Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church (Eerdmans, 2007) Available from Koorong for about $20
In this book, Metzger argues that evangelical churches are consumer orientated and this perpetuates the race and class divisions of the world. The gospel, he insists, is the good news that these divisions have been broken down through Christ and are shown in a new humanity of different races and classes worshipping together around the same table. Instead of consuming ‘stuff’, we should be consuming Jesus and being consumed by him, ‘and as Jesus consumes us, he graces us with a nobler vision : to remove disunity from his body the church, including race and class divisions.’ (12)
The church is a power instituted by God. It was designed with the particular mission of bearing witness to God’s advancing kingdom of beloved community through participation in the crucified and risen Christ, and of being consumed by him on behalf of the world for which Christ died. As such, that beloved community should be breaking down divisions between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and it should be confronting the demonic forces that distort and reduce people to races and classes, to rugged individuals in isolation, people whose value lies in how much they produce and consume. (36)
Metzger begins with a helpful historical overview of how fundamentalism and evangelicalism became hostile or apathetic toward social engagement, and accepting of the secular consumer culture that built up over the twentieth century. He focuses much of his critique on the church-growth and seeker-friendly attitudes of Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek and the Purpose-Driven theology of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. But by insisting on a critique from within evangelicalism, he draws on the father of American reformed evangelicalism, Jonathan Edwards. He asserts that good deeds done outside Christ are not pleasing to God and are not of lasting value (p. 96). The inner transformation at the heart of evangelical spirituality is essential, Metzger insists, to the reconciling church:
Attempts to confront race and class divisions can be intense and overwhelming and will not bear lasting fruit – indeed, could end in anger or apathy – unless we experience the undying love of God that is poured out into our hearts through the Spirit of grace, whom God in Christ freely gives us to transform our hearts and lives. (91)
His engagement with church growth theory and the homogenous unit principle is important and interesting, if too brief. Church growth theory undergirds most of contemporary evangelicalism – the main resistance to it has come from conservative and Reformed evangelicals. He discusses how for years Bill Hybels, pastor of America’s biggest church, Willow Creek, ‘made sure nothing interfered with reaching people for Christ – including issues of race. He was afraid that addressing such problems would serve as a stumbling block to (white) people, keeping them from Christ.’ (25) The attitude is typical of much of evangelicalism, where the only thing which counts is getting individuals ‘across the line’ and into heaven, even at the price of a heavily discounted gospel.
But Hybels has repented of this attitude and acknowledges that a ‘true biblical functioning community must include being multi-ethnic.’ (56) Metzger faces the question of whether this means that his fight is already won and evangelicalism is backing away from the homogenous unit principle. However, he insists that the battle is not won, that a ‘pragmatic consumerist mind-set’ remains even amongst followers of Hybels who are now embracing multi-ethnic churches – they are still chasing what works and neglecting structural injustice. I think Metzger needs to spend more time investigating the turn around of Hybels and others before dismissing it.
Metzger calls for a number of ‘reorderings’ to break down the divisions of class and race and to ensure that we are ‘consumed by Jesus’ rather than consuming stuff. He believes we need to replace the café – a symbol of consumption and ease – at the back of the mega church with an altar at the front – a symbol of sacrifice. He believes in the power of the Lord’s Supper, calling for its symbolism and ritual to reflect equality and Jesus’ centrality. He briefly suggests a potluck supper could be a part of it, but does not develop John Howard Yoder’s idea in Body Politics of the shared meal as central to the Lord’s Supper. He calls for redistributions in the church – for the affluent to start realising they need to learn from the poor about surviving oppression and being poor in spirit; for the churches with resources to give time and money to those without; and to redistribute blame, taking responsibility for the sins and injustices of the past committed by our ancestors and embedded in structures today.
Overall, Consuming Jesus is an important book, presenting a central idea about race and class divisions that all churches should grapple with. It also offers a promising vision for change. But readers might also find it a slightly frustrating book, because it doesn’t finally seem to pull the threads together. The idea of ‘consuming Jesus’ remained vague for me, and the reorderings were not as practical as I hoped. (It might be that Metzger was keen to avoid the simplistic template structure of so many church growth books.)
Metzger has set up a wonderful blog to continue the conversation around the book – http://consumingjesus.org/.