In the past few years, I’ve had some interesting conversations with folks who are involved with volunteer fire departments in various communities around where I live. All of those local departments are struggling. Funding is a challenge, to be sure. But the really difficult problem is getting enough volunteers to fill their ranks.
People are less and less willing to volunteer their time and energy for selfless community service, like volunteering to fight fires and respond to emergencies in their community. They may or may not be willing to pay higher local taxes in order to pay professionals to provide emergency services, but they are generally not willing to volunteer to do it themselves.
I have not made a thorough investigation into other voluntary organizations in our community, but it is my impression that raising volunteers is a problem for groups such as boy and girl scouts and meals-on-wheels programs, as examples. The reason behind this decline in volunteering is probably quite complex. But one factor comes in the form of changes in the predominant worldview in 21st century America. Individualism and consumerism have become increasing influences on how Americans think about themselves and on how they go about living their lives in their communities.
There are practical implications of these “-isms.” As “individualists,” we Americans tend more and more to think of ourselves as individuals going about our lives pursuing our own interests and preferences. That means that we think of ourselves less and less as members of a community with responsibilities for the well-being of other members of our community. And as “consumers,” we tend more and more to believe that our happiness and fulfillment in life come from the goods and services that we acquire. That means that we tend more and more to evaluate activities, programs, organization on the basis of what I can get out of them and not on what I can give through them.
I generally find that when I start talking about “-ism,” people’s eyes glaze over and their minds begin to wander. So, let me focus here on a concrete way of thinking about all this. Let me suggest that we think about this is terms of “input” and “output.” In this context, when I use the term “input,” I am referring to what comes into my life, what I gain or add to my life. For individualist and consumers, life is all about input. Input is what I receive.
Now, input is a necessity of life. I need input into my life to survive and to grow. I need input in the form of food for my body to be health. I need input into my life in the form of clothing and a home for shelter from the elements. I also need input into my mind in the form of teaching and books and sermons and such things in order to enrich my thoughts and my understanding and my faith.
Input is not in itself a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing as soon as we start thinking of “input” as an end in itself. As soon as input (receiving things into our lives) becomes an end in itself, that is as soon as we start thinking of input as the goal of life, then we get into trouble. Well, actually, marketers want us to make input the goal of our lives. God wants something else. God didn’t create us and design us to be simply consumers. He designed us to be fruitful, to be producers—he designed us for output.
Input is only healthy for us, if we see it as a means not as an end in itself. When input is a means that enables us to produce “output,” to produce fruit, to produce blessing to others, then we have our approach to life as it should be. We seek input so that we can produce output.
This is especially important in the life of the church. It is especially tempting in our consumer culture to ask of our church involvement, “What can I get out of this?” We can easily find ourselves thinking of the church as mostly about input for ourselves. We come to the church simply and only to receive. Now, of course, input—receiving—is not a bad thing in itself. But if we make receiving the end or the goal itself, then it becomes bad. If we think of the church as simply and only a place where we go to get things, then we are off the tracks. We have entirely missed the point. And our faith will be come sick and wither. The symptoms of this are that we will start complaining and criticizing, and eventually, we’ll start hopping from church to church.
Doing that is treating the church like a mall, a place where we go to get things for ourselves. The church is not meant to be a mall. The church is meant to be a workshop, a place where we go to make things for God’s kingdom in the world. Well, let me modify that a little. The church should be a workshop with a good kitchen attached. We will need to feed well, so that we can produce well. So long as the church and its people follows the consumer culture of the world, we will have little impact on our society, and we will bear little fruit for the kingdom of God.
The people of God can be an effective, fruitful presence in our culture, but in order to do that, we need to be a distinctive people – what missiologists sometimes refer to as a “contrast community.” We need to be different and to look different. One such missiologist, J. R. Woodward, writes:
If we hope to experience transformation, we need to develop a culture in the congregation that encourages people to live in the world for the sake of the world, without being of the world. Gerhard Lohfink, in Jesus and Community, makes a strong case that it has always been God’s intention to work through a visible, tangible, concrete community that lives as a contrast society in the world for the sake of the world. Tim Keller concurs when he says, “Christians are truly residents of the city, yet not seeking power over or approval of the dominant culture. Rather, they show the world an alternative way of living and of being a human community.”[i]
And it is, I suggest, on just this point of individualism and consumerism that Christian people can show their distinctiveness. But to do that we need to stop making “input” our goal and an end in itself.
It is my impression, sadly, that the Christian community in America isn’t much different from the rest of Americans on this point. American Christians are mostly just as eager to be wearing the “right” clothes and driving the “right” cars and living in the “right” kind of houses in the “right” locations. All too often we see the main purpose of our income to be that of making us comfortable, secure, and, well, making us and our lives look just like all our non-Christian neighbors.
As long as we look at “input and output” the same way our non-believing neighbors do, we will not be the contrast community that God wants us to be. The consumer mindset that dominates the American culture today understands “output” as being that productive work (our income-producing occupation – our job) which is the means (our wages) that enables us get the “input” (the goods and services) that is the goal of the consumerist life. For the American consumer life, “output” (work) is the means, and “input” (consumption) is the end or the goal.
If Christians are going to be a contrast community in America, we have to see this equation very differently. We have to see “input” – the input of financial resources from our work, the input of spiritual resources from God, and especially the input of the sanctifying and empowering Holy Spirit) – we have to see this “input” as the means, and we have to see faithful and fruitful service to the world in God’s name (mission and ministry) as the end or goal.
There are pockets and moments in the church in America where this sort of counter-cultural thinking and living is visible. But mostly American Christians look just like all other Americans consumers. Those who are fully committed to following the call of Jesus to “deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me” will not be people who look like typical American consumers.
Now, at this point I wonder if I’m not coming off as a scold. I don’t want to do that. God intends us to enjoy the blessings that he sends to us in this life. But those blessings are not to be the end and goal of our lives. As long as pursuing comfort, security, and blessings for ourselves is our goal, we will render precious little fruitful service to God and his mission in the world. I don’t presume to judge anyone in their decisions. We each have to figure this out for our own lives.
But I do know that our culture of individualism and consumerism is tending to lead us all to be more interested in “input” into our lives than “output.” So, I urge you to look at your life. Where are you spending your time – in the world’s mall or in God’s workshop?
[i] J. R. Woodward, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 2012, p. 33.
© 2019 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.