Rediscovering the Blessings of Christian Community in Tough Economic Times
- Tuesday, December 29, 2009
By now, there is no question that the U.S. is looking at an uncertain economic future. Both our personal and national debt is growing at a frightening pace, while the "new New Deal" administration in Washington D.C. marches on with sweeping economic policy changes that many Christians find troubling, to say the least.
With signs like this before us, the American church needs to look for ways that it can better prepare for what may be a long season of economic difficulty ahead in order to help people inside and outside the church. I say this not merely for pragmatic reasons, but in order for the church to be in the position to provide a potent witness to a world that is increasingly plagued by doubt and uncertainty.
What is sorely needed in the American church is an altogether different way of living life together. It is a vision based on the biblical truth that all our time and possessions really belong to God, and that we should invest our time and possessions in the way He sees fit. This does not negate property rights at a temporal level, but it acknowledges a higher ownership (God's) over all that we have.
Many authors have addressed this topic over time, with experience much greater than mine. But I hope the thoughts below are practical and helpful.
Learning from the Past
The first corporate example of this kind of community was (of course) the Church in the Book of Acts, where in Chapters 2 through 4 we see the first Christians selling their property to provide for the needs of others (e.g., Acts 2:42-47). As this continued, God added new members to the Church daily. Early church leaders, such as Barnabas, a Levite, sold their property and gave the proceeds to help this large but poor church. Barnabas, as a Levite, was part of a landed class. His gift alone would have gotten no small notice.
It is important to note that nowhere in Acts do we see any criticism of property ownership. The giving that was done was prompted by the Holy Spirit and was voluntary. But we also see a transformed group of people who realized that all they were and had ultimately belonged to God, who was free to redistribute it as he pleased and as his people needed. The early Church simply cooperated with that process. The Apostle Paul continued this work by gathering a large gift from Gentile believers to help their poorer Jewish brethren in Jerusalem.
But this miracle of generous community did not stop there. It has been replicated to varying degrees throughout Church history. The Moravians, a persecuted group of believers in what is now Germany, formed a similar community in the early 1700s when they, too, had a Pentecost like experience. That community, called Herrnhut, respected property ownership but encouraged great generosity among the community, both in giving resources and service. It's effects are still felt today in thousands of lives who were touched by the prayers, missionary efforts and similar communities spawned by that group.
Other Christian communities of the past have likewise encouraged generous giving and service. The Clapham Sect, which prayed and labored with William Wilberforce to abolish slavery in England, included exceptionally wealthy individuals who died penniless in order to purchase freedom for slaves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book Life Together, discusses the miracle and challenges of living in community as he and other believers lived together in Nazi Germany. Various Roman Catholic communities have encouraged sacrificial giving and the sharing of possessions for centuries.
More recently, a friend at a Christian organization mentioned how he lived in a Christian community, which paid his way through law school. The reason: that community saw a calling in this man for encouraging biblically based legal reform for which he needed a law degree.
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.
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