My longtime friend Paul, a preacher, responded to my last post, and I think what he had to say was important. He pointed out that it’s not just the ministers that are responsible for consumerism and massive spending in American churches. In my experience, he’s right. Sure, there are the occasional music ministers who spend $10,000 in lighting for a Christmas musical for a church with 250 members. But most of the time, it’s actually the congregation that controls the purse strings.
It’s the congregation that votes “yes” on gaudy church palaces. It’s the congregation that says “yeah, let’s spend $5 million to move from the city center to the ritzy suburb.” They’re not saying “we have no responsibility to this city or to the poor,” well, not out loud, but their actions sure look like it.
[I hadn’t actually meant to imply that it was the preachers’ fault, but I can certainly see how it looks that way. Using the term “ecclesiastical bling” was probably my main mistake. It serves me right for putting an attempt at wit above accuracy: that path leads to Ann Coulter territory.]
The truth is, we’ve all been soaking in consumerism our entire lives. Even the 116 year old woman can’t remember a time when producers sought to fill needs, rather than manufacture wants. Newspaper ads as far back as the 1890’s sold health and beauty aids of various types, using loaded language to make people feel insufficient without the products.
Of course, the media of transmission and frequency of contact have increased. With smart phones advertisements can reach us even when we’re not in front of a television. And their message is, uniformly, you are not good enough without our products.
The truth is, we’re all so deeply permeated by consumerism we don’t even realize it. I’m thirty-seven years old, and I only recently realized how much I let piddling earthly wants pull me around. And I think most people don’t even bother to consider it. We may tithe, but we don’t push the church to use the tithe wisely.
Thunder may strike with me quoting John Piper, but he’s right: for most middle-class American Christians, giving only the tithe is robbing God. I’d add that giving the tithe and encouraging the church use it selfishly is also robbing God.
But we’re so sucked-under by consumerism that we don’t even see our own selfishness. My wants are so often so piddly – a new video game, a new movie, a new (or more accurately, an old and interesting) gun for my collection, a nice meal out. And all of those are fine, until I count up how much I spend per year on stuff I won’t even care about in a few years’ time, and how little of my income goes to things that are, in some way, eternal. I get mad at myself. And then I think that our churches are doing basically the same things, and I get mad at everyone.
It’s stunning to think of people in countries who live on $2000 a year, who don’t have clean water, whose children have no opportunity to go to school and improve their material situation. Many times we turn away, because the images are too graphic, the damage too gruesome, and that’s understandable. I have to praise World Vision for accentuating the good that can be done, rather than manipulating people’s sympathy with pictures of dying infants. They tend to take the long view anyway, and guilt isn’t a long-term motivator.
I can’t ask anyone else to go where I won’t, so I’m going to take a first step. Like many people in my generation, I have multiple video game systems, some quite old, some relatively new. I’m going to put one of them (my Xbox 360) on Craigslist, and donate whatever money it brings to World Vision. It’s a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but the act of sacrificing one of my luxuries may be healing.
Growing up in this consumerist haze, we get addicted to so many things before we’re even old enough to know it. We’re all like bulls with rings in our noses, led around by small men, by peddlers who sap our strength and freedom. But like bulls, we are strong enough to break free, if we can bear the pain.