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2010-01-04 issue:

How affluenza affects the church

3 ways our affluence gets in the way of who we should be

by Will Schirmer

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Spiritual health warning: There is a condition on the rise in our congregations that, though it does not have the telltale signs of SARS or the publicity of H1N1, it has made its presence known. It's called affluenza.

The degrees of infection vary, and while some churches may have it more than others, a few may not suffer from it at all. Affluenza describes the influence that affluence has had on church members and ultimately their congregations.

The church is the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:14-16, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). When one part of the body is broken or ill, the whole does not function well (1 Corinthian 12:26), and when it is healthy, it flourishes. Sometimes health can be misunderstood. In our society, it is seen as a good thing to obtain wealth, achieve a certain level of status, and prosper. Is this a bad thing?

Does our church life stray away from the values Jesus gave us, as we lean toward a societal pursuit of convenience and comfort to maintain our lifestyles?

I'm not implying it's wrong to have nice church buildings, comfortable furniture or even pads on the pews. But sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, we let our affluence get in the way of who we should be. I see this happening three ways:

We focus on what we have

Does our conversation become preoccupied with our possessions—our house, car, work or recent vacation? Do we talk mostly about the things we have and what we do? Or do we focus on the issues of the kingdom of God? God has blessed us individually to varying degrees. Do we focus on the blessing or the Blesser?

I don't like it when conversations are dominated by talk about material things. I've been a have-not, and it makes me feel like I'm not part of the group if I can't afford or can't do what others are talking about. Other times I have been a have, and I catch myself rambling and need to remember to be sensitive to others in the group.

When we talk about the stuff in our lives, we're not building relationships, we're building walls. When we talk about ourselves, we alienate. When we address the needs of others, we welcome and speak to the soul. When we include others, we build our community of faith.
1 Timothy 6 has an interesting perspective on what we have, what place it should occupy in our lives and what we should pursue.

We focus on what we want

It is part of human nature that no matter how much we have, we always want more. This want is fueled by the consumer-oriented media. We are pummeled with ads for flat-screen TVs and which cable company has the most stations and fastest Internet speed. There is always a newer, more advanced camera or cell phone that makes the current device obsolete. As someone has said: "We buy stuff we don't need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t know or even like."

What does God want for us? Does he want us to constantly change at the pace our world is evolving? We are told often in Psalms and Proverbs to seek God's wisdom. God wants us to improve ourselves, grow and mature. That is what we should pursue as children of God, along with a closer relationship with God and each other.

We focus on ourselves
All this focus on stuff is based in a focus on ourselves. The stuff is for our enjoyment.

But this focus extends to personal attitudes, our knowledge and our self-image, whether it is too low—and we compensate for it by being overbearing or obnoxious—or too high—and we let other people know by looking down on them.

We've heard the term navel gazing. We look at our belly buttons so much we can’t see the world around us. Then what good are we? We can't see where we’re going, and we step into all kinds of trouble.

I attended a gathering at which someone talked about how we are blessed in our region, how we are a church-oriented society, how that is part of our culture. This person wanted another's opinion about the sinful nature of the people on the other side of the country, how they are suffering for their sins while we are being blessed.

I had to confront what I perceived as arrogance. I said we are not any better than other people, that being a "church-oriented society" does not make us any holier and may even inoculate us from our sinful nature, and therefore we don't address our own pride.

When I asked what he thought, he said, "I'm not buying any of this."

We buy into opinions about ourselves and how we compare with others. By our own standards, we are somewhere between doing OK and being God's favored people in the community, nation or world.

Our pastor once preached about the analogy of God being the potter and we the clay and how God shapes us into the best we can be. The only reason we are good at being anything is because God has transformed us into what we are. How are we going to be the best God can make us if we are fixated on our own standards, our own stuff or spend our time navel gazing?

Here are some self-examination questions concerning affluenza that we can ask ourselves without even making a doctor's appointment:

• In our fellowship, do we talk about ourselves or listen to others?
• Do we associate with people who are going to provide something for us or improve our status, or do we spend time with people who need our help or time?
• Do we spend more time talking about our televisions, cars or other stuff, or do we share about the blessings in our relationship with God and others?
• Do we pursue items and places that help us grow or ones that just entertain us?
• Do we feel God is calling us to go beyond our comfort zones to places and situations we would normally avoid?

Take a look in the mirror and see if you have any visible signs of affluenza. Look into your eyes and your heart. Look in the Scriptures and ask God for insight into your condition.

It's flu season, and people are getting their flu shots. Affluenza season is all year round. Let's get our spiritual immunity up and prepare to fight off this illness before it makes us sick.

Will Schirmer is the author of Reaching Beyond the Mennonite Comfort Zone. He attends Towamencin Mennonite Church in Kulpsville, Pa.

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