December 10, 2008
Mission and Recession
Building a church on “core time” rather than “leisure time.”
by Skye Jethani
The financial talking heads are attributing the current economic crisis to a number of things: lack of regulatory oversight, bad mortgage lending practices, and globalized market structures. But some of the more plainspoken pundits sum up the mess in a single word: Debt.
Simply put, for too long people have been spending more than they have. We have been purchasing homes we cannot afford, saving less than we should, and racking up debt at an unprecedented rate. The average American currently has a negative savings rate and over $8000 in credit card debt. As Dave Ramsey says, we are not "acting our wage." On a national level, we have been importing more than we export and borrowing money from foreign governments to make up the difference.The picture is not pretty. We've made the foundation of our economy consumer spending rather than manufacturing, saving, or production. All that debt simply cannot hold the weight of the economy over time, and now we're starting to see the system crumble.
How does this apply to ministry? Well, most American churches have based their mission on the assumption of affluence. That doesn't mean every church is living large. Rather, it means that our churches expect people to give their surplus time and money to fuel Christ's mission. But what happens if there is no surplus? What if people can't give more time or money? Like our economy, has our church built its mission on a foundation of sand rather than stone?
Here's one way to think about it. The average week of a working age adult includes at least 40 hours on the job, and 40 hours to maintain the family, home, and health (think shopping, meals, bathing, and dentist appointments). These 80 hours represent a person's "core time." (I'm not including 56 hours of sleep-unless like us you've got a baby at home, in which case it's less.)
That leaves most people with about 32 hours each week of "leisure time." Most churches are trying to motivate people to turn off the TV for three or four of these leisure hours to spend on mission. The most valuable and celebrated members are those who give eight, ten, or even twenty hours of leisure time to the church.
But by predicating the mission on leisure time of members, most churches are making two mistakes. First, if leisure time ever shrinks the church will find its mission severely affected. We may be facing that situation as the recession deepens. Just ask pastors in parts of the country where unemployment has accelerated. People who could previously spend multiple hours each week in church programming are now holding down part-time jobs, job hunting, spending more time at home cooking rather than eating out, or taking classes to train for new careers. Some retirees, who are often the most available and celebrated volunteers at churches, are now having to return to work.
We look at these cases and think it's tragic-good churches and ministries are suffering because the economy is taking away people's leisure time. But we forget that most Christians throughout history have not had the leisure time enjoyed by modern Americans. It makes you wonder, how did the mission of Christ get anywhere before the institution of the 40 hour work week, electric refrigeration, or the automobile? (Consider how much time people spent simply gathering and preparing food three generations ago.)
The second, and more critical, mistake is the way basing our mission on leisure-time devalues members without expendable hours. I'm thinking of mothers with the 24/7 job of caring for young children, single-parent households, laborers working multiple jobs to stay afloat, or those in the "sandwich generation" using their leisure hours to care for aging parents. Do we write these members off because they do not have leisure time to dedicate to the church's programs and ministry teams? Do they get a pass on the Great Commission?
Leisure-time based mission explains the 20/80 rule seen in most churches: 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. Many pastors lament this statistic, but I don't believe the 80 percent who are not engaged in the church institution are all lazy Consumer Christians. (Some, yes, but not all.) More likely, the 20 percent who are heavily involved simply have the most leisure time to spare.
But consider the larger picture. A church with 100 adults would be considered truly remarkable if 40 members each give 5 hours per week of leisure time to the institution's mission. That would be double what most churches experience, and many pastors would be thrilled to see similar stats in their congregation. But even this would represent less than 2 percent of the church members' total available time. Is this being missional (however you define the word)? Is that loving God will all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength?
There is an alternative.
Economists are asking what would happen if we built our economy on production, savings, and manufacturing rather than spending and debt. Pastors should be asking what would happen if we built our mission on people's core time rather than leisure time. What if we could tap into the 80+ hours people spend every week on the job, with their families, and engaging in life's ordinary responsibilities? Of course, this would require a fundamental shift in the way we think about mission and institution. Here are a few implications:
1. It would mean helping people see the missional dignity of ordinary work; communicating that their jobs matter to Christ and his kingdom, not just what happens within the walls of the church.
2. It would mean elevating the role of family and household relationships as vehicles for spiritual growth and missional engagement. Yes, raising children and caring for aging parents honors God and advances his kingdom just as, if not more, than institutional church programs.
3. It would mean not extracting people from their lives and communities to engage in church programming or committees unless absolutely necessary, but equipping them to live in communion with Christ within the context he has placed them.
4. It would shift the focus of Sunday worship away from mission and outreach to a time of celebration and encouragement for Christians who are engaged in mission the other six days of the week.
5. It would mean deploying church leaders outside the institution to engage members in their native contexts; mentoring and coaching on their turf rather than ours.
6. It would mean a radical adjustment in what the church celebrates-not institutional expansion or programmatic growth, but stories of ordinary people incarnating Christ at home, at work, at school?everywhere life happens.
A church built upon people's core time rather than leisure time will not only maximize its missional impact, but it will also be far less susceptible to the unstable foundations of our debt-based economy. It would mean fewer churches fearing economic recession because they've build their missional strategy on the foundation of ordinary life rather than institutional programs, buildings, and staffs.