This is a series (of sorts) in which I’m seeking to address a few harmful tendencies in the American church. Past posts in the series are here:
Americans, in general, place a great deal of value on the notion of the individual. We worship independence, glory in self-reliance, and concern ourselves chiefly with our own personal profit and pleasure. Following are just a few practical suggestions towards combatting our culture of individualism:
- When making decisions, try to think about others involved or affected. You’re not the only one with feelings; nor are you an island. An ability to grasp what others might be feeling is enough to begin the process of becoming a less selfish person. If it’s difficult in the beginning, start with this phrase or one like it: “What do you think?” In time, you might need to ask less often.
- Don’t always insist on your way — actually, rarely insist on your way. Going out to dinner? Is it your birthday or a celebration of your retirement? Choose the restaurant. If not, take pleasure in letting others have what they want. If you get into one of those situations where no one will say, don’t hesitate to give your opinion — but that’s a far cry from pushing your own desires. The key, I think, is finding pleasure in others getting what they want.
- Think about how much time and money you spend making yourself comfortable. Match even a percentage of that in making others comfortable — namely the poor in your community. You spend $25 going out to dinner? Automatically put $5 (20%) in a fund to buy food for the homeless. You dropped $40 for your family to go to a movie? $8 goes into an envelope to take someone else’s kids to a ball game — kids who don’t get to go to ballgames, that is. [I hear people say things like, “If you don’t have enough money to tip the waitstaff, you don’t have enough money to eat out.” And I agree. But I wish we would say, “If you don’t have enough money to tip the waitstaff and give an additional 20% of the total bill to a homeless shelter or a poor family, you don’t have enough money to eat out.”]
- Do the same with your time. You spend 8 hours one day mowing your lawn, carefully manicuring your yard, or putting up Christmas decorations? Spend one hour trimming a neighbor’s hedges, or planting flowers at a housing project in town. You allot an hour per night for watching TV? Spend 10 minutes talking to an employee at Wal-mart who is often overlooked and rarely spoken to.
- Share with others that which brings you pleasure. If you go fishing every Saturday in your bass boat, take a father and son with you that wouldn’t have the chance otherwise — and pay for their fishing licenses. Running relaxes you and keeps you healthy? Offer to train a couple of neighbors for their first 5k, and then pay their entry fees.
- Pledging to spend on others a fraction of the time and money we spend on pleasuring ourselves will make us ever mindful of just how many of our resources are used in the name of “relaxing” or “entertainment.” Because now it will cost something; not that it doesn’t already cost something, but we’ll start to take notice of just what it costs. We’ll begin to understand how much good is not being done because we enjoy our movies, nice clothes, bass boats, and manicured lawns.
- Do without something, just to know what it’s like. Give up sleeping in a bed for week. Go without hot water for two. Don’t turn on your television this month. Walk, ride a bike, or take a bus everywhere you go for a couple of days. You going without will not in itself help others. But you learning empathy will. When you understand the difficulties others have, you’ll desire more to help.
- Think about church in terms of 1) what you can give to other Christians and 2) what your church can do for the community. Don’t choose a church by how it makes you feel, or what you “get from it.”
- Choose a church by the community in which you live. Your church should be an outreach to your community. Does it make sense for me to drive 45 minutes to be a part of a group that is supposed to exist in order to reach those in its community? Do I live or work in that community? Can I realistically help in expanding the kingdom in that area of town? Is it the wisest use of my membership?
- When choosing a church, consider how you can use the gifts the Spirit has given you to build up the body of Christ in that location. You were given your gifts in order to bring the church to maturity — so that it can accomplish God’s goals in the community. Go somewhere you can contribute to church unity and maturity.
- I don’t think it’s practical to ask people not to buy new clothes. But we could commit to give away one of whatever we buy new. If you buy a pair of shoes, give away an old pair. If you buy a new jacket, your old one goes to Goodwill. This may not prevent us from spending money to keep up with fashion, but it will ensure we’re not hoarding more than we can (or do) use.
- Turn all the coat hangers in your closet backwards. After you wear an article, return it to the closet with the hanger facing the right way. At the end of a year, give away every item on a backwards-facing hanger.
- Ask others for help. Yes, maybe you can do it yourself. But there’s a lot to be said for learning not to be self-reliant. Don’t take pride in your own power and resources — or your own ability to meet your needs. People need one another, and we ought to practice asking for help.
- Reject that which you hear in church which is predominantly self-help and only such. There’s nothing wrong with getting out of debt or having children who make good grades. But the gospel is so much more than that. I’m afraid many of us are missing out on God’s mission because we’re too busy trying to live socially well-adjusted, stress-free, and not-addicted-to-nicotine lives.
- Think about all you do in terms of God’s glory. My life is not a thing in and of itself. Rather it is a tool through which God can be glorified. And my life is not my own, but is merely a member of a larger life — the body of Christ. My actions reflect on more than me, and they affect more than me.
- Above all, pray that God will make you a selfless person. Pray that he will bless you with an ability to think of others’ needs — and an ability to meet those needs. Pray that God will grant you joy in giving to others, and contentment in what you already have.
- Oh, and take care of your baby daughter so Chri — eh, your wife — can get some sleep.