Interview by Jonathan Merritt
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]
Marty Duren is a writer, blogger, minister, and a good friend of mine who is known for his insightful opinions and breadth of coverage. It isn’t often you’ll run across someone who will run a review of Arcade Fire’s new album just after opining about the new healthcare bill. Marty does it all. And this time, he’s tackling generosity. His new book, The Generous Soul, is out now so I asked him to stop by for an interview. Enjoy.
Jonathan Merritt: The Generous Soul introduces a phrase that you may actually have coined: “missional giving.” What do you mean by that?
Marty Duren: During the past few years as the conversation around missional church, missional living, missional Christianity, etc., expanded, it seemed that the direct relationship to possessions was being overlooked, if not completely, then in a big way. If missional has to do with the believer’s partnership in the missio dei, then there is simply no way around the fact that this must impact our relationship to money and possessions.
Missional giving is the idea that our relationship to money and possessions is subordinate to the mission of God; that all money we have under our control is under the control of God. We cannot say that we are on mission with God if our stuff is actively impeding that mission. To be a missional giver is to live in such a way that financial support of kingdom work is a planned priority. The thesis of the book is stated like this: Missional giving is the financial strategy of the missionary manager, purposefully utilizing all the money and possessions God has entrusted to him or her according to his priorities and viewing all financial activity as integral with God’s kingdom.
JM: Why is it important that those in the West, and in America especially, come to grips with our role as “missionary managers?”
MD: Possibly the most important thing to come out of the missional conversation is the truth that all believers are missionaries in their country, culture, and context. This has contributed mightily to our exploration of cross-cultural mission work within our own cities and communities, leading us to embrace cultural distinctives rather than judging them. More and more of Christ’s followers see themselves, accurately, as missionaries.
One connection that has not been as strongly emphasized, it seems, is how that affects our use of money. When missionaries are sent into international contexts, there are expectations, both spoken and unspoken, that their lives will be sacrificial: fewer goods, less money, one car, less emphasis on possessions, and smaller houses. One well-known mission agency allows their missionaries to live only in homes up to 1,600 square feet in size. In virtually every instance, if a missionary demanded a U.S.-sized home, multiple cars, a large yard, i.e., almost everything we as Americans expect, we would demand they either repent or come back home.
The question begs to be asked: Why do we place expectations on missionaries we send to other countries, but do not live according to the same expectations even though we are missionaries sent by God as well? How does the fact that we are in our home culture change the fact that we have the same gospel responsibility to our host culture as someone who travels to a new culture? It does not.
JM: Elaborate on how you see materialism having become embedded into the western Church’s worldview.
MD: Anyone raised in America is familiar with the concept of the American dream—the idea than anyone who works hard and is self-sufficient can be successful. Entrenched in the American dream is the concept of each generation doing better than the generation preceding it. The problem for believers is that “doing better” refers, almost solely, to having more stuff. The American Dream too easily slides into a life of materialism. This has nowhere been more clearly demonstrated than when the economy took its dive a couple of years ago. Out of control debt—the result of buying, buying, and more buying—was a curse on followers of Christ as well as those making no claim to salvation. Mortgage foreclosures hit believers and churches alike.
It is not just the questionable theology of the prosperity gospel that is the issue or the followers of certain TV preachers. It is the blindness to our own idol worship; it is so engrained that we do not see it as sin and are loathe to admit it if confronted. When we get a raise or a bonus, it is rare for the first response to be, “I wonder if God has a purpose for this extra money he has sent my way?” Most of the time the money is gone before it ever hits our checking accounts: new toys, new trinkets, bigger car, and the like.
JM: Why do you think Jesus set the worship of God and the worship of mammon in direct opposition to each other?
MD: Because money is more tangible, and it is easier to trust. When God says, “Wait,” but First National says, “No closing costs!” and Mastercard says, “Priceless!” we often reach for what we can touch rather than waiting for Him who is invisible. Even though God has promised to meet all our needs, our lack of patience leads us to the immediate gratification money provides. There are many ways that mammon is the exact opposite of God: God is power; money provides power. God requires faith; money replaces faith. God requires patience; money provides immediacy; and so on.
Mammon is an idol that directly affects our lives every single day. Mammon is not like Baal or Molech—stone images to whom some sacrifice is made—instead, it affects virtually every decision we make: clothing, electricity, gasoline, size of house, style of car, vacation destination, sports, and hobbies. Literally the list could go on and one. If we are not careful, we make those decisions not on the basis of what God would have us do, but simply on whether or not we can afford it. At that point, mammon is in control.
JM: What do you hope this book will accomplish?
MD: I will be happy if, after reading The Generous Soul, the lifestyles of believers change to reflect more faith in God’s ability to provide for our needs resulting in more generous giving to the kingdom. The book was not written at a scholarly level, but was intentionally written to be accessible to anyone who opens it. I tried to avoid the condemnation that sometimes comes across from a preachy tone, choosing instead to use humor, stories, and life experiences in explaining the Scriptures. A wide variety of people have already endorsed it: pastors, wives, husbands, missionaries, authors, and academicians. Besides, where else are you going to find a Christian book that quotes Nine Inch Nails, Rush, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Flying Lizards, Pink Floyd, Killing Joke and George Clinton and the Funkadelics?
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer who has published over 150 articles in outlets such as USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post’s “On Faith,” BeliefNet, Christianity Today, and CNN.com. He is author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet (read an excerpt here). He holds a Master of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC) and a Master of Theology from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, GA). Jonathan resides outside of Atlanta, GA where he actively serves and teaches at Cross Pointe Church.