For all the criticism of evangelical opulence – it’s palatial megachurches and crass prosperity gospel – the truth is that most evangelical churches remain humble and relatively small. One 2017 analysis of Lifeway data showed that the overwhelming majority of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention reported less than 250 in average weekly attendance. The average evangelical church is still solidly middle class, and given the effects of the Big Sort upon middle class life, it’s fair to wonder how much of that middle class is still aspirant. Not only are most of their churches modest, so are their incomes. As evangelicals have moved into the middle class, they have struggled to know what they should do with their money, as witnessed by the popularity of financial self-help gurus like Larry Burkett and Dave Ramsey.
So it’s not a surprise when a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic comes along and forces us to retreat back to a spirit of minimalism. Evangelicals have been nurtured in this soil by both our theology and our lived experiences. Indeed, books like David Platt’s Radical are able to garner attention not because they depart so aggressively from evangelical culture, but instead because they logically extend it.
This reveals a contradiction at the heart of the missionary impulse in modern American evangelicalism. The truth is that evangelical minimalism has often rested upon the back of global capitalism while trying to convince itself that it can move beyond its confines. In that sense, the American missionary impulse, no matter how well-intended, is able to call forth a certain radicalism because it rests on the backs of an established entrepreneurial class.
Here evangelicalism mimics the radical turn of the 1960s, when the progeny of the establishment turned in fury upon its elders. A quick visit to an evangelical college campus will find the children of a comfortable middle class eager to leave a life of perceived luxury for the mission field. That these young people were often raised in the faith by churches and parachurch ministries funded by the very wealth they eschew does not often enter their frame.
Evangelicals are not strangers to competing notions of economics and personal finance. Before our parents took cues from Dave Ramsey, they were subscribers to Larry Burkett. Before David Platt called us all to radical living, John Piper was asking Christians to live on less for the sake of missions. Before Shane Claiborne proposed a new monasticism, Ron Sider had strong words for rich Christians.
These various streams have their own unique characteristics but in all cases they suggest that American Evangelicals should be happy to get by on less – yet they have failed to account for the fact that their ability to make such a claim rested on a strong foundation of capitalist work ethic. Should COVID-19 linger on long enough to create further economic damage, this is a message that is likely to have increasing resonance.
I would like to propose another way. In the midst of saving and downsizing, it is time to consider spending more on higher-priced goods that can be found from quality sources in local stores—which will also mean buying fewer goods. This is an idea that has had circulation for a while in other circles (see this interview with the great G. Bruce Boyer and a more recent piece from Michael Williams at his excellent site A Continuous Lean).
The call to save more and spend more while ultimately buying less is at odds with recent evangelical rhetoric. David Platt’s call to live radically suggested families could survive on roughly $50,000, but this suggestion is almost impossible apart from making purchases drawn from the developing world. Those purchases are fine insofar as they help those countries move out of grinding poverty, and I largely agree that these exchanges have provided real benefits to workers around the world.
But not always: the truth is that few of us – myself included – ever take the time to sort through which purchases are humanely sourced, and which are not. While economies of scale help reduce cost for both producers and consumers, we can surmise that cheaper products are more likely to be made in less than favorable conditions.
These calls to minimalism are too quick to dismiss man as homo economicus, as a creature made by God to work and not merely to produce widgets. While it is right to remind one another that we are all more than the result of our daily “getting and spending,” it is also true that our economic choices bind us to something, either personal or impersonal, local or far away. By limiting our expensive purchases to local stores selling quality work from better craftspeople, we allow our purchases to bind us to a network of mutual support instead of another data point in the global supply chain.
There has been a lot of talk in recent months about the need to restore American manufacturing. While I agree that the most pertinent parts of America’s supply lines need to have stronger domestic capabilities, I have sincere doubts that American manufacturing is going to return to its post-World War II salad days. In fact we should be mindful that the return of all American manufacturing would create political and economic hazards throughout the developing world that would likely be worse than our current predicament. Instead, there are a couple of things that families, churches, and communities can do.
First and foremost, we can make a renewed effort to understand the nature of manufacturing in the developing world. We will likely have varying convictions of what constitutes fair wages and tolerable working conditions, but there are some redlines we can uphold. The recent news that several American companies are using Chinese factories rumored to be staffed by Uighur captives is the most glaring and disturbing example. Wisdom is needed here. In some cases, workers in the third world may, as opposed to no work at all, tolerate working conditions that would repel many Americans, but we also recognize that cheap labor often carries with it dangerous and unfavorable working conditions.
The second opportunity is equally challenging but perhaps a bit more fun for adults. Very simply, as I noted above, we should save and then spend. In the course of normal adult life, men need suits, dress shoes, and neck ties. Women need dresses. We all need outerwear, luggage, and bags of various sorts for work and recreation. Homes require furniture.
As superficial as it may initially seem, we should value these things more than we do. That means saving and spending more to acquire these items. It means caring for and maintaining these pieces so that they stay with us for a very long time. While it’s true that earnings are limited for many young parents – mine certainly are! – I believe there can be important symbolism in just a handful of household items pulled together over time.
Take for example the staple piece of a man’s wardrobe, the navy blazer. You can find one most anywhere, and for men on a budget, the options are endless, including consignment shops and eBay where one is likely to find very high quality for relatively low investment. But suppose you need a new one without the energy to scour every thrift shop in town. By saving up and spending more on a piece made in America by Southwick, Oxxford, Hardwick, or Hart Schaffner & Marx, you establish in your own mind that this item is not disposable. You care for it, treat it well, and maybe pass it on when your son or another young man in your life has a need for it.
It’s also likely that such a jacket is acquired through a local business, or at least through the sort of national brand, like J. Press or Brooks Brothers (if they’re still in business), that still maintains a significant presence within American manufacturing. In any case, you’ve begun to close off yourself from big box retailers and the allure of fast, disposable fashion.
Children’s clothes present a great challenge, but thrift and consignment stores can help tremendously as families reduce their dependence on giant corporate retail while creating space in the family budget. And in any case, the goal here is not perfection, but a general recalibration of the way we approach spending on long-term purchases.
It must never be a mark of Christian faithfulness to become brand obsessive and spend copious amounts of money on clothes, luggage, and furniture. We can all live meaningful lives without these things. At the same time, these are purchases that most adults must inevitably make, and by rejecting fast, immediate solutions to these necessary parts of life, we can better understand the value of our purchases and reintegrate ourselves back into the small businesses and craftsmen that define the character of our broader communities and push against the leveling tendencies at work within the modern world.
For too long, evangelicals have regarded the physical world with aloofness at best and disdain at worst. That was, and remains, an understandable posture for families and congregations lacking material abundance, but the end result has been a sort of material nihilism. It has brought churches that, quite purposefully, look like anodyne office parks and grown men preaching in sneakers and undersized golf shirts. As coronavirus forces upon us a national conversation about the cost of cheaper goods and services, it falls to us to make better choices where we can. We cannot return to the 1950s, but we can slowly adjust our savings and spending in a way that treats household items as investments instead of disposable tools to be acquired at the cheapest possible price.
Grace must always be the guidestone of our families and Christian communities, and no one should view a new tweed jacket or benchmade shoes as a fruit of the Spirit. Yet investing in the social fabric of our communities is not limited to our time; it can and should mean to invest our money, as well.