Embracing a new practice or discipline is one of many ways people seek to strengthen their faith. But for Scott Dannemiller and his wife Gabby, former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) in Guatemala, their quest led them to give up something huge: participation in consumer culture.
Convinced there was more to life than working to keep up with societal expectations and convicted of the ease at which they participated in consumerism, the Dannemillers set a New Year’s resolution in 2013 to stop buying stuff.
There were some guidelines, as Scott Dannemiller writes in "The Year without a Purchase: One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting" (Westminster John Knox Press, August 2015), the book that chronicles their year.
- We can buy stuff that can be “used up” within a year. Groceries, gas, hygiene products. No clothes. We have plenty of those. If there truly is a need (for example, not a single pair of our kids’ shoes fit without causing irreversible toe damage), we will find hand-me-downs.
- We can fix stuff that breaks. Unless the repair cost is greater than the replacement cost. Or, unless a suitable replacement already exists in our home.
- Gifts must be in the form of charitable donation or “experience gifts.” The idea is to build connections and memories by doing things such as going to dinner together, visiting the zoo, or traveling to visit friends and family.
Dannemiller, a corporate trainer and leadership expert, is also the author of the popular blog The Accidental Missionary. He spoke with PNS from his home in Nashville, Tenn., about the book, his and Gabby’s time as YAVs, and his presentation at Big Tent 2015.
Please tell me about your experience with the PC(USA).
I grew up Catholic and joined PC(USA) in 2000 or 2001. We are currently members at Bellevue Presbyterian in Nashville, Tenn. My wife, Gabby, is Ruling Elder and I help as a Sunday worship leader.
At what age did you begin your PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) experience?
We were looking for more meaning in our lives. We looked at Peace Corps and others, while living in Austin, Texas.
A friend had called and told us about a two-week mission trip to Guatemala and it got us thinking. We ended up not going when my mother in law passed away suddenly the week before we were to leave.
But it started something in us—there were too many coincidences. We went through the whole YAV discernment process. I was 29 and my wife was 32, which placed her outside the age range for YAVs. But they made an exception for us because of the location and because space was available in the program.
Looking back, it could have been the best thing or the worst thing for us. We were newly married and had our first anniversary in Guatemala.
Gabby worked with Presgov, which was disbanded and later resurrected under the direction of the Antioch Partners, helping short-term mission teams. She did a lot of translation, location arrangements and evening activities like Bible studies.
I was initially asked to work with leadership and project planning for pastors. But I ended up teaching music most of the time since most of the pastors worked six days a week in agriculture or some other trade, and didn’t have the funds to come to the class taught by the gringo with broken Spanish. I would travel to one of 25 different villages with Presbyterian churches and teach music classes and hymns to groups of mostly women and children. The YAV program calls it a “ministry of presence.” It’s all about seeing God in the faces of strangers and simply being present. I know it doesn’t sound very sexy, but it was life changing!
What’s the quick overview of your Big Tent presentation?
We’ll explore with attendees how to live missionally in their day-to-day life. Really challenge how they can be in the world and not of the world.
- talk about our experience of dropping out of the consumer society
- discuss how the experience aligns with our faith
- discuss how consumer society gets in our way of seeing God in everyday life
They’ll also hear plenty of embarrassing stories about mistakes we made along the way.
It's fascinating to read how many areas of your life and relational network were affected by a year without purchasing. What was the hardest part?
After a couple of months, not shopping simply became our new normal, but it was rough at first. I gained seven pounds in those first two months because any time I felt like buying something I would eat something instead!
It may have been us projecting our inner thoughts on others, but we were very concerned we might come across as judgmental to our friends and family who might be buying or purchasing things. That wasn’t our intent at all. We have a society that does a whole lot of comparing to others – we didn’t want people to think we thought we were better for having done this.
The most humbling part was realizing what we were doing is the reality for most people on the planet – because they can’t buy stuff. We were doing it as an experiment, but it’s the reality of everyday life for most of the people of the planet.
How was reentry into consuming in January 2014?
It was slow. The first thing I bought was socks and underwear. We didn’t go shopping until February, but we saw ourselves getting quickly swept up into consumer culture. We had a new lens, but we had new questions.
Will this thing add value to my life or will it take me away from people, events and relationships that are important?
We looked at what we own through a different lens, too. We tried to appreciate what we had, rather than criticize what we had. It’s a metaphor for the people we see too – rather than being critical at first, we should just appreciate what they bring to the world.
What was the greatest long-term gift from the experiment?
At the end of the book we discuss three big things that came from not purchasing for a year:
1. more time
2. more energy
3. a greater appreciation of the things that mattered
How many of these practices have held over since it stopped?
The idea that if we are going to spend, we are spending on experiences rather than things. Our kids have more of an appreciation of experiences—they’re 9 and 7—so they ask for experiences as gifts. They’re kids, so they still want toys and things, but more often they are asking for an experience.
We look more at the function of an item, rather than how it makes us feel. What value is it going to bring? Will it allow us to have more time or energy for the things that are important? Even though we do shop from time to time, it has kind of ruined “shopping as a hobby” for us.
Would you recommend the experiment to others? If so, do you have any encouragement or cautionary advice?
I would recommend the experiment on either short or long-term basis. As far as encouragement goes, I would tell any family trying the experiment just to give themselves grace. We’re all bound to fail, but the important thing is the intent behind your actions. No need to feel guilty for buying a pair of earrings or a new grill. But when it happens, think of ways you can use it for good. Use the one-in-one-out method to donate some other earrings of yours to a woman going on a job interview. Or throw a get-to-know-you barbecue for the neighborhood.
As for caution, simply be very intentional about why you are doing it. For us, it wasn’t about saving money. We did end up saving money, but it was really an opportunity to get back to our family mission statement: to live lives of integrity by owning what we have, growing in faith together and serving God’s people to build a world without need.
The intention is much more important than the outcome. Because we did have a few incidences where we fell off the wagon. Our story isn’t one of ‘Look at how amazing these people are.’ I think most people could do it, but we needed to answer the question of ‘was it meaningful for our family?” and I can answer yes, because of the intent behind it.
We realize this was, in the end, not a great sacrifice for us. And we really did it to try to connect back to a lot of the values of our mission year that were simplicity and relationships and faith. We could have made it a lot harder on ourselves.
Some people said, “They aren’t growing their own food. They aren’t making their own clothes.” And they are right. Our rules could have been much harder. The goal wasn’t to live off the grid, it was to be satisfied with what we had while maintaining meaningful relationships.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article indicated "Presgov" was no longer in existence. The article has been updated to reflect the organization's new name, the Antioch Partnership.