But in America, individualism and materialism have made these practices all too rare.  Our level of giving alone - only about 3 or 4 percent even for evangelicals - is a testament to the corrosive effect of these cultural influences have had on the American church.  Few churches I have seen are willing to challenge this in any serious way, often for fear of offending people who could and would give far more if they saw "their" possessions as God's rather than their own.

Preparing for the Future
But this will not serve us in the times ahead.  Not that we should be generous for purely pragmatic reasons.  But selfishness is easier to tolerate in times of wealth than in times of want.  American church leaders need to begin purposefully directing American Christians toward better pastures, where we share generously with each other and others to meet upcoming challenges.  As I mentioned in an earlier article, a ship pointed at a large wave is more likely to stay afloat than a ship hit broadside by the same wave.

Let me mention here just a few practical suggestions including several recommended by Christian author Dr. Amy L. Sherman* who spoke in our city (Richmond, VA) several months ago.  All of these ideas are based on the biblical principle that we are no more than stewards of our resources, all of which are ultimately owned by God and which should be used as He wants.  This includes generous giving (1 Tim 6:6-8; Matt. 19:21; Rom. 12:13; Phil 4:15) that is done for the right reasons — not from compulsion or one-upmanship (1 Cor. 13:3) — but rather, in recognition that some of our possessions were given to us by God with the specific purpose of meeting others' needs (2 Cor. 8). 

Making large purchases with others:  Rather than spending large sums on items we use infrequently (like a riding mower or piece of heavy equipment), we can purchase those things with others.

Time-banking:  This is an innovative idea in which people offer set amounts of time for a particular service (baby sitting, lawn care or carpentry), which they then use to "withdraw" time donated by others whose skills they need.   For example, a person can offer 10 hours of babysitting time then request 10 hours of handyman or lawn care time from someone else.

Instruction on budgeting and stewardship:  Many churches do this already, but one element Amy has suggested is ensuring accountability for our spending.   Once we learn biblical principles for budgeting and finance, we need to make ourselves accountable to trusted friends for implementing those principles.  This rubs against our individualism but can be a great help in overcoming wasteful financial habits that make poor use of God's resources.

Encouraging socially responsible business practices:  Christians who are interested in supporting businesses that use responsible business practices (such as fair lending) can research specific companies and industries, then share that information with others, since research of this kind can be very time consuming.  Researching local businesses may be particularly important since good corporate citizens in our area may be experiencing lean times and may be worthy of our support.

Yard sales and swaps:  In addition to donating unused items to charities, churches can hold yard sales, clothes and food swaps, to share unused items with church members and others in need. 

Hospitality:  This is a simple but under-practiced way of reaching out to others without spending large sums on eating out.   It is also commanded in scripture, something we may hear too little about in our individualistic culture (including in our churches).  (Rom. 12:13).

These are just a few things to consider.  But higher tides are coming.  It is time for church leaders to make sustained, concerted efforts to encourage these practices for the Church's good and God's glory. 

Steve Hall is the Executive Director of Joseph's Way (www.josephsway.org), a ministry designed to prepare Christians for social, economic, and physical challenges that are ahead. He is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and is a licensed attorney. He and his wife live in Richmond, Virginia.

*Dr. Amy L. Sherman is Director of the Center on Faith in Communities (Charlottesville, VA) and is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research.