Michael Craven

Center for Christ & Culture

The Christmas season is once again upon us and with it overwhelming encouragement from Madison Avenue to spend what we have not earned to buy what we cannot afford. The day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday (indicating the point at which retailers are in the black—or at least hope to be), signaled the start of the “holiday shopping season.” That very phrase reveals the commercialized emphasis that has come to define Christmas for many Americans. If that wasn’t enough, we now have “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber Monday,” the latest allurements to the altar of consumerism.  

The thrust of this consumerist message is that the holiday is most fully realized through the acquisition of “things.” Advertisements bombard us with images of bountiful Christmas scenes in which beautiful packages surround the tree, and “happiness” is achieved upon the receipt of this or that consumer product. Credit card issuers alone (those most interested in seeing you spend what you don’t have) spend more than $150 million on holiday advertising and promotions. Evidence that these messages work is found in the fact that more than 50 percent of Christmas shoppers will spend well over what they planned to and go further into debt, according to famed financial guru Dave Ramsey. 

As to the severity of this debt, Ramsey points out that “more than $70 billion, over half of what was charged last year, ended up as revolving debt and the interest on last year’s gifts are still being paid today.” On average, “two-thirds (65 percent) of shoppers overspent their budget by $100–$500 and 75 percent overspent by $50–$100.”

Of course this consumerist philosophy—rooted in the notion that making more money, which enables you to buy more things, will result in greater life satisfaction and happiness—is a pervasive message year-round in America. Recent studies show that most Americans believe they would be “perfectly happy” with just 20 percent more income. And according to Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor’s 1998 bestseller, The Overspent American, “one-quarter of Americans making $100,000 believe they don’t have enough cash” (In 2012, the US average wage index was $44,321).

However, renowned economist, Richard Easterlin observed “once a society’s basic needs—food, shelter, employment—are satisfied, the accumulation of greater and greater wealth does not generate greater collective or personal happiness over the long run” (USC Trojan Family Magazine). This has become known as the Easterlin Paradox.

In the early seventies “Easterlin sifted through numerous surveys asking Americans how happy they were. The explosion in wealth created by the postwar boom had not made a dent, he discovered. Although the average family was 60 percent richer in 1974, levels of contentment remained unchanged from 1945.” These findings “flew in the face of the assumption held by most economists and politicians that populations get happier as national wealth increases.” Also according to the article “today, no one disputes the truth of the Easterlin Paradox.” 

Despite our present economic challenges, the United States is still far richer in 2013 than it was 1974 and yet our levels of personal contentment haven’t improved one iota. In fact, every measurement of personal well being—psychological, emotional, and spiritual—demonstrates that despite our increased abundance we are less satisfied and more depressed than ever. 

A joint study conducted by the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School revealed that the US has the highest rate of depression among a survey group of fourteen countries. Conversely the poorest nations reported the lowest levels of depression. Researchers suggest that this may be due to differing expectations. Precisely! Americans—saturated with consumerism—have been conditioned to expect that happiness and satisfaction flow from economic prosperity and the acquisition of things. That is the whole point of consumer advertising: to make you discontent with what you have by promising an improved life through the purchase of the latest product—an expectation that very quickly evaporates after we have purchased said product. 

Rationally we know this promise is ridiculous; however, emotionally (perhaps even spiritually) we find ourselves often seduced into believing this foolishness. As Easterlin has confirmed, as we acquire possessions, our aspirations rise in proportion to the gains, leaving us no happier than before. Indeed, the more we earn the more we want! This misguided (and idolatrous) expectation sets us up for perpetual disappointment because as the evidence demonstrates, prosperity always fails as a source of lasting contentment and life satisfaction. 

The first remedy is to simply recognize the false “gospel” offered by consumerism. This alone offers some degree of immunity from the insidious and seductive voice of consumerism. Second, from a purely financial perspective, Dave Ramsey offers some practical advice relative to Christmas:

• Make a list of everyone you are buying a gift for and put a dollar amount by every name. Total it at the bottom. This is your Christmas budget. The people in the mall have a plan to get your money—get a game plan for your shopping so you can keep some money. There is no excuse for financing Christmas.

Pay cash. Put the total from your budget in an envelope and when the cash is gone, stop spending. This will help keep you on budget because if you overspend on Aunt Sue, Uncle Harry won’t get a gift. 

• 69 percent of Americans bought a gift for themselves last year. Don’t buy yourself a gift! This is the season to give not to receive … from yourself. 

If you find yourself swept up in the rush of consumerism, stop! Remember that Christmas is about the arrival of the Messiah, the beginning of Christ’s kingdom coming to earth in order to set right all that sin has set wrong. Revel in these days in the way that God has designed us to enjoy the many gifts of life such as family, friends, food, music, and worship. 

Christmas reminds us that we who were without hope, weary and discontent, slaves to sin and sorrow, now have a real and present hope. We can be saved from this dreadful condition and finally discover true satisfaction and contentment not because we received the latest gadget but because “God so loved the word that He sent His only begotten Son!” We can be reconciled with God, ourselves, others, and creation! So this Christmas let us not be swept away by the illusory claims of consumerism; instead, let us revel in God’s gracious gifts, to drink deeply the wonder of relationships and life and every moment of this season—these will leave you truly satisfied and debt free!

© 2013 by S. Michael Craven

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S. Michael Craven is the president of Battle for Truth and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on Battle for Truth and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit www.battlefortruth.org.

As we, once again, approach this national day of “thanksgiving” I thought it necessary to reflect upon our nation’s long history of acknowledging and giving thanks to the Almighty God. 

On October 3, 1789 George Washington issued the nation’s first presidential proclamation in which he called the nation to set aside a day for giving thanks to that “great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be….”

President Washington gave under his official hand the following words:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor…

Furthermore President Washington acknowledged that he was joined by the Congress in his appeal to the nation:

Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness… 

This presidential proclamation represented—in unequivocal terms—the government’s call upon the people of this nation to acknowledge and give thanks to God. These were not benign religious platitudes but unambiguous statements reflecting the consensus view of life and reality, which acknowledged that there is one God; the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture, in nature and in the person of Jesus Christ. Sadly much has changed; today our government institutions panic at the slightest reference to God and crumble in the face of every challenge to remove religious perspectives from the public square. 

This weak-kneed posture stands in stark contrast to the ideals set forth by our Founding Fathers. Consider President Washington’s concluding appeal in his momentous proclamation:

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best (emphasis mine).

Seventy-four years later, in the midst of the great Civil War, President Lincoln would issue a similar call to the nation acknowledging the nation’s many blessings from the Lord, “…who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” President Lincoln, like our first president, would once again call the nation to national thanksgiving and repentance with these words: 

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience…and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

America, in its folly, has been in the process of reordering its national identity and severing dependence from the God who has given it birth and blessed it for so long. Therefore, it seems that we might be well served to recall the proclamation of these great men set aside for this Thanksgiving holiday and once again give thanks to Almighty God for His longsuffering patience and mercy toward this nation and humbly repent of our national rebellion and wanton disregard for all that is holy and just. 

This national repentance begins in the Church, which has seemingly lost its way—abandoned (practically speaking) its first love and so often conformed to the world. May we on this Thanksgiving Day acknowledge the many and abundant blessings of Almighty God accompanied by a deep and sorrowful repentance for our individual, corporate and national sins. This, my dear brothers and sisters is our only hope and it is for this real hope and the promise of forgiveness that we can give thanks indeed! 

May the Lord, in His great mercy, pour out his Spirit upon you, your families, His Church and this nation this Thanksgiving Day!

© 2013 by S. Michael Craven

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S. Michael Craven is the president of Battle for Truth and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on Battle for Truth and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit www.battlefortruth.org.

This is the question, of sorts, I recently posed to a local businessman. As I indicated in my last commentary, I have embarked on an enterprise that I believe offers a modern example of what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to “seek first the kingdom” (Matt. 6:33).

If we read these words in context, Jesus is emphasizing something that transcends reason and material reality. He begins by denouncing anxiety associated with the procurement of life’s necessities. Notice he does not denounce the necessities themselves, merely the worry over the means by which we obtain them. Jesus is addressing our limited view of reality in which we believe that we, through our own efforts, are our only hope of survival in this life much less flourishing. Jesus is expanding our view of reality to include a view of life in relationship to the loving, sovereign God—true reality.

There is an implicit formula here that invites us into a new way of living. In contrast to the world’s way of thinking and living, Jesus tells us that his way is rooted in the pursuit of life  under the rule and reign of God; if we follow his way—the way of the cross—God will provide all that we need. So rather than focusing on and working to accumulate “treasure” on earth as the source of our peace and security, Jesus declares that if we focus on bringing peace, justice, righteousness, and love (the virtues of God’s kingdom) into the world, God will provide our necessities. To remain in the old way of living only heightens our anxiety and fear as we inevitably discover the limitations of this world and the flesh.

Our new life in Christ should sever reliance on the temporal things of this world and replace it with dependence upon the Father who controls all things and provides abundantly for his children. This is the proper ordering of life that Christ came to restore. It is this “proper ordering” that we should seek after.

In an effort to restore economic order among the poor, I—along with H.I.S. Bridgebuilders—am working to create businesses in poor communities that offer those with meager employment opportunities the prospect of meaningful work. For some, this will be their first legitimate job, as many have been engaged in either no work or illegal work, such as drug dealing and prostitution. For those of us who haven’t been raised in the inner city, it is easy to think that overcoming these disadvantages is simple: “Just apply yourself and your situation will change!” Not true! How can you change your situation if every social structure around you is defective? Fathers are absent, families are broken, education is inadequate, crime is rampant, and the only economic means available are government dependence or criminal activity. In such conditions, there is little to no hope of ever rising beyond your circumstances and the cycle of crime and poverty continues.

Our strategy is bold: create companies that provide value in the marketplace, generate profit, and operate under the “right-side-up” principles of the kingdom. This means that we will structure companies in which power, profits, and people will be treated according to the way God would have his creation function. 

All of our companies will be employee-owned. Every employee will share in the ownership of the company so his or her opportunity extends beyond a subsistence wage. A share of the profits will be distributed equitably with those who have labored for the company’s success. We aim to avoid a situation where the many work for the benefit of the few; instead all will share in the fruits of success. 

In contrast to the conventional power structure that is vertical in nature, our companies will be governed by a more horizontal management structure. Employees will share in the decision-making activity through their participation in a “Partnership Council” made up of employees elected by their peers. This strategy will serve to include employees at the highest levels of decision making in order to educate them in the business process and maximize creativity in problem solving.

Prior to employment, each employee will receive rigorous spiritual discipleship along with essential job- and life-skill training through H.I.S. Bridgebuilders. Following employment, each employee will be assigned a mentor who works to disciple and support him or her as they grow into Christ-likeness. This, we believe, is the whole-life redemption offered in the gospel of the kingdom!

Returning to the businessman I referenced earlier, this is what happened. At present, we possess window screen manufacturing capability but no sales and marketing resources. Our businessman has the sales, marketing, and installation but currently buys from other manufacturers. So I proposed a merger with one significant caveat: “Are you willing to give up the ownership of your company?” By God’s grace, he agreed! His company will merge into our employee-owned management structure and the businessman will continue to lead the new enterprise under our governance. Instead of maintaining 100 percent ownership, he will now share ownership with the rest of the employees. His company will generate over $1.2 million in sales this year, bringing immediate jobs to the community. With added capitalization we believe we can achieve significant growth over the next few years, employing many more people. This man has taken seriously the principle of Matthew 6:33, being determined to ‘lay up treasures in heaven,’ abandoning his earthly concerns into the hands of God.

© 2013 by S. Michael Craven

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S. Michael Craven is the president of Battle for Truth and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on Battle for Truth and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit www.battlefortruth.org.

According to a report produced in 2013—“Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission"—researchers at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, offer a timely overview of the changing demographics of Christianity and Christians’ activities over the past forty years. 

In summary, missiologist Todd M. Johnson and his team found that 20 percent of non-Christians in North America really do not “personally know” any Christians. Christianity Today points out, “that number includes atheists and agnostics, many of whom are former Christians themselves and more likely to have close Christian contacts. Without that group, 60 percent of the non-Christian population has no relationships with Christians” (Emphasis mine). This despite the fact that 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians. 

CSGC research associate Gina Bellofatto notes that small but burgeoning movements have arisen to initiate purposeful interreligious dialogue and community service projects. However, according to Bellofatto, “They're still rare compared to the apparent apathy among Christians about befriending non-Christians, especially if it means reaching across neighborhoods and towns into more ethnic enclaves.”

Clearly, a century-plus of evangelistic campaigns aimed at “getting people saved” has failed to propagate the Christian faith in any meaningful way. Instead, too many churches in America are characterized more by a suburban social ethnicity built around shared values and religious consumerism than any sense of kingdom mission. 

Jeff Christopherson, vice president for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Missions Board, echoed this sentiment in saying, “We hide in our own evangelical ghetto,” and “we go to churches that would only be welcoming to people that think like us.” 

This makes sense when understood through the church’s contemporary theology of escapism—this idea that the primary goal of the gospel is to provide one entrance into heaven when one dies. While eternal life in the age to come is indeed a promise of the gospel, the reduction of the gospel of the kingdom to nothing more than this has left the church without any relevance to life in the here and now. By reducing the gospel to the acceptance of a few facts about Jesus, which then determines one’s eternal state, Christianity loses its most powerful claim: that of Christ’s kingdom come to bear upon this world. It is through the rule and reign of God pressed into the world by the people of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that sin and all its damage is confronted and relief is found. 

This is the story of Western civilization—the world touched by the church in every area of life—where humanity has experienced unprecedented flourishing. Despite our checkered past, Christians have throughout history risen up against countless evils bringing real reform to a broken world defaced by sin. 

The Christian church has confronted political tyranny that oppressed God’s creation with the principles of liberty rooted in the imago Dei. The historic church was the first institution on earth to declare slavery unjust, to develop concepts central to individual economic freedom, to provide health care to the sick and dying, to offer humane rules of warfare, to educate the masses, and to establish as virtues the concepts of mercy and compassion. The church didn’t do this because they thought it a good way to win converts. Rather, they understood that the world ruined by sin was being set right by Jesus, the king who declared his Lordship over all the earth, and that to follow Jesus meant sacrificial participation in his kingdom-renewing work. 

Without the Christian/kingdom influence of the last two millennia, the world would have remained in its brutal state. To believe otherwise is to be both historically ignorant and to believe that human progress is the natural orientation of mankind.

© 2013 by S. Michael Craven

Respond to this article here.

Subscribe to Michael's commentary here.

S. Michael Craven is the president of Battle for Truth and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on Battle for Truth and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit www.battlefortruth.org.

About Michael Craven

S. Michael Craven is the President of H.I.S. BridgeBuilders and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). H.I.S. BridgeBuilders is an urban missionary ministry that works to bring the redemptive power of God’s kingdom to bear upon the poverty-ravaged areas of our city, restoring people, families, and communities through spiritual, educational and economic development to the glory of God. To learn more, visit: www.hisbridgebuilders.org

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