For years I have prayed that God would do whatever it took to get our attention—to turn us from false idols and back to Him. Be careful what you pray for; if the current economic meltdown is an answer to prayer, God is certainly getting our attention!
Like everybody else, I find myself squirming. My retirement income has dipped and our ministry is scrambling to slash costs.
But as bad as things are, I’ve also seen good things emerge. A recent headline in the New York Times read “Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches.” It told the story of an evangelical church in “a Long Island hamlet of yacht clubs and hedge fund managers.”
The “sudden crush of worshipers” has required the church to “set up an overflow room with closed-circuit TV and 100 folding chairs.”
It’s not only the hedge fund and yacht club set. In the not as upscale but equally delightful Flatlands section of Brooklyn, members of the Christian Cultural Center are arriving early to make sure they can get seats.
As the senior pastor and founder of New York’s largest evangelical church, A. R. Bernard told the Times, “When people are shaken to the core, it can open doors.”
This openness isn’t limited to New York. Seattle’s Mars Hill Church has added 1,000 members in 2008 alone, most coming in the fall.
Nor is it limited to our times. In the wake of the 1857 economic panic, a group of New York businessman met to pray in church a few blocks from Wall Street. The resulting Fulton Street Prayer Revival that led to tens of thousands of conversions in New York alone and perhaps a million across the country. In addition, the American branch of the Salvation Army can trace it origins to the revival which started in the wake of a Wall Street collapse.
The connection between openness to the Gospel and tough economic times has continued. A recent study by David Beckworth of Texas State University found that during “each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004,” evangelical churches grew 50 percent faster than during better economic times.
All of this makes perfect sense. During good economic times, we, like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, feel self-satisfied and complete. We marvel that we’re so awesome and tell ourselves “eat, drink, and be merry.” It’s why pride is the deadliest sin and why our Lord warned us about the snares of wealth.
Thankfully, such a time as this helps even Christians rethink false assumptions. Feeling self-satisfied during good times is not only dangerous, it’s an illusion. As we’ve have learned the hard way, even great fortunes can be lost a lot faster than they were made. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the prospect of going broke does wonders to concentrate the mind on what is not illusory—what God has done in Christ. As one former Morgan Stanley manager put it, his experience led to a “deeper sense of ‘God’s authority over everything.’”
Americans, as a whole, may be relearning other important lessons: the need to depend on one another, and to create a sense of community—the kind we forget about in our affluence but which I remember from childhood.
I grew up during the Great Depression. Few complained about hardships; we were too busy helping worse-off neighbors. We’re seeing the same attitudes develop today. For instance, when a Texas woman recently lost her home to foreclosure, she cried as she watched it auctioned off. Observing her, another woman impulsively bid on the house, won, and then gave it back to its original owner—a total stranger. Why did she do it? “People need to help each other, and that’s all there is to it,” the woman said.
Other Americans—newly on tight budgets—are discovering that it’s much nicer to eat a home-cooked meal as a family than to grab a burger somewhere. Others are opening their homes to adult children who can no longer afford their own apartments—and enjoying family life once more.
Another surprising benefit of renewed community spirit is that history tells us crime rates will go down. An extensive study by Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the Kaiser Institute, found only one reliable predictor of crime rates in a community: whether it had, or lacked, a strong sense of community values and a willingness to impose those values on public space—what researchers called “community cohesion.” Crime was low in neighborhoods where people felt free to discipline neighborhood kids caught skipping school or scrawling graffiti on walls.
Sociologist James Q. Wilson found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, crime always drops in hard times. “The Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime,” he writes. It also lessened divorce, as Mike Gerson notes in the Washington Post. Many Americans “adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption that lasted through their lifetimes—and that have decayed in our own,” Gerson writes.
While I did not wish for this economic collapse, we can, at least, be glad to see some lessening of our moral decay and signs of renewed spiritual interest.
As the recession plays out, Christians should be looking with confidence to God, living radically holy lives, truly loving God and our neighbors—and letting a fearful world watch us. That would be a powerful witness. And if the economic news starts improving, let’s not forget the good lessons we have learned.
This article originally appeared in BreakPoint WorldView Magazine, June 2009.
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