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America’s Unavoidable Rendezvous With Austerity, and How It Affects the Church

In the early days of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said: “We have always known that the heedless pursuit of self-interest was bad morals; we now know that is also bad economics.”  According to the US Census Bureau, median income in the United States has been declining for the last decade.  Middle America took a substantial hit with the crash of the dot-com boom in 2001, and has never fully recovered.  With the mass exodus of manufacturing jobs to China and IT / Help Desk jobs to India, America’s middle class work force s finding itself with substantial and permanent household income reductions.  The politically correct refer to this situation as “the internationalization of the US economy”, the “realities of the new global economy”, and a number of other things.  However one wishes to phrase it, America’s economy is on a steep declining course and it has been for more than a decade.

This is certainly no surprise to America’s churches.  In a survey of more than 1,000 Protestant Pastors by Lifeway (http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/files/lwcF_LifeWay_Research_Financial_Downturn_for_Churches_in_2010_pdf.pdf ) the following results were tabulated:

  • 2010 was the third straight year of declining value in total offerings
  • Almost half of Protestant churches are now spending more than their budgets
  • Two thirds of Protestant churches are receiving increased calls for financial assistance
  • Over half of Protestant churches are reporting increased needs to assist their communities financially
  • Over half of Protestant churches are reporting that their congregations and their church boards (elders or deacons) are more cautious now about making commitments of financial support
  • 58% of the churches surveyed have experienced an increase in the level of unemployment among their congregations

As a result of these circumstances, most Protestant churches are freezing the salaries of church staff or reducing them – either by reducing staff or by reducing salary levels.  Many are also doing things themselves that they previously outsourced to community businesses and individuals to cut costs.  Given the current propensity of Americans – and government in all its forms – to spend more than their income, this is a situation that will only worsen for the foreseeable future.  As David Pearce Snyder pointed out in a recent issue of The Futurist Magazine (http://www.amazon.com/rendezvous-austerity-American-consumers-Futurist/dp/B002EWJL4I) , “in spite of falling household income, US consumer spending has risen in recent years.”  “Vigorous growth in American consumption has consistently outstripped subpar gains in household income,” wrote Stephen Roach, chief economist for Morgan Stanley Asia.  “In the days of frothy asset markets, American consumers had no compunction about squandering their savings and spending beyond their incomes”.  The situation has been further exacerbated by the easy access to low-cost credit, making it far too tempting for Americans to live beyond their means.

Viewing these circumstances from a Biblical perspective, it’s pretty easy to see some lessons that apply.  The first, of course, is that neither Christians nor anyone else should live beyond their means. The Bible includes a number of pretty fundamental economic principles reduced to their basest element – man’s desire for material things.  The Bible refers to this as covetousness.   “Beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). “Let your conduct be without covetousness, and be content with such things as you have” (Heb. 13:5).  The Bible also instructs Christians to set money aside not only for themselves but for their children and their grandchildren: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children” (Prov. 13:22).  Most importantly, the Bible instructs us to prepare ourselves for difficult financial times.  Just as Daniel advised the Pharaoh to set aside grain in years of plenty against future years of famine, we should be prepared with our own savings for economic downturn. “Like fish taken in a cruel net, like birds caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon them” (Eccl. 9:12).

But looking below the surface of the obvious, there are other lessons for modern day Christians – and especially for leaders of our Protestant churches.  First of all, God expects those who have been blessed by Him financially to support His church with tithes and offerings. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more. (Luke 12:48)  Personally, this makes great sense to me; it is the reason that I support a flat income tax for everyone without exception and without exemption.

Secondly, Christ expects His followers to reach out to the poor and needy, making that a part of their personal ministry.  In fact, Jesus was very encouraging about giving beyond what would be considered reasonable. And [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a certain poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

When we review the facts from the Lifeway Survey referenced above, we see a picture of Christian leadership who – when times become financially challenging – cut back on church spending rather than giving more to the church, and actually volunteered less time volunteering in the church’s outreach ministries.  This is human nature, of course, and from a business perspective it makes financial sense.  They run the church like a business in many respects.  But that is not consistent with the model of the New Testament Church as Christ demonstrated by example, and as it was demonstrated in the days of the Apostle Paul and Timothy.  It reflects a lack of faith, a lack of confidence that God is in control, and a failure to respond to God as though they believe He has brought them to these circumstances for a reason, and He will see them through.

What do you think?

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