A gift economy: Church beyond supply and demand

How can U.S. churches think beyond capitalistic motivations when they are so entrenched in society? Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Professor Scott Hagley points to the Eucharist as a starting point for our collective imagination.

"Pastor Jimmy Rollins in the Union Air Jordan 1s and the crease that surpasses all understanding." Posted on Instagram by @PreachersNSneakers.

When I first discovered the anonymous Instagram account “Preachers ‘n’ Sneakers,” I wasted an entire afternoon scrolling in disbelief. I knew that celebrity pastors had expensive tastes on par with their congregants, but I had no idea that middle-aged men dressed in Supreme t-shirts, trucker hats and high-tops could pay upwards of $10,000 and still look so, well, middle-aged. It seemed as though everything I’ve read about our cultural fascination with youth and youth culture, consumeristic approaches to congregational ministry, and our faith in the “invisible hand” of the market was curated in a series of photos that could fit in the palm of my hand.

“Preachers ‘n’ Sneakers” posts typically show a preacher on stage alongside product promotions for elements of their ensemble. A designer belt might be worth $2,000. Special order Nikes could be $1,500. A distressed sports jacket clocks in at $5,000. Made to look like a fashion account, “Preachers ‘n’ Sneakers” says plenty without any need for commentary. Somewhere along the line, American Christianity has become an empty shell for another lifestyle brand or self-help mantra.

In subsequent years, Ben Kirby, the man behind the curtain, revealed himself when he began to sell PreachersNSneakers merchandise, started a podcast and wrote a book. What began as a critique leveled with tongue-in-cheek irony from a 29-year-old business student has become its own brand, pulled along by the same demand for market share and audience that it exists to question. It is easy to lament consumer Christianity. But what other choice do we or Ben Kirby have? It is incredibly difficult to imagine anything else in our current political economy.

Celebrity preachers aside, the dalliance between consumer capitalism and American Christianity is interesting if only for its ubiquity. Already in 1926 in an essay entitled “Can Americans Teach Japanese in Religion?” Japanese author, Christian evangelist, and the founder of the Non-church Movement Kanzo Uchimura observes, “Americans must count religion in order to see or show its value … to them big churches are successful churches … To win the greatest number of converts with the least expense is their constant endeavor.” Uchimura was not, and is not, wrong. Our congregations and congregational leaders participate in a competitive religious economy where growth, giving patterns and market share can make the difference between sustainability and collapse.

When congregations find themselves struggling to attract new members, they pay attention to things like building visibility, accessible parking and the Sunday morning experience. And when pastors look to church leadership literature for guidance, they will often find business school curricula repurposed for the congregation. Even our individual participation in church life can feel like a consumer choice. When a congregation fails to offer programs that meet our preferences, we “church shop” and look for new communities that can offer new services.

At one level, such observations might fall under the mundane heading of cultural accommodation. We live in a society marked by free religious association and capitalist economics. Money, ideas and people flow in surprising directions and converge in surprising ways. The so-called creative destruction of the economy also marks our religious ecology, resulting in a religious space of continual reinvention, entrepreneurship and renewal. But at another level, these consumeristic and competitive dimensions of our religious faith reveal the ways our economic practices and systems constrain our theological imagination and hinder our Christian witness. Surely, the gospel is not beholden to the laws of supply and demand.

In Economy of Grace, Kathryn Tanner observes the ways we treat money and grace as interchangeable in our churches. In our political economy, money circulates and accumulates in ways that build power. So also, grace circulates in our congregations, collecting around those in power who mediate the “means of grace” in the sacraments or in the proclaiming of the Word. Given these similarities, it is easy to miss the fact that grace creates a different world than money. For, unlike money, grace is a noncompetitive good that accumulates (if we can even use this word) by way of its giftedness. That is, we receive grace by giving it away. It cannot be possessed, only received and offered. Grace grows, we might say, in its circulation and cultivates its own social spaces. The church, Tanner insists, offers a form of community and economics rooted in grace rather than money. But apart from some generalities regarding equity and social solidarity, such a vision remains difficult to imagine. We are still preachers in sneakers.

The problem, William Cavanaugh says in his book Being Consumed, lies in our approach to formation. Acknowledging the different ways grace and money function will not, by itself, equip us to inhabit the world anew. As persons working for a wage, paying taxes, taking out loans, saving for retirement and doing all the other things that provide for food and shelter, we are full participants in the capitalist system and shaped by the story it tells us about reality. Economic transactions place us in a world of scarcity, where our interests compete with the interests of others in service of private consumption. The risks and rewards of such engagements, we are led to believe, are ours to bear. It is difficult to imagine how goods might be held in common, or how persons might belong to one another in anything other than transactional terms.

But in the Eucharist, Christian communities tell a different story about the world, and about how we are related to one another. At the Table, our hunger is filled by the grace and gift of God in Christ, for the broken bread and poured-out wine recounts the story of Christ’s death, an act of self-emptying love. Yet, this gift resists the transactional and individualist logic to which we have become accustomed. For at the Table, we share in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16) and also in the ministry of Christ. Sent out from the Table, we become food for others — the visible body of Christ in the world. The gift is greater in the sharing. Such a practice discloses and cultivates a different kind of economy, a gift economy which “relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours” by way of our shared participation in Jesus Christ, Cavanaugh writes. We point to this reality in worship but often lack imagination for the rest of life.

The Eucharist invites us to tease out the economic and political consequences of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Constrained by the law of love, we need not be limited to the laws of supply and demand as we cultivate community and participate in public life. We can, for instance, cultivate community in our neighborhood(s) rooted in the shared gifts of presence and time. We can follow the guidance of asset-based community development to situate our congregations within a local gift economy as an extension of our Eucharistic theology. We can experiment with economic practices characterized by self-giving love. While it may be difficult to imagine a viral Instagram account resisting commodification, we can imagine a congregation experimenting with practices of gift-giving rooted in their theology of the Eucharist. This kind of experimentation is in our tradition, if only at the edges. Perhaps it is time to renew and refresh this conversation — and break free from fashion accounts on Instagram.