Between the Gift and the Economy

Over the last few weeks, I’ve tried to articulate some thoughts about church and community.   I started by looking at some quotes from authors like Walker Percy and C. S. Lewis.  Eventually I landed on and spent some time with Ephraim Radner, particularly his work in A Time to Keep on single adults in church.  And while there is much more to say about the topic, I thought I’d try to bring some kind of conclusion together, if only for the time being.  I’d like to do that through the images of gift and economy.

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The simple fact is that people in community are ultimately economic beings.  Families have it (each member with a particular task or chore based on any of a number of factors).  Churches have it (each member takes on some particular role based on gifts, talents, calling, or need).  And workplaces have it (where particular places are filled through the hiring process).  And so we are utilitarian instrumentalists: we work together for the greater good, all too often reducing one another to function.  But when we function properly, the community is considered healthy.

But what should be done with those who do not fit this community-as-economy reality?  And in a church culture where the needs always outnumber the members, how do we maintain some sense of community that is not predominately utilitarian or instrumentalist?  And what do we do when, because of our overuse of people as resources, we find that the economy is no longer viable (and perhaps then realize that the instrumentalized economy is not the point of it all)?  Don’t get me wrong: the biblical story is full of people being called to take up responsible roles in the larger body, to work as a form of contribution.  But that is not the only, or even dominant, image that Jesus and the New Testament writers give for the church.  And what hope is there for the “seeker” when so much of the economy is based on using those who have “found” and thus in some kind of settled disposition?

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One thing I really liked about Radner’s articulation of the single celibate in church life is that they have something unique-to-them to “bring to the table” that comes from their own experience of “naming and wandering.”  But that doesn’t seem to be the way things work in a church community.  Sure, you can add a little bit of personal flavor to the way you teach your Sunday school class, but that’s about all the variety that many churches can handle.  And then, when you do, you can imagine many church members nodding their heads and saying, “There goes old so-and-so, doing what they always do.  Why can’t they just try and fit in a little better?”

Christians in community ought not have to choose between the gift and the economy.  Just because a single adult doesn’t bring a spouse or child into the worship service doesn’t mean that they enter the sanctuary empty handed.  The challenge, perhaps, is to help them see the significance of what they bring with them, even if it’s more abstract and awkward.  And while the time must come for them to reach into the community and “take their place,” that should be done with a sense that singles need just as much caring for as everyone else in the congregation, because their load is heavy, too.

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Talking about such things without sounding like a whiner is difficult.  For those that see the church program as synonymous with “the kingdom” and the work of God, anyone who calls that program into question looks like a rebel or malcontent.  To consider someone stingy because they do not give what we ask (even though they have a real gift needing to be shared) is presumptuous. To ask singles to fend for themselves while unquestionably towing a party line that praises the economy over the gift is spiritually dangerous for everyone involved.  That we are not wise enough to know what to do about such matters will hurt us all in the long run.

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