a Sunday for music ministry! It honestly seems that among people of multiple generations the importance of attending mass is somehow to purchase salvation (?!) rather to encounter our Lord in the Eucharist and in community as parts if the body of Christ. Some say it’s poor formation or remnants of “pre-Vatican II mentality caused by the disengagement of the faithful,” whether or not that’s true, I can’t say- my parents worked hard to facilitate my development in my faith and I was born in 1985; however, I think that you are correct in pointing a finger at commercialism. In our culture we worship in the Marketplace and expect the House of God to be governed by the same principles.

  3. Take a close look: maybe it’s always been with us. Liturgists and artists a century ago railing against catalogue statues and products. Popes collecting for the new-n-improved St Peter’s. Simon trying to buy his was into the Body.

    People want to control their fate. It’s a natural impulse. Wealthy people want to buy, if they can, since they are used to buying everything else.

    And let’s cast our gaze a bit wider than liturgy. How much administrative activity today is focused on business administration of churches, of branding and marketing, and such?

  4. I can’t help but wonder how much liturgical creativity feeds into this kind of consumerism which gives parishes a sort of “boutique” feel.
    Within driving distance you may have one parish where the mass has a very intimate communal feel, people stand close around the altar during the Eucharistic prayer, and you won’t hear anything that would challenge a democrat. Another parish might imitate an Evangelical megachurch with a big praise band, where you won’t hear anything challenging if you’re a republican. Then another parish has incense and Gregorian chat, and the priest does what is actually written in the missal, etc. etc. (ironically following the rubrics mechanically can then also become an expression of creativity)
    It’s hard not to feel and act like a consumer in that kind of situation.

  5. Another ingredient to the soup. There are people who go from parish to parish, because of the priest. I’ve witnessed people who “shop” around, not necessarily for the music, etc, but because of the priest. I have heard over the years people saying that they want something they can take home with them (in this case the homily material). This group of people puts the music or liturgical style second. My sister-in-law just told me this week that her new pastor doesn’t give anything substantive in his homily, so she may be looking at another parish.

    Another group that I have witnessed over the years is the one which just wants to feel part of the family. In my diocese there are a good number of parishes within a short distance from each other. Being stationed 10 minutes from the largest parish in the diocese, I would get people coming over to my smaller parish, saying they were getting lost in all the people over there and tat they wanted some breathing room. Our place didn’t have the resources that the other place had. They didn’t care. They were willing to put those things aside. The larger place had all the bells and whistles–great music, lots of activities ; we didn’t (due to finances). They loved our place.

  6. Thank you for this excellent reflection, Timothy. Consumerism is one of the central challenges facing the church.

    I’m very interested in the phenomenon of people leaving the Catholic Church to join Evangelical mega-churches. We have three of these in our parish bounds, reportedly filled with ex-Catholics. A retired priest of our diocese has occasionally attended a service at these churches and said it’s like a reunion–people he married, baptized, etc.

    It’s easy to blame those who leave. They’re shallow consumers who just want to be entertained! But what are they seeking? Inspiring preaching and music that connects the Gospel to their everyday lives? Gracious hospitality and a variety of faith-based activities for their family?

    Shame on them for expecting those things from their church! They should be content with Father Bob’s rambling off-the-cuff homily, tired jokes he’s told a thousand times, or something printed off the internet 10 minutes before Mass that makes no connection to their lived experience. They should be content with the elderly organist who plays every song at the same plodding tempo. They should be content with outdated facilities, meetings in a windowless basement or converted broom closet. They shouldn’t expect anything from their parish beyond a quick Sunday Mass (check it off the list!) and maybe a K-8 school and PSR program.

    People are drawn to quality. How do our parishes compare with other worship opportunities? Healthy competition between churches may encourage constant improvement to better serve the needs of their flock. But that’s my consumerist tendency talking!

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #6:

      I agree that quality is of great importance not only for keeping people in the pews but for nourishing them spiritually. At the same time, I think we need to be careful about using the word “quality” too loosely, as it tends to get intermingled freely with “taste” or “preference”. For example, some would regard the TLM as quality, others would not. Either way, how much of this depends on the person’s individual taste as opposed to the ars celebrandi (sp?) of the clergy and ministers at that particular Mass? A Mass may be of the very highest quality while at the same time be unappealing to a person’s preferences in music, etc.

      Like you, we have several mega-churches (or very close to it) around town. Based on feedback, they are well attended not only by ex-Catholics but also by the kids of (ex-)Catholics. In speaking to some of them, I get the impression that part of the switch was due to something beyond what you listed. In some cases, it seemed that people just wanted to attend a church that was willing to chase after them, constantly acting as a personal assistant or “helicopter parent” who does the job of reminding them of every event and activity on their calendars so they didn’t have the responsibility. Others moved as a protest against different aspects of the Catholic Church’s behavior. Still others wanted a church that allows them to attend or not attend as they wished, based on family events or just mood. As much as I would like to ascribe elevated motives to those who leave, I think we need to be realistic about what motivates many people to this type of choice. As disengaged as some are, I don’t think good liturgy and quality theology are normally front and center. I think it’s more pragmatic than that.

      Yes, people are drawn to quality, but in this day and age, I think they may be drawn to convenience even more. If that’s not part-and-parcel of the consumer mentality, then I don’t know what is.

      1. @Paul Fell – comment #7:
        Good observations, Paul. Yet some of the points you mention, chase after them (more effective communication), attend or not attend (more carrot and less stick) may be signs that the big-box churches are more effectively engaging people. If the church up the street is steadily growing and mine is steadily shrinking, they may know something we don’t. Numbers matter–Jesus told us to preach to the nations, not a handful of like-minded people.

        A critical question: how can we learn from the methods of the evangelicals without compromising our theology? I think there’s a lot there, since most people don’t leave over theology but because of more practical reasons that we could address.

      2. @Scott Pluff – comment #8:

        Thanks for the thoughts, Scott, and it was good to meet you at NPM, by the way!

        I agree with your statement about “like-minded individuals”. This seems to parallel the “smaller, purer church” idea that occasionally pops up, and we always have to approach these concepts with caution. Even so, I always get a little queasy when “quality” (there’s that word again) and “number of filled pews” are mentioned in the same sentence. Yes, numbers are certainly a consideration, but remember that after his Bread of Life discourse, Christ didn’t chase after everyone who left him. He said “…this is hard…” and let them go. While I don’t advocate this as a standardized approach, I think Christ’s actions can teach us something about the balance between where outreach ends and personal responsibility begins. I think your second paragraph was sort of leaning in that direction, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

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