The Myth of Scarcity
And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
--Philippians 4:19 NRSV
If forced to pick the greatest threat to American Christianity today, I would say it is the myth of scarcity. My whole career in ministry I have worked at churches made up of members who were middle class and above. Despite their members' combined net worth being substantial almost every board or council meeting was spent discussing what the church didn’t have enough of. (No wonder nominating committees can't fill seats on boards!) The two numbers that mattered most were not enough members and not enough money. For a religion supposedly (as Hebrews puts it) “confident in what we hope for and assured about what we cannot see,” I’ve rarely known a church leader who was focused on anything else but the number of “butts in the pews” and the weekly offering. The American church is addicted to what it can see and touch regardless of what it says about faith.
Every church I’ve served at has its faithful older members who remember the “glory days” of growing budgets, building projects and packed church services. Compared to those days the present looks bleak. Yet, back in those days were churchgoers any more faithful? The post-war boom in population, expanding economy and expansion of the suburbs combined with a culture that gave social cache to going to church (irregardless of whether or not people actually followed Jesus) meant church growth was inevitable, at least until it wasn’t. There was no need to trust God back then to provide what was needed, because our culture did it all for us. One did not need to have “assurance of what we cannot see,” because what could be seen was plenty. I’m unconvinced faith had much to do with the success of churches in the “glory days.”
Don’t get me wrong about what I mean when I talk about faith and trusting God. I’m not a proponent of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” I don’t believe in “name it and claim it” theology, and I don’t think it’s God’s will for believers to be rich. I also don’t believe churches should be irresponsible with. No, what I believe in is trusting God already has given us everything we need to accomplish what God wishes to happen.
Just once, I’d love to hear a church leader stand up during the annual stewardship drive and make a budget based on what they believe God wishes a church to do and be rather than on annual receipts that keep declining year after year. I believe if churches actually spent time discerning who God wanted them to be and what God wanted them to do before they made a budget, they might practice trusting God will provide what is needed to accomplish those things.
I am not holding my breath for such a moment. Church folks are just like everybody else-- bombarded constantly by messages saying they do not have enough for what they need to be happy, enough to protect themselves, enough things to buy at Costco, enough to compare with their neighbors. A column by me in a church newsletter won’t counter that storm of scarcity messaging. Only God can transform people enough to live with an abundance mindset.
It’s not like God’s abundance is difficult to find. Even a cursory glance at scripture or a rudimentary understanding of Christian practice, should give Christians at least an inkling of the abundance God offers. Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes eloquently about this:
The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things — nothing can separate us from God. What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.
As a culture, we love watching Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year and we hear Jacob Marley’s warning to Scrooge about being miserly. “I wear the chain I forged in life,” the ghost of Marley cries. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard, and of my own free will.” Marley’s eternal punishment doesn’t exactly line up with scripture, but we get the point of him chained to his accounting ledgers. We hear Marley, but we identify with the poor Cratchet family and never with Scrooge. Meanwhile, the chains of our materialism, our belief in scarcity, our faith in never having enough, entrap us in this life, if not the next. God’s abundance offers freedom from our chains of scarcity.
In this pandemic, where the economic needs in our culture have been revealed in all their starkness, we get to ask, “Are families going hungry because there isn’t enough food in the world?” The answer is clearly no. “Are people without jobs because there isn’t enough money in the world?” The answer is likewise no. “Are people lacking healthcare because there aren’t enough resources in the world?” Once again, no. “Are churches closing because there aren’t enough people in the world who want to connect with God?” No.
Even though the answers to some of these questions involve some very complex and systemic issues, what they all boil down to is an unwillingness to trust in God’s abundance, that there is enough for all, that if other people get what they need I will still get what I need.
Over recent months, the media has been full of stories of people’s inspiring generosity. A Maryland teen learned woodworking in order to sell his pieces to help homeless families. Chefs around the country are holding online bake sales to feed the hungry. When people trust that they have enough to share with others, their generosity is contagious. We all know how good it feels to give away what we have to help others, but our giving is a rare experiment rather than a lifestyle.
Maybe this belief in scarcity is understandable for people who believe in “the law of supply and demand” more than the law of loving one’s neighbor. Surely, the scarcity mindset makes sense for people who believe in the Gospel of Ben Franklin “God helps those who help themselves” more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ who taught us not to worry because “God’s eye is on the sparrow.” But isn’t it reasonable to think people who claim to actually believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ might put their faith in God before they put their trust in what their paystub says, their address reveals, and their garages contain?
I don’t know what the future of Park Hill Christian Church will be, but I do believe any future worth having will come through the people who make it up being freed from the myth of scarcity.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.