the recession and the affluent church

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Sunday, March 15th, 2009

the recession and the affluent church

it only takes about 2 seconds of watching any news channel to receive a panicky reminder of the reality of the recession. likewise, it takes maybe half that time to be reminded about it at church. whether it’s a sermon reference or a bulletin announcement or just a couple people having a conversation before the service, the economy is on the mind and lips of people everywhere.

to me, the interesting dynamic—in the context of in-church references—is that, much to some people’s surprise, jesus talks more about money than any other topic. more than personal salvation, more than the afterlife and more than the church. almost 2/3 of jesus’ parables dealt with money. so, it goes without saying that people who follow jesus should have a focus on poverty and social justice and issues of economic equality.
surprisingly though, when i hear talk in the church (and among christians in general) about the recession, it’s more of a “woe is me” kind of attitude. now, let me first say that i think there are genuinely people hurting because of the recession—no doubt about it. people who have lost their jobs, first and foremost, are hurting. to use a somewhat humorous analogy, though, it’s sort of like when you have that skinny friend—whose substantially more thin than you—who constantly talks about how fat and disgusting they are. all the while, you’re thinking that they must view you as a gargantuan, slimy blob of a person if they think they’re fat. so it is with people who—by global and even, many times, local standards—are affluent talking about how awful their lives have suddenly become because of the recession. all the while, the guy living on the street or the people who are truly suffering are raising an eyebrow at what they’re hearing.
recently in an interview, shane claiborne talked about the recession and made a really great modern day connection with a story from the book of revelation. in chapter 18, we see the economic demise of babylon in which the merchants are opening weeping because of their financial ruin. while merchants weep, the angels rejoice. it isn’t that god and the angels are some kind of sadistic jerks, but it’s that babylon’s economic values were oppressive to the poor and had no reliance on god’s provision. it’s easy to see parallels in the united states. capitalism is literally built on greed, we’ve used billions of dollars to fight global wars and we’ve done very little to address widespread poverty in our country, not to mention global poverty issues.
i don’t mean this as some kind of ‘oh happy day’ recession post. the recession is definitely a bad thing, but i just think it’s time for christians, particularly, to quit the pity party and use this as a time to begin to reprioritize our lives and finances in a way that looks more like jesus. there’s people who are truly suffering financially and it’s not us people who are going to church in some giant building, surfing our high speed internet and walking around with our iphones (i just described a small slice of my life and trust me, my life couldn’t be any less descriptive of an affluent life…just to make the point). seriously.
i came across a piece called a letter to the affluent church by jeff goins on’s new page called ‘reject apathy’ and it fits so well with what i’m advocating here. here it is:

Dear Christian,

Please stop complaining about the economic recession in America. Seriously. It’s beginning to bug me. I’m bothered by the mass layoffs as much as the next person, but I just can’t help but be irked by how you’re coping with this so-called crisis. So, if you don’t mind, please stop your whining.

Please stop thinking that the “blessed are the poor” verse in the Beatitudes now applies to you, because you had to stop going out to eat more than once a week. I would appreciate it if you would stop lamenting how you’re strapped for cash and forced to “cut costs” just after you bought your teenager her very own cell phone with text messaging plan. There are real people who are hurting during this time, and it’s apparently not you. Not while your kids play their hand-held video games in the backseat of the Suburban and you and the Mrs. enjoy worship tunes blasting from the iPod. Not while you drink Starbucks coffee after church and spend your Sundays taking naps in a well-heated home.

No, you’re not “hurting” as badly as you’d like to think. So, give it a rest, would you? Your “sufferings” are insults to those who have been laid off and tossed to the curb. Your “trials” are simply offensive to those who have lost their homes in the past six months. Frankly, right now, I’m a little ashamed to be included among you.

However, I’m concerned that there may be more at stake here than just your family’s ability to go on vacation or buy more plasma screen TVs. A world that has been skeptical of evangelicalism for awhile now has an opportunity to be proven wrong, and I’m worried that we’re missing it. Because we’re caught up in the melodrama of our own inconveniences, we’re missing the chance to show those who have yet to see true Christianity in action. I’m not talking about megachurches and light shows. I’m talking about the kind of Christianity that puts generosity above self-preservation. I’m talking about the kind of Christianity that gives not just out of its affluence, but even out of its poverty. I’m talking about the kind of Christianity where solidarity doesn’t just mean being united in orthodox beliefs, but it also means sharing each other’s resources.

There is something else that really puzzles me, dear Christian. If you’re really hurting during this recession as you claim to be, why in the world haven’t you turned off your cable or satellite service in order to make this month’s rent? Why do you still drive that new gas-guzzler all over the suburbs? And why the heck are you still buying brand-name foods and clothing?

Let’s be perfectly clear—I don’t have anything against SUVs, nice restaurants, or even home entertainment. But you said, “Times are tough,” and I’m just failing to see it. If that were the case, wouldn’t your spending habits have changed by now? Wouldn’t you stop going to the mall every Saturday afternoon? Wouldn’t you have been forced to sell something in order to feed your children? Or was that not necessary? Did you mean to say, “I can no longer comfortably consume everything in sight without seeing the natural consequences of my greed”? Is that what you meant?

I’m not trying to be a jerk; I just want you to see that there are bigger things happening than your own excessive wants not being met. Consider the possibility that some families in your neighborhood have recently lost all forms of income. They’re hurt, confused, and scared. A Jesus-follower like yourself could do them a lot of good, if you were aware of their plight. Be warned—it’s impossible to significantly help others, if you’re feeling sorry for yourself.

I am sure that you’ve heard Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” at some point. You may have even listened to a preacher pontificate on the principle that God doesn’t give us “much” until we’ve proven ourselves trustworthy with “little.” I wonder if maybe the opposite is now happening—that our Lord wants to see what we’ll do with less than we’re accustomed to having. Will we bravely give, even when our own creature comforts take a hit, or will we get caught up in our frustrated pursuits of consumption and excess? I realize that you may have had to make some real sacrifices lately, and I don’t want to make light of that. If that’s the case, then I challenge you (and myself) to consider how God may still be calling us to be courageously generous. Maybe during this recession, He is calling us to bless others. Not because we can afford it, but because we, as members of an invisible kingdom that offers freedom from the world’s system, can’t afford not to be so bold with whatever He has entrusted to us.