Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
A recent headline in the New York Times read “Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches.” It told the story of an evangelical church in “a Long Island hamlet of yacht clubs and hedge fund managers.”
The “sudden crush of worshipers” has required the church to “set up an overflow room with closed-circuit TV and 100 folding chairs.”
It’s not only the hedge fund and yacht club set. In the not as upscale but equally delightful Flatlands section of Brooklyn, members of the Christian Cultural Center are arriving early to make sure they can get seats.
As the senior pastor and founder of New York’s largest evangelical church, A. R. Bernard told the Times, “When people are shaken to the core, it can open doors.”
And as you know, these economic times are shaking people to the core.
This openness that isn’t limited to New York. Seattle’s Mars Hill Church has added 1,000 members this year alone.
Nor is it limited to our times. In the wake of the 1857 economic panic, a group of New York businessman met to pray in church a few blocks from Wall Street. The resulting Fulton Street Prayer Revival that led to tens of thousands of conversions in New York alone and perhaps a million across the country. In addition, the American branch of the Salvation Army can trace it origins to the revival which started in the wake of a Wall Street collapse.
The connection between openness to the Gospel and tough economic times has continued. A recent study by David Beckworth of Texas State University found that during “each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004,” evangelical churches grew 50 percent faster than during better economic times.
All of this makes perfect sense. During good economic times, we, like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, feel self-satisfied and complete. We marvel that we’re so awesome and tell ourselves “eat, drink, and be merry.” It’s why pride is the deadliest sin and why our Lord warned us about the snares of wealth.
Feeling self-satisfied during good times is not only dangerous, it’s an illusion. As we’ve have learned the hard way, even great fortunes can be lost a lot faster than they were made. Over the last year, an estimated 8 trillion dollars in wealth has vanished. It may have been “paper wealth,” but that paper generated a lot of pride, self-satisfaction, and more than a little hubris and credit.
To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the prospect of going broke does wonders to concentrate the mind on what is not illusory-what God has done in Christ. As one former Morgan Stanley manager put it, his experience led to a “deeper sense of ‘God’s authority over everything.'”
Being at peace when everyone else is afraid is a powerful witness to the truth of the Gospel. Looking out for others when “every man for himself” is the order of the day is how the Church has grown and transformed entire nations throughout the ages.
Yes, these are tough times, but the Church thrives in tough times. It’s when the Church is at its best, because it’s when all of us are forced to remember who has authority over everything, and to put our trust completely in Him and Him alone.