EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. Listen to an audio version of this column at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/118/11801/11801-65109.mp3.
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–News flash: The Great Recession ended more than a year ago.
That cheery announcement came Sept. 20 from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The 18-month downturn, longest since World War II, ended in June 2009, according to the bureau.
You could’ve fooled me. You could’ve fooled a lot of folks who have lost their jobs (or can’t find one), lost their savings and lost their homes. For them, the economic crisis continues with no end in sight.
The economic recovery, if you want to call it that, has been weak. Hiring — the overwhelming concern of millions looking for work — remains stalled. Businesses won’t take on new workers until they’re convinced a growing economy will return their investment, economists say. So, nearly 15 million workers are unemployed — not counting those who have given up looking.
Many people who do have jobs fear losing them. Many older workers who have lost jobs fear they might never work again at anywhere near the salary they once commanded. Many young adults entering the job market face a long search.
Meanwhile, 4 million people fell below the poverty line in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That brings the total count of those in poverty to 44 million — or one of every seven Americans (the poverty line as defined by the government for 2009 was $10,830 in pretax income for a single adult and $22,050 for a family of four).
These realities pose many challenges for Christians. How can we most effectively help the hurting, inside and outside the church? Food pantries and soup kitchens? Job counseling and training? Partnering with Christian and secular charities and social agencies? All of the above?
Many churches are asking those questions at the same time they deal with the painful process of cutting their own local ministry budgets. A LifeWay Research survey of 1,002 Protestant pastors conducted last November revealed some trends that probably continue today:
— Two-thirds of the pastors surveyed said giving in their churches was flat or down compared to the same period in 2008. Nearly half reported they had frozen staff salaries for 2009.
— More than half the pastors reported higher unemployment in their churches. Seventy percent reported receiving more requests for financial assistance from people outside the congregation; 38 percent said they were receiving more requests for assistance from church members.
— Despite tough economic times, more than 40 percent said their churches had responded by increasing spending on behalf of needy families. One in four said their churches had launched new ministries to help needy people. Nearly half said more church members had become involved in volunteer service to their communities.
“The economic downturn is forcing many churches to become more volunteer-driven organizations focused on helping the hurting in times of need,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, when the survey results were released early this year.
That’s a good thing. But if the “jobless recovery” drags on, how will church support for national and international mission work beyond local communities be affected?
“In a tough economy we have to make some hard decisions, and it’s easier to cut the ministries and people we’re not looking at eyeball to eyeball every day,” admits Southern Baptist minister Richard Mark Lee, pastor of Sugar Hill (Ga.) Church.
The city of Sugar Hill, northeast of Atlanta, is home to about 15,500 people. Up to 1,600 of them attend Lee’s church weekly. The town — and the church — took a major hit when the economy stalled.
“A lot of our folks are in the construction industry, so when that bubble burst, it certainly affected us,” Lee reports. “About 18 percent of our church members are either unemployed or significantly underemployed.”
But the church has no intention of backing away from active involvement in international missions. Sugar Hill is featured in “Get Connected: Mobilizing Your Church for God’s Mission” (imb.org/GetConnectedBook), the new book by Lee’s ministry mentor, Johnny Hunt, former Southern Baptist Convention president.
“If we cut off the lost of the world because of economics, woe to us for being disobedient to Christ’s command,” Lee says. “I can’t stand before God or my people with integrity and say, ‘We need to ignore these and take care of our own.'”
Sugar Hill Church takes care of its own. But it also intends to continue reaching beyond U.S. borders with its dollars and its people — regardless of the ups and downs of the economy.
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board (imb.org).