Father Michael White, pastor, and pastoral associate, Tom Corcoran, introduce their famous book, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter, with an outline of American consumerism as it took place within the Catholic Church in our nation’s history. In their analysis, ours is a church that responded to the needs of impoverished immigrants in the nineteenth century, assisted with the cultural sprawl and religious growth of the twentieth century, and attempted to cater to “cafeteria” Catholics into the current century. This developing consumerism accompanied us through the years as members of the church advanced from being needy to being compliant to being demanding. Eventually our parishes functioned as franchises of a central office where we offered various versions of “retail religion” which reinforced the role of parishioners as being consumers rather than disciples. The authors challenge parish communities to get back on track. Much like the Second Vatican Council that channeled the first century church in its infancy stages, the rebuilt-challenge helps Christ’s followers remember who we are and move from being consumers to being disciples once again.
Consumers are very important to our society; we should advance our local and global economy as good consumers who enhance marketplaces, support businesses of neighbors, and enrich our communities. But when it comes to church, we want disciples, not consumers. A consumer mentality tells us that we are responsible, foremost, for ourselves, so we should take care of our own wellbeing first. But discipleship calls us to think of others right along with the self, to make important decisions with others in mind, especially the poor and ostracized. Typical consumer behavior—evaluating offerings, comparing deals, desiring discounts, seeking more for less, searching for convenience, complaining to customer service—strolled into our church communities alongside societal development and smacked us down. While many consumer habits have their place—like getting greeted at the door, whether Walmart or Saint Charles—most don’t belong in church.
We certainly want all Catholics to take their places at the table of fellowship in both the sanctuary and church hall but, when people shop for the most bountiful fish fry, quickest Mass, cheapest tithe or tuition, want us to change Mass times for their convenience, complain about food that volunteers work tirelessly to prepare, report liturgical laws that presiders fail to meet to their standard, etc., we forget about discipleship and the only law that Jesus said matters: the law of love. Disciples realize that they are an extension of the Body of Christ; if He is the vine, disciples are the branches that reach out to others and bring forth His message in ways that we can understand and relate.
Like the first century disciples who followed, listened to, and learned from, Jesus, we want to accompany the Lord along our journey of faith. We want to advance from being consumers to disciples—intentional disciples at that—and even, perhaps, apostles (those who are sent, who understand their vocation as emissaries of Christ). Disciples realize that our purpose is to use our God-given talents to advance the kingdom of God. They are willing to pitch in and help, sometimes as if carrying a cross but usually with joyful hearts. They are the ones in our communities who exude happiness, who reach out and greet you before you get a chance to greet them. Instead of being helicopter parents that hover over their kids at school, or snowplow parents that try to remove all problems in their way, they partner with teachers to guide the next generation, to help them solve problems, think critically, and become good citizens; they realize that all students are our children, not just those living under their roof.
Disciples grasp that church membership is not a spectator sport—they actively participate in the game, engage in parish activities. As Pope Francis stated, they embrace a culture of encounter; they impact it in positive ways. Just as we want to be more than spiritual so that we can spiritually unite with a community of believers, so do we want to be more than consumers of faith. We want to be disciples in our modern world—for our world so badly needs disciples (even more than it needs consumers).