When the Rev. Kevin McBride opens his office door on a snowy Sunday morning, he’s ready to preach a good word for tough times. He walks straight into an anxious crowd of cookie-eating people who could really use some deeper sustenance.
There’s Jeff Bean, who was laid off 11 days ago from his manufacturing job and now sells identity-theft prevention tools on commission. There’s Ken Archibald, an unemployed contractor. And there’s Kim Sparks, a chicken farmer in a purple sweat suit and white T-shirt that proclaims: “My Savior Is Tougher Than Nails.”
She’s losing money on every egg sale because of the high cost of feed.
“I worry a lot,” says Carolyn Matthews, a freelance editor whose retirement portfolio has been “pretty much decimated” in recent months. “But Scripture is full of adversity. And in every story, there’s a triumph of this sustaining Spirit.”
Pastor McBride of the Raymond Baptist Church couldn’t be calmer. A narrow-framed man with a mustache and canary-yellow dress shirt, he smiles and jokes easily. Later, at the lectern, he explains why he’s so relaxed: Even when the economy crumbles, God is in control.
“Their attention has been piqued again,” McBride says of churchgoers in 2009. “Their eyes and ears are opened up to say, ‘Maybe I forgot something. Maybe I haven’t been listening as well as I should have been. And maybe it’s time to readjust my focus.’ ”
For preachers, the so-called Great Recession is doing more than boosting church attendance. It’s challenging clergy to find fitting words for a rare, tender moment when nearly everyone – including preachers – is hurting in a personal, all-too-concrete way. Most sermonizers seem to be making a stab at it, but the tactics and themes in use vary widely.
Some are urging confidence. The Rev. Amandus Derr, senior pastor of St. Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan, ministers among towering symbols of the financial crisis, such as the neighboring Citigroup building and the office of alleged fraudster Bernard Madoff.
Lately he’s seen a lot of worried faces pressed against his 54th Street office window as hurting people seek help. He gave out $10,000 in emergency aid during the last two weeks of December, up from $2,000 during the same period a year earlier. Attendance at the church’s weekly breakfast for the homeless is up 30 percent, to about 150, since September.
In this economic environment, Pastor Derr has preached one message every week for six months: Be not afraid. “What I worry about most is that people who feel powerless ... will find somebody else to blame,” Derr says. “And when you start to blame people, all kinds of things happen from that. It could be anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, anti-elite – a whole list.”
Others hope a little anxiety, rightly directed, might bear important fruit. Brian Larson, pastor of Lake Shore Assembly of God Church in Chicago, says God may be using this crisis to call America to repentance. He’s been pointing his flock to such texts as Psalm 65, where the psalmist sings: “When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.”
“God does allow nations to experience times like this, to turn us from trust in portfolios and from general godlessness, to turn us to Him,” says Pastor Larson, whose day job is editor of www
.preachingtoday.com, a resource for preachers.
Pastors are grasping for guidance across cyberspace. At Larson’s site, which archives hundreds of sermons, the most-viewed one in September was, “What Would Jesus Do When the Dow Drops 700 Points?” At www
.workingpreacher.org, operated by Luther Seminary’s Center for Biblical Preaching (CBP) in St. Paul, Minn., preachers in a survey this fall identified the economic crisis as an issue of importance to them.
Guidance means a lot now because these are tricky waters for preachers. If they hurl too much fire, they risk being seen as uncompassionate. If they go too soft, they may miss what Larson regards as a precious, crisis-induced window – maybe three or four months – when attentive people are ready to experience a life change, much as they were right after 9/11. Moreover, to call for unwavering generosity and more giving in a time of need could seem self-serving, since a slice of the offering usually goes toward the preacher’s salary.
To make matters even tougher, pastors may already be out of touch with the economic lives of their congregants. A study released in January by LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, concluded a “serious disconnect” exists among preachers over the realities of American life. The survey of 3,500 Southern Baptist pastors found that only 25 percent thought their congregants carried a “significant amount of personal debt.”
Still, preachers want to be sure their ministries don’t go the way of Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers. That sometimes means keeping the pressure on the congregation at pledge time.
“I’m counting on you to resist the temptation to put your faith and your church down at the bottom of the list of things you do not have to do or pay for,” said the Rev. Jody Seymour, senior pastor at Davidson (N.C.) United Methodist Church, in a recent sermon on stewardship. “That is not faith. That is the empty religion of a fair-weather Christian who offers occasional lip service to a God who is brought in at convenient times.”
To help get the message right, preachers are listening to the Bible. Church consultants say Old Testament prophets are favorites once again. That means many a sermon these days is quoting such venerable figures as Isaiah, who warned of the costs of greed: “Many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.”
Some caution that pastors who aspire to be prophetic need to approach the mission charitably. “In any time of calamity, the preacher is called to offer a word of comfort and assurance,” says CBP Director David Lose. “There’s no ‘I told you so’ or ‘You’re getting what you deserve’ [from Old Testament prophets during tragedies]. God is with these people, God is aware of their plight, and God will see them through.”
But many who invoke the prophets these days feel a responsibility to do more than soothe the hurt. Tom Bandy, a Toronto-based consultant to churches, says pastors “are getting more mileage by talking about mission focus and the true spiritual life as a life of humility or poverty – there’s more listening to that.”
“But they also have a lot of frustration,” he adds. “A lot of pastors are saying that when they speak about greed or consumers, everyone in the congregation points to the other guy. It’s really tough to bring it home.”
In a winter of snowdrifts and discontent, McBride, back in Raymond, has been discussing economic pain in sermons since November, when he laid out “God’s Recovery Plan.” Today this engineer-turned-preacher begins his sermon with a video clip of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. The bridge had a fatal foundational flaw, he says, just as people do when they put their trust in portfolios, governments, and things other than Jesus Christ.
“In times like these, the foundations of what you believe are truly put to the test,” McBride says. He goes on to unpack the implications of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth....”
As pastors find their way in this environment, they seem to agree on at least one point: Now is a moment of extraordinary preaching opportunity. The hard part may be figuring out what to do with it.