I haven’t seen this much cardboard since our family moved to Dallas twenty years ago. Like millions of Americans, our home is the regular destination of brown boxes adorned with smiling logos. What was once a simple online bookseller is fast becoming the most ubiquitous company in the world.
CNN Business tells the story of Amazon’s astounding rise to global dominance. The company seemingly sells everything a consumer can buy, from electronic readers to home security systems to groceries. While there are genuine concerns about the demise of traditional retailers, Amazon’s business model is clearly in the ascent.
One sentence explains their success.
What I learned about America in Cuba
Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest man, told an Economic Club of Washington dinner last September: “The number one thing that has made us successful, by far, is obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer as opposed to obsession over the competitor.”
This is a fascinating window into our culture. Why does such a customer-centric business model work so well? Consider two factors, both of which relate directly to churches today.
One: Americans are conditioned to think like consumers.
As Bezos notes, we will always want low prices, fast delivery, and large selection. And we will reward companies that deliver them to us. Likewise, churches that tell us what we want to hear will gain a hearing today.
I have discovered that it is not so everywhere. In my frequent travels to Cuba, I have witnessed Christians taking stands for Christ that lead to economic deprivation and government oppression. I have met Muslims who converted to Christianity at the risk of their jobs and even their lives. I know of pastors in China who preach the gospel while facing government censure and worse.
Two: Our culture is more cocooned than ever.
Shopping in a mall is a communal experience, as is attending a movie in a theater, a concert in a music hall, and a worship service in a church building.
But consumerism seems to be defeating community. We can now shop from home, listen to concerts on our cell phones, and go to “church” online.
What a podcast can’t do
But a podcast can’t visit us in the hospital. And pastors who tell us what we want to hear may not tell us what we need to hear.
Oswald Chambers: “Sin is a fundamental relationship; it is not wrong doing, it is wrong being, deliberate and emphatic independence of God” (his emphasis). Chambers notes that “other religions deal with sins; the Bible alone deals with sin.”
Religions and societies devise laws to regulate conduct, but patching cracks in the wall does not repair the foundation. In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis notes: “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms.”
Lewis explains why this is so hard for fallen people: “To render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own, is in itself, wherever and however it is done, a grievous pain. . . . to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death.”
From consumerism into community
On his deathbed, King David instructed Solomon, “Be strong, and show yourself a man, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn” (1 Kings 2:2-3).
Tragically, David did not fully follow his own advice, as his affair with Bathsheba and murder of her husband remind us. Nor would Solomon, as his sexual immorality and idolatry would lead to the fall of their united kingdom.
If trying hard to do better was enough, Jesus would have stayed beside his Father in heaven. His crucifixion reveals the horrible price of our sin and our Savior’s redemption.
Now he offers us a way out of consumerism into Christ-centered community.
Henri Nouwen: “As we realize that Christ lives within us, we also come to realize that Christ lives among us and makes us into a body of people witnessing together to the presence of Christ in the world.” His Spirit living in us liberates us from consumerism that cannot fill our souls and leads us into community that can.
But the Spirit can lead only those who will follow and give only what we will receive.
Dwight Moody’s simple advice
Dwight Moody advised us: “Let God have your life; He can do more with it than you can.”
If we ask the Holy Spirit to empower and lead us today (Ephesians 5:18), he will make our lives more significant than we can make them ourselves. That’s because, as Andrew Murray notes, “God is ready to assume full responsibility for the life wholly yielded to Him.”
Who will be responsible for your life today?