Jesus was making an impact, and on that first Palm Sunday the impact seemed obvious: throngs welcomed him as their emancipator and prince of peace. But how quickly the fickle crowds turned. The day for palms gave way to a week of passion.
It’s a stretch to compare such days in the life of the Savior to the days we’re living here and now, but some American Christians know through experience unsettling fluctuations.
In earlier times, we triumphed in numerical growth. But we mainline Protestants suffered an about-face when 1950s boom years gave way to a bear market of membership gains. The Baptists and Roman Catholics now have seen their membership growth turn downward, too. And most have suffered the sharp turn in the economy; our momentum of equity growth has turned on a dime. After enjoying decades of expansion — giving to local Presbyterian churches has grown annually in spite of membership losses — church treasurers are sounding the alarm.
Time for a reality check. But for believers, what is our reality?
One reality: the world has not ended. The stock market has not sunk to the level of the 1930s. It has fallen back to the level of 1997 – just 12 years. If memory serves, at that time the church and the economy were still in the midst of a general pattern of expansion. What’s more, according to an article prepared this past November by The Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, “Historically, recessions have had little effect on religious giving.” Out of 12 recession years since 1967, only six saw any decrease, and in the four that lasted more than eight months the giving dropped only 1.4% on average, when adjusted for inflation.
This research is supported by that of Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb, Inc., a research ministry based in Illinois. In an article published by Christianity Today (Oct. 16, 2008) she says, “The data suggest that decreasing giving is not the first thing church members do in tough economic times. … If this is an extended downturn, in the second year you might begin to see a retraction in church-member giving.”
Another reality: panic serves no good end. In spite of all the MBAs working on Wall Street, cool heads they do not keep. They are blown about by every new wind of speculation. And, the news business thrives best when reporting Chicken Little prognoses. In contrast, the healthy church stands above such confusion. It thrives best when led by leaders who express a “non-anxious presence” (or at least a “less anxious presence”), as Edwin Freeman’s Generation to Generation (Guilford, 1985) advocates.
Yet another reality: every church budget deserves a wholesale reassessment from time to time, and this is as good a time as any for doing so. What activities qualify as core tasks of ministry in this time and place, and which ones really are secondary? Which ones reflect the mission to which we have been called, including the care of those who have lost their employment, and which ones can be cut, or at least, put on hold for a year or two?
Still another reality: there’s no better time than now to teach Christian stewardship. Ranting and guilt tripping will generate more ill will than generosity, but this is not a time to shirk teaching authentic Christian financial stewardship. Some of the greatest examples of generous giving have arisen in times of want, e.g., the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2).
Finally, keep in mind that Jesus’ week of passion, his season of suffering, did not end in defeat. As Paul Grier of the Presbyterian Foundation says, “We Presbyterians claim to be people of faith until we look at our financial statements.” Perhaps, in our uncertain and fickle times, we will do well to look at the empty tomb.