I had occasion to ask a leader in a denominational global relief agency today whether he had seen any decline in North American interest in addressing international poverty, given the recent economic downturn. He said that he had among some of the major foundations and donors, who were being inundated with more local requests for funds (food banks, and so on). But he also said that among most mid-level and smaller givers, they were matching if not exceeding previous patterns of giving.

When I asked him to elaborate about why he thought this might be, he said that in times of challenge and crisis, those of us in the first “third” of the economic world are able to often gain better insight into just how advantaged we are. What if you were faced with a debilitating illness or unemployment in a country that doesn’t have the resources available in the United States? It’s a truism that economic instability affects those with the least amount of financial cushion.

This explanation dovetails nicely with what has turned up in the research of Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow. In an interview with CT editor David Neff about his new book, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, Wuthnow says in part about the possible outcomes of the economic crisis,

It’s very likely that some churches are going to be saying that being involved on the other side of the world is a nice extra, but we can’t afford it right now. We have to focus on the needs at home. Hopefully that won’t be the only response, because when the world economy goes into a slump, people at the poorest end of the spectrum are usually the ones who suffer most, and therefore the giving and relief efforts are needed all the more.

Certainly some churches will “scale back,” as Wuthnow says. But other individuals and churches will keep the scales balanced, so to speak, or perhaps even “scale up.” A great deal of the difference seems to do with the kinds of relationships that are cultivated between all the parties involved.