Where is God in the shopping mall?

Evangelicals Now – Article April 2007 - Where is God in the shopping mall.

Wander through any shopping mall or high street. Look at it, listen to it, and observe it. Hear its sounds and see its colours. Look at the advertising, what is it saying? How does it attract? What hungers does it awaken? How does it distort perceptions of reality?

Where do your gut ideas about success come from? To what do you aspire? How much are you shaped by the places you live and visit? By the sights and sounds and smells of daily life or the hidden prompting of advertising world.

Do not be a passive consumer. Do not let life just happen.

The biblical opposite of simplicity is not complexity but duplicity. God is more complex than the universe he created. The simple heart moves in one direction; the divided heart is torn and pulled in many directions. If we are honest we all live in two worlds some of the time: the divided world of our religious belief and the “real” world of every day life. Listen carefully and you will hear it in our conversations when we talk about the world and the church. We talk about the worldliness of the society in which we participate but we sometimes really mean is “we good people behind these church walls and those bad people beyond them”. But worldly living is living as if this material reality is all there is. I am less afraid of the worldliness of the world as I am of the worldliness of my own heart. To think spiritually about life: we must include all of reality and include both the visible and invisible and live in it as one.

We cannot avoid being influenced by the society around us. We have come to love Christ and this means that we are learning how to love the things he loves in the way he loves them. But we are slow learners and besides there is so much good in God’ creation. Gifts to be received with humble gratitude. We sometimes find it difficult to know what is what. We feel guilt for enjoying the good gifts and run blindly to the idols of our times.

Francis Schaeffer once quoted a Dutch proverb which he said had to be treated with care but which was worth thinking about. “Everyone has two sets of belief. The one we say we believe and the one we act upon. What we act upon is what we really believe.” How do we identify those wrong and often hidden beliefs that guide in our hearts so deeply? What is it that captures us and motivates our daily existence? How do we bring every thought into captivity to Christ in real time?

What follows is one of several “experiential learning” activities designed by CityGate in Central Europe. Our aim is to help people bridge the gap between the reality of Christ and everyday life.

An experiential learning exercise is based on the recognition that we are more than mere logic machines with emotions. It recognizes the power of the imagination and of participation to help us honestly face those truths that we are sometimes actually hiding from or for which we rarely have time.

The exercise in the Shopping Mall

Take a group of friends and go to your local shopping centre. Spend an hour or so on your own or in two’s observing your surroundings. What sights, sounds and smells greet you? Observe how this environment affects you?

Here are some questions to help you think and observe as you walk around the shopping centre:

  • Who are the main target groups the Shopping Centre is seeking to attract? How is this communicated? Does this differ at different times of the day?
  • What atmosphere does the shopping centre have and how is this generated?
  • What are the most common sounds? List 5 major sounds you hear.
  • What are the predominant colours you see? List 5 in order of predominance. How do these affect you?
  • Try to note at least three examples of dignity
  • Try to note at least three examples of depravity
  • List essential structures and activities that are invisible to you but that are essential to its functioning. (Architectural, financial, social, security.)
  • What assumptions are made by everyone here without which the Shopping centre could not function?
  • What types of advertising do you observe?
  • Which motives, aspects of personality, life goals, etc does the advertising appeal to?
  • Use the environment to help you decide how you define success in your life. How will you know you have succeeded?
  • From where do you get your ideas of success?
  • What aspects of the shopping mall experience are humanizing or dehumanising?
  • What would you change and why?
  • Which aspects are there because of sin? Think of changes that would be made if everyone in the mall was totally committed to keeping the 10 commandments?
  • How did you feel at different times as you walked around?
  • Where is God in the shopping mall?

When you have spent an hour or so alone thinking about the questions you might want to find a coffee shop or, if there are lots of you find a quite place to talk together and process what you have seen and heard.

It might be easy to be cynical and dismiss the mall as worldly but that is too easy. To deny it is to run away, to deny one part of reality. This is at least, the world of our neighbours and if we love them we will want to understand it.

Not everything in the Shopping Centre is bad and neither is it all good. Most aspects of our lives are a mixture of both. This is one of the ways our society has chosen to distribute and supply needs and desires. We must be discerning, neither abstinent nor submerged in its attractions. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control.

If we eat and pay taxes then we are part of society; the only question is what is the quality of the society and of our participation in it.

Some of the questions above help us observe. They help us get out of our own mind and see what is really there. Other questions help us to think about what we value and why and how we are influenced by our environment.

The last question encourages us to bring our religious world and language and the world of our everyday life together. If we are able to do this it help us talk in normal language with our friends about the good news of the incarnate Jesus in ways that may make sense to them. For God who is the creator of everything is surely not far off or uninterested.

Here are some observations that might help your discussion:

Questions can sometimes reveal our lack of understanding and ignorance or simply areas of life that we have not had time to think through. We must listen well if we are really going to hear one another. The following are some of the questions and issues that have come up in our discussions in Central Europe.

Does someone in the group think the material world is in it self somehow evil? Does someone have the idea that heavenly existence does not have material substance? How do Biblical revelation about creation and the incarnation govern how we experience being and participating in this material world?

There is always ambiguity as to how we feel in public spaces and many factors to consider. On average men survive for about 20 minutes in the shopping centre unless there is a gadget shop. The older they get the shorter the time span. Personal taste and response to physical stimuli differ for each of us and there is nothing wrong with this but the consumer environment is not neutral. We should beware of superficial judgements and criticism of each other. Personal taste is not disputable.

God gave us colour and sound and taste as gifts. We combine them in ways that are creative and attractive. The attraction is not all wrong but neither is it automatically right. The woman saw the fruit that it was good to taste and the tree was really good. It was the eating of it that was wrong.

In the mall the sights and sounds and smells stimulate our senses. Soon we are overwhelmed by them. This space is designed to make us feel and behave in certain ways. Millions of Pounds are spent researching how we respond. It is supposed to have an impact on us. The wise person will want to be very aware of that impact.

The consumer environment first awakens our hungers and then confuses them. Hunger for significance, meaning, belonging or status and identity are aroused and then confused by sensory overload and satisfied with a handbag or hamburger. The profound is mixed with the mundane. The hunger to belong, to have security acceptance and affirmation is met by a designer logo. In the consumer society we are branded but left unnamed. In our hunger for status we loose our significance.

These hungers are not wrong; in part they are what make us human. They are to be met primarily but not exclusively in God and then through His creation. When God said “It is not good that man should be alone” then He himself was saying that, at some level, He has made us in such a way that he is not enough for us. How can I be alone if I am with God: but God says it is possible! We are also made to find our fulfilment in each other. So the way we organize our life together is important also to the God who created reality and it should be important to us. So God first and other human beings second. In this way we reflect the trinity. God is not alone and we are not alone.

Our attraction to the creation is not wrong only incomplete and it must be filled out by living in the power and the presence of the Spirit. Not in some supernatural but divided way but in what is “truly normal”. We have lost sight of God and so the pull of the visible is out of proportion. The great benefit of worship is that it should refocus our perspective and proportion. (Read Psalm 73 for more details)

The Christian is called to be fruitful not successful. If we are also successful in financial terms or in terms of status or some other thing valued by our neighbours we may be thankful for it but we will not be deceived by it. This form of success is incomplete and unsubstantial. We may use it for eternal value now and in the life to come. For if we are truly reborn we are already eternal and eternal life is about quality as well as duration. We may enjoy and share the benefits and comforts of success but we would never be so unwise as to trust in them because they have no weight and or stability. Love, joy and goodness and self-control trump Mercedes Benz and Gucci every time.

What would the Shopping centre look like if the Lord ’s Prayer were answered completely. “Your will be done in Guildford (or London or Leeds) as it is being done in the heavens”. What would change in the design or the economic system that is behind the shopping mall?

Where is God in our material world? How does God engage with the creation he has made? Here are some ideas.

Everyone we meet or see is on a journey either toward or away from God. It is not always easy to know which way they are going. Prejudice is dangerous. When we greet a stranger we are in the presence of someone God called into existence, someone who has the dignity of an image barer.

The whole world is held together by the power of God. Even as we sin and defile the creation God is holding it together. The shopping centre must submit to the reality that we live in a moral universe. It must submit to laws laid down in eternity as well as the laws of economics and social norms. Even the most playful post-modern architecture must remain upright and safe. We may “bend” or deny reality to suit ourselves for a while but reality has the last word.

Our gospel must start with the creator creating a space for us to share existence with Him. This is not the same as having a discussion on how the creation happened. The Bible is clear that we live in a universe which had a beginning and which was made by the infinite and personal creator who while separate from his creation is not distant from it. This life is not mere chance plus time, meaning is found to be in being connected to the source of life.

This desire of God to share existence with us is all the more extraordinary because his needs are satisfied within the relationships of the Trinity.

We are created beings and will always be so in all eternity. The creation in this or some new form is our home forever.

This creation is filled with his Glory; we only need to open our eyes to see it. However as the bright city lights blind us to the magnificence of the night sky so the lights of our short term satisfaction sometimes blind us to the Glory of his.

God has called us into existence and in the first commandment invites us come close to him (do not let there be anything in between us) but how can one be intimate with the infinite? At some level Christ has shared in our finiteness so that we may see something of the one who is behind everything.

Scriptures to consider:

  • Colossians 1:15- Hebrews 1:1-3 What lies outside Christ’s power?
  • Genesis 1:27 – What does it mean to be image bearers?
  • Psalm 139:1-12 – Where is God?
  • Isaiah 40:12-20 – God is greater than anything we can create
  • Matthew 6:25-34 – God’s care of us.
  • Matthew 25:35-40 –What good can I do in my generation?
  • Acts 17:24:28 – What is Paul’s understanding of reality.
  • 1 Cor: 6.20 – We don’t belong to ourselves
  • 1 Cor: 7.30 – Hold possessions lightly
  • 2 Cor. 9:6-9 – Called to be generous.
  • James 1:5 – God’s wisdom is available
  • Hebrews 11:13-16 – What are we looking for?

It might be worth while going back into the shopping mall with these bible passages to read and reflect on them. God is present in our daily reality. He is more present than we are because we are often absent from the present moment; burdened down by our future worries and past wrongs. Perhaps we should actively spend more time trusting and forgiving so that we may enter into his presence with gratitude instead of guilt and trust instead of fear.

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