Posted by: Philip Rushton | December 20, 2010

Take That Suburbia: Living for God in a material world

Last week I wrote a short reflection on how to discern whether we are too attached to money and things. I offered four “Mammon Detectors,” that help expose whether we have been caught up in the religion of consumerism that is prevalent in our culture. This is an important step to take if we want to take to heart Jesus’ teaching that it is impossible to serve both God and money. However, it leaves us with an important follow up question. If we find that we are too attached to our things, how then do we work to counteract this attachment? What can we do to work against the powerful forces of consumerism?

I found some helpful answers to this question in a book I’ve been reading lately titled, The Suburban Christian by Albert Hsu. While consumerism can be a problem no matter where we live, Hsu argues that the suburbs provide a context where consumerism flourishes. He quotes Dan Chiras who writes, “simply put, the suburbs – where houses have on average doubled in size and miles driven annually has tripled since the 1950s – are the best possible invention for mindless consumption.” In response to this, Hsu offers three specific practices that help us counteract the forces of consumerism.

The first practice is creativity. Hsu points out that “the opposite of consumption is production.” Therefore to counteract a life of consumption we should find ways to be creative. Instead of simply listening to a c.d. we could learn an instrument, instead of always watching sports on T.V. we could spend more time playing sports for ourselves, or instead of picking up fast food we could learn how to cook a new dish. (This last example was inspired by the stomach ache I am dealing with after eating Taco Time for lunch!). Learning to create rather than consume helps us get in touch with how God has designed us. In the book of Genesis we see that our God is a creator. As people made in the image of God we share this vocation. Creativity slows us down, helps us to appreciate the time it takes to achieve something, and gets us more engaged with our world. This is a great way to counteract the passivity of consumerism.

The second practice is that of generosity. One of the best ways to counteract greed is to learn to be generous. Hsu points to a great practice of generosity that was modeled by Richard Foster. He writes, “Foster says that every once in a while we should look through our belongings to see what objects we most cling to, what has us in its grip. And we should give them away.”

The last practice that helps us counteract consumerism is simplicity. Again Hsu draws on Richard Foster’s advice from his book A Celebration of Discipline. Richard Foster offers some practical guidelines for practicing simplicity. These include buying things for usefulness rather than status, rejecting things that are producing an addiction in us, learning to enjoy things without owning them, and refusing to get caught up in the technological propaganda that tries to convince us that we need the latest gadgets.

What are some specific ways that you can counteract consumerism in your life?


  1. This good journey you are leading us on, like maybe we will have to give up our SUV, big screen TV, IPOD ? Oh I forgot, don’t have any of these. But I am still caught up in the horrible materialism of my culture. Seems like a one note tune I am playing but for me the answer is somehow tied to using the liturgical calendar to constantly remind us that we are mere strangers here, waiting to go to our true country. Advent is a perfect example of how this might work: reflection, quietness, charity, piety, etc. Keep our feet to the fire one this one.

  2. Hey Gil,

    Thanks for the reply. You make a good point when you say that you are still caught up in materialism even though you don’t have some of the current trendy gadgets. The author of “Suburban Christianity” talks about how his problem with materialism is over books. He always felt like he needed to own every book he read. So he started to donate some of his books to his church library. It’s true, I think, that we can be overly attached to just about anything.

  3. Phil,
    Again, these points both resonate with me and also cause some major discomfort. I agree that we have bought into “mindless consumption” and it isn’t what Jesus spent His time talking about with folks. The discomfort comes when change needs to occur and I need others who will work with me to begin those changes. It’s easier (and better) if a community works together.

  4. I appreciate your honesty about the discomfort of these ideas. I share your struggle.

    You make a good point when you say that this is something we need to work on together – especially since we are going up against some pretty powerful forces in our culture.
    One thing I have never come across, in the context of the church, is a support group for people who are struggling with greed. The main type of sin that people are confronted about in the church, it seems to me, is sexual sin. Greed, on the other hand, is completely justified – and that is what makes it so dangerous. Maybe that is why Jesus focuses on it so much.

    How do you think we can support each other in our battle against consumerism?

  5. Well, maybe a dress code like the Hutterites, or a Luddite life like the Amish, or no holidays like the Jehovah folks ( it would save some money), or become a Vegan. Naw…………..I,ll stay in the culture in which I am planted and keep on trying to keep my focus on Heaven, my true home. Peace……………..

  6. Maybe we need a support group like AA, “Consumers Anonymous”. If we could have a scriptural context and framework for living in our consumer driven society, then like-minded folks could share their ideas of what they do or think would make a difference. It encourages me when I hear of someone doing something different and how it impacts their lives.

  7. Randy said, “It encourages me when I hear of someone doing something different and how it impacts their lives.”

    I agree Randy. One of the things that consumerism has going for it is marketing. Perhaps we need to find better ways to sell simplicity and generosity. I think more exposure to the benefits of this lifestyle is a good thing.

    On the other hand, we need to lessen our exposure to the marketing we find on TV. In Colin Beaven’s book “No-Impact Man” he comes to the conclusion that television is the enemy of simplicity and healthy consumption patterns. He realizes that the enemy is living in his living room and so he gets rid of it.

    Hsu points out in his book “Suburban Christianity” that the average American watches 2 hours and 50 minutes of T.V. a day. That is a lot of exposure to marketing that tells us we need to buy, buy, buy. A sole blog post on consumerism every once and a while stands no chance against that type of marketing power.

    I’m down to watching 2-3 tv shows a week, and I watch them on so I get about 3 tv adds a week! But it is not an easy addiction to break. I’ve been on a tv binge at my in-laws today. I have to say, the best way to counteract tv watching is not having cable.

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