“Be self controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” I Peter 5:8-9
The circular file in my office is, perhaps, the object in the room which gets the most use. Actually, my trash can is rectangular rather than circular, but every day the mailman brings a pile of envelopes, booklets, magazines and brochures, most of which go to the recycle bin in a matter of minutes after their arrival. Through this medium, along with the fax machine, email, and the telephone, come endless sales pitches and advertisements. Just today, I’ve thrown away two dozen postcards, brochures and booklets advertising all kinds of things, including a coffee service, a phone system for lease, appeals for donations to the underprivileged overseas, three different Bible study packages, a Bible study curriculum, advertising novelties (key chains, pens, carabiners with the church name and address imprinted), two Bible colleges, sound equipment and pew Bibles. All of these things are “guaranteed to enhance your ministry and outreach.”
Yeah, right. Do we really need all this “stuff”?
We’ve become convinced that we can’t do business without a host of consumer goods designed exclusively for church use, including the latest books by the hottest, most popular authors, complete with video and Bible study kit. Sales calls and advertisements come to my desk several times a day with information on the latest, hottest new video series so you can “get the jump” on the other churches in your area which haven’t been fortunate enough to purchase and promote them. And if you haven’t noticed, much of what is produced exclusively for churches is more expensive in terms of retail price than goods produced and sold on the open market.
American Christian churches grew to a peak membership and participation in the late 1950’s. Millions of people were involved, and so were billions of dollars that came in through collection plates. It did not take long, in the consumer society in which we live, for business to realize that a potential market for goods and services existed inside groups of people with common interests and values, and with treasuries stuffed with cash. Marketing developed which was designed to convince churches that they needed the goods and services that were being produced for their use, from choir robes and quarterlies to Lord’s Supper cups and pictorial church directories. We can attend seminars where popular speakers make a planned, programmed presentation for a fee, accompanied by CD’s, books, and t-shirts. Popular preachers put their name on study Bibles containing their own notes and comments, to direct your thinking.
Do we really need all of this stuff to be the church God has called us to be? Or is it more because we feel a sense of competition with other churches and ministries that we feel we need to have everything we think is necessary? And another probing question, is it actually a hindrance to our work, and is it causing us to weaken and decline?
Budget time has come around again, and for the second year, we are looking for ways to become better stewards of our financial resources. We have been fortunate in that, through a pastorless period and an economic downturn, we have not seen a major reduction in our income. We have also been fortunate that, in some areas, our costs have been reduced, so we have not needed the required budget amount to come out ahead when it comes to cash flow versus expenses. But we still want to be good stewards, and beyond that, we want to make sure that our values are developed around spiritual principles, and not as a result of material prosperity.
I used to think that my parents, raised in the austerity of rural West Virginia during the depression, were far to restrictive when it came to the material possessions they allowed me to have, and the money they allowed me to spend. Though they would have sacrificed everything they owned to make sure that my sister and I had our basic needs met, they lived by the principle that material possessions worth having were worth working for, and made us earn, in some way, most of the things we owned. They also, through that process, taught us to appreciate and value those things, and to take care of them so that they would last, and could be enjoyed for a long time. We learned to be satisfied with very little, and developed a lifestyle in which very little is required for us to experience a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous and restrictive, but I have learned, over time, to appreciate the way they handled money and things, and I have also discovered that other values developed as a result of having been through that experience.
When I was growing up in a small, Southern Baptist church in Arizona that didn’t have much in the way of material possessions, or membership, one of our older members was a grand lady from Mississippi named Hattie Miller. Our church auditorium was a small room that would hold about 100 folding chairs with a tile floor, cinder block walls, and not much in the way of decoration. We were fortunate to have a piano, no organ, and an evaporative cooler rather than an air conditioning unit. Mrs. Miller’s daughter attended another, larger, more prosperous church in Tucson when she went. One of our pastors once asked her why she did not accompany her mother to church. She replied, “Because my mother could worship in a pig stye.”
I hope I could.