“Consumerist Christian”: The Cost of Cheap Grace in American Christianity

Cheap Grace

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ … costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

For quite some time now, I have felt a part of the jarring dichotomy that exists between the American Dream and the act of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. To hear the American Christian narrative defined as dichotomous seems like a fruitless task – writing within a context profoundly impacted by prominent conservative religious leaders (Falwell, Robertson, Moral Majority, New Christian Right, etc.) whose foray into politics threw the weight of the Church behind socially conservative policies. However, to be a part of the American Dream is to believe:

1) I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps

2) I can take care of myself and my own family

3) I can work hard enough to earn and pave my own way through life

A life of material comfort and upward mobility, of accumulated wealth, gained through hard work

and to be a student and follower of Jesus is to believe:

1) We are the recipient of an unmerited, undeserved gift that is given freely to all persons

2) We are totally dependent upon the love of God expressed through Christ and lived out in the power of the Holy Spirit

3) Nothing we will ever say or do will “earn” the grace given to us, but we must live life closer to the life and teachings of Christ each day as a response to this gift

A life of uncertain social and financial means, of selflessness and servant-hood, gained through responding to grace in Christ

Additionally, to live within our current culture of phenomena like self-gifting, over-eating, over-spending, and the expectation of being served, we are now dealing with:

1) Instant Gratification over delayed gratification | credit card debt, big loans, houses we can’t afford, human trafficking, swelling addiction to internet pornography, etc.

2) Individual Success valued over communal success and advancement | promotions, sole ownership of ideas that were in reality shared ideas, “climbing the ladder”

3) The Transaction Model of Church instead of the Missional Model of Church | offering payment in exchange for services rendered, plaguing worship, mission, study, and especially prayer

John and Jane Doe come to church on Sunday morning. They park in coveted guest parking. They drop their toddler off in the Noah’s Ark-themed nursery (God is going to drown the whole planet – yay!). When worship begins their youngsters go to “Your Church Name Here” Kid’z’. What happens next is astounding. It is astounding because it was only caught in hindsight. The cultural phenomenon of consumerism and transaction and market capitalism made its way into the local church. We’re not the first to experience this (see any Minor or Major Prophet’s audience, those that go ‘down to Jericho’ in the Gospels, wealthy intellectuals in the epistles, or the Methodists right after they got too white and too middle-class for their own good) – and we certainly won’t be the last. We attend church in much the same way that we sit down for the most recent blockbuster in the movie theater. We pay our ticket price, and in return we consume a product. Then we leave. We base our religious experience on emotionalism and what we “get” out of church. New-agers love the special effects, while purists who read the book first wanted more of what the author wrote and less of what the director created. Unfortunately, you get out of professing membership in the United Methodist Church what you put into it. If you are following the transaction model, and all you are doing is exchanging an offering for goods or services, you won’t get much out of your church participation.

I recently took this photo at an intersection close to one of our conference’s United Methodist Churches. I added what thoughts came across my mind in the span of a red light.

costly grace blog pic

Hauling away junk on call and cheap, quick divorce. I’ll take that stuff that you brought from your old house to this new house that wouldn’t fit in the other building you are renting to hold all the stuff that won’t fit in your new house … and throw it away for you. Also, I’ll dissolve your marriage as quickly and efficiently as stopping at a red light. Since you’ve already decided how to divide up all the stuff you didn’t get rid of in the junk hall, and how to divide the kids, I’ll even do it on the cheap!

If I could choose between seeing these advertisements and the guy with the cross and the sign asking me if I’ve repented lately, I would wholeheartedly opt for the latter.

No part of the Church seems to be immune to instant gratification over delayed, personal success over communal success, and transaction over mission. Even Pope Francis recently admonished the Curia of the Holy See for their susceptibility to such vices. You can read an article about it here. Most notably, the Pope lists fifteen ailments, or diseases, of the bureaucrats (and they apply across denominations). The ones that stand out to me are:

1) the disease of hoarding | filling needs by acquiring possessions

2) the disease of worldly profit | turning service into power, power into commodity, commodity into profit

3) the disease of deifying the leaders | living vocation thinking only of what is to be gained through careerism and opportunism

Grace is not the property of culture or society, nor is it even the property of the Church. Grace is owned by Christ. Yet, we worry about “expecting too much” out of members and guests (a.k.a. “potential members”) because we don’t want to overwhelm them or drive them away. It is in this way we are offering forgiveness without requiring repentance, offering baptism without requiring church discipline. This is offering grace without Jesus Christ, as though the gift were ours to give.

Offering grace at half the cost is offering grace without the cross. If we do not feel confronted by Christ’s grace, then we have yoked ourselves to the wrong master.

2 comments

  1. You could have just waited and kicked me in the knees on Christmas Eve! Thank you for reminding me that my life should be more focused on serving and less on grabbing the brass ring on the carousel.

    Sent from my iPhone

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