I’ve been reading a fascinating book about the effects of a materialistic upbringing on children, called “The Price of Privilege” (Subtitle: “How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids”), by Madeline Levine, Ph.D. Naturally, my thoughts turned to the seemingly materialistic culture within prosperity doctrine oriented churches, making an analogy between the upbringing of children and the discipling or training of Christians. This isn’t a big stretch of the imagination, given the parental role played by some senior pastors towards their congregations.
The book emphasises that it is not money itself that causes problems in children, but the parental attitudes they experience as they are brought up in some of these privileged households. Problems are more likely when their upbringing is primarily achievement and performance oriented, when they are given material goods instead of having their parents time and interest; or sent on numerous scheduled programs with no time left to pursue and discover their own interests, they can fail to develop an inner sense of self including the internal resources to deal with lifes inevitable ups and downs. There are much higher statistics for suicide, drug use and other dysfunctions in the children of privileged, driven families, which apparently are as bad or greater than those for children from poor backgrounds.
Could churches that focus primarily on measurable things such as achievement, material success and attendance at a plethora of meetings and programs have a similar detrimental effect in the lives of some of their congregation members? Perhaps there might be increased depression rates over time, or repeated disillusionment over time, or a lack of maturity and ability to stand on their own feet in matters of faith, independently of their church support.
Maybe the reason some church goers fear that those who stop attending will ‘backslide’ is because they think that they themselves would, without the external support of the group. Then they apply this to others, without believing that our inner motivation is what ultimately keeps us in our faith, not external ones such as a church environment. If our faith resides only because of our church environment, it will eventually feel pretty false.
The church (parental) focus on achievement and material success could be at two levels. There are measurable achievements by the church body, such as increased member numbers, a large, attractive, well equipped building, increased salvations or big, successful event presentations, and measurable achievements at the individual level by members – numbers of people brought to church; amounts given; and personal business or achievement success . Congregation members would receive recognition and even status for these things; the church likewise in the eyes of those who share its culture. Where a church has elders (less common these days), will these be chosen from successful business owners for example, or from those whose character tells the strength of their faith?
Members who don’t achieve in these measurable ways may not be valued much by the group, despite their growth in areas that the Bible tells us are fruit of the Spirit, such as love for others, kindness and self-control. Over time, the group could then lose these people despite their good scriptural example – weakening any discipling process.
Perhaps those who do achieve measurable things will become addicted to that type of recognition, rather than knowing that they are OK without it. If pastors become addicted to that kind of thing, it can’t be easy to lead well by example – what values will they then be reinforcing?
Will congregation members experience depression as a result of the outworking of these things, yet blame themselves for not thinking positively enough? Will congregation members grow towards maturity in that kind of environment? Some no doubt will, regardless.
It might not be easy to tell from the outside if a church is like this. A prosperous church with a balanced approach and good values may be healthy; a poor church with materialistic values may not.
In any case, this is me theorising. I could just be meandering up the garden path. But I can’t help wondering if there might be some similarites between parenting styles and their effects on children, and church leadership cultures on their congregations.