My church is part of a denomination whose doctrinal statement reads in part, “Nonconformity calls us to reject the world’s unrestrained materialism, its sensualism, and its self-centeredness. Rather we seek to express the values of God’s kingdom by a lifestyle of modesty and simplicity.” Nevertheless, in the eight and a half years I have been a part of this denomination, I remember hearing only one sermon on simple living.* In fact, I believe that was the only sermon I ever heard on the topic, despite having been a part of various Christian churches all my life.
I wouldn’t call the members of my congregation extravagant, but most are saturated in consumerism, just like the majority of people in our culture. They drive big cars, wear fashionable new clothing, eat out frequently, pursue expensive hobbies, and think nothing about paying to attend church events. Those who do live simply are usually those who are forced to do so by below-average household incomes.
The church has started offering Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University courses, and those who have taken them seem to be trying to live debt free and within their means, but few truly make an effort to live substantially below their means, which is what I think of when I hear “simple living” or “frugal living.” (As an aside, I don’t understand the point of paying $93 to take the Ramsey course when the same information is available for free online and through the public library.)
At my church we hear frequent sermons on giving, but without specifics on how to live so that we can afford to give. One prayer we pray, thanking God for rebates, clearance sales, and freebies that allow us to be good financial stewards, seems almost like a joke. Frugal living goes far beyond buying things on clearance.
Sadly, not only have few churches emphasized simple living (even in denominations that make it part of their doctrinal statements), but many people see the North American church as completely intertwined with consumerism. Televangelists preaching material prosperity are the dominant images of Christians in many people’s minds. In reality, most Christians would say they believe in the doctrine of stewardship, defined in Christian terms as the belief that all our money and material goods belong to God and are ours to manage for Him, to use for His purposes. I remember little more than the basics from my college world religion class, but I have the notion that other faiths have similar doctrines to this Christian doctrine of stewardship.
So why don’t more faith communities practice frugal living and more clergy preach it? For one, I think part of it is that a frugal lifestyle seems too radical. The Amish, cloistered nuns, and others who actually choose to live simply are seen as inherently different from the rest of us. Typical believers can’t possible attain that level of holiness or separatism, many believe. However, we don’t need to completely separate ourselves from the world to reject consumerism (even though cloistered living would help!)
I also believe that many members of the clergy are afraid to preach about frugal living because they struggle with living that way themselves. The one sermon I did hear on the topic was from the perspective of “I know this area isn’t my strength, but here’s what I’m learning” rather than “Follow me, and I will show you how it’s done.” At the same time, the topic of how we spend our money (or not) can be seen as too personal, even in a culture with few other taboos. Few people are willing to talk openly about their income and spending habits, even with those they call “Brother” and “Sister” in a house of worship.
At the risk of attributing false motives to others, I will also say that I believe some clergy (certainly not all) are afraid that if they start to talk about living simply, they will scare away potential converts and even dedicated members. I hope I am wrong. I hate to think that faith leaders are willing to ask their congregations to give up drugs and alcohol, limit sex to marriage, practice honesty in all circumstances, and dress modestly, but believe that the typical person of faith is unwilling to address greed and consumerism in his or her life.
Speaking as a layperson, I would love to get more support from my church in my efforts to live frugally. Sermons offering practical tips for rejecting consumerism, encouragement in simple living from fellow members of my faith community, and more free fellowship events would go a long way in helping me and others like me who want “to reject the world’s unrestrained materialism, its sensualism, and its self-centeredness” but feel like we are going against not just the world’s dominant culture, but also the culture of our own faith communities (no matter what the official doctrine states).
*I originally wrote this post in April 2008 for the blog at Saving Advice. Since then, our pastors offered a series of sermons on the church’s core values, including an excellent one on simple living that included some practical tips. It was a great start, but I believe we still have a long way to go.