Friday, October 29, 2010

On Economy and Church: Part I

Less in the collection plate this year? In a survey of Protestant pastors, 57% said the poor economy was hurting their church.

Here are some of my observations:

1.  The economy is still on shaky ground.  I am far from alone in questioning whether the economy is sustainable.  I still find the following link really interesting, even if I don't agree with a lot of what is on the website, and I hope others will as well (it is over 3 hours, but soooo worth the time and extremely thought-provoking): http://www.chrismartenson.com/crashcourse.  I especially find it interesting that I watched these videos long before the election of President Obama, and I am witnessing the predictions of his actions, as our next president, come to fruition, as I now believe they would have with either a democrat or republican in the White House.

2.  If the above is true, that there is a fair chance that the economy is not sustainable, then our churches need to prepare to see our communities through some rough seas ahead.  Many of our churches as they exist now could not survive those seas themselves. 

3.  Currently, environmental activists and fiscal conservatives are seen as warring parties.  Bridges need to be built between the reality that economic resources as we currently know them are not going to be available forever, and perhaps not even in the near future, and the reality that our use of those resources to date has been tremendously destructive to our shared home, the earth, and that this also is a threat to us and our children.

4.  One advantage of the economic difficulties of the last several years is that many actions toward sustainability became more mainstream.  I don't have research to back it up, but I have a good feeling waste levels on the individual plane have been reduced.  At the same time, however, because sustainability is currently a largely individual or small group action, in order to survive, many families had to resort to environmentally harmful and economically unsustainable action. 

For example, Americans benefit from what is seen as a highly efficient agricultural system and food manufacturing and shipping system.  The prices we pay for food do not reflect the food's ultimate cost, to the environment, our health, and so forth.  However, our entire sense of the cost of living is built around the availability of this system.  People own the houses that they can afford because of this system. 

The shaky foundation underneath it all, as the environmental and health costs are more and more visible, however, is also contributing to initial signs of breakdown.  Food prices have been driven up and up from what was comfortable for the majority five or six years ago.  Those of us who own homes or pay rent based on what we can afford because of a lower cost of food, especially in a time of job loss and jobs at risk, aren't able to keep it all balanced.

Because of the higher cost of food, for instance, my family can't afford to eat anymore except to the extent we shop for the vast majority of what we eat at places like Pricerite (discount grocer shipping food in from all over just like BJs, Costco, or Walmart).   With the exception of organic milk, no organics are available.  We've thus reduced the organics we eat to "occasional foods" when we can afford local.  With the exception of locally prepared pita breads, this is not local food.  We've thus reduced our locally grown and prepared food (we couldn't afford even a half share at a CSA this summer) to "occasional foods" (though to our credit, we buy very, very little pre-prepared foods, and cook nearly entirely from scratch).  On the individual level we can't afford the sustainable practices that will ultimately save our community.

5.  While questioning sustainability is more accepted now than it was even a few years ago, questioning sustainability is not yet seen as mainstream.  Those who question sustainability are largely still seen still as alarmists and millenialists.  Those who are preparing for a major economic shift are marginalized as if they are preparing for "the end of the world."  Even within "green churches," we have not yet reached a tipping point of preparation for a new economic era.

6.  The status quo has been maintained just enough that as communities, we have largely been settling back into a place of comfort about things.  Economic distress is still high, but the stress levels have been reduced just enough that we aren't questioning the entire system.  Even as recently as a few weeks ago, I was still functioning under the illusion that I can hold onto my house that I really need to sell in order to move into a position more sustainable on the individual and community level.  I was still thinking I could get a renter and downsize to a small apartment, and that everything might still be okay. 

7.  One tension: in what might turn out to be a major shift in the entire world economic system, the things that are good for us in the long-run do not feel attainable in the short-run.  Just as in my example above regarding the cost of food and the way my own family is surviving on the cheap stuff from the discount grocery outlet, our churches are also finding it difficult or impossible to choose a way of being in the world that is best for the long-run.  Our churches have staff people and ministers who need these jobs in an economy where jobs are scarce.  These jobs serve an important function for the things that churches do currently, even though those things may not be what is needed to help our communities through the rough seas ahead in the next 10, 20, 30...years. 

On the institutional level, we don't know how else to structure ourselves, and we are afraid to make any changes based on predictions of an unknown future because what if those predictions don't turn out to be true?  Won't we then just be irrelevant?  Major change is needed, but every incentive is toward the maintenance of the status quo (to understand this, please, please take the time to check out the link in observation #1).  The chance of popular support for critical changes in our churches seems remote at best.

We look at churches like those of the Rev. Ron Robinson, and we say, "Oh, that looks interesting.  What great stuff.  I want to support what they are doing.  But that is not what my own church's unique identity is all about.  That wouldn't fit us at all.  I wouldn't feel at home in that church.  Here at my own church, we're about Sunday worship..." etc. etc.  It's scary to reimagine ourselves.  And it's scary to reimagine ourselves in a future that seems uncertain.  And it's scary to imagine ourselves taking actions now based on what seem like potentially alarmist predictions, especially when those decisions involve tough issues like the jobs and the position descriptions of good people who have done good, important work and who need jobs in an economically difficult time, and whose current job descriptions make sense to what we feel like we need right now.

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