I believe there is a religious war being waged in America, a war that has been ongoing for many years. No, it’s not Christianity versus Islam. Nor is it Christianity versus atheism.
It’s Christianity versus the religion of consumerism.
Consumption of goods and services becomes consumerism when an individual purchases and displays these signs to others with the subconscious intent of procuring social recognition that grounds his or her personal significance in a community. Purchasing the latest and greatest in a car for status in the community would be an example of this. Whatever that consumer product or service is, a status level is connected to it, a level that helps a person’s overall status within the community.
What has happened in this war is that many families are just one emergency away from extreme financial difficulty. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Board, 24% of households in the United States experienced some type of financial hardship in 2014, but 45% reported that they didn’t have an emergency fund to cover up to 3 months worth of expenses. Additionally, 47% reported that an unexpected expense of $400 would create a significant challenge. (source: http://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/2014-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201505.pdf)
According to a report from the J.P. Morgan Chase Institute, except for top earners, U.S. households across the income spectrum lacked the liquid assets they would need to weather adverse shocks in income and consumption. (source: http://www.jpmorganchase.com/content/dam/jpmorganchase/en/legacy/corporate/institute/document/54918-jpmc-institute-report-2015-aw5.pdf)
I’m reasonably positive that many Christians find themselves in the 45%, the 47%, or those lacking the necessary liquid assets. And that’s a problem.
Because in order to be able to demonstrate the generosity God has placed within the believer through His nature being the believer’s new nature, that believer must position him/herself to be able to do so.
What I mean by positioning is not consuming all income for one’s own living and pleasure. It means living in such a way that an amount of money can be given to those who are in need. It means living below one’s level of income. It means not getting a new vehicle when the old one is still serviceable. It means not taking out a loan and paying interest on something that decreases in value, like a car. Here’s how I hear a person requesting a loan to buy a car – “I want you to give me money to buy something that goes down in value, and since I’ll be losing money in the depreciation, let me throw some additional money down that black hole to show my gratitude for the opportunity.”
Another example would be buying as big a house as possible in order to get the maximum tax credit from mortgage interest, when a smaller, less expensive house would be more than sufficient. Here’s how that math works – “Let me send an extra $10,000 to the bank so I can get $3,000 from the government.” Whoever said that spending an extra $10,000 in order to get $3,000 in return was good math was an idiot.
I’m not saying that a Christian shouldn’t have nice things. What I am saying is that the Christian must analyze his/her consumption in light of two things. First, does his/her consumption allow for the ability to handle an unexpected expense, one that would cause a financial hardship if unprepared? Second, does his/her level of consumption allow him/her to be generous when genuine needs are brought to his/her attention. If the Christian cannot answer in the positive in both cases, s/he needs to seriously consider his/her level of consumption.
Over the past 18 months, Mary Jo and I have had opportunities to be generous to those in need (a couple being significant), beyond what we give to our church. These are needs that are brought to our attention and we are in a position to meet those needs. And as we have met those needs, I have told the ones on the receiving end that the reason we are giving them the money is because God has been generous to us and we are demonstrating that generosity to them. I directly connect it to God’s goodness, because that’s what I truly want people to see as the reason behind the giving.
And, frankly, churches are not immune to the effects of consumerism either. All one needs to do is look at a church’s budget or how much money it spends on a new facility versus how much it spends on ministry and outreach in order to determine the level of the effect. I know of one church that about 3 years ago spent $130 million on a new facility, one that was needed because the old building wasn’t large enough. Much pride in the new facility was reported in news articles. I realize that my dad was right when he once told me, “It’s more fun (easier) to spend someone else’s money,” but what about, instead of spending $130 million on a new facility, planting a daughter church in another area of town and using that $130 million for outreach and ministry?
In waging this war, the Christian must evaluate on what s/he is basing his/her significance and worth. Is it in the possession of stuff and status in the eyes of the community? Or is it found in the relationship s/he has with God through Christ as an adopted son or daughter? And if the second one is the answer, remember this: there will be evidence to support this claim, evidence that reveals one to be in a position to be generous and does so.