We all have our “-isms” that we hold to dearly—those philosophies that shape our outlook on life, our view of God and, ultimately, our entire selves. When it comes to life, many people proudly claim such philosophies as pacifism, feminism or even activism. In the religious world, we have those adhering to Methodism, Calvinism, deism and spiritualism, among others. Some of our “-isms” we wear boldly, some we hide and others we hold tightly to without even being aware of it.
One “-ism” being referenced with increasing frequency among the twentysomething Christian set is materialism—the belief that, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress.” Twentysomethings are suddenly making their voices heard on this subject, as we are seeing it addressed alongside the idea of social justice. Organizations such as Invisible Children, the Simple Way and others show examples of twentysomethings who are taking initiatives to help the poor and suffering. But along with a passion for social action, twentysomethings seem to also struggle with materialism. It looks as if we are beginning to see the ways that the American Dream has corrupted—and, in some cases, is replacing—our faith. What we often fail to acknowledge about materialism, however, is that it is not simply a case of mixed-up priorities, but a cultivated world-view that weaves its way into the fiber of our daily lives. It is a philosophy of life, and its real danger is not what it does to our wallet, but what it does to our soul.
Practically applied, materialism is a way of viewing the world that says that things satisfy us, products fix what is broken and success is always a matter of the material, whether it be money or the power and social standing that money brings. It causes us to pay attention to and even believe every word of advertisement we hear, in the hope that the new thing will be the thing that works. It causes us to make decisions regarding everything from our careers to our marriages based on their potential material benefit to us. It offers finite, disposable solutions to deep, complicated questions.
If we as Christians let ourselves be affected by these lies, then we will mistakenly try to weave them into our faith in a way that makes sense of and justifies them. We’ll develop ways of acting out our faith that reflect an inward bent toward viewing things materially.
Think about how we understand salvation. We are often taught to see salvation as a practical means to an end (“say these words and get yourself out of hell and into heaven”). We teach that salvation is by faith through grace. But in our lives, we rely on the idea that our works determine our rewards in heaven, and we become focused on our own name and our own glory in the midst of an act that, by its nature, requires that we understand our own depravity. Without God’s grace in view, this kind of thinking makes being judgmental easy. Faith becomes capitalism, and we tell the lost to “get saved” in the same way that we could tell someone to get a job.
While church buildings are surely impressive in their size, with their lights and sounds and all of their other amenities, they speak loudly of what is becoming a very strange set of priorities. It is the same problem that churches preach against when it comes to their congregations: Do not let all of your material wealth terminate on yourself. Wealth is not the issue, but the way you use it is. If the wealthy spend their money on nothing but large houses, tricked-out cars, expensive dinners, clothes and jewelry, what does that say of the way that they feel about others?
It is this materialism and consumerism that has led many Christians to think of church as a place to go and be fed, rather than an entity in which to belong. Too often, some believers quantify and grade the worth of church in ways that actually make no sense. This is a vastly different picture than that which we see of the early Church in Acts. Acts 4:32-37 records the actions of a church living communally, selling many of their individual possessions to use the money for the Church and sharing together whatever possessions they owned. The Church was not a social club to be joined and attended casually. It was a way of life that affected how believers viewed everything in their lives.
Changing this world-view among believers isn’t easy. But as with all other sin, the problem that needs to be solved isn’t just the sin itself. Our sin is a symptom, a manifestation of the sickness that causes a rotten heart. We are not saved by correcting our mistakes or budgeting carefully; instead, we are saved when God changes the desires of our heart, thus changing our outward actions. If we find that the desires of our heart are not in rhythm with God’s desires, then we must do what it takes to correct them, whether that means selling all that we have and giving it to the poor, or challenging our “-isms” in order to change the way we view the world.