DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What’s In It For Me?

Written by: on January 22, 2020

“Some people say a man is made outta mud

A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood

Muscle and blood and skin and bones

A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

 

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I won’t go

I owe my soul to the company store”[1]

 

In 1946 Merle Travis wrote the song “Sixteen tons” (made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955) depicting the life of coal miners who lived in company housing, bought their supplies at the company store and were paid a form of vouchers or tokens known as the “truck system” instead of money. In many cases the workers went deep in debt and became nothing more than a working slave to the company. Throughout the verses of the song the listener gets a glimpse into the life struggles of those who worked in the early days of the coal mining industry.[2]

Karl Polanyi in his book The Great Transformation points out that though labor, land and money are vital parts of the market they shouldn’t be considered commodities. “Labor is only another name for human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; …[3] A market economy according to Polanyi is nothing more than a fictitious story of which labor, land and money are characters. It is this model Polanyi believes destroys a society. Polanyi shows great concern for the negative effects the market economy model has on humanity in general.[4]

When looking at work is there a redemptive purpose behind what we do? Does human work have more than a monetary value? Is it more than a commodity to be bought and sold? Martin Luther looked at work as the “masks of God.” “Our works are God’s masks, behind which He remains hidden.”[5] Matthew 25 supports this mindset when Jesus is discussing the judgement of the Gentiles.

“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.’” (Mt. 25:35-40)

Work was not only part of God’s plan from the beginning of creation as shown in Genesis 1, it is the primary way God meets the needs of His people by using our everyday labor. It is also true that ultimately as we meet the needs of others around us, we are ultimately meeting the needs of Jesus. Those small insignificant acts of love and compassion are in the eyes of Jesus noticeable and quite significant. Our actions toward others are actions directed to God as well.

Does God really care that much about what His people do within the society in which they reside? How serious should we take a society that is pagan or downright aggressive toward the Christian faith? Should the society in which we live dictate how we go about God’s Kingdom business? How should we respond to a society that doesn’t believe the things we believe in or value the Bible the way we do?  Jeremiah’s first letter to God’s people exiled to Babylon strongly stated for them to build homes, get married, raise families and “work for the peace and prosperity of Babylon. Pray to the Lord for the city where you are held captive, for if Babylon has peace, so will you.” (Jer. 29:7) Why would God give this command to Israel? According to verse 11 it is was because God had positive plans for Israel, plans that includes a future hope.

Along with Capitalism often comes a consumerist mentality. Sadly, it appears the consumerist mentality has joined the church. How does a church minister effectively to a society that is oriented around the acquisition and the consumption of goods and services at a surprising rate with little hesitation as to the cost or effect how this lifestyle may have on people or the environment? Especially if the church is of the same mindset. Consumerism tends to breed a “What’s in it for me mindset?” Customer satisfaction becomes a key to any commercial enterprise. To be successful services are tailored to the wants and perceived needs of the client. Sadly, this mindset can be seen in the church where people jump from congregation to congregation or from denomination to denomination looking for the right family program, the right youth group or desiring to hear the right sermon message that supports their thoughts and opinions. Is this search for perfectionism part of the consumer mindset? Is the church set up to disappoint their members because they trying to keep up with the latest and greatest market trends? Is it possible to be a Christian and not a Consumerist? I once read that true joy is putting Jesus first, others second and yourself last. That may be something to think about when confronting a me first society.

 

[1] https://www.songfacts/com/lyrics/tennesse-ernie-ford/sixteen-tons

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truck_wages

[3] Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation, Boston: Beacon Press. 2002. 75-6

[4] Polanyi, 76

[5] https://christcovenant topc.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/Luther-on-gods-masks/

About the Author

mm

Greg Reich

Entrepreneur, Visiting Adjunct Professor, Arm Chair Theologian, Leadership/Life Coach, married 39 years, father and grandfather. Jesus follower, part time preacher! Handy man, wood carver, carpenter and master of none. Outdoor enthusiast, fly fisherman, hunter and all around gun nut.

10 responses to “What’s In It For Me?”

  1. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    It seems you and Dylan both found relative application to consumerism in the church. A worthy topic, indeed.
    On a different note, I find Polanyi’s pessimism (you mention “negative effects”) understandable writing in Europe in the 1940s. Turning people into commodities and the “other” dehumanizes and justifies really any mistreated thereafter.

    • mm Greg Reich says:

      Shawn,
      I don’t disagree with Polany’s negative outlook on Capitalism. I am just not so sure that history is the best teacher when it comes to economics. Especially when the technological changes after his death have surpassed the previous 100 years. I believe part of the issue is that with the abundance of technology available the possibility for advancement and personal growth increases and so does the desire for change.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    Greg,
    Can you please clarify, are you comparing the Israelites in Babylon to Christians in America?

    You noted: “Is this search for perfectionism part of the consumer mindset? Is the church set up to disappoint their members because they trying to keep up with the latest and greatest market trends? Is it possible to be a Christian and not a Consumerist?” I would answer Yes, Yes, and that’s difficult, unless you stay home. Based on my recent experience of visiting close to 20 churches in the Portland area, each church has its own flavor of Jesus kool-aid. Some pick a flavor that families like, others have a flavor that young singles prefer, still others have a flavor that elderly people find more palatable. They each have their niche. The churches cater to a certain demographic, and certain demographics seek out certain churches. They look for people that look like them so they feel like they belong; we are hardwired for homogenous systems. What I discovered is overall these institutions function more like businesses than churches, or maybe they are one and the same? If not, they are at least bedfellows. I don’t think our current situation is any different than when the church was married to government. The affair goes on, people know it’s happening, and in time in will implode. I think the same is true with our churches’ love affair with capitalism. It’s not a sustainable relationship. In time, it will deteriorate. I just wonder where the Bride of Christ will go next?

    • mm Greg Reich says:

      Darcy,
      To clarify I am not comparing Israel in bondage to Babylon to Christians in bondage to America. The principle in this portion of Jeremiah supports Paul’s mandate for the believers involvement in society found in Romans 13:1-7. With this said I do believe that no matter what social structure we live in, we are called to live to glory God in all we do. We see something similar in the Reformation which brought a higher meaning to work. God in his command to Israel in Jeremiah raises work from a place of captivity to an act of meaning and purpose as part of God’s plan for His people.

      I do think it is possible for the church to thrive in a capitalistic society without getting caught up in the consumerist mindset, but it’s going to take a shifting away from the what’s in it for me mindset we see in many churches today.
      In many ways large churches are a large business especially when their budgets are bigger than a lot of small businesses but that doesn’t mean they should be motivated and ran like a commodity driven business. What is the church? It isn’t a building or a denomination. Isn’t the church a people? Buildings come and go and so do denominations. The building side of the church with all it staffing requirements is a business but I think the problem is we often forget that the church is the people and the building is just a location. Is it possible to go to church and not be the church?

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        Greg,
        Thank you for clarifying and unpacking that more for me. To answer your last question posed, yes, it’s absolutely possible to go to church and not be the Church. Evidence of that disconnect abounds in society today. Even the mega churches would say the Church is a people, not a building. Yet they also raise millions of dollars to pave their parking lots and build bigger buildings, so in many ways, their actions do not align with their words. Yet they would also say they do this bigger church business because its about the people, so really its a tangled web and there’s no easy way out. I just don’t see Jesus living in this way, so I question if that’s really what the Church is called to be?

  3. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Hey Greg. I appreciate your commentary on the role of work and how you link it to Genesis 1. It makes me wonder how we understand the invitation/mandate to work and its link to being formed in the image of God. That is, in the Genesis 1 story the work of God seemed to be that of co-creation and stewardship. Being that we were made in the image of a working God, could it be that our work is to co-create and steward? Could it also be that a misunderstanding of work as “rule/subdue” (read: dominate through power) was a part of the root of the consumerism you speak of here and that you and I are reflecting on in my post?

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,

    A significant portion of my masters thesis on eco-theology discusses the 2 points you bring up. One of the things we forget about being created in the image of God is that it’s not just talking specifically about believers it is talking about all humanity. The fall of humanity may have complicated the process but it didn’t remove the responsibility. I agree the primary part of image bearers is being co-creators and good stewards of creation and all thats in it. You may be correct that part of the consumerist mindset is due to the common misunderstanding of rule/subdue. I have never considered that into the mix but i think you are on to something. Rule and Subdue is not a blank check to dominate and destroy like some would believe. Part of being created in the image of God is the idea of being God’s representatives as viceroys over creation. In other words we steward and rule on behalf of God. In a world as diverse and different as ours how can humanity join together in stewarding the world as image bearers? If we as believers truly understood that all humanity was made in the image of God how do you think it would affect how we treated those who oppose our beliefs?

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I used to love that old song when I was a kid. It was years later that I came to learn it’s true meaning, which you articulated nicely. It also called to mind the Billy Joel hit, “Allentown,” which talks of the fallout of the post-industrial age. What are your thoughts about how the Church can effectively speak words of hope to people whose lives and livelihoods are tangled up in dependency on the company or government institutions?

  6. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Greg, I was reminded of our conversation with Pablo during the advance when he was breaking down what it means to have our identity centered on Christ and how that feeds into all of our other identities. You asked, “Is it possible to be a Christian and not a Consumerist?” I think regardless of our mindset, we’re all consuming something, whether it be big or small. I don’t know when the shift changed that Christians became more focused on what they get rather than what they give in a church service (though would also argue that that’s always been the case since we’re human), but I wonder if part of it comes down to tensions between the expectations we’ve created about church, the expectations pastors/leaders have about church, and ultimately what Christ expects of the church. Navigating those waters can be tricky.

  7. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Hi Greg, thank you for your thoughts. Deeper and deeper we go!

    I’m wondering if this is not another “double movement” at work as result of an unregulated market economy and its every increasing negative impacts on our world…the call to action as you mentioned for those in Babylon, ‘to pray for the city’. The call to redemptive action (for the hungry, the naked, thirsty, etc.). It’s the upside-down response that brings a balance. Is there a balance? I feel like we are losing traction and am wondering about redemption, being made free. Yes, there’s hope. What about a changing of the tide?

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