Recently, an Evangelical minister promised a money back guarantee to his congregation: that if they did not receive blessings in their lives, they could have their tithe back. This sparked a fury of commentaries from Christians everywhere—sarcastic and funny responses about the fact that everything is a blessing and that this guy was totally missing the point. While I’m not sure any other pastor has previously offered such a guarantee, this concept is unfortunately not new. We are bombarded with a “prosperity gospel” in the evangelical world and its popularity is evident.
As usual, Christianity is its own worst enemy. We have created, and continue to foster, a consumer culture in our church. People feel as though they are paying for a product—whether it’s religious education, programs that the church supports or provides, the expectation of good preaching (which should be a reasonable expectation, but unfortunately isn’t always the case), a Mass or group that makes them feel good—whatever it is they are in the market for. And, you can’t blame them—society is extremely consumeristic—but we, the Church—whether Catholic or prosperity gospel hockers—are partly responsible for this attitude.
How do we do it?
Many Churches have taken to using very corporate language (I’ve even heard higher-ups refer to parishioners as “customers”), some withhold services from parishioners who don’t contribute to the collection (or at least use envelopes), some have adopted policies that are so businesslike, they completely remove the Christian spirit from their work (which should be ministry, by the way) and some preach a reward system (like “pray this way” or “live this way” and you’ll get what you want).
How do we undo it?
We need to remember that our faith is not a business contract. In our personal lives, we need to begin each day with the awareness that everything we have is a gift and that God never promised that if we have a relationship with God that nothing bad will ever happen to us. In fact, we’re promised the opposite. Persecution, failure and suffering are a given if you’re in an authentic relationship with God. Even when Jesus assures the Apostles that everything they gave up for him they would eventually get back he doesn’t pretend it’s all going to be fine:
“Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.” (Mk 10: 29-30)
As a Church, we have to invite people into deeper relationship with God by living justice, compassion and mercy, helping them to know what they “get out of it” is a call to serve. We are given the responsibility to love our enemies, pray for our persecutors and bear suffering patiently (that’s in the Bible—good luck finding the “prosperity gospel” in there, though). We are also given God, and everything that belongs to God—but don’t hold your breath waiting for it in this life.
If money or material goods are what people are in relationship with God for, they’re missing out on the real gift. We had just better make sure that we’re not the ones leading them into that wrong thinking. And we certainly shouldn’t be offering any money back guarantees.