How Bad Times for the Economy Can Be Good Times for Churches

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So, chances are the economic news has you wondering what the future holds for your church.

It seems that the default for many church leaders is to freeze, grow cautious, and worry that things are going to get really tight once the word recession makes it way into headlines.

While being cautious is better than being reckless, what if tight economic times were more of an opportunity for your church than an obstacle?

Believe it or not, bad times for the economy can be good times for churches—especially when your church doesn’t buy into the scarcity mindset that churches many do.

Believe it or not, bad times for the economy can be good times for churches. CLICK TO TWEET

We Launched a Church During the Great Recession

I started getting questions about leading through a recession a while ago, and I thought back to leading through the recession in the early 2000s and again in 2007.

The verdict? It really didn’t make any difference at all.

In fact, we launched a church at the onset of the Great Recession and we did just fine. Well, more than fine, actually.

We had financing lined up for some gear we were buying to launch both locations of what would become Connexus Church in November of 2007.

Perfect timing, right? Well, because of the stock market crash, the vendor pulled their financing at the last minute.

Needing some cash to launch Connexus, I did the only thing I knew how to do: pray and ask founding members if they would give.

By the sheer grace of God, we raised $550,000 in ten days from donors while the economy crashed around us. I still look back in awe.

It was the most money we’d raised to date in that short of a window.

And, to make it more complicated, we didn’t receive our charitable status until a year later. I had to tell every donor that there was no guarantee that they’d ever get a tax receipt for their donation. They gave anyway.

Here what was I learned: Mission and vision trump the economy. And when the cause is strong enough, people give.

The same is somewhat true in business. Airbnb, Slack, and Squarespace were all founded in 2008 during the Great Recession. Sure, some companies didn’t make it past 2008, but the truth is that you can still launch giants when things aren’t looking great.

Harvard Business review study shows that—counterintuitively—companies that launched new products during a recession fared better than those who tightened their belts and cut spending.

Maybe ‘bad times for the economy can be good times for churches‘ isn’t such a crazy theory after all. And the dynamic goes much deeper than simply raising money.

Here are five principles church leaders can use to navigate uncertain economic times, even amidst a looming recession, high interest rates, and persistent inflation.

1. Crisis Of Any Kind Is An Accelerator and Magnifier

First, some realism. Not every church will do well in a recession because, as every leader learned during COVID, crisis is an accelerator.  It can accelerate your decline, but it can also accelerate your progress.

That stays true in a recession.

Healthy churches took a temporary attendance hit in COVID but returned stronger than ever. Further, their giving went up (not down) even as the stock market crashed and millions lost their jobs.

Conversely, the crisis also revealed the weakness inherent in struggling congregations. Some saw their losses accelerate and didn’t survive COVID; others are still struggling.

The lesson? If your church has some momentum, a strong vision, and a few financial reserves, even a bad economy won’t slow you down.

Instead, it will give you the opportunity to expand and help your community like you’ve never helped them before.

Churches with even a bit of momentum should look for the opportunity in a recession, not slam on the brakes.

Crisis is an accelerator.  It can accelerate your decline, but it can also accelerate your progress, even in a recession. CLICK TO TWEET

2. Start Helping People Live With Margin and Live on Mission

If people get discipled by the secular culture of money, they’ll either go into unmanageable debt or become self-absorbed high-net-worth individuals. And far more will succumb to the former, not the latter.

Regardless, neither reflects a biblical worldview on money.

God doesn’t want people drowning in debt or living a completely self-indulgent rich life.

The scriptures have much to say about money; living within your means, debt and savings, and using your money for good.

So, why don’t you teach it? 

Now, here’s the shift that’ll make it easier to teach.

Usually, pastors talk about money when they need money. That’s a mistake.

Start talking about money when you don’t need it, and make it about what you want FOR people, not what you want FROM them. If you spend 90% of your message doing that, the 10% talking about what you want from people becomes much easier and more natural. 

It means you get to start educating people about how to live with financial margin and what it means to live on mission. Exciting, right?

The tagline we created at Connexus is that we wanted people to “Live with margin and live on mission.”

We started casting vision for people to pay cash for their next vacation, to save for their children’s education, to save for retirement, to create an emergency fund, and to live generously. We taught people how to drive a car, not a car payment. To buy a house, but buy less house than they qualified for so they’d have margin in case interest rates went up or someone lost their job.

We helped them with budgeting. We taught them how to talk about money so they wouldn’t get in a fight. And we taught people with money to use it generously and make their lives about the Kingdom of God and others, not just themselves.

In other words, we helped them win with money. 

We also launched an off-Sunday program called the Financial Learning Experience to help people develop a budget, pay cash for things, save for the future, pay down their debt, and develop margin in their budget.

And, of course, we taught tithing.

You can run a program like that, or you could run Financial Peace University. The bottom line is that nobody else in this culture will teach them to handle money responsibly. That’s your opportunity. 

The result? Over 1,000 people at our church have gone through the Financial Learning Experience in the last decade and experienced a new level of financial freedom. They stopped drowning in debt. They rejected the cultural message of borrowing until you’re upside-down, and they lived with margin and started living on mission. 

Here’s the bottom line: Focusing on what you want for people rather than what you ask from them isn’t greedy at all. You’re actually helping them. 

By the way, that kind of education helps release more money for giving and for the mission of the church. Start talking about money when you don’t need it, and make what you want FOR people, not what you want FROM them, 9/10ths of your message. CLICK TO TWEET

3. Encourage Those With More to Sacrifice More

You’ve already seen this dynamic at work in the first year or two after COVID hit—many people increased their giving.

As income inequality spreads, not everyone gets hit equally. In the last few decades, the rich have seen their share of gross national income grow faster than any other group. On the flip side, lower-income earners have become poorer and the middle class shrank.

As a result, some people in your church will have stable incomes regardless of what happens to the economy, and others will even see increased income.

Encourage people who have more to sacrifice more for the sake of those who have less.

The New Testament is filled with examples of people who had more who sacrificed more to help those with less.

Issuing that kind of call during an economic downturn is not only appropriate, but it can help those who have more lean into the spiritual gift of giving.

Not everyone is affected the same way during economic downturns. That gives you the opportunity to facilitate connections between these groups, foster a sense of community, and share responsibility. Encourage people who have more to sacrifice more for the sake of those who have less. CLICK TO TWEET

4. Care For Those In Need

The church is at its best when we reach out to struggling people. The church can be a beacon of hope, whether it’s financial assistance, emotional support, or practical guidance.

There will always be a greater need than a financial education class can address, and this is the time for the church to be, well, the church.

There are several ways you can do this. First, there’s a public giveaway like the massive food giveaway Central Church in Las Vegas did during COVID. It continues to inspire me years later.

Obviously, your church might not be able to scale something as large as Central did, but you can still get into the corner of charities and families in your neighborhood and give to those in need.

An often overlooked way to help is to encourage small group members and serving team members to care for each other. Often, when people expect “the church” to act, they mean they want the church leaders to make a public response.

But another way for ‘the church’ to respond is to have members care for other members. When small groups rally around a hurting member or a serving team pools funds to pay for rent or buy groceries, the church is simply being the church. Often, though, people need to be reminded they have permission to care for each other that way.

A generous church is a church at its best. And in tough economic times, people are looking for the church to be compassionate and generous. A generous church is a church at its best. And in tough economic times, people are looking for the church to be compassionate and generous. CLICK TO TWEET

5. Broker Hope

Napoleon is attributed with saying that leaders are dealers in hope. And he’s right.

One hallmark of leadership is providing hope when no one else can see it. That’s especially true when people are struggling.

Financial stress can be intense.

Providing psychological help to people, financial education and assistance, and offering practical, helpful biblical teaching on money can go a long way to helping people cope with an economic downturn.

If the church isn’t going to provide hope in hard times, who is?

The church’s role in supporting its community during economic challenges is not just a responsibility; it’s an opportunity to embody the love and compassion at the heart of our faith.

It’s a leader’s job to help people see that this has happened before and that you’ll get through it again, together.

If the church isn’t going to provide hope in hard times, who is? CLICK TO TWEET

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