In the past month, I have had conversations with more than one person who have made the comment that Americans should expect a substantial shift in the status quo in the very near future. The global economy steadily tilts toward instability and collapse, according to many economists.
Many people dismiss these gloom-and-doom predictions as misguided scare tactics used by liberals to attack capitalism and institute a welfare state or socialist government. Who wants to hear more bad news? We are struggling to keep our tiny empires solvent as it is. We don’t want to believe that a massive storm is blowing in from the east, so we choose not to believe it.
Tom Sine’s life course was set in 1970, when he listened to an environmentalist elucidate the effects of human consumption on the ecosystem. That lecture inspired him to study trends in order to help the Church prepare for the future. He has consulted Christian and secular organizations in futures assessment and planning. His work spawned Mustard Seed Associates.
Sine’s recent book, The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time (2008), hopes to multiply the harvest of mustard seeds: the small, insignificant, ordinary people in whom God wants to unleash his Spirit for magnificent ministry for his kingdom. Writing about the challenges of missional church leadership, Alan Hirsch says, “It is getting much harder for their communities to negotiate the increasing complexities in which they find themselves. As a result, the church is on a massive, long-trended decline in the West.” (The Forgotten Ways, 2006) Sine examines some of these complexities, while reporting the innovative and redemptive ways that the new conspirators are addressing them.
The rich-poor divide continues to expand in the unstable economy. The number of millionaires in the world grew from 4.5 million in 1996 to 8.7 million in 2005. That class controls $33.3 trillion of the world’s wealth, double what they wielded in 1996. Billionaires increased from 703 to 946 as did their wealth by 35 percent. In the meantime, income levels of the lower 55% of the world’s inhabitants declined or stagnated in that period.
Most readers do not inhabit in that lower 55%, but have felt the impact of the economic landslide. Elizabeth Warren contends that the working wife sustained middle class status for many families during the ‘70s, 80’s and ‘90s. Although the dual-income family earns much more today than they did in the previous generation, they have less discretionary income and smaller savings accounts. (The Two-Income Trap, 2003).
The Economist reports that savings shrunk from 7% to less than 1% in the 1990s. Many Americans now borrow more than they earn in order to consume what they want, inflating revolving credit card debt by 600% in the last two decades to $750 billion. From 1983 to 2003 bankruptcy filings skyrocketed by 500%. Warren predicted that this trend would result in 5 million families filing bankruptcy in 2010, up from one million in 2003.
Warren attributes eight out of ten bankruptcies of families with children to medical expenses, job loss and family breakup. In twenty-five years, the number of uninsured Americans has risen to over 45 million. The household with a median income of $42,409 spends 21% on health-care insurance alone.
Insurance costs amplify about 10% every year, three times the rate of inflation. In 2005, health-care costs soared by 15% to $1.6 trillion. Corporations have stubbornly abandoned health insurance benefits for their employees, increasing their financial burden, while CEO bonuses swell. Legislators plead ignorance and refuse to intervene in the pillaging of American households.
In 1958, the cost of a private college education was $700 per year. Degrees cost more than $30,000 today. Most students walk across the stage to receive their diploma and out of the auditorium to receive a promissory note of $23,000 on average. Many of those graduates cannot find employment and pursue a graduate degree with additional debt. This dramatically affects the college entrance of African American and Hispanic students.
More people are slipping out of the middle class into the abyss of poverty. The feast at the banquet table continues to expand for the wealthy, while the middle class and poor fight over the leftovers and scraps. Printing more currency will not reverse this trend. Amassing more debt will not secure a rescue vehicle.
Sine believes this landscape offers God’s people opportunities to bring God’s kingdom into reality. New Life Covenant Church in Torrance, California launched in 2006 with a vision for reaching out to the needs of the community rather than the needs of the congregation. They gather only twice a week, on Sundays for worship and once in small groups. The small groups habitually identify and meet the needs of people outside the church. This church of several hundred has already spawned three other churches, is funding micro-enterprises in Africa and gives over 30% of their budget to local and global mission.
Stories of kingdom work and transformed lives abound. The mission of Jesus does not rely upon a healthy economy and stable savings accounts. In fact, his kingdom may expand at greater rates when people can no longer construct fairytale castles and mythological worlds for their consumer addictions.
The Church needs to position itself now for the growing harvest, which requires us to get out of the house and start getting dirty.