We live in strange and unsettling times. Times in which it seems everything that can be shaken is being shaken “so that what cannot be shaken may remain” (Hebrews 12:27).

The global pandemic has stopped the world in its tracks. Locking entire nations down, it has relieved people of any sense of control they might have had. Across the UK, the church has responded admirably to the trauma. Loving our neighbours, meeting their needs and taking opportunities to introduce them to Jesus – the unshakable rock of ages, the hope of the nations. No doubt these works of amazing grace will continue. But it’s now time to look ahead. Like the leaders of the tribe of Issachar who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32), now is the time to prayerfully scan the horizon, and to plan strategically.

In these dystopian times, neither gloom and doom’ nor a hope-grope’ will help God’s people with this task. Only a sober analysis of the great challenges and changes we face will enable us to see and seize the great opportunities ahead.

The pandemic has accelerated and intensified a range of political and technological trends, such as: the move towards a cashless society, the move towards a surveillance society, remote working, localism, big tech power, artificial intelligence, media misinformation, identity politics, mass hysteria, culture warring and civil disorder. COVID has quickened these trends, but we can expect them to quicken further because the economic impact of the virus will dwarf the impact of the virus itself. Indeed, with countries now needing to reassess globalisation and dependency on each other, some are describing the situation as the end of the world economy as we know it”.

In March, the US Federal Reserve forecast unemployment in America to rise to 30 per cent by mid-2021. This conservative estimate’ is particularly alarming when one considers that US unemployment peaked at 26 per cent in the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the UK, the Office for Budget Responsibility is predicting similar numbers to the Fed. The now daily news reports of escalating job losses has prompted Chancellor Rishi Sunak to declare that the UK is facing a recession on a scale we have not seen” and political commentator Daniel Hannan to observe that a new generation is about to learn what mass unemployment feels like”.

However, despite a broad consensus of opinion that an economic cataclysm is a mathematical certainty, it seems that many in our society are in denial. Insulated by the furlough scheme and other emergency measures, and perhaps understandably wearied by the lockdown, people are fearful and reluctant to acknowledge what is on the horizon. As journalist Allison Pearson observes: This is like that moment on a beach in Sri Lanka when the ocean suddenly recedes. Families are still playing on the sand, children laughing, but the giant wave is building, gathering pace and strength. Soon it will overwhelm them, destroying everything in its path – human beings, houses, businesses, jobs, bars, hotels, hopes. The economic tsunami is coming, you can be sure of that, which is why the UK needs to get over its coronaphobia – and fast.”

There is always a possibility that the economy might confound these apocalyptic predictions and find a rhythm of recovery. Nevertheless, given the scale of what seems to be unfolding, it would be wise for evangelical Christians to hope for the best and plan for the worst. This will require prophetic imagination – and courage. Without more explicit acknowledgments of the hard realities we will all face, the voice of the church can appear to be restricted to cheerleader mode. At worst, an exclusive focus on telling good news stories can look a lot like virtue signalling. This progressive optimism may be a reflection of the socioeconomic nature of the UK church, which our 2015 Talking Jesus research has shown to be more than 70 per cent middle-class. Generally absent of a lived experience of material lack, it is possible that most church leaders and their congregations may simply be unable to imagine or understand the impact of rapid mass unemployment.

I was born and raised in Bootle, north Liverpool, at a time when multiple deprivation indices had it ranked as the poorest place in the UK – and I left school into a desert of unemployment. It was dreadful, and many people were forced to leave the city to find work. Consequently, I am under no illusions about what lies ahead and what must be done. More recently I’ve been encouraged by our Changing church research which showed that 97 per cent of church leaders say they are deeply concerned about the long-term economic consequences of crisis. This concern now needs to be converted into missional action.

Business as mission

Jesus was clear that people need to be regenerated, but He also calls for His people to change the world by demonstrating signs of His coming kingdom. This means cities and communities need to be regenerated too. As Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon affirms: Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (29:7).

In the decade ahead there is no question that Christians will have a critical role in addressing poverty issues such as housing, hunger, debt, welfare, and despair. As the pandemic has shown, the church is well placed in civil society to meet these challenges. This safety net’ role is vital, but it is also reactive. If evangelicals are to influence the inevitable post-pandemic cultural reset that is ahead, we will also need to be proactive. This means that, if we are once again going to play a key social role, there will need to be a concerted, even obsessive, focus on the issues of work, employment and enterprise.

Economic renewal is a slow process which requires political leadership. However, at heart it is a grassroots phenomenon, of innovation, inspiration and determination. If Christian leadership can rise to the challenge of encouraging social and business entrepreneurship for employment, it will play an important historic role. Through and beyond the pandemic this is the most practical and powerful way in which to help people and to shape the future. It is a prime opportunity to recast our relational priorities, both to God and to each other, in such a way that the new normal’ reflects biblical principles.

To date there has been very little attention given to job creation as a strategic missional priority for the church. Given the pressing demands of the pandemic and the daunting scale of the unfolding economic upheaval, this is in part understandable. Yet, to renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations” (Isa 61: 4) is not an impossible dream. Indeed, the church has played this public leadership role many times before. Most recently, the great evangelical social reformers of the 19th century provide us with inspiration for this task. Shaftesbury, Howard, More, Wilberforce, Butler, Cadbury, William and Catherine Booth, Mueller and many others understood the dignity of work and the value it plays in individual and social renewal. We have much to learn from people like Josiah Wedgwood, the evangelical businessman who God blessed to build a huge pottery empire, and whose motto was doing well and doing good’.

Today, there are many workplace networks and ministries in the UK that can help and advise churches and individual Christians to develop a focus on business as mission. And we have much to learn from the missional work of the church oversees in relation to micro-financing, start-ups, trade networks, mutuality, innovation, and ethical investment.

Like our illustrious predecessors, if we remain rooted in the word of God and vocal for the gospel, I believe that God will grant us the compassion, creativity and resilience we need to not only weather the storm ahead, but to also take the opportunity to radically transform our society – for His glory and for our healing.

To date there has been very little attention given to job creation as a strategic missional priority for the church.