Six months after my local YMCA shut down due to COVID-19, I finally decided to stop payment on my monthly membership. While it was clear much earlier that I wouldn’t be able to use the YMCA’s gym for quite some time, I understood that it was a non-profit organization that still had bills to pay, persons to employ, and that they were continuing to serve the community in limited ways. Nevertheless, after six months of no goods and services in exchange for my monthly membership dues, I thought it better stewardship to use that money elsewhere. And yet, after over a year of little to no in-person church ministry—no goods and services in exchange for our monthly tithe—we have not stopped giving to our local church. Why the difference?
As I look back on COVID-19, one of the things I saw in bold letters was what Dallas Willard and many others have called “consumer Christianity.” Of course, I had noticed it to some degree before, but the conditions of COVID helped me to see it more clearly in myself. The local church was, at least for stretches of time, almost completely unable to put on weekly show, to cater to our needs, to provide appealing products for us to consume. There was no sung worship, no embodied teaching, no childcare, no youth meetings, no public reading of scripture, no large-group gatherings, no church-run service opportunities, no Wednesday night bible studies, no choir, no baptisms, no communion service, no liturgy, and no coffee during social hour. It has, indeed, been a tremendous loss and at the same time it has been a wonderful opportunity. Shutting the doors of the local church created an involuntary fast from institutionalized Christianity. It was, as Peterson paraphrases James 1, “a sheer gift” for under pressure my idolatrous, consumer mentality towards the local church was “forced into the open” and showed its “true colors” (James 1:2–3 MSG).
I remember the first Sunday post-lockdown. My wife and I hastily put together a liturgy that we spoke in unison with our two reluctant, non-liturgical teenagers, bowing at every “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It took all of 15-minutes. Replacing normal church attendance for a 15-minute spoken liturgy made the kids slightly less reluctant to engage the next week. It was good deal for them; a fair trade. But as the weeks and months went on, the dear pastors, paid staff, and volunteers at our local church purchased the necessary equipment and developed the skill to prerecord and/or livestream many of the sorts of meetings that had been offered pre-COVID (you did have to make your own coffee). Being in Los Angeles County, restrictions on in-person meetings continued to be tight, but eventually the church was able to use the parking lot for some outdoor services and youth meetings. Despite these herculean and creative efforts, meeting on screen or gathering masked in lawn chairs 6-feet apart just wasn’t doing it for me. And it wasn’t doing it for my wife, our kids, and I daresay for many others in our church community. Our local church wasn’t meeting our spiritual needs. At some point I thought to myself, “what are we paying them for?” The answer was crystal clear, at least when it came to me and my house: nothing.
The question painfully purged an ugly consumerism in me. It forced open my underlying expectation and silent assumption that our money in the offering plate put the church leadership on the hook to provide something in return. They were failing me, a paying customer. How dare they! This is America. While that consumeristic mentality was painful to see, realizing it existed slowly but surely set me free. We are not giving our money to our local church for a personal return on our investment. We are giving His money to His work for the good of His kingdom. “They”—the pastors, the staff, the building, the programs—are not responsible for my spiritual life or that of my family and our broader community. “They” aren’t here to meet our needs and it was more obvious than ever that “they” weren’t meeting our needs. In fact, “they” were never supposed to.
Jesus was on to folks who were more interested in having their bellies filled by religious activity than having their hearts transformed by the Spirit of Jesus. To one group that was eager to keep the live music playing and the church doors open, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you’” (John 6:26–27). As Willard writes, “We have generated a body of people who consume Christian services and think that this is Christian faith….We become mere spectators and consumers of holy things, not participants in the life Jesus is now living on earth…”1
Once I let the church leadership and paid staff off the hook, I was set free to attend to the spiritual needs of myself and those around me—my family, our small group, our extended Christian community, our neighbors. I stopped sitting back waiting for the “church” to get their act together. The responsibility of cultivating a meaningful life together in Christ wasn’t on the church staff. “They” weren’t on the hook; we were on the hook. As C. S. Lewis says, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”2 I take it that Lewis’ last line is meant to sap any individualistic responsibility out of what he is communicating. The humble one, unlike the proud, realizes that there is no way she can carry the weight of her neighbor’s glory by herself. We need one another. As Paul puts a similar point to a small group of Christians in Ephesus (who had no paid staff or sound system), “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:15–16).
The problem with consumer Christianity is not that the Christian life should not be consumptive. Christians need to consume. The problem is we are meant to consume the “bread of life” freely given and not the goods and services of the local church in exchange for our tithes and offerings. The local church is certainly a visible means of grace and we who make up the local church have a responsibility to steward those resources. But the local church does not exist for my sake. I exist for its sake. Perhaps better, we exist as brothers and sisters for one another’s sakes. And sometimes we decide that we can serve one another better if we pay someone in our midst to free up some of their time to help lead our life together. And then we might decide, should the Lord lead us and it is truly needed, to purchase or rent a building in which to gather. But we might, once we leave consumerism behind, decide we could share a space with another local church or perhaps purchase a building for a group of Christ-followers in another part of the world that needs it more than we do. There is nothing necessarily wrong with church buildings, paid-staff, choir robes, and free coffee during social hour. Space and place, pastors and teachers, organizations and institutions have an important place in God’s economy. But once we have our bylaws, board, non-profit status, and a full-time bookkeeper, it is pretty easy to lose sight of God’s economy and find our way into a much more prevalent economy. An economic arrangement that offers goods and services in exchange for tithes and offerings.
There is nothing good about the death, illness, and other losses brought about by COVID-19. It is a virus that should be eradicated and, in the meantime, mitigated as much as possible. At the same time, COVID has thrown the world into conditions unlike any most of us have ever seen. In those conditions, under those pressures, our faith-life has been forced into the open in a variety of ways. I am grateful that these conditions are continuing to purge me of my stubborn consumer mentality towards the local church. It has been a gift to be reminded that God’s people always come first and repeatedly to Jesus himself and in him to one another. The building, the events, the rituals are all tertiary, at best. We help one another to the bread of life as best we can with the resources we have available. To those who had pursued Christ to fill their bellies as consumers instead of their hearts as learners, he went on to say, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6). O Lord, teach us what we do not see.