Acton Institute Powerblog

Christmas consumerism: Spending for the glory of God?

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The Christmas shopping season is well underway—and with it, a peculiar blend of hyper-generosity and hyper-consumerism. Indeed, while many celebrate the social and spiritual glories of gift-giving and merriment, others are quick to warn about the steady creep of materialism and self-indulgence.

Over at Made to Flourish, Matt Rusten explores these tensions, asking, “Does worshipping the Christ of Christmas necessarily conflict with the proliferation of shopping and festivities during the holiday season?”

The complaints are many, as Rusten aptly summarizes: “The hustle and bustle and shopping of Christmas is killing us,” we are told. “We are wasting money on things we don’t need. We are tired and exhausted. We have no joy, and we hate having to buy lists of worthless gifts for others. We fill our schedules with holiday parties that have nothing to do with Christ, and all the while we forget the reason for the season.”

Such concerns are not without merit, to be sure. Temptations of avarice abound, compounded by a more basic cultural distraction and detachment from the fundamental strangeness of the Christmas story. Yet as we create and consume and respond within that void, we should remember: the incarnation promotes an honest reckoning with the material world, not an over-spiritualized escape from it.

Christmas reminds us of a man who brought heaven to earth—healing hearts, restoring relationships, and spreading abundance across everyday life. If we truly believe that whole-life redemption is at the heart of the season, it would certainly seem possible to participate in festive generosity without succumbing to the stuff. The Christmas story doesn’t just have the power to inspire and transform our giving, but also our receiving—not just our producing, but also our consuming.

“If we condemn spending during the season of Christ’s birth, we are not necessarily being biblical,” Rusten explains, speaking specifically to pastors who are prone to scorn consumerism. “Congregation members who have shops or businesses that serve these ends should not be shamed. If eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God, so can spending and celebrating.”

To shift our imaginations in this direction, Rusten encourages us to reflect on the following key themes. While these, too, are tailored for pastors (guiding “the way we think about shepherding our congregations during the busy Christmas seasons”), each offers plenty for the rest of us to consider as we seek to be better stewards of intersection between celebration and creative service.

1. Big celebrations and big spending

…Celebration regularly shows up on the pages of the Bible, from God rejoicing in his creation (Gen 1-2), to the various feasts he commanded for his people Israel (Lev 23), to sending angels to announce his birth (Luke 2), to the consummation of all things, in which God is planning not a church service, but a giant wedding banquet (Rev 19)…In Deuteronomy 14:22-29, the Israelites were commanded to bring a tenth of their grains and fruits (harvest) to the temple each year, turn it in for money, and to spend the money on a big celebration incorporating their favorite foods and drinks.

On the surface, then, God is not opposed to his people throwing large celebrations for the purpose of rejoicing and celebrating all that he has provided. Consider what a party might look like that included 10% of your income. Would you scoff at the indecency? God’s people were commanded to celebrate in this way, as a joyful sacrifice of thanksgiving, recognizing he had provided it all, and to share with the needy.

As Barton Gingerich recently wrote here on the blog, Christian feasts and festivities provide their own unique forms of cultural disruption. “In a feast, the duty is joy, particularly manifested in celebration.”

2. Showing kindness and grace to workers

There is no doubt that the Christmas shopping season is often filled with hustle and bustle. Disgust with long shopping lines, bad traffic, and pressure in gift-buying can lead people to act badly. Workers in stores and restaurants often bear the brunt of our bad behavior. How might the church spark the imagination of people to show grace, kindness, and generosity to workers? A warm smile, a kind word, and an outsized tip are tangible expressions of Christ-like love.

As consumers, we have countless opportunities to love our neighbors across the economic order. The holiday season gives us another chance to consider how might we honor and bless those who are working and serving to thread the fabric of civilization.

3. Thoughtful and intentional spending

Every purchase we make is a vote. We not only buy products at a price, we also support businesses. How might people consider who they want to support in their buying? A small business caterer? A local shop owner? A small group of musicians? An honorable company who is offering quality products at a fair price, driving value for customers, employees, community, and their supply chain? Pastors can remind their congregation to be intentional about spending. Of course, all this is to be done in the context of a pre-planned budget, avoiding debt.

Much of this relies on simply considering the other end of an exchange. It is not just in producing but also in purchasing products that we offer our cultural witness. Regardless of the various choices or “votes” being cast across our given culture, Christian consumerism can send a signal all of own.

4. Rest and reflection

Amidst the busyness of the season that sometimes feels thrust upon us, we are also called to steward our time and our affections. Pastors can encourage their people to have intentional conversations with their families and loved ones. What does the holiday schedule look like? Have they planned adequate time to rest and reflect on the Christ of Christmas? What experiences or practices warm our hearts to Christ’s love and the awe and wonder of the incarnation? Fortunately, there are fantastic tools for restful reflection during the advent season.

Taken together, these themes help remind us that consumerism involves a very particular sort of stewardship—of the hands, yes, but also of the heart.

Far from being an automatic nudge toward self-indulgence, our consumerism can fuel new forms of creative service and extravagant generosity. This is true socially and spiritually—more trade means more human fellowship—but also in a strictly economic sense, serving to bolster businesses, boost employment, and accelerate economic growth.

To cultivate the corresponding stewardship will require intense discipleship, but the fruits will be sweeter if we learn to engage with risk and wisdom rather than withdraw out of fear of greed or scarcity.

Image: Christmas Lights (Pixabay License)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.