Ronald Reagan famously said, “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours.” Over the last few decades the economy has had its ups and downs. And while some segments of the economy may have been rocked in any given recession, like the bursting of the dotcom bubble, the church could more or less ride out the downturn with little impact. It was always someone else’s recession. But that may not be the case anymore.
In the last few weeks I’ve spoken with a number of church leaders from across the country. They’re all saying the same thing: giving is down sharply, December probably won’t make up the shortfall, and they’re looking at cutting staff and ministries in 2009. As if this wasn’t stressful enough on leaders, they also have to counsel hurting congregations with members facing unemployment, failing businesses, and disappearing retirement accounts. One church I spoke to that has been particularly hard hit by the collapse of the housing market had an elder commit suicide recently. The economic recession is suddenly looking like a church depression.
No one knows how long this recession will last or how far the economy will slip, but this may serve as a wakeup call to an American church that has built its missional strategy on the assumption of affluence. If the downturn is protracted, it may cause churches to reevaluate their philosophy of ministry. Just as the Great Depression gave FDR the mandate to implement his New Deal, the present economic environment may give the church a mandate to develop its own New Deal–not one that consolidates power in the hands of leaders and institutional bodies, but one that decentralizes control and empowers people to finally be the church. If those delayed plans to build a larger facility or hire new staff members cannot be taken off the shelf in two, three, or five years because of the economy, we may finally be forced to think more creatively about advancing God’s mission?
Neil Cole, in an interview in the latest issue of Leadership, said his research concluded that using traditional church planting methods-hiring staff and building facilities-it would cost $80 billion to reach the city of Atlanta with the gospel. Even in a robust economy, that number is prohibitively large. Perhaps its time for American church leaders to begin learning from pastors in the developing world who have few resources but where the gospel is spreading nonetheless.
Tom Sine, author of The New Conspirators, has also spoken about the danger of predicating our ministry model on the automobile. Megachurches in particular have flourished by drawing attenders from a wide geographic area. But if average fuel prices rise high enough, we may see driving habits shift as people become more reluctant to commute multiple times a week to a church facility. Economic realities may accelerate the already perceptible trend toward decentralized ministry.
Faith should protect us from the fear seizing many in these uncertain times, but faith should also lead us greater creativity and an ever increasing trust in God to continue his mission even as resources disappear.
Read part 2 of “Mission and Recession.”