There are many reasons to expect that the Western church, at least, is heading into a long season of scarcity. Much of the European church is already there, and here in the States, we aren’t so far behind: Attendance is down, though there is reason to suspect this trend line may have plateaued. Giving to church ministries was up in recent years, but the group giving the most is aging quickly, and it’s not yet clear that younger cohorts will fill the gap. Ministers, reporting more anxiety and less support, find themselves with fewer relationships and resources to support their work.

This abundance of scarcity will have a long-term impact on the character, health, and ministry of many congregations. Its effects are already familiar to smaller and more rural churches, but this is increasingly a reality shared by large and urban congregations too.

That may seem like a grim vision, but scarcity of time, energy, and resources can be a mixed blessing. For, while long periods of abundance are to be appreciated, they can be deceiving: We anticipate that the good times will not end, and when they inevitably do, it shakes our very foundations. Churchgoing rates in America, for example, have been discussed for years now as a sign of crisis. But these numbers are arguably nothing special in global and historical contexts. The downturn feels like a catastrophe only in light of 80 years of historically high membership.

So, what if we organized our church lives around an expectation of scarcity instead of an assumption of plenty? Behavioral science researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have examined how scarcity affects the way we make decisions. Summarized in their 2013 book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, their research provides helpful insights for congregations.

Mullainathan and Shafir discovered that study participants who were asked to deal with scarcity (like a shortage of time) could better prioritize their most important tasks. Scarcity produced not only negative results (like increased anxiety) but also positive ones (like increased focus and attention).

We’ve all experienced something like this. If you’re working on a tight deadline, you can tune out phone calls, socializing, and even meals to give increased attention to the problem at hand. You might reach what researchers call a “flow state,” in which your mind and work simply click along, with hours feeling like minutes. For most of us, this isn’t a normal working condition. It’s the result of scarcity.

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Mullainathan and Shafir also found that people who’d gone through particular kinds of scarcity in the past were more likely to be attentive to those going through similar situations in the present. Those who had lost loved ones could read it in the faces of others in grief; those who had experienced economic downturns were more attuned to others in economic crisis. Traveling the valley of the shadow of death left participants more likely to know not only what others were going through but also how to help them navigate that valley themselves.

No one wants to suffer scarcity, but this research suggests that scarcity brings benefits that can’t be acquired any other way. You don’t need scarcity to be efficient and empathetic, of course. But the prioritization scarcity forces and the practical attention and specific care it teaches are unique.

For readers of Scripture, such a finding shouldn’t be surprising. It’s reminiscent of how Moses, having spent years in the wilderness, could help lead the children of Abraham through the desert. It explains God’s chastisement of Jonah who, after being rescued from death, was unhappy that Nineveh was spared God’s judgment. It gives depth to Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which the apostle sympathizes with the plight of Onesimus after having lost his own freedom.

Or consider the Beatitudes. Those who are poor—suffering material scarcity—are given the gifts that only God can give, able to welcome a new way of life in the midst of precarity (Luke 6:20). Those who have had their hearts purified are able to see God (Matt. 5:8), and those who suffer loss and persecution can receive God’s kingdom (Matt. 5:10–12). But herein lies the difficulty: To cultivate that kind of attentiveness, that kind of wisdom, you have to go through that kind of scarcity first.

This invites us to look at our situation again—at the scarcity vexing churches in the United States.

A few congregations may be able to avoid this scarcity altogether, to raise funds and endowments to the point that no financial downturn will affect them. For most churches (and Christian nonprofits and faith-based universities), however, this won’t be an option. Yet given the blessings of scarcity, perhaps that’s for the best. Perhaps the right response is not to build bigger barns but to learn to be reliant on and rich toward God (Luke 12:16–34).

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Other churches may simply ignore the connection between unearned suffering, God’s provision, and virtue, emphasizing instead that God’s presence can mean an abundance of resources. This is the bread and butter of the prosperity gospel, and it places the fault of having few resources squarely on the shoulders of those without. But Jesus did not draw such a tight connection between faithfulness and abundance; on the contrary, he taught that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).

Still other churches may respond to scarcity by closing down. In some cases, this path is the only option; for others, chronically having too little exhausts goodwill. Calls to resilience become a burden of shame, and when the doors finally close, it feels like relief.

Scripture does not shame those who grow tired (Matt. 11:28–30), nor are Christians called to seek out scarcity and other suffering or endure abuse. But before we choose one of these responses—and especially before the prospect of disbanding a congregation begins to appeal—let us remember that though scarcity will come for us in one form or another, it may not only bring hardship. It can also bring unexpected gifts—gifts that can come to us in few other ways.

The full barns will not last. In many cases, they are already emptying. And in all of this, God will be present. This is a story that Scripture tells repeatedly. It is the story of manna appearing in the desert (Ex. 16), water pouring from rocks (Ex. 17), provisions being supplied by ravens and widows’ jars (1 Kings 17:2–16), poor Christians providing for each other’s needs (Acts 2:44–46). Consider that lean times can offer something greater for congregations than sheer survival.

To the first possibility—of simply outlasting lean times—Scripture counsels us to embrace risky generosity, to give to those who ask, and to remember that God is the one through whom provision comes (Luke 12:32–34). Generosity amid scarcity teaches us be grateful, to give despite difficulty, and to trust in God’s provision in all circumstances. To pull back from generosity is to miss an opportunity to grow in gratitude and learn that abundance is not our right.

To the second possibility—of ignoring scarcity entirely—Scripture counsels us against assuming that lean times signal God’s absence and calls us instead to be faithful with what has been given (Matt. 25:14–30). Learning to mourn what we have lost without despairing for the future is critical to being a people of hope (Jer. 29:11). Likewise, learning to make do with what we have received fosters in us virtues of creativity, thrift, and prudence, knowing what we can do without.

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To the third possibility—of simply stopping—Scripture gives a word of comfort: We are not alone in times of scarce resources (Ps. 40:16–17), and the way forward may be to join hands and institutions with believers around us. As Paul instructs the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 9:1–5), the task for a church in scarce circumstances is to remember that we are bound together by Christ. That may mean merging congregations or, following the church in Acts 2, selling our buildings to better share our resources, efforts, and space for the sake of the gospel.

Scarcity of resources is a relatively new situation to the American church, which for decades has enjoyed high attendance, abundant giving, and the luxury of ample volunteer hours. Yet scarcity too has its gifts to offer—strange, hard invitations to an unforeseen future, but ones that could be abundant in virtue and love.

Myles Werntz is the author of From Isolation to Community: A Renewed Vision of Christian Life Together. He writes at Christian Ethics in the Wild and teaches at Abilene Christian University.