In the past month I’ve met with dozens of United Methodists individually and in groups discussing the future of their church, their discipleship and their response to the Conference Priorities. Our discussions were focused on church matters, but in the course of those discussions at dozens of locations throughout our Conference, mostly in small congregations, I became aware of other concerns.
From what I’ve heard I am becoming increasingly troubled about the economics of the middle class. Methodism is a mostly middle class movement, in our past and today as well. Something about the way we do church (maybe our middle-of-the-road theology?) appeals to folks in the middle. Today, folks in the middle are hurting. The “misery index” – inflation linked with the wages and jobs – is squeezing our people. Add soaring energy prices to this, as well as the housing crisis that is greatly reducing the value of homes, and it’s a crisis. It is downright un-American that our tax and wage structure have enabled the rich to get richer and the middle class to get squeezed. It’s ironic that we have chosen to wage the ill conceived “War on Terrorism,” borrowing most of the money for the war, charging it to our grandchildren, when the economy is hurting mid dle class Americans more than Islamic terrorists. For the first time in our nation’s history, the middle class is shrinking.
I heard little from either political party, at their conventions, that specifically addresses the problems that are engendered by our government related to the economy. Alabama has lagged behind the rest of the nation economically; now we are among the first to feel the middle class squeeze. Dozens of our congregations have programs to feed “the poor.” They report for the first time ever they are having members of their own congregations ask for help and they are having record numbers ask for help. Pastors are reporting an increased number of pastoral care cases that are directly attributable to economic pressures. A United Methodist student at Birmingham Southern told me last week that he could not go to college (because his mother and his father have been laid off from their once good paying jobs) if BSC had not given him a full scholarship. He thanked me for the church’s help. I sure don& rsquo;t have the answer to this increased misery, but let’s be sure to push our leaders to get out there and listen, learn, and pray that God will give them the political creativity and courage to act.
Of course, my major concern is the church. And my point is not the ineptitude and insensitivity of our national leaders, which is self evident. My point is that the current middle class squeeze makes all the more remarkable the response of the United Methodists of North Alabama . I thank God that I have the opportunity to see people in the middle show, even amid various levels of misery, the mercy of Christ. Last Sunday I dedicated a beautiful new building at little Hopewell Church in the Southeast District. Their pastor led them in doubling their space, building mostly with their own hands, debt free, AND paying more than their fair share of Conference obligations (apportionments)! (Cost of church buildings is the main excuse that pastors give for their congregations not paying 100% of their apportionments.) This summer the apportioned giving of the Northeast and the Southeast Districts has risen rather than fallen.
Alabama Christians are near the top of national percentage of income giving to charity and church. Last year our churches (filled with people in the middle class squeeze) gave millions of dollars to help people in need – two dozen Habitat Houses, 160 Volunteer in Mission teams, half a million dollars in Katrina relief, and more. It’s an amazing testimony to Christian generosity and gratitude to have such stewardship even in tight economic times. It is a sign that the mercy of Christ for those in need is astir among us. It’s evidence that good preaching and teaching, passionate worship and opportunities bear fruit. In a culture in which people are encouraged to look after themselves and their families, to vote their self-interest, and conspicuous display of affluence is praised as realization of “the American dream,” Christian stewardship has become a countercultural witness.&nb sp;
Average, middle class people made this country great. The promise of entrance to the middle class has been, at least until this last decade, part of the American dream. But more than any of that, the mercy being shown toward those in need among us by people who are themselves under economic stress, is a credit to the power of Jesus Christ to enable average, ordinary, people in the middle, to be spectacularly faithful.
So, this Sunday, when the offering plate is passed, or you are asked to make your yearly commitment to the work of the church, thanks for your witness. The world is seeing the mercy of Christ in you.