Selling God, Part 2
In Selling God, Part 1, I talked about the temptation to turn ministry into a business that exists for the sake of existing. Rather than ministry having a ministerial/pastoral purpose in people’s lives, we can end up centering numbers as our measure of success. The line between finding resources and keeping something God-centered is sometimes difficult to discern.
I ended Part 1 briefly mentioning two things:
- How much is “enough?”
- We can always do more.
Let’s consider those more closely.
How Much Is “Enough?”
“Enough” is often similar to “effective;” it comes with expectations about end results (i.e. what’s supposed to happen). If the goal is to buy a new van, we can do some research, find a van that fits all of our needs (based on other goals), and know precisely how much money is enough. What’s enough is based on what we’re trying to accomplish.
The problem is that we sometimes conflate logistical goals with pastoral goals. That is, we confuse things like “let’s do X amount more this year” with “let’s live into the Way.” That conflation attaches concrete numbers to what it means to be a disciple of Christ or a pastoral presence in a community, but living into the Way of Christ can’t always be quantified.
Living into the Way is about how we live. How we live is measured by the fruit we bear. The fruit we bear isn’t merely material; it spans more than just physical/monetary resources. Fruit may take years to grow, and it may be difficult to see fruit that is born in a person’s heart.
I’m not saying that meeting peoples’ material needs isn’t part of ministry. The Gospel according to Luke is rooted in the lived experiences of peoples’ lives — helping people who are hungry, sick, impaired, possessed, etc. Jesus tells his disciples to cast out demons, heal people, and feed large crowds. Doing so is part of their announcements that the kingdom of God has come near. The trouble is when we start asking how much is “enough,” as though there’s a quota to fill or as though our righteousness increases with numbers.
This association of metrics with righteousness/faith/ministry is how we get the idea of doing more.
We Can Always Do More
We can always do more for our congregations, communities, and even strangers. We can always give more money, time, energy, and enthusiasm. You may have heard this idea pushed using stories like the generous widow who gave her last two coins to the temple offering. If only we could be like her, who gave out of poverty rather than wealth! (Stay with me; I’m making a point.)
There’s so much to deconstruct about theologies that attach “strength of faith” to “continually increasing sacrifice” that I’d have to give it its own series. I’ll only unpack it a little bit, here, as it relates to how we sell God.
Many expressions of Christianity in America rely on fear and shame to prop up their theologies. Take your pick: you’re a sinner, you’re going to hell, God will judge you, you’re unworthy, you’re fallen, you’re inherently broken, you’re the reason Jesus died on the cross, etc. This posture manifests in how we interpret stories like the one above. One version is like this:
- Only faith can save us from our own unrighteousness. Implication: we are inherently unrighteous. This is shame — telling people their core identity is inherently negative. See also: Original Sin.
- Our faith is greatly expressed in what percentage we give to the Church. (Last two coins = 100%) Implication: it’s easier for poor people to be righteous, because wealth makes it so hard to give larger percentages. This glorifies poverty and suffering, which can later be used to justify disparities between congregants and promote superficial piety for wealthy members/leaders.
- We should strive to give everything we have, like the widow. Implication: if we hesitate to sacrifice more, we’re struggling in sin because of our small faith. This reinforces shame (our inherent unrighteousness), which pressures us into greater sacrifice. Wealthier members are given more leeway, because they bear a “greater burden” (more wealth).
Keep in mind that this sort of interpretation is part of that larger framework of fear and shame. Any one of these things, on its own, might be a stretch, but as part of theology of fear and shame, the implications are bolstered by how all of scripture is interpreted.
All this to say that “we can always do more” is often used as a way of placing inequitable burden on those who are already stretched thin. Selling God often includes such disparities, because when we center business KPIs rather than pastoral care, we can justify taking and taking and taking in the name of “God’s work.”
“Yes, they’re giving beyond their limits, but think of the reward they’ll reap in the next life.”
The Drip Line
A drip line is the outer most circumference of a tree’s canopy. It’s the furthest possible point that water can drip down from a tree. In his book The Wisdom of Stability, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove uses this metaphor to describe practical limitations for ministry; putting down roots in a community and being faithful to our own limitations (our drip line) can be more effective and life giving than continual movement from place to place.
Similarly, I believe that ministry efforts should be honest about their limitations. While we could always do more, doing more isn’t necessarily going to be life giving. Ministries that aren’t life giving for ministers will likely fail to be life giving for others. Where’s the abundant life that Christ desires if ministers are caught up in chasing KPIs and those to whom they minister are being sapped of all their physical, spiritual, and emotional resources?
Unfortunately, when we start talking about limitations, many people get uncomfortable. Too often, we imagine ministries as being boundless. “If something exists by divine calling, is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and is rooted in our desire to be righteous, how could it not be intended to persist indefinitely and spread continually?”
Not everyone thinks that way concerning ministry, but hopefully you understand what I’m getting at. When it comes to ministry, we often perceive our own limitations as limitations on God, which is part of why “more faith = more doing” is so appealing; the more we trust in God, the more God can do through us. Our doing more is assumed to be the observable, quantifiable evidence of our increased faith.
Is that really true? Does more faith necessarily mean more doing? I want to consider that question more in Selling God, Part 3 where we’ll consider Jesus’s statement that the poor will always be with us.
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on December 7, 2022.