After more than ten years of serious study and careful examination of culture-what it is, how it's formed and its present influence on the church-I find that Americans generally flow in one of two directions. They either tend toward being consumers or being creators.
Consumers, the overwhelming majority of late, could be characterized by an inclination to formulate their sense of self from the outside in. The true self remains hidden-in many cases unknown-and serious self-examination is hindered by countless distractions and diversions. Contrary to the quiet life, consumer's lives are intentionally filled with noise, activities, and things that aid in avoiding serious thought, introspection, or reflection. Instead, consumers survey their surroundings in constant search of things, experiences, and associations to construct their self-image. They choose fashions and possessions not because they satisfy an aesthetic appreciation or meet quality standards as much as they serve to convey a particular image of themselves to others.
Consumers tend to seek experiences or, more accurately, replicate the experiences of others whose image they think is popular, cool, or "hot." This is the impetus for the interest in no-real-accomplishment-necessary celebrities. Does anyone really admire Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino from the MTV series Jersey Shore or Paris Hilton because of any serious achievement or virtue? However, head to Florida or South Padre Island over spring break and you will see this imitation of vacuous experience on a grand scale! Visit your local university or high school-including many church youth groups-and you'll see it institutionalized as "youth culture."
Additionally, because consumers tend to live on the stage of the superficial, they frequently fail to form real or meaningful relationships. Instead, being self-absorbed, consumers tend to see people in terms of network connections whose ultimate purpose is to benefit them, either now or at some point in the future. In essence, consumers tend to see relationships as merely a means to their own selfish ends. Sadly, American culture, by and large, encourages and promotes this consumptive approach to understanding ourselves and society. This may help explain the decline of community in America that contemporary sociologists have observed.
On the other hand, there are those who today are truly countercultural; they are creators. Rather than draw their identity from outside themselves, they attempt to develop their sense of self from the inside out. Creators bring things to fruition. They don't look at the world as something to posses or see people as a means to an end. Instead they see the potential for what can be in the world and believe relationships with people are the desirable end itself. Creators are thinkers; they reflect on themselves and the world around them. They are curious to know why things are the way they are and what can be done to improve the world where improvement is needed. Creators attempt to discover what is true, do what is good, and bring forth beauty.
Suffice it to say that of these two categories, Christians should be creators. But what does this mean? Am I speaking of creators in strictly an artistic sense? Not necessarily. I am speaking of Christian creators in the sense of bringing shalom into the world. The Hebrew word shalom is most often translated into English as "peace," but this hardly does justice to its full biblical meaning. "Shalom is an exceedingly rich concept, a comprehensive word dealing with and covering all the relationships of daily life, expressing the ideal state of life in Israel and, indeed, the entire world" (Linthicum, Transforming Power, p. 36). Shalom is an all-encompassing concept that concerns personal health (Ps. 38:3), security (Judg. 6:23; Dan. 10:19), long life (Gen. 15:15), prosperity (Job 5:18–26; Ps. 37:11; Lam. 3:16–17; Zech. 8:12), and successful completion of an endeavor (Judg. 18:5; 1 Sam. 1:17). In other words, shalom is God's best for the entirety of life-personally and socially.
As God's people, we are called to the universal ministry of shalom-making (peacemakers, Matt 5:9), bringing God's vision of reality to bear on the world. We do this in two directions. First, within the church we are to work for shalom in our corporate life together-being one, meeting one another's needs, caring for widows and orphans, bearing one another's burdens, and so on. Second, we proclaim the vision of God's kingdom and work to bring the reconciling ministry of Christ to all things (see Col. 1:20). This is what Jesus means when he says, "seek first the kingdom" (Matt. 6:33, ESV).
The kingdom of God is the progressive establishment of shalom-the proper ordering of life, relationships, and creation (i.e., reconciliation) until Christ returns. This shalom-making work of the church is to be a sign and foretaste of the ultimate peace to come when Christ returns. Today however, this activity is often discounted as good works, secondary to the gospel message. However, I would argue that this neighbor-loving creation of shalom cannot be separated from the gospel and as such is essential to the authenticity of our message (see John 13:35, 17:20–23; 1 Pet. 2:12, 15–17).
In contrast to consumers, who neglect their interior life through distraction and amusement, Christians are to create space for God to work in their lives through prayer, solitude, and contemplation. In contrast to forming identities through the imitation of others, Christians establish their identity in Christ. Rather than living for themselves, Christians work for shalom in the lives of those they encounter and the communities in which they live. This is the same task to which the Israelite captives in Babylon were called. God told the Israelites to "seek the peace and prosperity [shalom] of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jer. 29:7, NIV©2010). Our calling in whatever situation God might have us is to seek that community's shalom. This includes the proper ordering of relationships and functions within our families, churches, vocations, schools, communities, and the nation whenever and wherever we have the opportunity and means.
I confess that it is far easier to write about putting the kingdom first and working to create shalom than actually doing so. There are times when I am more consumer than creator. Regrettably, I too often consider my own peace, comfort, and security rather than work to create the same for others and the institutions that affect them. However, I am-by God's grace-learning to be small, meaning to think less about my own life and interests and more about Jesus' life and interests. In the beginning, this can seem like a loss but in reality it is the path to being what God wants us to be; and being what God wants us to be is where real peace, security, and comfort are found (John 14:27). It takes faith to follow Christ down this road, and while I've seen the Lord strengthen my faith, I still struggle. It is a process, but a process in which we must, if we truly love Christ, actively participate by continually seeking, knocking, and asking him to give us what we lack in faith and ability.
In conclusion, I have learned this: there is no good end to being a consumer; it is a vacuous life far less than God intends. To become a creator who works for the transformation of people, forces, and structures with the love of God (shalom), we must submit to Christ, the church, and the care of others.