Shopping for the Glory of God
by MARTI ZIMMERMAN*
- A gallon of gas: $2.25;
- A gallon of milk: $3.25;
- A gallon of bottled water: $5;
- A gallon of Starbuck’s coffee: $30.
Cash registers go “Ca-ching.” Listening to those cash registers has long been part of women’s lives as they shop for necessities of their families’ lives. Around the world, women daily head to markets to trade products they grow and craft and to buy and sell goods. The market is where women gather.
The Apostle Paul preached the Good News in the marketplace. Lydia sold purple cloth in the marketplace to finance the mission of the early church. Some of today’s fastest growing churches meet in storefronts.
Jesus knew the power of shopping and money. For example, in Matthew 6:21, Jesus reminds his followers: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
He spoke often about the role money plays in spiritual growth. Jesus’ disciples were cautioned not to let material goods take center stage. As followers of Christ, we must make sure our spiritual values undergird our shopping choices.
Shopping malls, like earlier marketplaces, are designed to draw people. Research shows the longer you stay in a place, the more comfortable you feel and the more apt you are to make purchases. McDonald’s is remodeling many of its stores to add what is known as the “Starbucks’ touch”: wireless Internet access, reading chairs, even fireplaces to encourage folks to stick around and spend more.
While shopping has long been part of women’s work, those who live in the industrialized world today, on average, have access to more money and purchasing power than women at anytime in history. Family heirlooms once precious for their beauty and rarity, gather dust in homes filled with stuff.
Many of us grew up with one pair of Sunday shoes and the anticipation of a new Easter outfit we would wear to church for the rest of the year.
Today, as we look into our closets, we wonder how the once reviled Philippine dictator’s wife, Imelda Marcos, and her excessive collection of shoes got into our homes.
We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” and “lead us not into temptation.” Then we go shopping.
Shopping has become more than a means to meet family needs. It is a pastime, a way of life, a belief system in which many find meaning.
Our culture of advertising prom-ises wholeness and happiness if we purchase this car or that home. Credit-card debt at record highs would suggest we are a satisfied people, but research indicates we are less happy than folks in the 1950s whose houses were smaller yet they didn’t need to have yard sales to remove piles of clutter.
No matter how much we buy — the number of resale shops and weekly pick-ups by Goodwill Industries indicate we buy a lot — our stuff does not satisfy hungry hearts. The good life has become the goods life, but we yearn for something deeper.
What were dreams or wants in the 1940s are now considered needs. Shared party-line phones have been replaced by cell phones with each family member having one. One black-and-white television watched by the whole family together has been replaced by televisions in the family room, the kitchen, bedrooms, even bathrooms. Fifty-three percent of kids ages 6-17 have TVs in their bedrooms exposing them to about 20,000 advertisements a year. DVD players in cars keep children amused and quiet.
In the 1950s, families shared one bathroom and one car. Now, many children first encounter roommates and shared baths upon entering college dormitory life.
Consumer culture thrives because it taps into a deep spiritual need: desire. Desire is part of the way God created us. To be human, we need food, shelter, clothing and meaning.
Consumer products are pitched through advertising that claims these products can meet deep needs. And advertising creates new needs.
Shopping is not a sin, but shopping without checking our values is. Resolution No. 361 in The United Methodist Book of Resolutions, 2004, entitled “Privatization,” says:
“One of our values as Christians is to provide an economy that services God’s vision of abundance to all.”
To learn to shop for the glory of God, ask these questions as part of your spiritual discipline:
Where did the item come from?
We live in a global economy. Most things we purchase have made long trips, thanks to cheap petroleum and shipping costs. Workers around the world, especially the poor, are forced to compete to produce items at the cheapest prices. We love bargains but must be aware that bargain shopping is related to globalization.
When you shop, take time to check labels. Then learn about the lives and working conditions of those who are producing your goods.
While impoverished families in Indonesia or China may be better off than they would be without the work, what kind of working conditions must they endure? Do their governments enforce environmental and worker-safety laws?
We are called to value workers, whether in the United States or far away. For example, buying food from a local farmers’ market shows you value U.S. rural life and its work ethic. When we purchase fair-trade coffee or tea, we value independent farmers in Central America or Africa, knowing that fewer middle people allow farm families to keep more of the profits from their work.
Do I need this or want it?
Items that once were luxuries are now in the need category. A choice to buy something means not funding something else. When I buy a jacket that’s on sale even though I have a jacket, I make a values choice. I have decided my wardrobe is more important than something else. Often that something else is a mission project or ministry of my church.
We are faced with similar choices when we shop for others. Research shows gifts for teens in the electronic age cost on average several hundred dollars. If you ask your children or grandchildren what gift you gave them last year, do they remember? Did your gift promote relationships or learning, or did it encourage selfishness?
One grandfather recently told me the gifts he gives are “grand adventures” — trips to build relationships and strengthen bonds with his grandchildren.
I challenged members of the congregation I pastor to open Joseph Accounts. In Hebrew Scripture when Joseph hears Pharaoh’s dream of future drought and economic hardship, he recommends saving 20 percent of the harvest during good times to prepare for the hard days to come. We know hard days will come, and we know paying college tuition and buying homes are becoming more luxury than norm for young adults.
Joseph Accounts recognize these realities. They help teach children and youth to save and invest 20 percent of Christmas and birthday money toward financing future dreams. People in Joseph’s day likely grumbled about giving up food in the good times, but Joseph’s plan saved the nation from starvation and his family from death.
Setting up Joseph Accounts is a way of speaking back to a consumer culture set on overspending and accumulating too many things. In the United States and other developed nations, it is a time of unprecedented economic activity. Compared to most of the world, and even our not too distant ancestors, we live richly.
Internationally, annual retail sales are a $9 trillion business, according to an article by Kate Betts in Time: Style & Design magazine. Many around the world spend long days in the hot sun tilling fields or in freezing barns tending livestock; working extended hours in factories or mines earning barely enough when times are good to provide food and shelter for their families.
For those with money, there are infinite consumer choices about what to eat, wear and drive, and where to live and travel.
Affluence feels good. Most people of the world would like their share.
To keep up with the Joneses in the 1950s meant knowing our neighbors and their spending habits. Today, fewer people know their neighbors or their neighbors’ spending habits, so consumer culture is transmitted through advertisements, including subtle promotions like product placement in movies and TV shows and marketers entering online chat rooms as “just folks” then pushing products.
More questions to ask
Consider these questions before you go to the mall or shop online:
- Do you have a budget?
- Do you pay off your credit cards each month?
- Are you working toward living debt free by paying off loans?
- Do you have emergency savings for when your car breaks down, when your job disappears, when your health-care costs are more than expected?
- Do you have a savings plan for your retirement?
- Minor changes in lifestyle can add up to savings over the long haul. Eating at home more, taking your lunch to work and skipping daily cups of specialty coffee can save money.
Another question to ask is: What happens to your purchases when you are through with them?
Think about whether or not items can be reused or recycled. Items with longevity and multiple uses are good choices. Items that will quickly look dated or are designed to wear out quickly are not good choices.
Another final key question when shopping for the glory of God: What does your purchase say about your relationship with God?
We who have much are invited by Jesus to respond to God’s good gifts by sharing much. Shopping carefully so you can fund mission and ministries with women, children and youth around the world is a gift to God. Shopping for the lonely and left out of our society is a gift to God.
There is life in the material abundance we have received. With abundance, we have more than enough to sustain ourselves. We are called to live out of our abundance and share it with others. When we shop, we should love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.
The choices we make reflect our values. The power of our consumer choices impacts more people than we know. Our relationship with God and our neighbors is strengthened when we consider examples of spending and giving that model Christian values.
Let us shop for the glory of God.