In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”
I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”
A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”
What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”
But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”
Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.
Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:
Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.
Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”
These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.
As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.
In the forthcoming Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Thomas C. Oden. The interview mainly focuses on the importance and wisdom of the Church Fathers and their deep relevancy for today’s Church and culture. The content below however delves into Marxist liberation theology and the direction of Oden’s own denomination, The United Methodist Church. Some of the below portion will be available only for readers of the PowerBlog.
I’d like to add a short personal note about Tom Oden as well. His work and writings have been an immense blessing in my own life. His research was vital to my own spiritual formation in seminary and beyond. I have many friends and colleagues who would testify to the same. I still read his three-volume systematic theology as a devotion. It was a pleasure to spend time with him during this interview and his pastoral heart is every bit as big as his heart for scholarship.
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Thomas C. Oden is a retired theology professor at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is the author of numerous theological works, including the three-volume systematic theology The Word of Life, Life in the Spirit, and The Living God. Currently he is director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa. He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.
Obviously Marxist theology peaked in the 70s and 80s, to a large degree. Is liberation theology as a Marxist construct on the decline? And if so why?
Marxist praxis has been since the Gulag’s of Stalin, the Great Leap of Mao, and the poor economy and police state of Cuba. By the Berlin Wall it was intellectually caput. But theologians were late in recognizing its vulnerabilities. That is because they were far too indebted to the basic moral assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic narcissism, absolute relativism, and naturalistic reductionism. The rapid decline of Marxist solutions was not recognized by many of its advocates, especially those in the knowledge class.
There are a number of different kinds of liberation theology, so if you’re asking about feminist liberation theology or black liberation theology, or more in a global sense of the liberation of colonized nations from Colonialism, those are all different questions.
I have a personal history of being slow to give up those illusions, but not as slow as many of my theological colleagues, still stuck in a pseudo-revolutionary dream. I was very deep into the socialist imagination until about forty years ago. I read a lot of Marx for 20 years before unmerited grace changed the direction of my life.
The Marxist vision of history is a deterministic one, an economic determinism that imagines it knows how history is going to turn out. It proved to be a very dangerous imagination. For Christians, the unfolding of universal history is guided by providence, but not so as to deny human choice. For a Marxist, that unfolding is due to an economic determinism which pits class against class. What you are trying to do in Marxism is raise the consciousness of the proletariat, in order that they will rebel against their oppressors. That basic model is easily seen analogously in most forms of liberation theology.
What I had to go through is a disillusionment of my Marxism. How did that happen? It happened by the recognition of the immense injustices created by Marxism. I’m talking about millions of people killed in Cambodia, one fourth of the population— a Marxist vision inspired in expatriate pseudo-intellectual salons in Paris.
When you actually look at the social consequences of Marxism, it is extremely hard to defend them. I found it harder and harder to defend them. The Marxist view of history is on the decline because it’s a historical failure. There are a few little pockets where it still pretends to be the future, as in Venezuela, which is mimicking Cuba. But look at Cuba. Cuba has already decided that communism doesn’t work after how many years now? Sixty sad ones. The Cubans are trying. They’re trying very hard, actually, to get their economy out of the box of a state operated system.
You are a United Methodist and have been a lifelong Methodist scholar. What do you think about the future of the United Methodist Church? I think a lot of conservative evangelicals hear negative things about the denomination as it relates to theological liberalism. But what are some positive aspects?
Many aspects are far from depressing. The liberal Protestants still have the Scriptures, their hymnody largely intact, and their confessional standards, which in my tradition are the 25 Articles of Religion and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. We still have our doctrinal standards. They are a part of our constitution. They cannot easily be tampered with.
There is obviously an awful lot wrong with our present liberal bureaucratic form of governance. Our question is really: What is there to be learned from this? I’m now working on a four volume work on John Wesley. I think the key answer is Wesley himself. Liberal churchmanship is like being a Lutheran and not having read Luther, or being a Reformed Evangelical and not having bothered to read Calvin. We have a lot of Methodists that haven’t even touched the great wisdom of Wesley. Now let’s tie in Wesley with the patristic tradition. Wesley happened to be at Oxford at a time when there was a great patristic revival going on. That means that these early Christian writings were being avidly read in Lincoln College at Oxford in their original languages. Wesley could easily read Clement of Alexandria in Greek, or Cyprian or Augustine in Latin. He brought all this wisdom with him to the evangelical revival of the 18th-century. He published a lay person’s version of the Ante-Nicene writers.
I think that most of the Methodist tradition and the Anglican tradition from which it came, and as well, I believe, the Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions, are all experiencing the same kind of amnesia toward their own roots. In each of those cases, as in the case of Luther and Calvin and Wesley, all of these were far more grounded in the ancient Eastern and Western traditions of orthodoxy than in the contemporary church. So I want to see Methodists read Wesley. I also want to see them read the ancient Christian writers.
The core of the dilemma of liberal Protestant ecclesiology lies in our clergy and the seminaries that spawned them. The laity, on the whole has remained loyal to the faith once delivered to the saints. They come and sing the hymns of the church and they listen, sometimes to bad sermons, sometimes to good sermons. But the laity’s faith hasn’t really changed. It’s the clergy’s faith that has grown weak, and after fifty years of living within the liberal seminary ethos, I charge that largely to the confusions that have occurred in the seminaries. More specifically the responsibility has been flubbed by the trustees of seminaries. The original benefactors of the seminaries would be shocked. Donor accountability is lacking. The bishops have defaulted on their major task of being the guardians of Christian doctrine. The doctrine they agreed to uphold in their ordination vows. They have created a problem that will take a long time to correct.
We do have already within the United Methodist Church, a lot of very active, significant movements giving resistance to the “church of what’s happening now.” I’m thinking of the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church that began in 1993 and now has over 600,000 correspondents. It’s not something either the bishops or seminaries can ignore.
The Acton Commentary this week from my friend John Teevan compares church budgets to government budgets, and what “government thinking” might look like if it were reflected in charitable and ecclesiastical budgeting. He writes, “If we think the government is the best source of compassion for the needy and the engine of economic growth, then it makes sense to set taxes at high rates so the government can do all good things for the people.”
On that point, over at Evangelical Perspective Collin Brendemuehl asks some salient questions in comparing government welfare to private charity.
Is the government 50% efficient? 75% efficient? I can’t venture a guess. But apparently neither can the bureaucrats. But even so, is it a stretch to say that the government is more than likely much less efficient than these charities? Not a tough one, really. Though government has the advantage of being in tough with society on a broader scale, it is also much less capable at targeting specific needs in a short amount of time. Anyone remember how fast Feed the Children and others got into New Orleans ahead of government? They were there faster, with just as much material, and actually met needs. (They did not randomly hand out $2,000 debit cards without accounting.)
Now that’s not to say that efficiency is the only valid factor to consider when evaluating charities or government programs. But it is an important factor and has to do with meeting one’s obligations as a steward of other people’s money or property. It’s in this sense that, as Collin writes, “Government is a servant. At least it ought to be.”
On the question of giving to charities and churches, D. G. Hart has raised this question of extra-ecclesiastical giving in a couple of posts over at Old Life. My final commentary of 2010 made the point that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.” But as I said in a follow-up post over at Mere Comments, I don’t think Christian giving ends there. I wonder why Hart has focused so much on The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, and Redeemer City to City in particular. It seems his critique would apply equally as well to other organizations like the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Ligonier Ministries.
It’s vitally important, I think, to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism.
In this week’s commentary I say that part of the reason less money is being given to local churches is that it is reflective of a broader trend of distrust towards institutions.
Commentary magazine’s blog contentions has some more recent data confirming this overall shift. The post summarizes the December issue of AEI’s “Political Report” (PDF), which focuses especially on trust in the government. It finds that “contemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep” and that, for instance, “Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991.”
But more broadly and inline with what I point to in this week’s commentary, we find that this lack of confidence in the government is not exception to the general loss of institutional faith. Indeed,
The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.
No doubt this applies to “big religion” as well. My friend John H. Armstrong has examined whether and why “young doubters” are leaving the church in seemingly greater numbers. And we can see how all this has negative implications for denominations and super-denominational structures (like the mainline ecumenical groups). As I argue in Ecumenical Babel, this means that many of these institutions might well be ripe for reform, in part because that is their only avenue for survival.
Last week Jordan Ballor and I offered short addresses to the crowd that gathered for Acton on Tap in Grand Rapids. This is an essay that closely mirrors my comments from the event. It’s a sermon of sorts, and a personal testimonial too.
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Remarks on the “Limit of Politics” for Acton on Tap:
I love elections. Elections produce drama, conflict, and intrigue. It produces statements like this by the former Louisiana governor and federal convict Edwin Edwards: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
When I was in high school and college my biggest dream besides being a Congressman with an office full of young SEC cheerleader interns, was to be a campaign super consultant, just like two heroes of mine Ed Rollins and Lee Atwater. I idolized them through books and television. You should read Bareknuckles and Backrooms by Ed Rollins and the bio of Lee Atwater titled Bad Boy to get some of the behind the scenes ugliness, conflict, and humor of American politics.