Money blogger Carl Richards of the New York Times used to think that helping someone get very clear on their current financial reality was the easy part of financial planning. Once reality was framed, the hard part started: like determining where you want to be in 20 years, and then guessing at such things as the rate of return you will earn and inflation.
He’s learned that it’s defining reality that’s the tough part.
Based on a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, very few Americans have a clear grasp of their financial reality. For example, only 50 percent of households report having credit card debt, while credit card companies say the number is actually 76 percent of households.
The average household also reported credit card debt of $4,700. Lenders, however, report an average balance per household of over $7,100.
Some of this comes from willful ignorance. We don’t want to know our credit card balances, so we don’t pay attention to it (when you are overweight, the last think you want to see is a scale).
The truth is that you can’t make progress if you have no idea from where you are starting. Rogers observes, “I’ve noticed that the biggest difference between people who reach their financial goals and those who don’t is knowledge of where they stand in the first place.”
This is more than a financial necessity.
It’s a spiritual one.
Mecklenburg experiences over 70 percent of its total growth from a unique population: the previously unchurched. It’s a staggeringly high number, but it has been consistently this high for many years, tracked carefully through our membership process.
One of the “secrets” to our success is that we understand the self-deception most people are under.
Among the unchurched, spiritual progress can’t be made until reality is defined in two very important areas where self-delusion runs high.
First, the typical unchurched person enters our doors thinking that, in some way or another, they are a Christian. Typically, they aren’t. At best they have a cultural Christianity; a pseudo-faith which addresses very little of their life. They know of God, but don’t know God.
Second, the typical unchurched person who begins attending does not consider themselves a sinner. A “mistaker,” yes, but not a sinner.
Understanding these two areas of blindness is critical to speaking into the soul of our culture.
In regard to the first area of blindness, we must navigate a three-stage process: help them realize the vacuous nature of their spiritual life, help them explore authentic spirituality as offered through Christ, and then facilitate that relationship beginning and growing.
Or more simply put, they come in thinking they are a Christian, they need to discover they’re not, and then we need to help them become one.
As for the second area of deception, we have the tricky business of helping them see they are more than merely a “mistaker,” but are a sinner, a person in open moral rebellion against a holy God. And that the wages of those sins are spiritual death.
This is a stiff drink for the average person of our day.
But unless there is a clear sense of personal sin, coupled with the holiness of God, the very heart of salvation will be waved off with an apathetic wave of the hand. Without a clear sense of sin, grace isn’t…well, amazing;
Much less needed.
So I agree with the financial planners:
I’ve noticed that the biggest difference between churches that have people coming to Christ, and those that don’t, is how adept they are at helping people gain an understanding of where they stand in the first place. Until they know where they are starting from, it is going to be very hard to get them anywhere.
James Emery White
“Self-Delusion on Finances,” Carl Richards, The New York Times, Saturday, October 29, 2011, p. B4.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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