In every era, the church of Jesus Christ has found itself in a deadly contest with the powers and principalities of this world. As Christians in the 21st century increasingly we find ourselves contending not only with escalating change but also with a system of values that is often counter to the values of the Gospel. As we hurtle into the new millennium what are the challenges ahead of us? How do we respond to them? We posed these questions to Tom Sine of Mustard Seed Associates (TS), a noted American-based author and visionary thinker and Revd John Smith, the UK Director, Evangelical Alliance UK (JS).
What forces are shaping the social economic landscape of the 21st century?
TS: The ‘battle in Seattle’ and the protests at the G-8 summit make it clear that the driving force for change in our world today is economic globalisation. As I explained in Mustard Seed Vs McWorld in the nineties, we moved into a new neighbourhood that is constantly discussed in the business pages of the papers but seldom in the church. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded, virtually every nation on earth joined the free market race. Many have benefited from the economic boom of the last decade. However,for the majority of our poorest neighbours the race to the top has become a race to the bottom. Statistics show that the bottom 20% of the world ’s developing countries have lost their share of global income while the top 20% of the world’s countries have experienced an explosion of wealth.
Labourers in Uganda or farmers in Ethiopia are not the only ones experiencing the downside of this economic globalisation, middle class people are feeling it too. People from London to Liverpool report that they have to work longer and harder than before. This means that growing numbers of people have less time left for their families, church activities, witness and service. The average churchgoer is also bombarded by the message that the only way to sustain the global economic growth is for all of us to consume at levels never seen before on this planet. This means we are likely to have less money left to invest in the work of God’s Kingdom.
Another significant force shaping the landscape of our society, our values and attitudes is the creation of a global culture of consumerism. Today we are not dealing with the issues of consumerism we contended with in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Global marketers of the 21st century are not simply trying to increase global free trade and free enterprise; they are, I believe, working to re-define what is important and what is of value in people’s lives all over the world.
To what extent is this global culture of consumerism affecting the lifestyles and attitudes of Christians?
TS: This global culture of consumption is already influencing young people’s faith and values. At an international Christian gathering, two Pentecostal pastors from the Dominican Republic told me that they had lost their entire youth group in their churches five years ago because “something came to town.” I asked, “what came to town?” They responded, “MTV came to town.” We are witnessing the American pop-media colonisation of the world. MTV, TV, video games and the Internet have contributed to the creation of a borderless youth culture. Young people today have more in common with their peers around the world than they have with the cultures they come from. In other words,the church today has ‘new competitors’ for the hearts and minds of the young generation that are never mentioned at missions conferences.
We find that Christians are being drawn into this new global culture of consumerism. It is most pronounced in the United States but we find the contagion spreading to the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Increasingly many of us seem to be deriving our sense of identity and purpose from our status at workplace, the neighbourhood we live in and the things we buy. We battle endlessly with modern culture against video nasties and pornography on the Internet. Yet, at the same time, we treat all the other messages from modern culture about individualism, materialism and consumerism as though they are neutral values. The marketers of McWorld would have us believe that we are what we own and the more we own the more we are. The Christian donor pool today is shrinking and the discretionary money is going to the McWorld shopping malls. In the US it is reported that between 1968 and 1998 that American income increased 60% but Christian per capita giving actually fell 20%. Family Expenditure Surveys in Britain report that between 1974 and 1994 that there was a steady decline in the proportion of households giving to charity. I am convinced that one of the reasons for a steady erosion in our involvement and investment in God’s Kingdom is that we have allowed the consumerist culture rather than the values of God ’s Kingdom to define what is important.
In your opinion,is there evidence of this consumerist spirit in the UK churches today?
JS: Yes, I do believe there is. The spirit of consumerism is evident primarily in the ways in which we choose or change church affiliation. However, I am not convinced that this is in essence a bad thing. Should we really criticise the family which chooses a church based on their children’s or their teenagers’ preferences and needs? Giving their children a good experience of church is a priority for any Christian parent. What kind of Christian parent would force their kids to sit through programmes that they themselves perceive to be boring or irrelevant? Of course, for single GenX-ers there are understandable reasons for going to a church where Christian friendships with others of a similar age group can be established. Married Christians with an unbelieving spouse make choices based on the spouse’s comfort zones.
Perhaps 21st century churches ought to stop regarding consumerism, expressed in making choices to attend a church that meets a person’s needs and desires, as a threat and strategize in the light of it. One size church does not fit all. It never has. Variations in teaching and worship styles, distinctions between large and anonymous gatherings and smaller intimate groups, where everyone knows your name and a good deal more about you, could become legitimate areas of choice among churches in town. There is, however, a danger that a consumerist approach to church may play to the selfish ‘me-ism’ of contemporary society. This is more evident in those traditions that emphasise what is labelled ‘prosperity teaching.’ This is the negative form of consumerism - what’s in it for me? This ‘giving to get’ school of thought contrasts markedly with the gospel concepts of sacrifice and self-denial.
While a relative few, but predominantly large ministries, seem to over- emphasise money and run the risk at times of compromising or even contradicting the gospel, the majority of us err on another side. While in the past, we feared to mention the ‘s’ word (sex)in our sermons, it is currently the ‘m’ word (money) which is strangely absent from our evangelical vocabulary.
Why are we reluctant to talk about money in our churches today?
JS: In my opinion, there are several reasons why money is rarely mentioned from evangelical pulpits. Some pastors who receive their support from the local congregation are reluctant to teach about money because it might appear that they are asking for a pay rise. Others are perhaps so unaware of the world of work and the financial affairs of their congregations that their comments could appear at least uninformed, at worst fatuous or downright offensive. Of course,for some maintaining the ‘secular-sacred dichotomy’ such issues as how much people earn, how they should spend it, what to do about investing it are conveniently proscribed. Talking about money was never a problem for Jesus. It should not be a problem for us. Once we demolish the ‘secular-sacred dichotomy’ and accept that God is interested in the whole of life, 24/7, we can think in terms of the holistic mission of the church. Face Values, the Evangelical Alliance holistic mission initiative for 2002, draws together emphases on social justice, social action and evangelism. The comments I get when I raise the possibilities of holistic mission with leaders and congregations convince me that increasingly the UK church will think holistically.
In Mustard Seed vs McWorld you say that the Church today is experiencing a crisis of vision. What does this mean?
TS: I believe that the number one crisis in the church today is a crisis of vision. We have allowed the marketers of McWorld instead of biblical faith to shape the aspirations and values that drive our lives. As a direct result of this crisis of vision, most Christians seem unable to connect their Sunday faith with the rest of their life. Therefore, the dream that powers McWorld tends to take over the lives of even sincere believers. Too many of us are content to settle for a compartmentalised faith that has little influence in how we steward our time or our money. Kenneth Boulding, a Christian scholar says “no people, society or group can survive long without a compelling vision of the better future that calls us forward into tomorrow.” Of course,the Bible says,“without a vision the people perish.” The people we are called to minister to in Jesus’ name are perishing because we lack a vision of the good life and better future born of our faith instead of the acquisitive drives of our new global economy.
What can be done to restore a biblical and holistic vision at the heart of the ministry of the Church?
TS: Today theologians like Walter Brueggman call for a reawakening of biblical imagination. I echo that call and urge Christian leaders to view the image of God ’s coming Kingdom not just as a theological doctrine, but as an alternative vision of the good life to the one offered by the Western dream. Christine and I have just finished a book that seeks to connect our Sunday faith and our lives seven days a week entitled: Living on Purpose: Finding God’s Best [published by Monarch in January ]. We encourage people to find in the vision of God’s coming kingdom a new sense of vocation for their lives. We suggest that followers do what the Master did ... use Scripture that reflects God’s kingdom purposes to define the direction of their life. Remember, Jesus stood up in his home town and read his mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord ’s favour ”[Luke 4:17-21 ]. We then encourage Christians to use their biblically shaped mission statement to reinvent their lifestyles to put first things first.
How can the UK church respond to the challenges presented by the globalisation of the economy and the widespread culture of consumerism?
TS: Various charities, coalitions of environmentalists and citizen activists are already addressing some of the issues raised by the global economy regarding its impact on workers, farmers, sweatshops and escalating environmental damage. However, individually and as communities of God’s people we need to respond biblically and creatively to a host of new issues. We need to ask ourselves: Who is our neighbour in the 21st century? How do I ‘love my global neighbours as myself’ and how do I witness and minister to them? How do I live a balanced life that reflects the priorities of God’s Kingdom rather than those of the world? Also we need to make the most of opportunities offered by the globalisation of the economy by investing in micro-enterprise development and vocational education in he developing world. I believe, charities like World Vision, Tearfund, Jubilee Campaign and others are already helping those on the margins have the resources essential to participate in this new global economy.
A recent report on attitudes of British youth states that young people spend on average three hours a day playing video games, surfing the Internet or watching TV. The church today should seize the opportunity and create new forms of evangelism for reaching young people in the UK and around the world using the media channels and the web possibilities so effectively used by the marketers of McWorld. In order to address the challenge of consumerism and the search for happiness through spending, the church needs to create resources to help Christians of all ages to decode the messages coming from the marketers of McWorld. It should encourage and enable Christians to discover and model a way of life that is based in the Scriptures and is more festive than anything the global consumer culture can offer.
JS: The church should view the chal- lenges of the consumerist culture as opportunities for teaching people to steward their time, money and lifestyles to advance God’s Kingdom rather than the growth of the global economy. I mentioned earlier that pastors lack willingness and are poorly equipped to address money issues. But, I believe help is at hand, for those pastors and Christian mission representatives wishing to address consumerism, money management issues and giving from a Biblical perspective. For the past two years,the Evangelical Alliance has been facilitating a Stewardship Forum as an Evangelical Alliance Partnership for Change. This Forum brings together a number of ministries and practitioners in the area of Christian stewardship.
Its aim is to serve the wider evangelical community by equipping and encouraging Christian leaders to teach biblical stewardship and create congregations of generous people. Now, local church leaders and Christian fundraisers can tap into a wide range of stewardship resources and discuss stewardship issues and network with each other at a web based Stewardship Roundtable. The Stewardship Forum is also hosting M:Power – The Christian Stewardship conference in January 2002 – which is an unprecedented opportunity for teaching and engaging on money, ministry and mission issues for UK Christian leaders.