Editor's Note: In light of the global health crisis of COVID-19 and the resulting scarcity of items like hand sanitizer and face masks, ESA is reprinting Al Hsu's thoughts on consumption from a Christian perspective. We hope these thoughts help influence your relationship with your purchases, both during times of crisis and not.
By Al Hsu
In modern society, consumption is inescapable. So the question is not whether or not we consume, but in what ways and to what degree. In many ways it is easier to see how our identity drives our consumption when we are talking about lifestyles like vegetarianism or hobbies like surfing or golf. It is more difficult to see how Christian identity shapes our consumption. If our primary identity is as Christians and all other commitments are secondary, then how does being a Christian drive how we shop and consume?
…the question is not whether or not we consume, but in what ways and to what degree.
While there is certainly a place for buying Christian videos and greeting cards, mere Christian commodification is not enough. After all, plenty of Jesus junk and Christian kitsch may be well-intentioned, but purchasing them is not necessarily an act of Christian discipleship. It's often just a Christian form of consumerism. Rather, how might we infuse all of our consumer choices with Christian perspective? Can we consume more Christianly?
Here's a simple case study—coffee. How does Christian identity shape how we consume coffee? First of all, on a most basic level, we decide whether to drink coffee at all. After all, caffeine is an addictive substance. Some of us have come to be overly dependent on coffee to get us going in the morning. The concept of the coffee break was originally developed by corporate and industrial managers trying to get more productivity and work out of tired workers. So coffee could be considered a tool of exploitation to be avoided.
If we decide to consume coffee, then we must ask how to do so most Christianly. Is it good stewardship to buy specialty coffees at two, three or four dollars a drink? Can we cut down our expenses by buying more basic versions of coffee or by decreasing our frequency of coffee drinking?
Furthermore, can coffee be purchased in such ways that support Christian concepts of mission and social justice? Christian coffee drinkers should be aware of socially responsible fair trade coffees that are grown and purchased in ways that are beneficial to local growers without exploitation. Christians concerned for environmental stewardship can also advocate and support coffee suppliers that do not destroy indigenous environments. My wife and I seek out organic fair trade, shade grown coffee in whole bean decaf if possible. It's complicated, but we invest more energy and money in these kinds of coffee because we have been persuaded of the economic and environmental virtue in doing so.
In what ways might our consumption be more redemptive?
We can also buy coffee from companies that specifically benefit Christian growers and ministries. When our company changed coffee vendors, I encouraged the decision makers to get our coffee from a company founded by Christians that provides fair trade coffee. It makes sense for our Christian workplace to purchase its coffee strategically in ways that help global Christian mission.(1) Author Tom Sine observes:
Our evangelical friends in these countries [Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada] typically have a much greater concern for the biblical call to work for justice, peace, reconciliation, and creation care than their counterparts in America. Most of the evangelical churches we work with in Britain sell "fair-trade" products such as tea and coffee in their foyers because they have a much higher level of global awareness about the workers being fairly compensated for their labor. We have yet to see fair-trade products promoted in American evangelical churches.(2)
I'm not saying that there's necessarily a distinctively Christian way of buying carrots or apples or that we need to purchase Christian socks and underwear. But there are certainly ways that our consumption might be more redemptive. Besides practicing frugality, simplicity and stewardship, we can also support businesses and companies that treat their employees fairly and justly.
All of this begins with self-understanding and self-awareness. What sense of self-identity or community is shaping how you consume? How are your consumer choices shaping your identity? What magazines are on your coffee table, and what purchases have you made because of them? What brand stories or images have you bought into? On the other hand, has a particular Christian conviction led you to change any of your patterns of consumption? Has your church or Christian community helped you be more accountable in your consumer choices? How might your church wield its collective consuming power more Christianly?
There are no easy answers to how we decide how to make our consumer decisions. Different Christians will be called to support different causes and industries because all of us have individual personalities, preferences and interests. But we can begin by detaching ourselves from the tyranny of corporate branding, repudiating the power of status markers, and understanding how our identity and community shapes our consumption. It is an act of spiritual formation for us to allow ourselves to be shaped by Christian values and virtues rather than consumerist ones. Then we will be more alert to how God may be leading us to exercise our consumption in ways more beneficial for the sake of the kingdom.
Al Hsu is senior editor for IVP Books at InterVarsity Press, where he acquires and develops books in such areas as culture, discipleship, church, ministry and mission. He is the author of Singles at the Crossroads, Grieving a Suicide and The Suburban Christian. He and his wife, Ellen, have two sons and live in the western suburbs of Chicago.
This text is taken from chapter 5, "Status Check: How Consuming and Branding Shape Our Identity," of The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty by Al Hsu. Copyright 2006 by Al Hsu. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. Read our review of this book.
- Learn more about Pura Vida Coffee, or see chapter 9 in Steve Rundle and Tom Steffen's Great Commission Companies (InterVarsity Press, 2003).
- Tom Sine, "America's Culture Wars: In Search of a Third Way," PRISM magazine, July-August 2004.