By Derek Penwell
I read stories about all these congregations doing amazing things, launching new programs to pair homeless people with vacant properties, rallying around a harassed Islamic community, creating wonderful spaces for prayer and meditation, gleaning food from local producers to feed the hungry. I’m grateful these congregations take their faith seriously enough to actually find new and creative ways of living it out. But seeing the wealth of creativity some churches demonstrate can be discouraging if you feel like you’re a part of a congregation that doesn’t seem to have the resources to do wonderful, Ted Talk kind of stuff.
I recently went to a conference, sponsored by the Center for Progressive Renewal, at which we discussed trend lines in the culture that the church should being paying attention to. One of the trend lines is the sharing economy.
The sharing economy is predicated on the assumption that we create or increase value by partnering with others to share our resources. Uber, a ride sharing service, for instance, matches people who have cars with people who need rides. By paying you, who doesn’t have the overhead of a taxi company, for a ride, I get a cheaper means of conveyance, and you get money to give me space in your car that would be otherwise go unoccupied. Pretty slick, right?
The only way that a sharing economy works, however, is if there’s trust that what we’re doing isn’t trying to figure out ways to take advantage of each other—which is, of course, exactly what our capitalist systems assumes. In the predominant paradigm of the twentieth century—the Industrial economy—value is created by producing stuff, and then convincing as many people as possible that they need to buy it at prices that maximize profits. Under such an arrangement, because maximizing profits is the engine that drives the economic system, we need to enter into contractual agreements because I feel that I have no choice but to suppose that, given half a chance, you’re going to screw me. I may not know how at this point, but I’m pretty sure that’s the likely outcome.
In a sharing economy, on the other hand, I begin with a different set of assumptions—namely, that we participate in a different kind of arrangement in which generosity, instead of self-interest, is the way to create value. In this system maximizing profit isn’t the driving force, but the belief that participating in a system built on trust, which benefits everyone, is both more satisfying and sustainable. That trust is built on a continued demonstration of my commitment to maintaining a relationship with you that supersedes my desire to angle for an advantage. In other words, I must show that I’m in this not just to get something from you, but because I believe a culture of generosity is more beneficial to everyone, and that if you trust me, you’re more likely to want to continue a mutually beneficial relationship.
One aspect of the sharing economy in particular, though, that has wonderful and life altering implications for the church is the assumption that you share what you have, not what you think you should have. That is to say, in a culture of generosity we begin with the belief that everyone has gifts to share. You share your gifts; I share my gifts; and together we create something valuable that affirms the dignity and worth of both of us. I don’t have to have your gifts to be successful, because you already have them. I don’t have to be Checker Cab to contribute; I just have to be willing to use the car I have.
Unfortunately, because of the way things currently stand, too many congregations waste time worrying that—at least as they’re presently constituted—they have nothing of value to share. So, rather than spending time perfecting and sharing the gifts they do possess, they expend priceless energy worrying that they don’t have somebody else’s gifts. The problem with mega church culture isn’t that congregations are big, but (at least in part) that bigness is used as the de facto standard by which we measure faithfulness.
But what about this?
- What if congregations gave up the illusion that there’s something out there that, if they could just get their hands on it, would make them everyone’s first choice for the ecclesiastical prom?
- What if congregations started figuring out what they already have, worked to perfect it, then offered it up to the world in a reckless demonstration of generosity?
- What if we started to view the gifts God has given us as sufficient to do the work God has for us, instead of standing around and complaining that God hasn’t given us enough to work with to do really “important” stuff?
- What if we got lost not in what we aren’t, but in what we could be if we ever chose to make our own little corner of the world a haven of welcome and grace?
- What if we stopped worrying about whether our gifts will provide any benefit to us (e.g., more young families, bigger budgets, new Christian aerobics classrooms, etc.), and just give them away so that others might benefit from them?
But why would we do that?
Let me propose a simple but radically subversive, turn-the-world-on-its-head kind of answer: Because that’s what Jesus told us to do.