I’m Not Getting My Money’s Worth?

Posted: September 29, 2011 in Things of Faith
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For a while now I have railed against the destructive effects of consumerism upon western culture in general and the church specifically. It seems that the (d)evolution of this culture has gotten to a point that it has imposed itself into the life of the church to the extent that even traditions that have long resisted these influences are now essentially shaped by them. Think about the story that consumerism tells and you soon see a community riddled by dysfunctional and self-centered behavior.

I am reminded of an episode of “3rd Rock from the Sun” in which the main character, Dick Solomon (John Lithgow), was sitting at a table in a restaurant with a pile of money stacked in front of him. When the server came to wait on him he pointed to the stack and said (something to the effect) that this was the potential tip that was to be received. The unspoken message was that any mistake would reduce the pile. I must admit that I laughed and still laugh when I think of this scene. What is most brilliant about this scene is the profound cultural criticism that takes place through this satirical moment.

While the satire is aimed at our culture in general, it is unfortunately most relevant to the life of our church as well. This has become most evident over the past few years as the Church of the Brethren has meandered its way through an emotional debate about human sexuality. In response to perceived opinions (whether correct or not) some have threatened to withhold their giving to the church organization. In a real sense, much like Lithgow’s character, they are reducing (even removing) the pile because they are not getting the experience they paid for. What is most notable about this is that the effects of consumerism have affected both ends of the proverbial spectrum.

Even with all this occurring (regardless of baptismal vows), the effects have not been limited to the larger church organization. These effects most essentially occur in the home and local congregations. Somewhere along the line we have decided to let our pocket books do our voting (as if our faith is nothing more than an expression of democratic consumerism) so that if we don’t like the product we are receiving then we can return it for a full refund (or simply stop giving altogether).  This is simply a description of behavior that signifies how our relationships have (d)evolved in the church.

This has led me to wonder when the church stopped seeing itself as God’s family. When did the change come to seeing each other more in terms of patrons and clients than brothers and sisters? I know this is nothing really new. In fact I believe the change began in the early twentieth century when the church began hiring servants (pastors) to do the work they didn’t have time to do (I struggle with the reality of even having to write this sentence). It was this occurrence that began this wayward journey. Instead of people called according to spiritual giftedness, suddenly the church became employers. The essential nature of these significant relationships changed. It is what one might say was the “gateway drug” to consumerism. Within this new paradigm of relationship, power is suddenly wielded through money and influence. Ministry is shaped through the lens of “customer relations.” Evangelism is applied by sales. Corporate leadership is practiced by CEO’s and major shareholders (stakeholders?). All the while the church forgets what it means to be “God’s household.”

To be fair, I think that many in the church still desire to cling to the values of being “God’s family.” Unfortunately, we have learned through our experience in this culture that it is much easier to be in consumer relationship than real family relationship. In consumer relationships it’s not personal, “it’s only business.” In this type of relationship we make the decisions that save us money, make us money, or purchase a product we desire. Anything outside of those choices we can easily sever. On the other hand, with family we are stuck with each other. That weird uncle who has a disturbingly strange sense of humor at the most inopportune times (thus embarrassing everyone) is still uncle. That older sister who is always bossing us around, at the end of the day she is still sister. That younger brother who seems spoiled and gets all the attention, he’s still our little brother.

In the life of the church (at least in the Church of the Brethren), when someone is baptized, the congregation and the candidate take specific vows of commitment. I’ve often compared this event with a marriage. What these vows symbolize is that both parties are entering into a covenant relationship. Specifically, baptism signifies the candidate’s entrance into God’s family. And as we all know family relationships are messy endeavors. I suppose I’m wondering if we have it in us to go against the stream taking the path of most resistance and being God’s family.  Certainly the path of least resistance hasn’t worked so well.

  1. I’ve often marveled at the very job title, “District Executive,” for some of the same reasons you’ve named here. Consumerism is part and parcel of broader societal movements toward professionalization and technocratic excellence in all fields, all of which have a decidedly economic-profit construal of “effectiveness” or “success” in mind.

  2. One of the conversations lately related to this has been around the idea of “transaction”. Though the “Free Ministry” had various forms, it is not as though leaders were not cared for in a variety of ways. There was a covenant between leader and community that was mutual. Not only would they set aside time as individuals but the communities would intentionally care for some of their needs. it’s still a transaction, but not based on purchasing.

    The story I remember in my first congregation was about a minister in training here in Chicago during WWII. He would travel to Indiana to preach, and yet never seemed to run out of gas. Because of the rationing he would never have been able to go back and forth. But the farmers of his congregation (who had more rations) would come with cans to top off his tank every Sunday.

    This connects so well to your use of the family language. Our calling of leaders, of covenanting together, is not based on ‘Services Rendered.” Rather, we share the burdens and blessings. The trick I think in our current economic frame is that we Socialize Risk and Privatize Gian. In a covenanted transaction, the Risk and Gain are equally shared.

    But we are trying to swim against a tidal wave in our current free market system. There is a lot of work to be done related to alternative economies, especially within the Church.

  3. Andrew says:

    I agree that we are trying to swim against a tidal wave. However, much like what Brian was stating about the title “District Executive,” I think it begins with our language and practice. My bible study group was discussing some of this on Sunday. The question was finally raise as to how much of a contribution our change of language when addressing each other has affected this (we no longer refer to each other as brother or sister as predominately as we once did). While I’m not sure whether this is a cause or effect of where we are, I do believe that if we begin once again to address each other as such that it is at least a beginning practice that may help shape our perception of the nature of our relationships. It may even grow into changing some of these relationships.

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