Can you imagine what Jesus’ ministry would look like if it took place in contemporary America?
If he went to the houses of worship to preach his message of God’s scandalously universal love, he would find them mostly empty: only about one in five Americans may be found in houses worship on any given Sunday. If he wanted to gather with his followers in someone’s home, he would have to face the risk that nobody could cook for him and his disciples, as only about half of Americans cook dinner on any given day. Perhaps our Lord would then consider moving the gathering to a restaurant, only to find that most restaurants are of the “grab and go” variety: fully 20% of all meals are consumed in cars. Maybe at that moment it would occur to Jesus that, in an age of widespread literacy, the perfect place to expound on his simple but astounding theories would be a bookstore. He would then have to confront the fact that fewer than half of books are purchased from brick-and-mortar booksellers. The rest are purchased as e-books or from online vendors. Scratching his head, Jesus might wonder where people congregate. The post office? E-mail and automatic bill pay mean that trips there are at an all-time low. The train station or bus stop? Nearly half of all Americans have no access whatsoever to public transit. The marketplace? Rather than representing a site of the regular procurement of fish, meats, dairy and baked goods, fruits, vegetables, sweets, clothing and durables crafted, raised or gathered by our neighbors, most of our shopping is done infrequently at supermarkets, malls and big box stores where an unpleasant environment and chaotic activity push us to grab, as quickly as possible, poor-quality, industrial products made and packaged far away from our homes before escaping into our vehicles. We may not even get the benefit of even the most superficial social interaction, as a large percentage of shopping is done online and an increasing percentage of in-store purchases are made using self-checkout. The demands on our time and energy have become so intense that many of us voluntarily live as shut-ins rather than waste precious hours acquiring basic necessities, with the result that so fragmented is our social and economic life that even our savior might have trouble sharing the Gospel if he were launching his ministry today.
One of the disturbing truths of economic life in Babylon is that, as it becomes easier and easier to get what we want at the moment we want it, we are becoming more and more isolated. For example, I dislike putting my life at the mercy of public transit as much as the next person, but when you take the same bus every morning, it is natural to build relationships with those you see at the stop every day. These relationships may be superficial or deeply meaningful, but they are not available to the independent, automobile-driving solo commuter.
While it is really, really nice to be able to buy toilet paper or sanitary napkins at eleven at night if the need arises, stretching the work day means that cashiers and other retail workers have difficulty maintaining the rhythms of family time, leisure time and worship time that have structure our lives as a species for millennia. An unintended consequence of an economy that more than ever caters to our individual tastes and desires is that we lose the social cushion that makes our economic and other activity about more than meeting our own needs and desires, but also provides a shared social experience; an opportunity to meet people outside of our race, class and profession; a means of supporting economic growth within the community; and a way of fostering the intangible connections that transform unrelated individuals into a community.
Economic strain is a part of our current landscape, and the resulting stress and frenzy make it hard to even take a day off. What would it look like to “waste time” by choosing ways of shopping, commuting, eating and living that maximize our opportunities to get to know and love our neighbors rather than focusing solely on our own convenience? What would it look like to rebel against the “what I want, when I want it” logic of our convenience-oriented landscape in order to expand our relationships and care for our environment? As a Kingdom community living as exiles in Babylon, let us look for ways to be faithful to our calling to value love over convenience. As a frequent user of online shopping services, I have difficulty doing this. But I feel like it is our God-given duty as Christians to try.