Six ways that capitalism fails the church

The religion blog forum Patheos is hosting a Public Square conversation called “Has Capitalism Failed?” largely in response to Pope Francis’ scathing critique of capitalism in his Evangelii Gaudium. One blogger made the point that the answer to the question depends on what we call “capitalism.” There’s a difference between the free market system itself and what might be called the worship of the market. It’s possible to navigate the free market system without worshiping the market. The problem is that passive participants in the capitalist market do end up making it their god insofar as they allow the market to determine the value of the created objects in our world in place of God. So here are six examples of how market forces can corrupt the church’s agenda when we are not actively resisting their dominion.

1) Capitalism fails the church when discipleship becomes an industrial complex

Discipleship is supposed to be the bread and butter of Christian community. What it’s supposed to mean is each Christian’s journey of spiritual growth under the mentorship of more seasoned Christians. This is supposed to happen in local communities in ways that are developed organically in their unique contexts. But in recent years, a monster Christian publishing industry has emerged which desperately needs to sell its books and videos in order to grow, thus constituting what I would call a “discipleship industrial complex.” In order to keep growing, the discipleship industrial complex manipulates pastors and church leaders into thinking that their own intuitions and guidance from the Holy Spirit in their local contexts aren’t good enough. They need to use trusted resources like Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life if they want to get results. Pretty soon, these trusted resources are depended upon for everything from children’s Christmas pageants to stewardship campaigns. It’s kind of similar to farmers who buy the security of Monsanto’s patented, genetically modified seeds. The FDA has officially declared that there’s nothing wrong with genetically modified corn. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with genetically modified discipleship either. There’s just nothing personal about it.

2) Capitalism fails the church when consumerism becomes a moralistic obligation

It really hit me recently how the greatest competitor, at least among middle-class people, to the kind of kingdom living that church is supposed to instill is not greed or gluttony or laziness, but moralistic consumerism. The reason that so few Christians tithe is not because they’re spending their money on booze and bon-bons. It’s because they’ve been indoctrinated with the sense that “responsible” people save all that they can for retirement and their children’s college education. It feels like a reckless indulgence to throw a bunch of money at God when there are so many things that could happen to you that would leave your family destitute. The same principle applies to the Sunday travel soccer leagues. Middle-class churchgoers who only make church once a month because of travel soccer or Boy Scout campouts or other children’s obligations are not playing hookey as an act of liberating mischief; they’re doing what they feel obligated to do as “responsible” parents, and church simply doesn’t feel as obligatory as their children’s other activities. All of this is part of a middle-class existence that is defined by a guilt-ridden moralistic consumerism. We are guilt-tripped into “doing our homework” for all our purchasing decisions, such as buying bread that doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup or switching over to almond milk because of the latest research on the impact of dairy milk on children’s development. Nothing is wrong with any particular purchasing decision, but they all add up and create a monstrous system of worship that competes with our ability to rest in Christ.

3) Capitalism fails the church when churches with bling build their membership on transfer growth from churches without bling

I don’t deny the fact that there are churches which grow explosively because the Holy Spirit is creating genuine synergy in their midst. There are also churches that have managed to image success with their bling (such as state of the art audiovisual equipment), and in that way poach their members from churches that have dated furniture in their foyers. It’s similar to the way that Walmart put all the mom and pop general stores out of business in the eighties and nineties. This one hits close to home for me because we’ve lost several members to the local “community” church. One of our ex-members said that at her new megachurch, they don’t really have to volunteer for anything since the staff does everything for them. Yup.

4) Capitalism fails the church when people who don’t tithe say the church should take care of the poor

If you don’t think that your hard-earned tax dollars should be used to help poor people get access to health care, then don’t say that you think “the church should take care of it” unless money that you put in your church’s offering plate has contributed to adding a health clinic to your church basement with an MRI machine and an operating table, plus an MD and a couple of RN’s added to your permanent church staff. If you don’t think that unemployed people who are actively seeking work should receive any money from the federal government, then I presume your church has its own private Civilian Conservation Corps by which you hire unemployed people to work at a living wage to make improvements in your city. Instead of using “the church” as a talking point to argue that the government shouldn’t provide for the poor, why not first try to figure out how your church could take some of the load off of the government’s hands?

5) Capitalism fails the church when “helping” becomes a consumer product

One of the most prominent industries within the American church today is the “child sponsorship” industry where you pay a nominal amount of money per month to help make sure a brown skinny child from Africa, Asia, or Latin America has food and an education. A lot of good work is done through these child sponsorship organizations even if the motives of the sponsors are not always in the right place. I particularly feel good about the approach of World Vision that seeks to empower and take direction from the communities it serves instead of going in as the great white heroes. What was really sad to see was the way that ten thousand child sponsorships were dropped in two days to protest World Vision’s temporary and quickly reversed willingness to hire gay people on staff. As my friend Matthew Paul Turner wrote, “A child sponsorship is not a product that can be returned and exchanged for a different brand. There’s nothing ‘moral’ about using a kid as a bargaining chip to punish a Christian organization for making a decision that you don’t agree with.”

6) Capitalism fails the church when God is defined as a banker instead of a shepherd

The deepest encroachment of market-oriented thinking has occurred in American Christianity’s understanding of God’s nature. In popularized evangelicalism in particular, God has come to be defined first and foremost as a banker. The one underlying principle of the popular evangelical moral universe is that God cannot allow default on the debt of sin. So Jesus dies on the cross to pay back his banker Dad for the sins of the world. And those who don’t “believe” in Jesus pay God back by suffering forever in hell after they die. This “banker” account of God’s relationship to sin is very different than the “shepherd” account that we actually find in scripture. As a shepherd, God seeks to establish a kingdom of peace where swords can be bent into ploughshares among the community of repentant people who recognize their sins to be atoned by Christ’s sacrifice. Anyone who is excluded from this kingdom of peace would not be excluded on the basis of some kind of impersonal mathematical “debt,” but because God the shepherd is protecting his peaceful people from those who would sabotage their peace.

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About Morgan Guyton

I’m the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA.

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  • Cynthia Fearing

    Morgan,
    This post makes me think about Capitalism and myy consumerism mentality on many levels…glad you’re back writing again; missed you during your give-it-up-for-Lent season!
    grace,
    Cindy

    • MorganGuyton

      Thanks. Glad it helped.

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  • Kevin Daugherty

    “There’s a difference between the free market system itself and what might be called the worship of the market. It’s possible to navigate the free market system without worshiping the market.”

    This is something that gets to me, because it implies that a free market equals capitalism. Markets have basically existed under every economic system, and one could have a free market under non-capitalist systems. For example, many forms of libertarian socialism are market-based, such as mutualism.

    • MorganGuyton

      Very good point, Kevin! Thanks for speaking up.

  • summers-lad

    I would like to suggest a 7th, although it’s related to no. 3. Capitalism fails the church when worshippers become consumers and the church (or church service) is seen as a product. I have had a nagging concern for some years that an important, although hidden, reason why some (many?) people attend church is for entertainment. That could be good company, “club” membership, the music and/or the preaching, but it doesn’t include involvement or active commitment. One of the reasons I left the formal church over 3 years ago in favour of a small, organic church, was that I found myself increasingly out of sync with the performance-oriented Sunday services.
    Your no. 6 is powerful – a different way of looking at atonement, salvation and damnation. I like it.

    • MorganGuyton

      It definitely ends up being a performance that you give a tip for when the offering plate comes around.

      • summers-lad

        Now there’s a thing. In every Baptist church I have been in, the offering plate comes round before the sermon. In the Church of Scotland, it invariably comes after the sermon. I wonder what effect that has on tips!

      • summers-lad

        And a friend and I once visited a Methodist church in Wales. Although neither of us had been in that church (or that town) before, we were asked if we would take up the offering, which we did. I thought that was very welcoming.

  • John Hawthorne

    Morgan: My wife told me about this story on Marketplace: http://www.marketplace.org/topics/business/rick-warren-goes-global-more-mega-church-action. It’s the epitome of your #3 — Thumma even makes the McDonalds franchise reference.

    • MorganGuyton

      Wow. Sick!

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  • Jim

    Very interesting article. It resonates with me a great deal. The last one, however, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me since the image of the banker/debtor is one that the Bible uses, even though it’s presented as a Lord/Servant relationship. Consider the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) or the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

    I do agree that the banker/debtor or Lord/Servant image has been overused in the Western Church. I think prioritizing any one biblical image of God over all the others presents a problem, whether it’s a shepherd image or a banker/debtor image. Scripture presents God in a multifaceted way and we should preach and teach in the same way. Thanks for the article.

    • MorganGuyton

      When the debt of sin is talked about, it’s usually talked about in terms of ransom. We are slaves to sin whose freedom needs to be bought by Christ’s blood.

  • Larry Ready

    This article requires reflection, which will take a little time. At first blush however it seems to me to be a logically flawed question. The economic system of any time does not “serve” or “fail” the church. The church has thrived and has worked toward the kingdom under Communism in Poland and China. Capitalism seems to me similar to alcohol, i.e., not evil in and of itself but horribly so when abused.

    • MorganGuyton

      That’s why I made a distinction between the economic system and the ideologies and addictions spawned within it. Sure you can navigate the market without becoming an idolatrous consumer, but you have to be very alert to avoid it.

    • Phil McD

      And I would suggest 2 things, first the church often thrives most where it is reduced to it’s essence via persecution, pressure, and hostility. Sort of weird, sort of sad, but ultimately understandable as if one is being persecuted for the faith a lot of the ‘noise’ gets dispensed with quickly and folks get down to the true nature of the gospel.

      Second I think it’s important to make distinctions between capitalism which in america is corporatism and free-market capitalism. In free markets no bank is too big to fail, no business writes laws hands it to a lawmaker and has it passed at great expense to their competition, and no one is forced to purchase certain products nor banned from purchasing other products. America isn’t even capitalist per se but falls squarely under the header of corporatist or the joining of government and business interests. Capitalism exists in small ways, small pockets; the farmer’s market to a degree, the honey farmer whom sells honey by the quart via a sign in his yard. Free market capitalism only exist in america and most of the world via System D (hidden markets/black markets). Examples of this in america would be where a homeowner agrees to an off the books transaction to have a shed built or barter/trade agreements.

  • chanshi Chanda

    Hi Mathiew et all! There is a certain understanding of capitalism to this article that I cannot relate to and hence failing to follow the point. The very statement “capitalism fails the Church …” assumes a lot of things I need to know about. Is capitalism supposed to serve the Church? If so, in what sense? The theory and assumptions of capitalism vary depending with the person if enemy or friend of capitalism. I will read it more, maybe because I’m tired from an 8hr bus drive that I have a lot of questions running in my mind.

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  • Phil McD

    I couldn’t concur more with many of the assertions made here especially those points concerning the choosing of child/family activities at the expense of worship as well as the hypocrites whom seek freedom from taxation while being unwilling to support non-governmental means of providing those services. However I don’t think ‘capitalism’ means what Morgan Guyton thinks it means. Capitalism is briefly defined as an economic and governmental system whereby the means of production and capital are privately owned and managed in lieu of state ownership. Even capitalism as defined above or by Merriam Webster’s dictionary is quite different from free-market capitalism of which I am a proponent. At this point I would simply point that these failures can’t be because of free-market capitalism as american markets aren’t free but are highly regulated, deeply skewed via currency manipulation, and are further warped via corporatism or mild fascism whereby corporations are writing laws to crush smaller competition, using government to influence markets, etc.

    I’ll try to be brief but…

    I would first suggest that all ‘six ways that capitalism fails the church’ aren’t failures of capitalism at all but are spiritual problems. As such I would take a moment to say that if we lived in a communist system the same would still be true if (BIG IF) we all willfully in a non-coerced manner existed under said communist system. The issue of consumerism is wrapped in with children’s sports, activities, etc which I think is a poor example as it’s quite easy to ride through the neighborhood post-Christmas and view consumerism in all it’s glory via curbside trash pickup. I’ll assume by consumerism Morgan means the ‘consumer-culture’ that is the modern U.S. which is perhaps personified by the phrase, ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. This has nothing to do with capitalism but is a societal/spiritual problem. I would suggest that Amish communities practice capitalism just as various communes do as well as readily available examples within and outside of mainstream religious culture whom practice capitalism but aren’t consumerist. Blaming the poor choices of individual believers or large swaths of believers upon the availability of activities, entertainment, and consumables is a lot like blaming spoons for making one obese or marriage for spousal abuse. Association does not equal causation, availability does not necessitate consumption. I doubt Morgan would suggest that individuals, families, organizations, etc. participate in disaster relief due to the presence of shovels or backhoes. No, all non-coerced activities take place due to the decisions of individuals and groups. If the above statement is true then consumerism can’t exist because of the availability of consumables. Thus the guilt for consumerism rightly falls upon the shoulders of decision makers.

    Thanks for letting me share

    • MorganGuyton

      My contention is that there are forces that are naturally generated by the free market that we have to be very alert to and cautious about or else we get sucked in and turned into zombie consumers. It’s like when you go to the beach and the current naturally pushes you 200 feet to the north while you’re in the water. Capitalism isn’t neutral; it has a current that we need to compensate for. That isn’t to say communism is better. It’s just saying don’t go on autopilot.

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