I have been thinking about the Inauguration Speech of John F Kennedy in relation to our expectations as church, during which he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” What does this mean for our church, our parish?
Before I say anything, let me indicate that I am not an economist and really don’t have any idea about economic theory and models. However, I am engaged politically and I am economically competitive. By the latter I mean I loved that the Australian Economy became the go to economy during the global financial crisis and the Australian dollar became worth more than the US dollar.
However, I do appreciate that put pressure on our export markets and made our imports markets more affordable. As the leader of a not-for-profit church, I also appreciate that the lowering of the interest rate by the reserve bank of Australia, although good for me as a mortgage holder, it is not good for the finances of a church comprised of mostly self-funded retirees.
In my own lifetime there has been a changing economic priority in Australia. I remember the emphasis being on savings. At Primary School we were encouraged to save money. During school time, once per week, we would make deposits in our Commonwealth Bank accounts through a bank representative that came to the school.
Clearly that was before Paul Keating, then Treasurer, floated the Australian dollar and led us into the recession we needed to have, and encouraged us to tighten our belts. Later, I recall the government of the day introducing income tax on the interest earned from savings. This, perhaps, marked the beginning of the decline in emphasis on savings.
Even later was the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax (GST) as a means of obtaining revenue on the basis of people’s spending as we shifted from being savers to consumers.
Now we know that the Reserve Bank of Australia chooses to increase or decrease interest rates on the basis of inflation, determined by employment figures amongst other things. I don’t get inflation; this simply means people want higher incomes to pay for things. This fluctuation is therefore determined by how much excess money people have to spend to obtain things.
In the economics of our capitalist democracy we are dependent upon having money to spend to keep the economy going. You may remember, during the global financial crisis, the $900 bonus the Rudd Labor Government gave us to go out and spend to keep the economy above water. Our economics is driven by and dependent upon consumerism. We have effectively become a consumer society where we pay for products and others to do labour on our behalf in order to provide us with more leisure time. But of course we have to work harder and longer to pay for them.
But this consumer culture is not limited to economics. It has become a part of our general culture. We have become consumers. We participate in things for what we can get out of it. We make choices on the basis of what suits us. And we have even allowed this consumer culture to permeate the church. I am conscious that so many Christians, even Anglicans ones, go church hopping to find a church that meets their needs. Members of churches have become consumers of ministry rather than doers of ministry.
An example of this consumer culture within churches is expressed in an expectation that the Priest, Minister, Pastor, Leader will visit them and undertake the ministries of the church; after all, that’s what we pay them for. I suspect in many churches this one of the reasons they are struggling. Another example of consumer culture within the church may be seen when the worship which is focussed on a group of skilled musicians providing high quality music. Must admit I am a bit envious of this, but it means even the work of worship, which is what liturgy means, is done by others upfront, on a stage and consumed by those attending.
The antidote for a church adopting this consumer culture of our society is to paraphrase John F Kennedy. As church we ought to remind one another, “Ask not what the church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.” Former Archbishop of Canterbury, the late William Temple, is credited with saying, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” The challenge is that the church Christ calls us to be is for the benefit of others not for ourselves. We are not consumers, but providers.
And why should we be consumers. Our participating in church is already the greatest expression of consumerism. We are benefitting from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in order to restore us in relationship with God. It is not to us now to consume, rather it is our task now to contribute to enabling the church to continue its commission to make disciples, to baptise and to teach.
When Jesus says to all his disciples, in response to James and his brother’s mother’s expression of what she wants for her boys, he says, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28) Jesus stands the things of his culture on their head. To serve and not be served challenges the potential consumer culture in the church. To be served is to be a consumer. To serve is to contribute to the ministry, or enabling the ministry, of the church to be undertaken. It is allowing the church to do and be whatever it needs to do and be rather than what we want it to do, or how we want it to be.
Fundamental to this is, of course, our being disciples; being those who are learners of God as he is revealed to us in Jesus. The prophet Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord to the people of Judah, God’s own people. Let’s get biblical prophecy right. They are words of warning, not the future, to God’s own people, not the world. The problem, they have become self-absorbed; he says, “I am going to break down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted—that is, the whole land. And you, do you seek things for yourself? Do not seek them; for I am going to bring disaster upon all flesh.” (Jeremiah 45:4-5)
We can get self-absorbed in our own discipleship. It is amazing how often, when I hear people praying, their prayer consists of a shopping list of the things they want God to do for them. A more important paraphrase of this statement, fundamental even to our contribution to church, indeed is important in asking how we can contribute to the ministry, or enabling the ministry, of the church is, “Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for your God.”
This is a theme for the readings for our celebration of St James. It is a challenge to letting our participation in the church to be purely as a consumer and calls us to enabling and doing for the purpose of the church, being providers.