My parents separated on December 26, 1978. I was frustrated the previous evening by the breaking of one of my new toys. And when Dad announced the next morning that he was moving out, my biggest concern was the absence of my chief toy-fixer (to Dad's credit, on his next visit with me, he worked on the toy in question). Thus began my life as an only-child in a single-parent home.

Because Mom had to take me most places that she went, she started taking me shopping. At first, I really didn't like shopping (other than acquiring a new book to read - and to Mom's credit, she kept me stocked with good books to read), but by the time I became a teenager, I discovered that I really liked clothes. I liked shopping for them. I liked buying them. I liked wearing them for a while, and then I liked getting some more. Though our budget was certainly tight, Mom also liked shopping for both of us. Trips from my small town of Pryor, OK to the nearest city of Tulsa, OK occurred on most free weekends. Shopping became a way for Mom and I to connect - we had good conversations in the car on our way to and from Tulsa, and we ate out. But looking back, I don't think shopping was simply about buying things we needed or even really wanted (especially considering how packed our closets became). We were not simply trying to fill our closets, because even after doing that we still shopped. I suspect we were trying to fill a greater void.

Today I still like clothes. I'm an amateur aesthete who likes colors, textures, patterns, and shapes. And clothes allow for both an experience and an expression of all of that. Online shopping allows for acquisition-possibilities unimaginable in the 1980's (not to mention the possibilities enabled by "owning" (considering the recent economic meltdown associated with debt-financed credit, I suggest that we don't "own" our cards. They own us) a credit card). However, in spite of both my enjoyment of clothes and my credit-card-and-internet-empowered-opportunities to purchase them, I've decided to spend the next three months with only 33 items of clothing.

Sort of. The short explanation is that I'm participating in something called "Project 333." The long explanation begins with a National Public Radio interview with Elaine St. James during the late 1990's, introducing me to the concept of "voluntary simplicity." As a seminary student expecting a life filled with low-paying ministry jobs, a philosophy of possessions that encouraged me to pair down seemed especially appealing - if I purchased less stuff, purchased only quality stuff, and could somehow embrace the maxim "use it up; wear it out; make do; or do without" (a Shaker maxim. The Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" is a personal favorite; Aaron Copeland's arrangement for Appalachian Spring made it famous), then I expected that our financial problems would be solved. Unfortunately, I had not considered rising medical expenses combined with chronic health issues, but perhaps that should be saved for another discussion.

I read whatever I could about voluntary simplicity in the late 1990's and started applying some of its principles. This past year I discovered a minimalist blog by Joshua Becker (becomingminimalist.com). What I especially appreciated about Becker was that he pursued minimalism while raising a family, so he understood some of the give and take necessary in family life, house maintenance, and lawn care. Minimalism for a college student would include a backpack and a bedroll; minimalism for a married-with-kids 30-something would probably include a washer, a dryer, and a garage with some other stuff. Becker's ever-practical blog introduced me to Project 333.

You can find the rules at http://www.bemorewithless.com/2010/quick-start-guides-for-project-333/. Basically, to participate in Project 333, limit yourself to 33 clothing items and wearable accessories for three months. That may sound impossible, but there are some exceptions that make it doable. For example, pajamas and exercise gear don't count (assuming you don't wear these items to get groceries). I'm adding my lawn-work clothes to this list as well.

As I write this article, I'm still gearing up for my winter list, and I'm giving myself through the first week of January to finalize it. If I find something on here doesn't work, then I'm applying the one-in, one-out rule. Here is a list of what I'm planning to wear over the next 3 months:

  • Grey Slacks (1 pair)
  • Khaki Pants (2 pairs)
  • Jeans (2 pairs)
  • Shorts (2 pairs)
  • Button Up Shirts (7)
  • Long Sleeve T-Shirts (2)
  • Short Sleeve T-Shirts (5)
  • Short Sleeve Collared Shirts (2)
  • Blue Blazer (1)
  • Winter Coat (1)
  • Light Jacket (1)
  • Shoes (3 pairs)
  • Hat (1)
  • Belt (1)
  • Set of Ties (1)
  • Additional Item To Be Determined (1)
  • TOTAL = 33

You'll note I "cheated" a bit on the ties - I listed them as a "set" rather than individual items, but that is the great thing about this project. The principle is more important than a legalistic interpretation of the rules. Also, you'll note that a watch is not on the list. I don't own a watch (I just use the clock on my cell-phone). Ladies may object that this project is easier for guys than for girls. Two responses: (1) you are right, and yet (2) the Facebook Project 333 list of fans appears to be made mostly of women.

So why do I share this article with you? First, I need the accountability. I began experimenting with Project 333 for the fall (October-December) and began to "cheat" at the end. This time I'm hoping that a few of my friends will read this article and ask me how resolute I've been in following the program. Next, I share it because the pursuit of minimalism and its cousin-concept of voluntary-simplicity could benefit many Americans, but especially those struggling with compulsive consumption - a behavior pattern encouraged by a constant sense of dissatisfaction with our current possessions (see Dave Bruno on "American Style Consumerism" at http://guynameddave.com/2010/12/what-is-american-style-consumerism/).

Minimalism is also a spiritual discipline. It is a disciplined response to the temptation of building bigger barns. Remember the parable about the foolish man who built bigger barns for all of his wealth? The man's problem was not necessarily his wealth, but rather his attitude toward it. He spent his energies counting his wealth rather than considering his relationship with God. Likewise Project 333 is not an end unto itself, but a way to remove some of the distractions associated with a lifestyle of constant consumption. Even with my semi-failed attempt at 333 during the fall, I found it refreshing not to start my workday with "hmm... what shall I wear?" but, "gee... wonder what's clean?"

In an era that struggles with contentment, Paul's advice to Timothy seems especially relevant: "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Timothy 6:6). We live in an era that teaches us to be discontent, and reinforces it through a variety of media. Yet we receive little advice or example on how to really be content. Even in the church, the very place that could teach us so much about this spiritual discipline of contentment, we often find a focus on bringing us the latest music and other media in an attempt to be relevant. In other words, the worship programming sometimes empowers our consumerism rather than tempers it.

If your desire for minimalism exceeds what Project 333 offers, then you might consider the 100 Things project. It is an attempt to limit the entirety of one's personal possessions (including mundane items like pens and keys) to 100 total items.  Impossible in our modern society? Apparently not, as Dave Bruno's newly published The 100 Thing Challenge proves.

Although attempts at minimalism have much to offer Christians (and living with less predates 20th century Christianity, such as John Wesley's financial advice: "Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can"), minimalism can become its own form of idolatry - simply a replacement for the idol of consumerism. Remember, Paul tells us not to pursue contentment alone, but "Godliness with contentment." And even that contentment must be tempered with Jesus' pronouncement that blessed are those who "hunger and thirst" for righteousness. In other words, it is OK to have a void. But neither excessive consumerism will fill it, nor will diligent minimalism pacify it. So for now I'm trying to curb my consumer hunger in hopes that a holier hunger will take its place.

Stanley J. Ward serves as the Biblical Worldview Director at The Brook Hill School (www.brookhill.org) and frequently speaks at conferences (www.stanleyjward.com). He is also a PhD candidate and napkin theologian (www.napkinvideo.com).

Publication date: January 13, 2011