In the coming months, you will likely hear a lot about abundance and scarcity, luxury and lack. We, as a culture, are obsessed with these things. We are obsessed with who has what, who has not, and how each of them got there. We take investment courses and offer classes in our churches designed to help individual people reduce their debt. We drive our children towards careers that will make them economically successful, and we think in terms of profit and loss when it comes to our support of camps, campuses, Appalachia Service Project, McCurdy School, or the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church. We tell ourselves stories about what we can and cannot afford and turn the power of our disdain upon those who can’t seem to find a way to get by.
President Barack Obama said that income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.” In his TED talk, How Economic Inequality Harms Societies, public health researcher Richard Wilkinson claims that the wider the gap between the richest people and the poorest people in any given group, the more instability there will be in society. More violent crime. Higher infant death rates. More women dying giving birth to children. More children giving birth to children. Lower math and literacy scores among children. Overall life expectancy. It even shows up in intangibles such as trust and social mobility, satisfying relationships and how much bullying someone will experience in her lifetime.
And that is simply the difference in income between the poorest and the wealthiest within a group, not the amount of money (land, investment capital, etc.) that either the poorest or the richest have. In many instances, poorer nations have better social health than wealthier nations. The wider the difference, the less healthy the society is, if Mr. Wilkinson’s data and interpretation are accurate. [I highly suggest that you click the link above and invest the time to watch his TED talk.]
United Methodists like to trace our family tree back to people who believed that Salvation is not just for each individual soul, but is also the gift of Jesus for the whole world; it is an idea that the Good News is made visible where social ills begin to fade. Historically, those ills have included unjust work conditions (including subsistence wages, unregulated work hours and the use of children in the workforce), intemperance (the abuse of alcohol, specifically) and games of chance (gambling, cards, and casinos).
I believe that as your churches spend more time with MissionInsite data via the Healthy Church Initiative and as individuals challenge themselves to truly look at the social conditions which surround them, those social ills, along with many others, will become readily visible. To test Mr. Wilkinson’s theory, how wide is the gap between those with too little and those with too much in your town, neighborhood or county?
So, what does this mean for the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church? I think it means that we need to look a little bit sideways at the mission and vision of our church. Are we a church obsessed with economic success? Are we focused on our profit margins, investment returns and the self-sufficiency of our ministries? Are we collecting and hoarding resources? Are we building bigger barns and burying our talent under six feet of topsoil and a crop of King Corn?
Or, like Joseph, is the United Methodist Church in Iowa bringing God’s abundance into storehouses so that it will be ready to give away to those wiped out by famine and flood? Are we bringing together all that we have so we can share it back out to the world around us in a more just and kindly manner? Are we leveraging the power of our government to level the opportunity gaps around us? Are we ourselves living sacrificially in an understanding that by having less others can have more? Are we using our money power to lift up those in need, to rebuild that which has been destroyed, and to invest in a more equal society such that it may be accounted a glory to our God?
I believe that the Church’s storehouses are meant to be perpetually empty. The only reason resources come in is so that they can go back out again. We succeed when we spend more than we have to clothe, feed, educate, visit, empower, liberate, and heal. Christ’s economy is a budget perpetually in the red. So, affluent churches, affluent Christians, affluent people: what are our storehouses for?