Being a good steward vs. just being plain cheap

Ben Witherington has a great article today on the expensive cost of cheap goods. Read it. It’s worth your time.

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, it was common amongst Christians to hear the complaint that “we’ve become too materialistic”: that we’d become just like the world with respect to seeking status through acquisition. In the ’80s, this was certainly true for most people I knew. Heck, it was true for me too, from my Ralph Lauren and Lacoste shirts to my Claiborne for Men slacks (or my Levi’s 501 button-fly jeans) to my Sperry Top-Siders (or my Tretorns, or my Bass Weejuns, or my L.L. Bean Camp Moccasins with the laces twisted macaroni-style), I was a conspicuous consumer. We all were. Bargain-hunting was something some people did as a hobby, but it was not widely practiced. K-Mart was a punchline. (“What are the three words a Mountain Brook housewife has never heard? ‘Attention, K-Mart shoppers!'”)

Then Wal-Mart came along. Yes, Wal-Mart was around before the 1990s, I know, but it was not until then that it hit my hometown. (Remember, their strategy was to go into the small towns first, where they’d have little, if any, real competition. Then they’d destroy all the other stores in town.) Through my high shcool years, the only Wal-Mart I’d ever heard of was in Oneonta (a small town a good 45 minutes from our house). I was in college before Wal-Mart came to Birmingham.

And Wal-Mart changed everything. For everyone.

Soon, people weren’t bragging about what label they were wearing. They were bragging about how little they had paid for their clothes, or their tires, or their Cheetos, or the millions of other things they were buying at Wal-Mart. More and more, those things were being made in China, where they could be made cheaply. That way, people could by even more stuff, even more cheaply.

So now most Christians talk about being “good stewards”, and what they often mean is getting everything for the lowest price possible. What happened? Did we all finally outrgrow our materialism? Did we finally see the error of our ways and swear off our brand-consciousness? Were we, as Christians, finally learning what it means to be “in the world, but not of the world?”

Not a chance. The Zeitgeist changed, and, as usual, we simply went with the flow. In the ’80s, conspicuous consumption was chic, so Christians were conspicuous consumers. In the ’90s and today, cheap is chic, so we’re cheap. I no longer think this qualifies as “good stewardship.”

To be sure, wastefulness is not a Christian virtue. I’m not advocating that you go out a buy a gold-plated toothbrush or anything. But can it be good for our souls to go “cheapest at all costs,” considering what it does to American jobs, not to mention the ethical ramifications of buying items made by slave labor (often child labor at that) in China. How Christian is that?

Look at it this way too: sure, you can get a Barbie doll for $4.97 at Wal-Mart, but how many Barbies does your child really need? How much more disposable plastic junk do our children have now because we can get cheap, Chinese-made toys for them? Is a little girl better off with 25 plastic Barbies than with, say, one really nice baby doll?

We need to think about the ethical implications of our purchases. We also need to let biblical concerns of righteousness and justice inform our views of economics, not just whatever the Wall Street Journal is saying. The bottom line is all that matters for most businesses: it is not all that matters for the Christian.

Besides, some things are worth spending more money on. Sumptuous, home-cooked feasts that your children will always remember. Trips to the movies or to Sonic for a soda “just because.” Birthdays. Christmas. Fine art. Good music. Good wine. None of these things is “essential,” but what do we teach our children about the beauty of God and of his creation when there is no beauty in our everyday lives?

This is true in the church too. I mean no disrespect, but it is very hard to learn of the greatness of God when one is worshiping in an ugly building. I am not speaking here about church planters, who must find a place to worship wherever they can find it. I am not speaking of persecuted Christians who must worship in secret. I am speaking of American evangelical churches who have the money and who spend it on gymnasiums and golf courses and then put up the butt-ugliest “worship centers” they can because it’s cheaper. It’s expedient. Walk into the National Cathedral in Washington and you are immediately in the midst of a wordless sermon about the majesty and the greatness of our Creator and Redeemer. Walk into your nearest metal-building, drop-ceilinged, wall-to-wall carpeted McChurch and you’ll get a different message entirely. (And that’s before they break out the stale crackers and the Great Value grape juice for Communion. How’s anyone supposed to “taste and see that the Lord is good” with that?) We’ve got to find a balance between the excesses of a Crystal Cathedral on the one hand and the “Jesus isn’t worth much to us” message on the other.

Good stewards, yes. Cheapskates for Jesus, no.

(Boy, I sure wish I still had a pair of Tretorns. But they’re probably made in China now too.)

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About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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10 Responses to Being a good steward vs. just being plain cheap

  1. PaulB says:

    Good words. Thanks for cutting the church planters some slack.

  2. cancerman says:

    Here’s my problem. Certain companies insist on doing everything cheaper. After a while you can’t get more efficient, so you get crappier. Or you pay employees less. Or you go to China where in order to go to the local school, you work in the school factory for free. (Often you pay for the school too.)

    As Christians who are called by God to be generous and compassionate, we should do better.

  3. Mandi says:

    Oh my gosh- I laughed out loud at the mention of the word Tretorns and laces spiraled like macaroni! I worked VERY hard making sure my tight rolled jeans were just right so that my laces would show! Oh those were the days!

  4. Sara says:

    Great post. Both good points that need to be made as much as humanly possible, and which I hadn’t thought of the connection between.

    One thing that struck me (and continues to) about moving from Terrebonne Parish to New York City is the assumption that there’s something not entirely right about wanting to surround yourself with beautiful things, or that creating beauty isn’t worthwhile work.

    Of course, I think a big part of it is the rural tradition of finding beauty in nature, and not feeling like you have to gild the lily by also surrounding yourself with beautiful manmade things — why spend all day in a museum when you could spend it under a mossy live oak, soaking in the wild irises or the takeoff and landing patterns of herons?

    But sometimes I get the sense that people actively seek out ugly and poorly designed things, almost in a showing off way, like to try to prove that they’re “less worldly” than others who actually enjoy having five whole senses.

  5. cancerman says:

    Now that I’m over my anti Valdemart rant, let me move on to the other good point you have. Christians have a real hard time dealing with living in the world. They want to focus on either the material or the spiritual ignoring the fact that it takes both to make a complete world.

    Having an ugly church to save money is just as materialistic as having a beautiful chuch to show off your wealth.

    Ignoring or denying material goods is buddhist. Rember the promise to Abraham involved land. It was a real place given by a spiritual being.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve seen some baroque art that is almost hallucinogenic. But at least they tried.

  6. Laurel says:

    The world God created is both good and beautiful. When we refuse to acknowledge that
    beauty, when we are not in awe of that beauty,
    when we refuse to be in the likeness of God by refusing to create beauty, then I think we are missing (and dissing) the exuberance and generosity of our Creator’s extravagant abundance, and missing an opportunity to “walk in the garden”, i.e. be fully present in God’s creation. God lists his accomplishments to Job, and seems to exult in their splendor. Jesus asks us to consider the lilies, because “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

    I sometimes think that we don’t see the beauty around them because they are looking for pretty. But beauty isn’t pretty. Which may be why the angels always have to say “Fear not!” (same thing I tell folks when they are about to listen to Coltrane for the first time…).

  7. RevJATB says:

    Laurel, I love it! I guess the same could be said for Miles, too.

  8. cancerman says:

    I wish I’d said that.

  9. Allison White Twigg says:

    Hey John! Just wanted you to know that I visited your blog today. I always enjoy reading your thoughts!

  10. Luigi says:

    Tell Brother Paul that he is no longer a church planter; he has graduated to the big church league. Therefore, he needs to go all out when he builds his church. We don’t want to see any all-purpose rooms that serve as the sanctuary/fellowship hall/gymnasium/ad nauseum. I know a good architect in Atlanta that can steer him aright.

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