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Christians in an Age of Wealth
a biblical theology of stewardship
By Craig L. Blomberg
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Craig L. Blomberg
All rights reserved.
WHAT ARE WE TO DO WITH ALL OUR STUFF? THE CURRENT DILEMMA
As human beings, we obsess over possessions. The very poorest of us strive desperately to acquire at least enough to survive. Those with only their basic needs met naturally want more, in order to provide a cushion should times get worse. The middle class remains discontent because they see people with so much more. The affluent compete with their peers in countless contests of material one-upmanship. The truly wealthy worry about how to invest their resources, because mere savings may not keep pace with cost of living increases.
Advertising bombards us daily, creating a consumer culture that is designed to make us feel shortchanged. Last year's technology is obsolete; upgrade it at once! Don't repair a broken item; throw it away and buy a new one. Acquire more, never be content with what you have, and always look for the improved model. Take care of yourself first and only then think of family and friends, if you even bother with them. But, at least at Christmastime, go into debt for them, because they expect presents and the retail stores require huge sales to meet their end-of-the-year goals. A widely distributed book and film refer to this malaise of consumerism as "affluenza"!
What is true of individuals is also true of corporations. The "Occupy Wall Street" movement of the early 2010s showed how the average person with little or no investments in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds became more aware than ever that capitalism unmitigated by historic Judeo-Christian values has fostered increasingly unbridled greed. The international financial crisis could have been avoided had lending companies not extended credit to countless people who were never realistically going to be able to repay their loans. The relativism of postmodernity and the erosion of historic, Western, cultural values lead more and more business people to question even what the concept of "ethics" in business means, even as others recognize the need for reinstating it.
Not surprisingly, what is true of private individuals and corporations is likewise true of politicians and governments. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, the way to be patriotic during times of depression or war was by skimping, saving, and volunteering for the community and nation—in short, through sacrifice. In the twenty-first century, in stark contrast, politicians of all major stripes have encouraged the public to spend their way out of times of recession and conflict, even if it means amassing record levels of personal debt. Consumers and companies alike can declare bankruptcy, reorganize, and move on with life with not nearly the ill effects of a prior era.
Governments too have modeled the process well for us. Entire cities have declared bankruptcy, a concept once unheard of. And after balancing the national budget (under a Democratic administration) in the 1990s—something baby boomers were taught in high school and college economics classes could never happen, and certainly never under the Democrats—we now again have record-setting, trillion-dollar debts, created initially by a Republican administration in the 2000s. The world is indeed topsy-turvy.
Those of us who grew up during the Cold War marveled at some of the blatantly false propaganda that Communist nations used to indoctrinate their people. Promises of happiness and prosperity, along with the creation of a new kind of humanity, inundated children from their earliest years, even though the truth was that the money that might have helped the poor was supporting a vast military machine instead. We might forgive those who believed the lies, because the literature, including the sacred texts of the world's religions that decried materialism and atheism, was confiscated, keeping a generation of citizens in the former Soviet bloc countries from becoming familiar with dissenting voices and forming opinions for themselves.
But have democratic capitalists done that much better in putting possessions into perspective? We certainly don't exercise the same form of censorship over information. We now live in the internet age that makes such sweeping control almost impossible. But don't those very observations make people all the more guilty when they believe that money can buy happiness, that God is dead, or that warfare takes priority over the eradication of poverty? The information is available to teach them otherwise. In Victorian England, delayed gratification for one's personal desires was the sign that one had moved above the working class to "middle-class morality." Today, it is hard to find any class that champions delayed gratification!
THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH AND ITS GIVING PATTERNS
But surely the Christian church is the exception, right? With the Bible as their guide, Christians would not succumb to the lies of either socialism or capitalism left unfettered by religious values. Evangelical Christians in former Communist countries, though often small in number, regularly clung tenaciously to the Bible's truths in spite of every effort to reeducate them. Yet it seems that Christians and churches in capitalist countries have gladly embraced the lies their cultures tell, sometimes even claiming that Scripture teaches them! The most egregious of these is the so-called prosperity gospel, which proclaims that God actually wants his people to become substantially wealthier than they currently are, if only they will have enough faith. Whether through its impact via television or whether it's because people simply want it to be true, this message is accepted by 46 percent of all American Christians, according to one recent poll—a percentage far greater than the number who actually attend churches that promote such unbiblical teaching.
Meanwhile, per capita giving of American church members as a percentage of their annual income, both for general congregational budgetary needs and for helping the poor more specifically, has mostly declined over the past century. In the 1920s the figures almost topped 4 percent per person. During the Great Depression and World War II, they plummeted, bottoming out at nearly 1 ½ percent in 1942. The next eighteen years saw steady growth, with numbers reaching just above 3 percent by 1960. But the subsequent fifteen years produced consistent decline—by almost a full percentage point. There have been a few small blips on the graph since then, when percentages have grown by one- or two-tenths of a percent, but with the recession at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, figures for 2009 were barely above 2 percent and at their lowest since the late 1940s.
What is more, giving is highly unequally distributed among Christians. In the late 1990s, one study determined that 15 percent of all Christians in the country contributed 80 percent of all the dollars given to charitable causes. A full 20 percent give absolutely nothing documentable each year.
When the survey limited its analysis only to those who described themselves as "strong" or "very strong" Christians, then 20 percent of the people accounted for 80 percent of the giving, while only 10 percent gave nothing. Still, it is obvious that a lot of people think that they can be Christians, even very good ones, without much or any stewardship of their treasure.
Multiple factors, besides the larger ups and downs of the economy, account for this trend. Many people who actually do have significant discretionary income do not perceive that they do, because of the lifestyle they have chosen to adopt, the debts they have amassed, or their fears about the future. Some genuinely do not know how central a role giving plays in Scripture and how closely tied it is to spiritual health. Still others are wary of churches or Christian organizations mismanaging their funds, sometimes with good reason. Many have never been adequately challenged to give more, on a regular basis, to truly worthy causes administered responsibly, nor have they been held accountable for following through with whatever commitments they might make.
Meanwhile American spending patterns in recent years, including among Christians, disclose some staggering statistics. In various years between 2000 and 2005 (the information isn't equally available for every year), Americans spent $15.2 billion on boats, engines, and other marine products; $27.9 billion on candy; $29.7 billion in sporting goods stores; $29.8 billion on alcoholic beverages; $36.5 billion on pets, toys, and playground equipment; $45 billion in state lotteries; $59.4 billion on jewelry and watches; $203.7 billion on all entertainment products and ser vices combined; and $288.7 billion on domestic travel and tourism. These figures compare with approximately $188 billion that Americans gave per year during this period to all charitable organizations put together.
An article in the Wall Street Journal in 2011 reported that "a non-scientific study of the Commerce Department data suggests that in February, U.S. consumers spent an annualized $1.2 trillion on non-essential stuff including pleasure boats, jewelry, booze, gambling and candy. That's 11.2% of total consumer spending, up from 9.3% a decade earlier and only 4% in 1959, adjusted for inflation."
Another team of analysts did some fairly sophisticated number crunching and determined that if all American Christians had given away just ten percent of their income after taxes, another $133 billion a year would have been freed up for whatever purposes people chose to use it, above and beyond all the ministry already going on. For 2009, a separate study suggested the figure would have ballooned to an extra $174 billion. A decade ago it was calculated that only $70–80 billion a year, if it could be properly spent, would be needed to eradicate world poverty and then keep it at bay. That figure is lower today because of the gains made since 2000, especially through the implementation of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The World Summit on Food Security in Rome in 2009 determined that $24 billion per year, rightly directed, would end serious hunger problems due to lack of adequate food and that an additional $12 billion would address diseases due to chronic nutritional deficiencies. Thus, believers have the resources to alleviate enormous amounts of human suffering apart from relying either on the secular business world or the government. If the church had the will to do so, it could make a huge difference and make it clear to the world that its ministry was in Jesus' name. Imagine how many more people would become Christ's followers as a result!
Are there other reasons that Christians and churches don't do more for outreach to the physical and spiritual needs of lost people, especially in the poorest parts of the world? We own over $230 billion worth of ecclesiastical real estate and buildings. We have created a performance-based mind-set in far too many of our worship ser vices that can only be satisfied with state-of-the art facilities and technology. The numbers of full-time pastors per church member or regular attender have noticeably increased in recent decades, and it takes money to pay their salaries and benefits. We would rather grow bigger and bigger congregations than spin off new church plants when we outgrow our current facilities.
This is not merely the fault of church leaders; they have also been responding to what churchgoers have demanded. Scott Todd insists, "As we consider our multi-million-dollar church buildings, media systems, and the debt with which they are financed, we must ask whom they are designed to serve. We have preoccupied the passions of the Bride of Christ in America by transfusing her holy blood with our culture's blood of amusement and consumerism." But the millennial generation is increasingly rebelling against anything that smacks of showmanship in church and is longing for authentic spirituality and relationships more than for the programs and events that baby boomers have emphasized. The generation that birthed the millennials has also produced more broken families than ever before in the history of civilization, and young adults are wary of leaders they cannot get to know well enough to truly trust them. Little wonder they are leaving the church and the faith in record numbers!
Those who stay, moreover, are giving a smaller percentage to Christian ministry than their predecessors did, and nothing in the trends suggests that they will give a higher percentage if they become more affluent. Indeed, to make admittedly sweeping generalizations, each successive generation—from the builders to the boomers to the busters to the millennials—has given a smaller percentage to church and parachurch ministries than their forebears. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that large numbers of such organizations will close their doors in the decades to come unless these trends are reversed.
At the same time, there are numerous well-intentioned but misguided efforts to advance world mission and alleviate poverty at home and abroad that have been described as "toxic charity." It's not enough to throw money at a need if it creates a sense of dependency and "enabling" (in the counseling sense of the term) that encourages people to continue to rely on outside support when they could be meeting their own needs. Christian leaders among even some of the poorest communities around the world acknowledge that church or community members could largely support indigenous work with some sacrifice, but see no reason to do so, as long as even larger amounts of money keep pouring in from the outside. In still other instances, local individuals simply cannot by themselves fund the ministries needed to sustain them, physically or spiritually, but Christian groups that might otherwise meet their needs refuse to do so because the outsiders with the resources are not allowed to be in control or because the needy people do not perfectly align with the outsiders' doctrinal statement.
In fact, globally and locally, the duplication of ministry efforts of all kinds in a given community or neighborhood by Christian groups with competing statements of faith, or even just separate historical origins with no material difference in belief, is one of the least discussed scandals in the church of Jesus Christ worldwide. I once had the opportunity to meet separately with executives from two American denominations with whom I had been deeply involved. Both had almost the identical doctrinal statement and the identical missions commitments. Both were struggling a little size-wise and financially. The only reason they had become two different groups was historical: one was birthed in the nineteenth century out of certain ethnic groups that had immigrated to the United States; the other was a twentieth-century breakaway movement from a parent denomination perceived to have become too liberal. I asked both executives if there was any good reason the two churches should not merge and create a stronger denomination and a more united witness to the world. To my surprise, each gave the same answer, independently of the other: "Oh, I guess just that too many denominational executives would be out of a job!"
Meanwhile, countless unreached or unevangelized people and people groups remain without Christ. Resources that could be better utilized are also regularly diverted to ensure that Western missionaries are paid Western salaries and live in Western affluence even in communities where they could live much more simply and yet safely. But they often relate far less well to local and national people as a result of being perceived as wealthy. In some contexts, this can be offset by their employing domestic help of a variety of kinds and, in so doing, give jobs to those who would not otherwise have them and pay them a decent wage. But then the Western donors can become upset and withdraw their support because they don't understand the cultural dynamics at work. It's not living in Western affluence that concerns the donors; it's having "servants" that convinces the supporters their friends have gone too far!
A perennial problem that transcends cultures and generations is the human propensity for "passing the buck." It's always someone else's problem, someone else's responsibility. We see this clearly in Christian discourse about economic systems. In the United States, a majority of evangelicals seem to think that we need more pure capitalism. Anything that would require higher taxes is anathema. Increased government involvement, even in small ways, in improved health care, job opportunities, or education is blasted as socialist or even Communist. If only such critics had actually lived in Communist regimes, they would know how horribly misguided such rhetoric is! Trickle-down economics is the solution to problems like poverty, we are told, even as the actual statistics show the gaps between rich and poor in our own country ever increasing.
Excerpted from Christians in an Age of Wealth by Craig L. Blomberg. Copyright © 2013 Craig L. Blomberg. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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