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WORLDVIEW: Hunker down, or break free?

EDITOR’S NOTE: An audio version of this column is available here.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–It’s been a grim few months for American workers: rising prices, job losses, the home mortgage crisis, a near-meltdown of financial markets -– and fears that recession is coming, or already has arrived.

If all that isn’t discouraging enough, it’s time to pay the taxman.

U.S. employers have eliminated more than 230,000 jobs since the beginning of the year, according to Labor Department statistics released April 4. Net job losses were recorded for three months in a row for the first time since mid-2003, after 52 consecutive months of job growth. Unemployment has risen to 5.1 percent.

A New York Times/CBS News poll released April 3 reported 81 percent of respondents think “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track,” compared to 69 percent a year ago and 35 percent in early 2002. The respondents’ gloom about the nation’s direction cuts across demographic groups, including men and women, rural and urban dwellers and supporters of both major political parties.

“The dissatisfaction is especially striking because public opinion usually hits its low point only in the months and years after an economic downturn, not at the beginning of one,” reported the Times in an article about the poll. “Today, however, Americans report being deeply worried about the country even though many say their own personal finances are still in fairly good shape.”

When tougher economic conditions loom, workers and families often hunker down, tighten up on spending and hope for better days. Churchgoers often cut their offerings. Missions and outreach ministries often bear the brunt of the downturn.

Southern Baptists, however, actually increased their giving in February and March compared to the same months one year earlier, by 3.74 and 8.99 percent, respectively, according to reports from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. Also, designated giving for those months increased by 6.83 and 22.54 percent, respectively, over the same months a year earlier. Designated contributions include gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund and other special causes.

That encourages me. Faithful givers keep on giving no matter what circumstances threaten their pocketbook.

But if the economic downturn deepens –- and prices stay high -– you will face more and more psychological pressure to lock down your wallet. The pressure might come from an anxious voice within, or from the voices of those closest to you. “You’ve got to pay the bills first,” the voices may say. “The Lord’s work can wait; at least He won’t start foreclosure proceedings or turn you over to a collection agency.”

Here’s some alternative advice that might seem crazy in a cloudy economic climate: Spend less, but give more –- of your money and your time.

Now is a great time to look at where your money goes and why it goes there. What is really essential and what have you been conditioned by consumer culture to believe is essential?

“As the director of a financial ministry at my church, I get an up-close and personal look at the spending habits of a lot of people,” writes Michelle Singletary, a syndicated financial columnist with The Washington Post. “And year after year, I am stunned at the decisions people make that get them into financial trouble. I’ve seen monthly car notes the size of mortgage payments.”

Singletary recommends another financial advisor, Jeff Yeager, who calls himself the “Ultimate Cheapskate.” Yeager, a former CEO and fundraiser for nonprofits, does battle with the “Enoughasaurus,” the ravenous beast within who never thinks enough stuff is enough.

“Conditioning yourself to spend less and to be content doing so is the way to slay your Enoughasaurus,” Yeager says. “It’s the only financial advice that will work for almost anybody” with any disposable income.

If thousands of Christians break free of financial bondage to debt and pointless possessions, they will free up a whole lot of money for God’s purposes.

“It’s about how to spend less on yourself so that you have more to give to those who really need it –- and I’m talking about giving of both your treasure and your time,” Yeager says. “Here’s an idea: Rather than spend $40 on a six-hour audio tape by some financial pundit telling you how to make a bundle in the stock market, send the 40 bucks to your favorite charity and volunteer for six hours at a homeless shelter. Trust me, spending time with those who are truly needy will do more to motivate you to spend less -– and value all you already have more -– than any talking head ever will.”

Or, put that money in the offering plate this week at church and volunteer for a mission ministry. A great spiritual return on your investment isn’t just likely -– it’s guaranteed.
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges