Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Chapter 6
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6. Stewardship versus consumerism

  • We need to understand ourselves as stewards or trustees of our abilities, time and money.
  • Countering consumerism and expressing liberality is a point of witness.
  • Stewardship of money needs to be thoughtful and organised according to priorities.
  • Supporting individuals can be on the basis of paying it forward, never repaying.

A vital part of our discipleship is how we organise and share our abilities, time and money, which could be called our assets. We are stewards of all these - managers who are accountable to the Lord of our lives. If Christ is our Lord then his authority must extend to all that we have and are. Faithfulness here is a reality check on our whole Christian life and profession. But as with every other aspect of discipleship, the picture can be confused, and there is a very real danger of rationalisations being made on account of the spiritual warfare we are engaged in.

The starting point in all this is an understanding of God's grace. Until we begin to appreciate what he has given us and done for us, we can only very imperfectly grapple with what it means to share our time and money liberally with others. But in fact our lives need to show God's grace in many ways, and how we outlay the time and money of which we are trustees is basic, if not always public. Stewardship is gratitude responding to grace! Generosity needs to be a way of life which finds practical ways to love people. In a sense, life is all about giving. The more you give - time, love, encouragement, service, sometimes money, the richer you become!

Stewardship of time is basic, and we all start with the same 24 hours per day. While recreation is important (chapter 5), it doesn't extend to undisciplined wasting of time with endless gratification of the senses through TV, games, computer chat and so on. Time needs to be invested wisely in our youth. Later on, the issue of money-time trade-offs arise, and we may decide to pay for others to do what we are quite capable of in order to invest time elsewhere in learning, service or simply more valuable work. There is no virtue in living in such a way that our work and ministry is compromised by penny-pinching.

But here we focus on money, which must be thought of both in capital and income terms. Let's start by being clear that we are not owners of our money if we have given our lives to Christ. We are trustees. Stewardship of abilities is considered in the Guidance and the Gifts &Vocation chapters, ch 10 & 11.

A basic question concerning stewardship of money is how much we need to live on, or more commonly, how much we are justified in spending on ourselves. What is an appropriate lifestyle for Christians who can afford some choice in the matter? Should we identify with the poor? Should we identify with the social set in which we find ourselves as a result of education, vocation, and geography? We do need to belong somewhere in society, and to a large extent many of us have some choice in that, without being as extravagant as others with whom we share community. One important consideration relates to hospitality. We must be able to exchange hospitality with others on a reciprocal basis without embarrassment. If there is too much disparity in lifestyle and dwelling, this becomes fraught and if it is within our power, eg to move down in either respect, we need to change.

Consumerism is an all too-prevalent aspect of our western culture and it is a point where Christian values should stand in contrast, though they frequently don't. In some respects it is a cancer on our values, in others a means of self-expression or an alternative spirituality, and in others an addiction to acquiring - not simply thngs, but also experiences. Many see it as effectively the main religion of the West. Consumerism is born of many factors, including a simple enjoyment of new and many things, the delights of indulgence in pursuing desires, and covetousness. It may provide a source of identity and self-esteem. But it is essentially individualist and ultimately a kind of never-satisfied addiction - there is always more desire, and the pursuit of that is a kind of spirituality. People may spend for the transient gratification of doing so, or out of a sense of social expectation that their lifestyle matches their neighbours'. Shopping can be a metaphor for life, and manipulative marketing can provide an illusion of purpose. Christians should stand well apart from this - not as total ascetics, but certainly not dominated by it, for the sake of their souls as well as their stewardship. 56a

Consumerism is not really about things as such, and there is an appropriate Christian materialism which values things as part of God's provision, uses them appropriately and looks after them, not readily discarding them. But it is hard to find products we need that are capable of enduring, and being repaired at sensible cost. We need to educate and re-shape our desires towards the values of God's kingdom. "Born to shop" expresses original sin!

Middle-class consumerism isolates the poor, who are made pariahs outside of functional society, or who are led into spending what they cannot afford on goods and services they do not need and possibly do not even want. Christians must resist this and stand up for social structures, behaviour and values which are inclusive. We should aim for a faithful frugality which enjoys the good things of life provided by a bounteous God, avoiding asceticism, but which also stands is clear contrast to material extravagance and consumerism. It is all too easy to rationalise the "need" for a new electronic product or car which is not central to our work or family life.

Consumerism also stands in contrast to our being made in God's image as creative and loving individuals. If our imagination and desire is satiated by consumerism, there is little scope for those attributes to flower in industry or art, or even in production to meet the needs of others. The image of God is not relentlessly desiring and discarding.

Christians are enriched by giving, not getting. The more you can find opportunity to give, the more you will be blessed and enriched!

While the prosperity of western society today means that consumerism is probably more prevalent than ever before, it is by no means new. Jeremiah 6:20 articulates God's scathing comment on decadent Israel facing judgment and exile: "What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, your sacrifices do not please me." But the warning fell on deaf ears. We too need to heed the warning about seeking first the values of the Kingdom of God, without reacting to consumerism with an asceticism which represents material things as evil or ungodly.

The Bible in many places links greed with idolatry, in that greed captures a person's love and trust and redirects their service - whereas all ultimately should be properly directed at God. So at a visceral level it diverts and usurps our allegiance and devotion, and God uses money to test and prove our faithfulness to him. There are two expressions of greed: excessive acquisition or addiction to consumption, and the refusal to share one's possessions. Accordingly, contentment and generosity are two counter attitudes of the heart, leading to peace and giving respectively. Jesus talked a lot about money in this respect, and Matt 6:24 about no-one being able to serve two masters - God and Money - is a key text, followed by a reminder about misplaced trust. Ultimately, the solution to greed is being rich towards God.

Countering consumerism is increasingly a point of witness. We need to give a lead in recognising that very often "must haves" are in fact "don't needs". Within God's provision there is a liberality of things and experiences to be properly enjoyed - it is a question of priorities and balance. The faithful disciple's epitaph should be "born to give", not "born to shop", and all of us have a role in witnessing to the difference in life. "Retail therapy" is a delusion which serves only consumerism. For both our health and our witness we need to assert and practice giving over getting in every part of our lives. We need to be open-handed, not tight-fisted and grasping.

Often the things that should mean the most to us, such a Christmas - the birth of Christ our Lord and saviour - are made so crassly commercial and consumerist that we - and certainly many around us - lose the meaning of them. It becomes all about what you will receive or who can give the best gift. It's depressing when one approaches Christmas with dread regarding meeting expectations of presents which risk being just more stuff for those who already have more than they know what to do with, and expecting to get more stuff than you need or know what to do with. For some of us, consumerism has hijacked celebration in advent. But there are other ways of giving - to a project in the third world, as a surrogate gift to a family member or someone else, rather then giving them something they don't really want and may never use. We need to reflect and consider just how consumerist we are becoming and draw attention to what are the true meanings behind events, festivals and holidays rather than being too readily identified with the consumerist ones. See also chapter 1, section 1.6 regarding shared values.

Fashion is an expression of human creativity, but also it can become an idol and a rationalisation for waste, in discarding what is no longer so fashionable.

Another thing to avoid is the prosperity doctrine which creeps into parts of the church from time to time. This asserts that it is God's desire to bless us with material financial prosperity, as tends to be indicative of blessing in the Old Testament. In our New Testament context however this is a seductive lie - he wants to bless us more than that, and paradoxically it is often through suffering that he does so. Certainly suffering is much more an expected corollary of Christian life than material prosperity, and when we lose sight of that we have been properly seduced by the world.

However, God does bless some people with material prosperity and possessions, which confers a responsibility and privilege for using that gift carefully and constructively, as a steward. As Jesus told us: From him to whom much is given, much will be expected (Luke 12:48). David Bussau, founder of Opportunity International put it thus: "Money is like manure - if you pile it up it stinks, but if you spread it round it grows things!" The saying in fact has become an aphorism.

Liberality, meaning a freeness in giving of one's resources, is an outworking of love, and is enabled by developing an attitude which perceives material things as secondary to human and spiritual ones. Our generosity with our abilities, gifts, time, money and homes should increasingly reflect that of our Lord. In God's economy we give in order to have more, to be blessed more richly, and to have more to give. But that must be learned in each person's experience, not simply accepted as a proposition! And generosity tends to be infectious.

In relation to money, we need to be deliberate, intentional and reliable. The maxim of "give, spend, save" - in that order - has considerable merit. We need to budget (e.g. one tenth of after tax income as a 'tithe', or whatever) and allocate that according to thought-out priorities, allowing some scope for new opportunities and fresh needs to be met. Then we need to implement it progressively, not leaving it to the end of the year and finding that we are too constrained to find the cash - that will always be the case! It is a question of whether we offer the first and best (as in the Old Testament) or just what is left over, perhaps even at the level of petty cash (or what amounts to that in context of our annual income).

The proportion of money we budget will certainly depend on our situation in life — whether single or married, then DINKs or SIFKs (Double Income No Kids vs Single Income Four+ Kids), and the lifestyle we adopt. The lifestyle is a big variable, often insufficiently considered or discussed, and for which we are each fully accountable. While we cannot ignore our social and work context, and may default to a large measure of conformity with the lifestyle involved in both, that certainly does not need to be so in all respects. We need to justify the large percentage that we keep and spend on ourselves or save, at least as much as the 10-20% (or more) of our time and income that we invest in God's work. In fact that large percentage should be equally a focus of individual prayer as what is on the budget list for the 10-20% or whatever - maybe a nominal 90% could be 80% or even much less. No income is too small for us to act in faith, and no income is so big that we should not be deliberate and careful with it. And no-one should be too busy to be bothered with others.

It is helpful (and challenging) to have one or two accountability partners in working out and annually revising our stewardship budget. It may be the same person as the accountability partner for discipleship discussed in chapter 1, or it may be someone in a similar life situation re income and family commitments.

Rather than 'giving' to worthy causes and people we need to think in terms of investing in them, especially in what clearly advances God's kingdom. Our thinking and discourse needs to be on strategic investment, effective investment and godly investment, not simply relying on giving being intrinsically virtuous. The idea of investment puts a disciplined and rational edge on the liberality and generosity which should flow from our lives.

Practical questions of detail on the income side side as one makes one's way in post-student life include whether to tithe pre-tax or after tax, how to treat realised capital gains and personal salary-sacrifice superannuation contributions, how to treat perks such as car and allowances, employer's super contribution, etc. On the expenditure side they include: proportions to local church (generally first priority), evangelism and youth ministry, overseas missions, social work, specific projects, specific individuals, etc.

All that will sound a bit way out for those on student incomes, but it is never too early to start thinking in terms of budgets, priorities and commitments, or we end up in the petty cash league of Christian 'givers'. For others it will simply seem to be saying "be sensible". But many Christians simply do not get round to thinking clearly about these issues and then follow through by making sure that they reliably do what they decide upon.

Priorities in giving. Having thought through the broad possibilities, the next task is to work out which causes are most worthy and/or needy in relation to our own priorities under God, and to relate financial support to what we support in prayer. Some worthy causes are well supported by others better endowed because they have a high profile, and some needy causes are not particularly worthy in terms of applying funds effectively or efficiently. Some worthy and strategically-important causes lack popular support and rely on Christians being wise, thoughtful and perceptive. We should think, pray and research this carefully, not simply giving to whatever is closest to hand, best marketed, or shouts at us loudest. Look for where there is an intersection of strategic importance and personal interest.

Giving our time and effort is even more basic than giving money. It's easy to talk about God's love for people but without being his active agents in showing it. Hospitality is a prime way, but also taking particular interest in people to help or encourage them, mentoring, looking after an elderly person, or maybe backyard blitzing a single mum's yard. Sometimes such opportunities are matched with financial needs, so be able to put your money where your mouth is when it comes to being generous to those around you.

Finally, and because of our infinite capacity for rationalising and even self-deception, we need to be accountable in respect to financial stewardship to someone who will not hesitate to challenge our priorities and performance, as with stewardship of our time, gifts and in other ways. A good tool for this is a stewardship budget on paper or spreadsheet, dividing up the proposed total by setting monetary sums against each desired recipient, then a column for what we part with each half year. This is both good self-discipline (it's amazing how forgetful of those targets one can become) and it is a tool for reciprocal accountability.

A normal budget sets the upper limits of expenditure, and one aims to spend less. This budget is the opposite, in setting the lower limits and not limiting the scope to give more. Certainly whatever target is set is not an upper limit, and we need to be open to give above and beyond, and indeed to seek opportunity for doing so. It is important to be liberal in giving and hence flexible upwards from our budget, ready to sacrifice cheerfully.

A concept worthy of much greater prominence in Christian circles is paying it forward. If we are loaned some money we normally expect to pay it back. But an alternative is to pay it forward. In this case the loan is more in the nature of a gift but can be received without creating a sense of obligation within that relationship. The recipient may be asked to pay it forward, so that the money or whatever has been received is something to be passed on in similar fashion to another who is needing it. This can be when the recipient is ready and able, not at a specified time. In a context of trust and a common understanding of stewardship, this becomes a liberating and perhaps snowballing beneficence. In this context, the idea of repaying is antithetical to grace.

Paying forward is of course what we all do in respect to intercessory prayer and encouragement - the praying and encouragement that have benefited us are passed forward to others. Perhaps because money is easily quantified the instinct is often to pay back, even when this is not expected, but a principle of grace would suggest there should be both readiness to receive and an eagerness to give money and assets as much as prayer and encouragement.

Where offering money as a gift will sometimes be awkward or even patronising, offering it as a loan which is to be paid forward is empowering and a strong statement of trust as well as generosity. It avoids any fostering or implication of a mendicant attitude in the recipient. The empowerment comes from conferring the authority on the recipient to decide to whom, how, and when to pay it forward. It is important that the trust should extend to not requiring any accounting to the original giver/lender. Overall it cultivates generosity with money - worth doing these days! 56b

Abundant possessions are a corollary of prosperity, and of a consumer society. We are too easily impressed by those whose sense of meaning and even identity depends on what they have. The New Testament makes it clear that we should hold possessions very lightly, and that they can be a real impediment to discipleship. Certainly greed and envy are hugely corrosive of Christian values. In our well-endowed circumstances in the western world asceticism is not generally a sensible response to this danger, but generosity and openness to doing without can be. Our possessions are justified primarily on the basis of making us better able to help others, either directly or through equipping us vocationally to do that helping. See also following section on hospitality.

But even just our comfort enabled by prosperity can be a trap. Do we become deaf to the needy and indifferent to the resentment that conspicuous personal wealth can create? Is our Christian profile too much identified with that comfort, indifference and wealth? More seriously, in the West has our 'prosperity ripened the principles of decay' of our civilisation, as it did in Rome long ago? 56c

In Jesus' remarks to his disciples recorded in Luke 12:33-34 it is clear that the challenge to us is in terms of capital as well as income: "sell your possessions and give to the poor", leading to "treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted" or stolen. Giving is an investment in the Kingdom! "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also", so transferring our treasure can change our hearts. This raises a big question regarding what we each do with what we find that we have. If we are stewards of our capital, converting it to cash and giving it away is not necessarily the best strategy. In the common and relatively straightforward example of home ownership versus paying rent, the one course of action gives us an appreciating asset which may even be free of capital gains tax, the other ensures a significant drain on after-tax income indefinitely but avoids commitment to that major possession. Of course paying off a mortgage is also a drain on income, but with an end in sight. And home ownership gives some insulation for a whole family against the financial effects of loss of job or other unforeseen economic challenges.

In respect to owning income-producing or appreciating assets such as shares, we need to be clear what we are doing as stewards, and not simply follow advice which is based on materialistic criteria and wisdom of the world. It also relates to our gifts and guidance in life as discussed in chapter 11. Questions of annual yield and longer-term appreciation are relevant, but the basic question is what we want that capital to do. Some investments are much more in line with God's purposes than others.

One aspect of possessions is with property such as a holiday house if one's horizons and budgets at some stage extend to such. In between just using it for privately for family and a semi-commercial situation where it is treated as an investment, is this possibility among others: Let it out to friends only, on the basis that they decide the rent and then pay that to one of two or three charities you nominate. You don't need to know the amount, nor does the transaction risk degrading your relationship.

A final matter is the question of debt. Many young adults, on the basis of good salaries and the prospect of more to come, enter readily into mortgage and hire purchase arrangements in order to obtain their own real estate earlier than they otherwise could, or to keep up with peers in enjoying the good life. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either owning property or debt finance, Christians need to consider more carefully than most the implications (not to mention the motivation) of this, since those arrangements can readily become a burden or hindrance if radical vocational changes are entertained a few years down the track, or simply if other personal circumstances change.

A less deliberate form of debt of course is routinely carrying forward credit card balances. This is apparently a significant issue with young people seduced by consumerism. Certainly it raises major questions about priorities and needs. It seems to us most unwise in any Christian stewardship context - credit cards should be seen as a convenience, not a means of debt financing of life. If debt is needed, there are less extravagant ways, and the rigorous process of justifying one's need to a bank manager is a good discipline.

Another aspect of debt is entering contracts for mobile phones, broadband internet, etc which tie up a proportion of our income for some time ahead and may become a burden. It is vital to assess the real cost of these against our real need for them, then give them a proper priority which is not inflated by the consumerist expectations of peers. A good deal of self-discipline is needed.

Two issues not discussed here because of the limited audience are superannuation - how much to put in above the legal minimum? And inheritance - what should you leave for your progeny?

A final word from St Paul: "Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and can take nothing out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that."56d Such a perspective on money and possessions will free us from many distractions and the corruption of greed and envy. It's appropriately countercultural and a powerful witness to real values that endure. That contentment is learned and trained, not an intrinsic attribute, and it contrasts with unregenerate covetousness. It gives a sane and sure perspective on life, and leads to Paul's final word on the matter here (v10): the love of money (etc) is a root of all kinds of evil.

Ch 6 Discussion questions:
How do you set an appropriate level of lifestyle and expenditure? What are your reference points?
How do you perceive and then counter consumerism in your own actions?
What do you see as the main effects of consumerism among your friends?
Would others say that liberality is a feature of your life? Would you claim it as a fruit of the Spirit in you?
What have been some of the blessings you have received through giving?
How, in practical respects, do you budget your financial stewardship?
How do you allocate priorities in it? Is this a significant aspect of your prayer?
Is this part of an accountability partnership?
How do you justify or rationalise your possessions?
Do you have difficulties or awkwardness in giving to individual people? How do you resolve this?
Do you have significant debt?

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56a One positive aspect of consumerism is that choice is foremost, not fate. That resonates with need to choose responsibly.

56b In Luke 6:35 Jesus says: "lend to them without expecting anything back." If this is exhorted re loving our enemies, how much more so for others!

56c Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. "The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness".

56d1 Timothy 6:6-8, which continues (v9): "Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction", and finishes with v10 about the love of money being a snare (quoted in text); also Phil 4:11-13, being content in any and every situation.