Consumer or Contributor: leadership in an age of consumption

Posted on August 10, 2009


We all find meaning in life in the same way: discovering the gifts we have to offer and contributing them to others; finding something we are good at and doing it. When we see that we have made a difference by what we do, then, and only then, do we find meaning in life.

In the industrial age, based on mass consumption and convenience,
• We designed schools so that students just had to “sit and git”, pass a test, and then they were dubbed “successful”. So they dropped out in huge numbers. There was no meaning for them in education.
• We designed churches so that people have to join and then they could receive what it had to offer them. The worship celebration became a “service” to its members. The members heard it loud and clear, and came to the “sit and git” meeting to “receive” the “blessing” and feel good for the rest of the week. “Recharge their batteries?” Like a machine? If they were “good” members, they would pay for the “service” by putting money in the offering plate each week.
• We designed “services” to people with disabilities so that they would come to us as “consumers”. We actually call them that!!! “Consumers”. Then the professionals tell them what to do and how to be safe. It is a good way to warehouse people, while isolating them from finding meaning in their lives.

“In a consumer society, these (basic) functions are removed from family and community and and provided by the marketplace; they are designed to be purchased. We now depend on systems to provide our basic functions. For example:
~ We expect the school, coaches, agencies, and sitters to raise our children. We deliver our children in the morning and pick them up later in the day. Same-day service, just like the laundry.
~ We expect doctors to keep us healthy. We believe in better living though chemistry. We think that youth, a flat stomach, a strong heart, even sexual desire are all purchasable.
~ We want social workers and institutions to take care of the vulnerable. Retirement homes are a growth industry marketing aging as the ‘golden years’ best spent in a resort-like environment with other old people.

“What this means is that the space that the family and community were designed to fill has been sold and is now empty.

“There is widespread recognition that the lost community has to be refound. You see the signs everywhere. Urban design focuses on community connections. Community builders and organizers exist in every city and town. Our intent is to move the conversation about community forward and remind ourselves what citizens can do to bring satisfaction into modern life.”

The Abundant Community by John McKnight and Peter Block

In these contexts, designed after systems of consumption, people cannot find meaning in life.

Until we move (personally, spiritually, and professionally) from being consumers to being contributors, we will see people “dropping out” of society in mass numbers; in particular those that are seeking a meaningful life.

This morning at Oakdale Park Church, the pastor began his sermon describing the need for the paradigm shift from consumer to contributor. This was a topic that really stood out to him at a conference in creating an inclusive environment in churches that he participated in at Hope Network this past week lead by Cindy Holtrop, a member of the Make a Difference Learning Circle.

He specifically applied this concept to church members and the importance of creating a giving community. But he was struggling to integrate the concept of “leadership” into this though. Below is my email to him describing what I have learned:

I loved your sermon today. It resonated very deeply. The change from “consumer” to “contributor” is a huge paradigm shift in this consumer society based on mass consumption and convenience. No matter what area of life we look at, this is the fundamental shift that needs to happen.

I coordinated a county-wide program for youth with disabilities a few years ago. This program was designed around extensive research on what actually improves the outcomes for at-risk youth and youth with disabilities. THE PRIMARY FOCUS WAS DEVELOPING YOUTH LEADERSHIP.

The concept of leadership is something that I’ve struggled to understand for about 8 years now. But now I see it as simply another way of saying “contributor”. In order for anyone to be a leader, personal leadership must come first. I would describe it to youth and teachers like this:

Scenario One: A student “sits back” at school, slumped back in his chair asking, “what are you going to teach ME today???” while board and yawning.
Scenario Two: A student “sits forward”, listening intently because something resonates with his life. In “leaning forward” his posture and his voice asks the question, “WHAT DO I DO NOW?”

Leadership is pictured in Scenario Two. This describes in a very simple way the paradigm shift between consumer and contributor. Nobody has ever made a real difference in life by sitting back and waiting for others to serve them. Neither have they found meaning in life by waiting for it to be given to them.
Meaning comes from within.
Meaning comes through contribution.
Meaning comes through giving.

Leadership starts with personal leadership, taking charge and initiative in one’s life and then moving forward to make a difference. Other words that describe this is self-determination and advocacy. Leadership can be from the front, from the side, or from the back; from the bottom or from the top of any organization or community. Anytime the actions of a person are moving others forward in life, this is leadership.

This is a concept that should be the core of all teaching in schools, churches, non-profits; in all communities.

Culture change begins with language change!!! We must be careful to use words very intentionally, because our words and actions create our world.

And I guarantee that individuals and organizations, whether churches, non-profits, or schools, that take the lead in creating this culture change, this paradigm shift, will take the lead in their communities; demonstrating a tangible increase in moving people toward meaningful lives in community.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
John C. Maxwell

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
John Quincy Adams

“Leadership is action, not position.”
Donald H. McGannon

“Leadership is the challenge to be something more than average.”
Jim Rohn

“Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself.”
Thomas J. Watson, Sr.

“A leader leads by example, whether he intends to or not.”