Your church wants stuff. All kinds of stuff. Maybe you want a new building. Better carpet. Plush, padded, interlocking chairs. New microphones. A faster computer for your media. Remodeled bathrooms. A covered driveway for the front. Maybe you even think you need these things. But maybe, just maybe, the church is acting a bit too much like the world in the area of materialism.
Hi Church, I’m the World. Please Follow Me.
Have you ever wondered if the church tends to follow the world in some respects? According to the Bible, the “world” is a mindset—a mental disposition that can draw the Christian’s affections, attitudes, and actions away from God (see 1 John 2:15-17). Worldliness is not defined according to current dress standards, music styles, and watching dirty shows on TV. There are many things of the “world” that are wonderful and lawful for Christians—indications of God’s common grace. At the same time, Christians must recognize that the world system is subversive and dangerous.
At times, it is evident that subversive elements of the world can creep into the church. Whatever prevailing heresy or trend is at large in the world’s culture can all too easily find its ways into the lives of Christians and into the functioning of local churches. Take, for example, the philosophy of postmodernism. There seems to be some legitimacy to a few of the theories of postmodernism, but postmodernism’s denial of absolute truth or the knowability of absolutes is antithetical to the Bible, and undermines its every claim! This isn’t just a 2011 phenomenon. We see throughout the New Testament how the early church had to battle against the allure of the current culture, including gnosticism and stoicism.
The world is always doing its best to worm into the church and corrupt it.
The Un-Sin of Materialism
Now, let’s get to that word in the title of this article: materialism. Materialism is one of the most poisonous sins that our culture manifests. Perhaps materialism is so dangerous because it’s so easy for Christians to engage in it without censure, approbation, or even much notice. When it comes to other awful sins like abortion, adultery, or murder, the offense is so egregious and obvious that it’s almost easy to steer clear. Materialism, on the other hand, is something that is so intertwined with the warp and woof of our cultural fabric that we hardly know how to identify it in our own lives, much less root it out. It becomes an un-sin—hardly noticeable, hardly problematic, and hardly confessable. Yet materialism infects everything from the things we spend our time on, to the things that we love, to the things we think about, to the things that we pursue, to the things, things, things… And before we know it, worldliness–that mindset that draws the Christian’s affections, attitudes, and actions away from God–has settled deep in our hearts in the form of materialism.
Now, let’s go back to talking about the church. The sins that church members and church leadership tolerates are the sins that begin to destroy the church itself.
Materialism appears when you think that “the church just needs more funds” to overcome problems and challenges. Materialism may be lurking when the physical plant of the church seems more important, more time-consuming, and more important than the lives of those who attend the church. Materialism is ruining a church when a lengthy or expensive building project becomes the distinguishing factor of the church’s existence. Materialism is a preoccupation with offerings, budget items, expenditures, salaries, funds, investments, bank balances, and the next cool gadget that you’re going to buy for the church office. Materialism may be present when the church considers a big wad of cash in savings to be an indication of their security. Materialism is present when you think you have a “church” when you’ve obtained a building. Materialism may be exerting its influence when the church is more committed to putting on a good show than feeding the sheep. Materialism is an obsession with church “programs.” Materialism is relying on the beauty of the media, the power of the music, or the skill of the performers to drive a church service.
Materialism destroys a church, turning it inward upon itself, rather than outward to reach the world. Randy Alcorn wrote, ”Christ’s disciples love people and use things. Materialists love things and use people.” Are you making true disciples, or cultivating materialism?
I can keep going. Harping on a sin like materialism is an easy rant. Eventually, you’ll make people feel worthless until they start kicking themselves, or rush off to make a huge donation to Samaritan’s Purse.
The Church is Not Material
When Jesus was called upon to settle an inheritance dispute, he took the opportunity to give a bit of counsel against materialism. He said: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” The same is true of the church. In the Bible, the church is never described in terms of its material existence, yet the Western church is so characterized by materialism–buildings, giving records, attendance statistics, offerings, fund raisers, building projects, and new and better stuff.
Can you have church without all the stuff? If your church was suddenly without a building, a bank account, a bus, or printed Sunday School materials, could you carry on? What if your church was suddenly left with no resources except a decrepit mud hut, like some churches I’ve seen in Africa? What if you had no place to meet, except to occasionally gather in small groups in church member’s living rooms, much like the underground church in China? What if your church had no Yamaha keyboards, no Fender amps, and no Pearl drumset?
Can you rethink “church,” and extricate your church from the web of materialism? The church doesn’t consist of buildings and bank accounts. The church loses its influence in the world whenever it is anything but “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). You may not be able to purchase the upgraded church van. You may have to settle for the coffee stains in the carpet of the church lobby. You may have to endure the tinny quality of your cheap sound system. You may not be able to buy a new bulb to replace the burnt-out one in your data projector.
But you can still have a thriving and effective church.
Perhaps this all sounds funny, especially coming from an organization that promotes good church media. We think it’s important. We think that the Bible is important, and we want to warn against what we see as harmful influences in the world today. Materialism is one of them.
Additional biblical consideration: Matthew 16:24-27; 1 Timothy 6:5-12; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; Colossians 3:5-6, 1 John 2:15-17.