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01 January 2009

Weathering the economic storm

Weathering the economic storm

As the world is gripped by financial turmoil, Steve Pierce, head of the education ministry Stewardship Money, writes...

In October 1987, BBC weatherman Michael Fish famously assured viewers there was no hurricane on the way. In fact, Britain experienced its biggest storm since 1703. Two decades later, the first run on a British bank in 100 years warned of a growing financial storm. Given a new mood of critical reappraisal, the Church can speak a contemporary, even prophetic, word within society - a word of hope in challenging times.

But to do so with conviction and integrity requires change for the Church. We need our thinking about, talking about and use of money to be biblically shaped and directed, so that we act as followers of Christ and not ust consumers.

We should start by recognising that we have spoken far too little on topics about which the Bible has plenty to say. It is often said there are over 2,350 verses on wealth and possessions. Among them, Deuteronomy 8 suggests three essential perspectives on wealth that can help us: money as gift, temptation and as a covenant obligation.

The abundant gift

Along with our physical bodies, God gave to us the material things we need. Firstly, Deuteronomy tells of the abundant gift of land. "Gift" means practicing gratitude: if we are privileged to work, we should hold our pay slips thankfully when millions receive benefits or minimum wage. "Gift" means joyful generosity, knowing that in giving we reflect the heart of the Giver for the poor.

The writer of Deuteronomy also understands that our sense of "gift" is undermined by our casual language of owning, earning and deserving. Herein lies temptation. We focus on today, often sharing a commonplace dissatisfaction with what we have. Wealth can capture our hearts and we end up wanting more. The credit crunch and recession may provide the discipline we need to think again about our attitude to credit.

The credit crunch may provide the discipline we need to think again

Thirdly, Deuteronomy teaches that the gift brings covenant obligations: lend generously to the poor, protect the weak, lend without interest, release economic slaves and cancel debts. Of course these things need thoughtful modern application, but the principle that a gift creates social obligations remains true. If we can rescue banks to the tune of £5,000 billion globally and nationalise a building society in a weekend, why is it so difficult to find the £150 billion to meet the Millennium Development Goals for the poorest people on earth?

A sustainable lifestyle

Authentic, biblical stewardship knows God as both owner and giver of all and demands that we become responsible and accountable. Our lifestyle must be sustainable, characterised by celebration, contentment and gratitude.

At the heart of biblical stewardship is the practice of generosity. Such generosity, in both individuals and society, is an effective antidote to the desire for more. It honours God and not our chosen lifestyle. Generosity acknowledges that Jesus is Lord of our money and puts into practice our obligation to be openhearted and open-handed to the poor.

Christians will feel the effects of this global turmoil, so how can churches take action? Do we simply batten down the hatches, pray for shelter and hope to ride out the storm? Or does our faith have something to say - something to offer not just to our congregations but also to the communities of which we are a part? There is a window of opportunity to prepare now before the effects of recession bite hard.

We would encourage each church to be "recession ready", to think about, adapt and develop a strategy to enable it to serve the vulnerable in both the congregation and community:

  • Start talking money in different ways within the church
  • Train a crisis-response team that can offer support
  • Know how to support and where to point people in debt
  • Offer training in financial literacy and managing a budget
  • Identify under-utilised resources in your congregation and community
  • Establish a hardship fund for emergency situations
  • Covenant to maintain or increase giving to the world's poorest people
  • Co-operate locally with churches, community groups and networks
  • Establish practical and emotional support for the newly unemployed
  • Make it a point of corporate church prayer

Economic hardship is not the time to stop giving. "If you close your ears to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard" (Proverbs 21.13). This is the time to stand out as different.

Yet generosity is not simply a response to growing financial needs. The point is to glorify God, and this concerns how we are more than what we do. The current climate is an opportunity to teach and model stewardship. The primary purpose is to change how we are around money as an integral part of Christian discipleship and to glorify God in our lives and lifestyles.

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