Consumerism and Service in the Church

For many years the church has struggled to cultivate a spirit of service. Consumerism has so infiltrated our hearts that many now view church as just another opportunity to get something we want – emotional catharsis, spiritual vitality, reflection, peace – and there is a church perfectly tailored to whatever your consumption preference happens to be.

It is true that public worship is the prime occasion to receive spiritual nourishment, most especially through the Eucharist, where Christ himself feeds us, and through the reading and teaching of Scripture. It is very good to receive the grace of God in these ways. But if receiving is the only reason we are involved in a church, then we are missing a huge element of the teaching of Christ and the Apostles. The church is actually not a place at all, but rather a living body of believers, and each member of the body both receives benefits from the rest of the body, and also is expected to contribute to the body through service.

As Paul says, every member of the body of Christ needs every other member, just as in a human body the eye needs the hand and vice versa (1 Cor. 12). Peter also chimes in, saying we all have a responsibility to serve each other with whatever gifts God has given us (1 Pet. 4:10). And of course there was Jesus, for whom service was the primary expression of love at the core of all his teaching:

“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be servantof all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13)

Jesus demonstrated service as the ultimate posture towards others by washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, and going on to die for them (and us) the following day. And as he had said earlier, if anyone would follow him, we must deny ourselves and take up our own crosses as well (Matt 16:24). To follow Christ is ultimately to be willing to die for Christ, or to lay down our lives for our friends.

In my decade or so leading the music ministry in several churches, I have known many people who have truly embraced the Christian way of service. These have included many clergy, musicians, and other lay people. But these are sadly a minority, even among dedicated believers (of course, those who are not yet believers are not expected to serve).

Churches are full of otherwise dedicated Christians who primarily view the body of Christ as something that must serve them, rather than something that they have a duty to actively contribute to and participate in. As a result, often the greatest (and most time-consuming) needs of the church (such as serving the children) go unmet because we just don’t want to inconvenience ourselves, or we feel we already do enough by ushering, serving coffee, or reading Scripture in the service once a month. There is of course nothing wrong with serving in these ways, but when other needs in the church are acute and well-known (as is often the case), choosing to ignore them because they are inconvenient is not the way of Christ.

The church and Covid-19

This unwillingness to be inconvenienced for the sake of others has now spilled over into the church’s broader interaction with the world in an obvious way. Though I have long been bothered by this attitude among Christians, I choose to write about it now because the pandemic has so clearly highlighted the problem. While there are other issues, here I want to discuss masks: specifically, whether adults should wear masks in indoor public spaces (I am not discussing outdoor settings, home-use, kids at school, etc.; nor am I addressing the different arguments on re-opening in general).

First let me note that there are many, especially younger, Christians who are foregoing masks not as a political statement or out of malicious intent, but simply because the pandemic either seems remote, or they themselves are not overly worried about getting sick. I understand that, but I would encourage such people to think about their neighbors and how to serve them. I too am not deeply worried (though I acknowledge I could still become ill and die), but I still think it is the respectful and responsible thing to wear a mask. So the rest of this discussion applies to such people as well, but I recognize in many cases the decision has not been politically motivated. Nonetheless, I encourage these people to consider the ramifications of their choice.

Moving on to my deeper concern, while this thankfully does not apply to all Christians, there is still a large portion of the church—especially in the South where I live—which thinks it is not only OK but even laudatory to avoid wearing masks during the pandemic. That is, many have actively chosen not to wear a mask in order to align with a certain set of political beliefs. Some Christians seem to think wearing a mask is an unconscionable attack on their freedom. Others acknowledge that it is not really a freedom issue (after all, we have to wear seat belts too), but they just don’t believe masks help, or don’t believe that the pandemic is a problem, so they will not be inconvenienced by a pesky mask.

Shame on the church for tolerating such nonsense! How can we look at Christ, who suffered a horrible death on our behalf and told us to take up our cross as well, and think that Christ would not ask us to mildly inconvenience ourselves for the sake of our neighbors? If there is even the slightest chance that masks prevent the spread of a pandemic that many thousands have died from (and indeed, the evidence is quite strong that masks truly help), then we should be wearing masks.

But the efficacy of masks is not the only reason for a Christian to wear them. Even if masks don’t help with contagion, is it not enough that wearing a mask will help the vulnerable feel respected and valued? Even if it has no scientific merit, shouldn’t we consider those who are afraid and help them mitigate their fears (similar to Paul’s approach with food sacrificed to idols in 1 Cor. 8)? Can we not bear even a mild inconvenience in order to love our neighbor? How far we are from the way of Christ if so! Why would we ever expect others to see the love of Christ if we, his body, cannot love them in this simplest and most obvious of ways?

No Christian is perfect, but we are all called to serve, not to make ourselves comfortable. So if we find ourselves fuming about mask restrictions, just get over it. Put on the mask and serve your neighbor. If we can’t do something that simple, we will struggle to follow Christ in more difficult acts of service that he may require of us (even unto death).

Jesus has some very harsh words to warn those who do not help the thirsty, the sick, the naked, and the imprisoned in Matthew 25:41-46, for serving “the least of these” is equated with serving Christ himself. We would be wise to take this warning to heart, for putting on a mask when we go to the grocery store is not nearly as inconvenient as taking in a naked beggar from the street. Christ expects his followers to serve both those in the church and everyone else around us. To my fellow Christians – we must do better.

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