At the popular level, the Holidays will always be known for two things: (1) family and (2) spending. Nowhere is the latter more fully embodied than on “Black Friday,” the only holiday dedicated exclusively to consumer spending.
And what’s been most fascinating is the response offered by various Christian groups, which show the sharp contrast in values in younger, emerging generations.
There are churches and groups that actually organize Black Friday shopping trips – some folks at my home church organized a midnight trip to the local outlet mall. Meanwhile, other Christian groups have organized themselves in acts of protest – celebrating “Buy Nothing Day” to discourage unnecessary Holiday spending. Activists speak out against the “demon Mammon” and urge people, through social networking as well as protests and demonstrations, to refrain from spending on Black Friday.
And in between these extremes we find the gap in values among younger emerging generations. It may be as good a time as any to discuss two broad trends that I will characterize as (1) accommodation and (2) asceticism.
The first error common to Christians is accommodation. Accommodation is the tendency for Christians to mirror the values of their surrounding culture. Larry Burkett, the well-known Christian financial advisor, says that “The Christian world is no different from the secular world when it comes to debt, bankruptcy and divorce because priorities are misplaced.”
Checkbooks tell a sad story: when interviewed, roughly 40% of church members say they overspend monthly – often on the same types of things as the American culture at large, which spends nearly $40 billion dollars on their pets alone, and an estimated $60 billion dollars on weight-loss programs.
But the ugly side of spending is debt. Nearly 40% of church members pay over $2,000 a year in interest alone – and this is not counting mortgage payments. The effects of this are crippling, as nearly 33% of Christians claim that their debt prevents them from getting ahead in life. It is little wonder, then, that less than one-half of U.S. church members financially support their churches (and some data suggests that this is as low as 33%). (data comes from Generous Giving website)
The opposite reaction, which is increasing in popularity is that of asceticism. Asceticism was an ancient practice of living in the absence of “worldly” possessions in an effort to attain some higher, spiritual state.
Young Christians often react against the perceived materialism of their parents’ generation, and wish to pursue a simpler lifestyle. This is all well and good, but often there is a danger of confusing simplicity with asceticism. Hence, the Black Friday protestors.
The problem with this approach is that it is inherently legalistic, its advocates often suggesting their lifestyles as representative of “true Christianity.” Rather than teaching people the purpose and value of money within God’s economy, they rail against the corruption of capitalism.
THE GOSPEL AND MAMMON
So…what’s the deal with Black Friday? Are we doomed to one of these two errors?
While some have advocated a “prosperity theology” that suggests that faith results in God’s (financial) blessings, others advocate a “poverty theology” that suggests that we please God through the abandoning of our finances and possessions. While they may seem very different, they are equally wrong for building a gospel on the content of our wallets rather than the grace purchased by the Savior.
Spending priorities look radically different for the Christian. Culture at large urges us toward the siren song of consumerism. Religion, however well intended, offers us a guilt trip about our finances by making us feel like we either (1) should have more faith and the Lord will provide or (2) we “should” be spending our money more wisely (“are you giving enough?” “are you giving to the right charities?”). And just as before, both of these positions are wrong because they ignore some salient facts concerning the place and role of money in God’s economy.
(1) It’s not yours. James tells us that every good and perfect gift is from God. This means that money may be a gift from God. But so might be poverty. Whether abundance or absence, God offers us what we need to accomplish His good purpose.
(2) Money is never “neutral.” People tend to think that money is neutral, only its uses are good or bad. But like any created thing, money is always either good or bad – it can never exist in some “neutral” category. Every purchase we make will either benefit us and God’s kingdom, or harm us. This is why wise investments are so crucial, and it’s no small wonder that Solomon’s proverbs contained so much advice concerning finances.
(3) Your money matters. If it’s not yours, and if it’s not neutral, then where we use our resources is significant. Stewardship over these gifts is a priority lacking in American Christianity, and a subject often untouched by our nation’s pastors.
So…Black Friday deals?
Well, if you buy things you need (and yes, gifts count), then Black Friday may actually be a form of good stewardship, as you are better able to take advantage of discounts and sales. But the “holiday” also comes with the temptation towards the kinds of self-destructive indulgences we’ve seen above.
So I say to you, shop – or do not shop – in a manner that reflects the resources you’ve been given. In so doing we create not just a happy holiday, but a wise one as well.
Since there are so few resources out there on Christian finance, I felt it appropriate to suggest some resources to my more dedicated readers:
Crown Financial. This is not a book, but a group study frequently offered by churches. I have not personally participated in this exercise, but have been told of its benefits by former participants.
Money, Possession, and Eternity by Randy Alcorn. This book offers well-rounded insight on God’s gift of finance. I also advocate another of his books, The Treasure Principle that speaks of joyful giving.