I have several friends whose parents are leaving homes where they have lived for decades, moving into smaller places that require less upkeep. That process requires people to figure out what possessions they are going to hold onto and what they want to release to family members who might enjoy them. When distances between relatives make it difficult to distribute possessions, companies are hired to sell these goods or just take them to charitable organizations or the town landfill. There is nothing like paying someone to cart off things you once paid someone else to put in your home to make you think about transient nature of possessions. Working through this process leads many to take a vow of austerity.
One of the most important pieces of wisdom a Christian can learn is the difference between a need and a want. We all have needs. Jesus kept it lean and simple. He had no home and few possessions. But Jesus did have friends with houses, knew fishermen who owned boats, people who raised children and those who lived in a community where they put down roots. But he was still clear that a life of simplicity was preferable to a life of complexity. He warned his followers about the way money and possessions could begin to rule their lives. As one who came as Lord, he knew how easy it was to find an alternative master in wealth and the pursuit of more.
I think the insight Jesus brings that is most helpful is that many of us, after honoring the basic needs of life, tend to want more. Most of us want more of everything, whether for security, pleasure or anticipated fulfillment. The list of wants is never short. I have found that the desire for more is a gravitational pull in my life. The longer the list, the more financial gravity exerts its pull until we are bogged down by financial worries and more stuff than we ever imagined.
Last fall, we issued a series of challenges at our church. The goal was to offer a congregation-wide experience where people could see how much gravity possessions and money had on their life. There were three parts:
- The Clean Out Challenge: Clean out a drawer, closet or room of your home and bring the stuff to the church parking lot on a designated Saturday. We had an electronics recycler, an industrial paper shredder, two charitable organizations, and one truck headed to the landfill. It was fascinating the see the joy people had as they dropped stuff off. One woman threw her hands up in the air, shouted “woo-hoo” and did a happy dance. Married couples exchanged high-fives. At one point I thought a revival was going to break out. I think many felt more joy in getting rid of their things than they ever did when they initially purchased them.
- Budget Challenge: Figure out how much you spend a month on key budget categories and how much you should spend to keep a balanced budget. Giving was the first category to consider. We all need to look at what percentage of our income is invested in generosity. Most Americans give less than 2% to any charitable institution. Many are not ready for retirement years when they will no longer be able to work. I am convinced the reason is that both require a plan that most never create.
- Estimate of Giving Card: Write down the amount you plan to give in the coming year and submit it to the church. Many churches no longer ask people to make a commitment to give. I think it helps people to write down or electronically enter an amount they hope to give to the church. People will only do this when inspired by their faith in Christ and the ministry of their church. When people want to invest in God’s Kingdom more than they want the stuff that makes them feel like royalty for a short time, generosity is easy. I encourage people to follow the biblical standard of the tithe. No spiritual practice enables you to embrace Jesus’ call to simplicity and his desire to seek first the Kingdom of God like tithing. It is the way I learned the difference between a need and a want. It is how I learned to trust that God would see our family through lean seasons. I believe that God wants us to bless others continually rather than leave a few residual dollars in our will after the last bill was paid.
If you want to help people change and fully embrace the Christian life, your church will have to talk about money, possessions, and generosity. These issues are a part of our everyday life. We make dozens of financial decisions every week, each with a cumulative impact on our life and identity. If you can teach people to defy gravity and overcome the culture of more, they will discover how Christ truly sets us free. ‘’
Rev. Tom Berlin is Senior Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church (Herndon, Virginia). and A graduate of Virginia Tech and Candler School of Theology at Emory University, he has authored many books and studies; his latest, Defying Gravity: Break Free from the Culture of More, released in May 2016.