Many people subscribe to phone services, cable TV, razor blades, magazines, even snack foods – but why not a faith subscription that feeds us and the world?
Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.
– Matthew 10:9-10
An online friend drew my attention this morning to a Web site called Frugaling, which offers helpful tips to living a good life without a lot of material goods. Mind you, many people have no choice but to do this – jobs are tough to come by for many people, and so young adults especially are getting used to the idea that “good times” are the times that you are given.
I find this to be one of the most hopeful things about young adults today – it’s not that there isn’t the usual consumer culture out there to tempt us, but there seems to be a fundamental disconnect from a lot of what companies try to sell and younger people who are trying to find more value and meaning in their lives without spending a lot of money. But there’s a catch – you have to know what’s worth spending your money on, and how.
Are you over-subscribed to the wrong culture?
You see, there’s this thing called the subscription culture. We subscribe to lots of things, typically – many people subscribe to a mobile phone plan of one kind or another, and of course there is widespread subscription to cable and satellite TV services, Internet services, maybe even magazines, books and newspapers. When I buy certain supplies online, sometimes a checkbox on the ordering form invites me to buy that product on a subscription basis for a slight discount.
Many companies have sprung up to offer all sorts of goods on a subscription basis – razor blades, hand-crafted snack foods – you name it, there’s a subscription for it, these days. Clever people come up with ways to make many of these new goods and services look “minimalist” – simple graphics, natural packaging, and such – but if it’s not what you need, it’s not minimalist!
Sometimes subscriptions save us money on things that we need – but, more often than not, our subscriptions are designed to get us to spend more money on things that we really don’t need or want. When you buy a mobile phone plan, are you buying just the communications services that you use, or are you buying extra services that you are afraid that you’ll be overcharged for if you use too much?
Cable and satellite TV services and many streaming video services have hundreds of channels or series to choose from, only a handful of which are likely to be ones that you’ll use, typically, but sometimes we get them anyway because we’re afraid of what life might be like without the ones that we want. Subscription food boxes may have all sorts of “hand-picked” yummy foods for you, but how many of them are you actually going to eat? And that subscription box of clothes or toiletries – really?
One subscription at a time, we subscribe not only to goods and services, but a culture. We subscribe to the idea that having worldly things in excess of what we need is a priority for feeling that we are acceptable people.
Subscribing to a cultural reversal
Well, the folks at Frugaling came up with a very clever tongue-in-cheek idea to get us to think about this. They call it the “ByeBox“:
When you subscribe to ByeBox, you receive nothing but a cardboard box and a piece of paper. Isn’t that revolutionary and minimal!? And there’s no need to be careful when carrying the box into your house, as there’s nothing to break…Written on the 8.5 by 11-inch paper is a simple request: “Pick something from your house that you once wanted/desired, but no longer find enjoyment or need. Place it in box and ship it back to ByeBox for another empty box!” It’s just that simple!
That makes a pretty clear picture, doesn’t it? It gets to the core of what makes our subscription culture feel so comfortable. We can get lulled into the feeling that all of these things appearing on our doorsteps or on our screens are like gifts – we don’t even have to think about trying to get something, it’s going to come anyway! But what if we subscribed to another gift culture – the culture of giving away the things that really don’t feed us or nurture us, not only physical goods, but the spiritual baggage that weighs us down?
Discipleship = subscription holiness
Sounds great, right? Well, it is – it’s a way of life that removes the junk, beefs up the stuff that matters, and keeps us strong and peaceful in the middle of life’s struggles. It’s the best gift that we can ever have – it’s called faith. The problem is, many people approach faith on an “impulse buy” basis – they get the spiritual munchies, gorge on the Bible, or self-help books, or the latest guru, or whatever, until the pangs go away – at least until the next time that they need some strength. That’s not a very efficient way to run your spiritual budget – and it leaves many people spiritually bankrupt. It’s not a way of life – it’s just a way of comforting ourselves, which is about taking, not giving or receiving spiritual gifts on a consistent basis as the core of a healthy spiritual budget.
Subscribing to faith is like subscribing to other things from a number of perspectives. First, we have to contribute gifts regularly to receive gifts regularly. Subscriptions are a disciplined approach to purchasing goods and services, and there’s a faith equivalent to this – it’s called discipleship. You see, the words “discipline” and “disciple” have the same root meaning – both are about regularity, commitment, and the gifts that come from them. If you have a gym membership subscription, and you go to it regularly, then chances are you’re going to get the gift of better health. If you attend church regularly, study the bible with others and pray with others regularly, offer your time, treasure and talents to your community and your faith family regularly – you’re going to get the gift of spiritual health. Just like that gym membership, there’s no guarantee that you’ll come out with “six-pack abs” faith, but it pays for itself in the long run.
You can see from Jesus’ sending out of his disciples into the mission of his ministries in the above quote from Matthew that they were expected to be “spiritually buff” – they traveled very light in terms of worldly gifts, bringing only what they needed for the day, trusting that their working in faith would bring its own rewards. Jesus’ disciples had the Executive Club subscription to holiness – their lives had the gifts of God in abundance every day, days which proved to be challenging for them. Many endured deaths of stoning and crucifixion for their willingness to proclaim Jesus’ way to the world. That was a huge price to pay in terms of this world – but their subscription plan was very cost-effective for their souls and for the world inspired by their holiness. Their community shared the price of faith together, and received the gifts of faith together, knowing that through faith, the world was already eternally rich through God’s shared kingdom living.
Tithing – what’s your basic faith subscription package?
So, what does it take to get a subscription plan for faith? Well, there’s a “menu” for this like with other subscription plans, but it’s a pretty simple one. Churches have long promoted the idea of “tithing” as a model of “paying it forward” for faith-filled living. Traditionally, people think of tithing as contributing one tenth of their incomes, either before or after taxes, as a donation to a church. That’s a good thing to do in its own way, and I wouldn’t discourage people from trying it, because there can be great spiritual gifts that flow from such tithing. But if such tithing is just one of many subscriptions that you “set and forget,” then, chances are, its value will be limited for both you and your church. Maybe you can think of it as the “basic cable” route of discipleship – you’ll get some gifts, but your choices for spiritual growth will be limited.
As an alternative, I’d like to suggest that you consider a broader approach to household budgeting when considering what the price of discipleship will be, and the gifts that you want to be able to give and receive through it. First off, think about your cultural subscriptions – what is it about how you run your life, including but not limited to your finances, that gives you a sense of having value in this world? Is your time spent worrying about your current social image, your plans for an ideal material existence, your passions – are these not our most expensive subscriptions? Some might be very well worth it, but, like many subscription plans, they come with hidden costs, and they tie us to other people culturally in ways that make it hard for us to stop spending our time, treasure and talents in sometimes destructive ways. We don’t want to look bad on the outside to our worldly culture, instead of wanting to be good on the inside for God’s culture.
Creating abundance for the “premium plan”
If you’re over-budgeted on destructive cultural subscriptions, then that ten percent in the church offering plate is moot – you’re squandering your spiritual wealth. Before you make any decisions about financial tithing to a church, take a look at your basic cultural subscription package. If you’re over-subscribed to spiritually unhealthy activities and relationships, then change that budget first and foremost. They nibble up chunks of our lives uselessly like our cable TV and phone subscriptions. Make time for healthy relationships. Say “No” to peer pressures to look good rather than to be good. Make room for God’s gifts on a daily basis. Surround yourself with people who seek spiritual health and who build an abundance of spiritual gifts that they know how to give to others.
If you’re doing this, then chances are that your financial budget will have a whole lot fewer subscriptions to boxes of stuff that are spiritually empty – and, like the “ByeBox,” lots more boxes filled with material goods that are better used elsewhere. If you’re doing these sorts of things, then that “basic subscription” tithing will seem like spare change, both financially and spiritually. You’ll be surrounded by people who care, people who you can trust, and people who, though you may have thought of them as a burden or “not my kind” before you got a good faith subscription, turn out to be the ones with some of the richest gifts of all for you. Most of all, you’ll have the gift of a strong faith in your life, a gift that comes through communities invested in God’s story, now and forever.
Is this fun? Not always. But it’s great.
It’s important to note that while Jesus sent his disciples out into the world with sparse goods, he didn’t send them out naked, or alone. They had each other, they had their faith and their love of God to fill them, they were clothed with basic human dignity and God’s grace – I am sure that it wasn’t always fun, but it was the start of something great. What’s better, after all – a box of junk food that shows up each month, or the blessings of knowing that God’s love flows abundantly in your life each day, and forevermore? I hope and pray that you’ll consider how you can change your cultural subscriptions, and, in doing so, discover how authentic faith living in a committed community of believers can help your abundance in God’s grace to grow beyond your wildest dreams.