Tough times are ahead for those who already find it hard to make ends meet. Will the church meet the challenge?

Earlier this year, a Newsweek survey revealed that 69 percent of Americans polled were worried about a recession. Now even government spokespersons and hard-line bulls are admitting what our wallets and offering plates have been telling us for months. Rising prices, failing banks, and shrinking job markets have both consumers and economists fidgeting.

How should Christians respond? It is one thing, of course, for comfortable believers simply to dine on hamburger rather than steak. Churches likewise may postpone laying new carpet in the Christian-education wing. Recession in these cases simply spells inconvenience.

But recession shows a different face to the needy. The slump will squeeze the budgets of states and cities, for example, and thus the funds for many programs for the homeless. Wage earners in seriously affected industries will suddenly find their families hungry and mortgages foreclosed. How will the recession hit those whose welfare allotments do not even now cover the rent?

The recession can be like a splash of cold water that wakes us up to needs somehow missed during more comfortable times. Economically tight times should prompt Christians, especially affluent Christians, to ask how they should help.

Some answers are obvious. Opportunities are just waiting for caring people to get busy. We can all do what savvy urban churches have been doing for years: turn church basements or meeting rooms into nighttime shelters for the homeless; organize food pantries; and support relief organizations, whose opportunities always seem to outdistance resources.

But a truly compassionate and Christian response cannot stop there. John and Sylvia Ronsvalle of empty tomb, inc., a Christian research and service organization, argue that “the question for us is not, ‘How can we help the poor during the recession?’ To act just in response to what economists are telling us is to miss the point. The recession is a blip in a pattern of great wealth available to most Americans—and church people. When the recession is gone, what will we do to respond to the poor then? Our ‘servanthood agenda’ must come from the Bible.”

The larger agenda facing Christians goes beyond helping the single mom who is hurting a bit more in recessionary times. It means asking to have our hearts quickened by the poor all the time. It means taking a hard look at where our treasures are (Matt. 6:19). It means asking ourselves if we place comfort over justice and generosity in our priorities. It means being willing to explore whether we close our hearts when we see “a brother in need” (1 John 3:17). “To be faithful biblical stewards,” says Tom Sine in The Midas Trap, “we must begin not with our pocketbooks, but with our lives, culture, and values.”

That the issue is larger than dollars and cents is illustrated by a fascinating fact. An Independent Sector survey recently showed that Americans with lower incomes gave proportionally more of their income to religious charities than those with higher incomes. Those making $50,000 a year gave an average of 1.8 percent, while those making under $10,000 gave a much more generous 2.3 percent.

Rather than growing anxious about this year’s sacrifices, what would happen if we prayed for a holy abandon and extravagant generosity? And then did something? We might even find that we hardly notice the grim pictures the economic analysts will be painting.

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