People today have more choices than ever. The reason, I suppose, is that we assume that more choices = more freedom, and more freedom = more happiness.
So we have 175 salad dressings available in the grocery store, and innumerable spaghetti sauce options, and cell phones that do all kinds of un-phonelike things. Options are everywhere (if you’re affluent, anyway, and if you’re reading this, you probably are; it’s good for us to remember that 1 billion people in this world live on less than $1 a day – they don’t have the same problem of choice that we do).
We see this proliferation of choice not only because we think it will make us happier, but because we are attempting to construct our identities nowadays by what we buy. I am what a choose – therefore I am what I buy. No longer are our identities furnished by our nationalities or familial connections – we construct our identities every day out of the raw materials of what’s available on the market. We pimp our Myspace pages and try to project an image of originality by our choices. Inventing yourself every day is a stressful project.
The trouble is that none of it is working. We aren’t happier. We’re actually getting more depressed – Barry Schwartz says that part of the reason is that whenever we choose something, we are rejecting all kinds of possibilities, and that tends to make us crazy. If I choose a salad dressing, I am thereby rejecting 174 salad dressings, and what if this isn’t the best-tasting one? The horror! And the identities we create through our purchasing choices aren’t authentic – in the end they always come off as plastic and fleeting.
This gets reflected in our churches as well. We choose a church based on how much it "offers" us. We leave churches if we’re not "getting a lot out of it." So we trot off to the next flavor, hoping to quench the gnawing boredom we feel. Marva Dawn says that oftentimes when we aren’t "getting" anything out of church, it’s because we haven’t really thought about putting anything into it. We treat it like a product to be consumed instead of a community to live and love and serve within. And church leaders have often inadvertently conspired with this trend, trying to "one-up" the church down the block with better graphics, better children’s ministry, better restrooms, a better "product" to attract consumers. But the of course we’re stuck in a cycle of always needing to out-do ourselves, to keep the masses entertained. It’s a downward spiral, because church was never meant to be entertainment, a product. It’s a community, a family, and it requires real investment on the part of its members.
The increasingly world-wide homogeneous consumer culture says you can find happiness and identity through choice. But it’s a lie. All we have to show for our efforts are fleeting, fake identities and temporary distractions from our boredom and hunger.
Ultimately we humans are desiring something more substantial: real Joy instead of infinite choice, authentic identity instead of "Who Do I Want To Be Today?" Both are found in the gospel. Read Matthew 6:25-34 and Philippians 4:4-8 to find out how to find real happiness. And Romans 8 will give us a good clue as to what our true identity is.