We live in an age of economic anxiety,1 and it’s only going to get more disrupted.2 If our gospel doesn’t have much to say about that, our gospel is too small. God calls us to live a whole life transformed by the Holy Spirit, and there is no area of life in which God’s wisdom does not come into tension with the world’s wisdom. And from the early church to the Industrial Revolution, God has brought revival through faithful and effective Christian responses to economic disruptions.
Jesus gave the church clear marching orders to love our neighbors, and have a special care for the poor. So we should be paying attention and making plans. When people are facing economic anxiety, here are a few things Christians can think about.
Christians should help people find their true identity.
Jobs are central to most people’s deepest sense of who they are. Job loss, or even a serious brush with possible job loss, almost always creates an identity crisis. Now, people are indeed made for work; Genesis 1–2 is clear that our vocation to make the world a better place through work is at the core of who God created all of us to be. But because of the fall, we are constantly building identities in ourselves rather than in God. We invest our identities in our occupations (our jobs) rather than our vocations (our calling to follow God in all we do). When occupations are uncertain, Christians can help people discover vocations through an identity in Christ—an identity that isn’t dependent upon the coming and going of any given job.
Christians should help people find healing.
In the modern world, public institutions are becoming more and more specialized. Each type of organization—business, school, government, etc.—exists only to serve its particular function. If your problems aren’t directly related to their functions, they can’t help you. Where will people turn to find a place where the whole human being is cared for? In God’s plan, that’s primarily the home and the church. As public institutions become ever more specialized, both the home and the church will need to step up even more as centers of general caregiving.
That’s why broken people are relying all the more on local churches as places of care and healing. I don’t need to tell pastors that the caregiving demands on the local church are increasing. They know it all too well.
But there’s a flip side to that. In saying that churches should help those facing economic distress, I’m not asking them to take on any burden that they aren’t carrying already. I’m asking them to be more intentional about addressing the underlying cause of some of their challenges. In the long run, that will alleviate the burden on the local church rather than increasing it.
Christians should help people find wisdom and vision.
Over and over in Scripture, we are admonished to pursue and treasure wisdom. Consider Proverbs, or Job’s discourse on wisdom, or the admonitions to growth and maturity in the apostolic epistles. When people lose their jobs, a few canned bullet points on theology of work are not going to be enough. People want to know: Why is this happening? Is God at work in this mysterious and seemingly chaotic process of technological change? What am I supposed to do?
Christians don’t need to be economists, but a key part of the Christian walk is helping people interpret the meaning of their lives and respond in morally right ways to complex and ambiguous challenges. That requires a broad vision of what God is doing in the world. Once again, I’m not asking us to take on a new burden but to be more intentional about this aspect of what we already do. We need economic wisdom to help people discover how God has equipped them for productive work, so they can recover from job loss and find new opportunities.
Christians should help everyone flourish, especially the poor.
It can’t be said too often: Jesus says the church’s solidarity with the poor is the same as its solidarity with himself (Matthew 25:40). The gospel means reconciliation with the God who is love, so a gospel-transformed person must view others as made in God’s image and made for flourishing in right relationship with God and others. This applies to our relations with everyone, but the acid test is whether we apply it to the poor.
We need economic wisdom to help people discover how God has equipped them for productive work.
Do you think that gospel love for the poor only means preaching the word to them? That helping them bounce back from job loss and find a way to pursue their vocation in daily work is not the local church’s problem? Hear the dreadful words of James and John:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15–17)
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17–18)
By all means, our ministry to those in economic need must be grounded in the word. But as John so pointedly says, love is not love if it is only love “in word.” To love our neighbors in deed, the church should be a place where those who have lost their livings can find life, and find it abundantly.
Helping individual people one at a time is essential, but it’s not enough. If Genesis 1 and Revelation 22 are anything to go by, human beings are made to be social, cultural creatures. The gospel cannot transform every aspect of our lives if the church doesn’t have something to say, and something to do, in every domain of culture. We shouldn’t march out and try to take control of the levers of worldly power, but we should find opportunities to do things in our own God-given spheres of influence that manifest our faith.
Admittedly, big challenges like globalization and technological change can seem overwhelming, but there’s plenty that churches can and should be doing. Many churches are discovering ways they can encourage and support job-creating entrepreneurship3 and economic development4 in their communities, because the gospel leads them to do so.5 Existing church ministries that serve the poor can be reformed so they help people connect to work.6
Education is another major opportunity for the church. People are ill-equipped to endure job loss in large part because of the catastrophic failure of our school system. We should be coming alongside public schools7 to help young people get ready for life. But we should also be creating accessible alternatives8 to the government monopoly system. Every child should be nurtured in the virtues of honesty, diligence, self-control, generosity and responsible agency—as Os Guinness has put it, all people should strive to be “entrepreneurs of life.”9
Discipling people for the new economy is a major challenge. But our gospel is big enough, and our God is strong enough. Not to mention that our neighbors will not think Christianity is much worth their while if they’re facing challenges in this essential area of human life, and our response is, “Sorry, that’s not our department.”
Greg Forster is the author of Economics: A Student’s Guide.
We come into this world as a danger to ourselves. We are naturally more discontented than contented.
As members of our families, God calls us to love and serve one another, and, as members of the Household of God, to practice stewardship over the gifts God has given us.
We need to teach much more clearly and with far greater boldness the biblical message that we will have to give an account to God, and that the choices we make today have eternal consequences.