Abundance theology is on the run

Writing for the Alban Institute, Dan Hotchkiss notes that difficult economic times have taken the shine off stewardship appeals rooted in the theology of abundance. He says:

•People are more skeptical of glib claims on their generosity than they once were. Even donors for whom church support is an unquestioned obligation don’t assume they need to give to your church. Congregations need to make a case for themselves as worthy recipients of generosity. As global warming, resource depletion, and species extinction become pressing concerns, the people in the pews will expect clergy to address these moral issues, and the church to set a good example.

•The limitless growth of affluence no longer is a widely shared American experience. Personal incomes have stagnated since the mid-1970s. There is little reason to expect the 1950s to return soon, at least not to the western hemisphere.

•The moral goodness of consumption has come into question in new ways. Global warming and the depletion of resources like oil and drinking water have shifted our metaphors for moral living. In place of the expansive and triumphal vision of the good life, we are—or should be—shifting to a more conserving and sustaining vision.

How is your parish shaping its stewardship appeal in difficult times?

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Category : The Lead

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  1. John B. Chilton

    Before commenting, note that Hotchkiss is not talking about the shallow prosperity gospel. He’s referring to this: The notion of abundant resources has embedded itself into our theologies of stewardship. “God has blessed me with abundance, so with gratitude I bless God back.”

    Being a proponent of another religion (the economists) I’ve always found claims that God created a world of abundance to wrongheaded if not dangerous. We clearly live in a world of scarcity, and (as Rowan Williams keeps noting) economics is about management of our limited resources — not wasting opportunities to make more with the same resources, or making someone better off without harming someone else.

    Now what does that reality say about God (and us)? God’s love and mercy may be unbounded, but he created a world in which we have plenty of work to do to sort things out amongst us — not the least being doing the best for the poorest among us. (Why for so much of human history life was nasty, brutish and short, and why it seems _intractably_ so for so (if there’s an easy way to fix a failed city or a failed state let us know) many still today is a question for those who study theodicy.

    If we are speaking of our Episcopal churches, then – sorry – I think we’re whining. The average salary of an Episcopalian is still well above the US average. And I dare say we are better off than in the 1950’s. We just don’t want to (a) pony up a pledge like those of the 1950s, and (b) are clinging to building/parishes that have shrunk below a size that can do more than take care of itself and itself.

    Finally, even before the downturn, there were some who saw the paradox between a theology of abundance and a theology of stewardship of the earth. I’m not sure whether churchgoers have not actually become less concerned with environmental stewardship during this long downturn.

    My stewardship appeal would be if pledges are enough to keep the doors open, what do our eyes tell about what we can do improve lives of those around us who have less, or who are suffering in other ways. Do we aspire to help them or not?

    If we’re struggling to keep the doors open, and have been for several years, do we still have a purpose or should we join with the next nearest Episcopal church?

  2. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    I think Hotchkiss’ assertion shows how easy it is to conflate abundance with affluence and pledging with consumerism. Where we’ve done this in the Church, we’re in peril.

    A classic stewardship gospel passage, the feeding of the five thousand, doesn’t deny limited means, but demonstrates when they are shared in thanksgiving, there is more than enough for all.

    I confess to growing tired of the trope about the church of the 1950’s. It’s been dead now for over half a century. Some have doubts whether our memory of it is all that accurate. Let’s give it a rest!

  3. I agree with Richard. It’s God’s abundance we are talking about and about how we are to be generous as God is generous, especially when we really look at ourselves as see how much we really have, how much there really is, compared to those we are called to serve – the homeless, imprisoned, abused and abandoned. Our stewardship message ought to be about addressing how we must be the church in times like these – not cutting back on mission but adding to it, lest we risk living out a message that we only do mission when we (and others) are flush. I agree with Hotchkiss’ assertion that we need to show why we need people’s generosity; we need to show that the church exists for the benefit of others, not ourselves. This is how we live out our calling, and it’s based on generosity, not scarcity.

    Penny Nash

  4. We don’t live in a world of scarcity. There are just too many people.

  5. I find the truth of God’s abundance one of the most difficult to live out, both personally and professionally. Personally, I know that my income is limited–I only have so much to spend. Professionally, I am only too aware that the church as an institution has a limited amount of resources. I have never found a church that has more money than it needs to do the work it has been called to do, and most of the time it has far less. We can preach the theology of abundance, we can even model it, but we cannot spend more than we have in our congregational bank accounts, and that depends, in part at least, on both people’s ability and willingness to give, not just to an institution, but to a cause. As has often been quoted, I know that God is a generous God, but often God’s people don’t share that quality!

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