Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What Can Pastors Say to Economists? : The Acton Institute Series

This is the first of a series of blogs cannibalized from my presentation at Acton Institute, 2012. This year's address (which I cam giving tomorrow at Acton) is  a sequel to last year’s presentation, which is also available on request.

(The Acton Institute, by the way, is a foundation that networks people who wish to learn and share  economic ideas. It works closely with Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Michigan and offers tons of free material on the subject. http://m.acton.org/ This year there are about eight hundred attendees from twenty seven countries.)

Seeing that I am neither an economist nor a financial expert, I was pleasantly surprised to receive your second invitation to speak at the Acton Institute.

I am, as you know, a pastor. My primary responsibility is to attend to the spiritual health of Christ Church Nashville. Secondarily, I am called to offer whatever help I can to the larger body of Christ. Thirdly, I am called to serve humanity in general in Christ's name.

That is what brings me to this conference. I want to learn from you and to share with you from the knowledge and experience I have gained as a Christian pastor. I think that insight can be valuable to your line of work because ultimately secularism will not work, even in economics. Money, after all, is merely a manifestation of spiritual forces and what does a secular materialist do with spiritual forces? Since pastors are called to specialize in matters of spiritual life, they should offer instruction about how spiritual life impacts economics and contributes to human flourishing.

It may come as a shock now, even to Christians, to hear that spiritual life includes how one views and practices finance. Nonetheless, Christianity has much to say about finance, although what it says is sometimes difficult to express in the language of contemporary economics. Difficult or not, Christian theology must deal with it. Economics is, after all the discipline that describes and influences the way we exercise stewardship over the part of creation God has placed within our sphere of responsibility.

I realize that most Christian churches have not had much to say about economics (or many other serious parts of human culture) for some time. The reason for this is intellectual sloth, pure and simple. I have no apologies to offer about that. I will say only that Christians are supposed to learn about how the world works and apply themselves to make a contribution to the health of human society. Historically, pastors have been expected to teach believers to do this.

Believers of equal sincerity, holiness and intelligence will disagree with one another about economics, of course. That is bound to happen if we begin our discussion from a secular premise. That should not be surprising to anyone. A socialist may easily isolate a string of Biblical passages to support his position and a capitalist can do the same. However, that sort of disagreement occurs much less frequently, and will not be nearly as serious, when we begin from Christian precepts rather than from ones rooted in secular ideologies from the secular left and right.

What pastors are supposed to do is shine the light of scripture (and the light of sacred history) upon economics and all other subjects. They are supposed to equip Christians how to perceive and perform their work in a Christian way. It is slothful for a pastor to hide from this task behind a wall of neutrality or ignorance. It is also unethical for a pastor to uncritically present secular theories he has picked up along the way and pass those off as "Christian." What the pastor shares  ought to be the implications of Orthodox Christianity, which will always be “other than” any secular system of thought.

I assume then that there is such a thing as Christian economics. Therefore, there must be such a thing as a Christian economist.

I am not one, but I think I know what one looks like.

If we call a person a Christian economist, we may mean that he is a believer who represents a school of economics acknowledged by other economists, Christian or not. However, we may also mean that he represents an economic system consciously based upon Christian presuppositions. St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Abraham Kuyper are Christian economists in that second sense. Although economics was not their main focus, and this is especially true of the first two, each developed economic theories that resulted in economic experimentation. We can learn from those experiments and apply the lessons they offer to contemporary life. A Christian economist specializes in doing that.

Pastors are rarely economists. However, they should know enough about the history and thought structures of their faith to offer insights on such things as economics to the people of their congregation. We tend not to expect this now from our pastors. We have largely transformed pastoral work into a form of therapeutic labor that offers certain kinds of spiritual experience but which lacks the biblical component of intellectual formation. As a Charismatic Christian, I certainly do not say this to denigrate the value of spiritual experience. I say it to insist that pastoral work includes intellectual formation and that necessarily includes how to view economic theory and practice in the light of faith.

If our secularized Christian culture pushes back with the question about what gives a pastor the right to address such things as economics, the answer is simple: a pastor does not speak from his own authority. He speaks as a messenger and agent of something above and beyond himself. He gives witness to a body of truth that he is charged to study and to communicate to others. This is his unique responsibility. He takes vows to do it. It is insubordinate to his Lord not to do it.

As agent and witness of an authority beyond and above himself however, the pastor learns and applies the lessons of the “great cloud of witnesses,” the “communion of saints,” that have formed his way of viewing the world.

Although largely ignored and forgotten, Christianity has a deeply rooted and highly nuanced philosophical heritage which a pastor is responsible to study and make available to his flock. Some of history’s most brilliant and saintly people gave their lives defending and applying the principles of our faith in times of great challenge and change. Believers accumulated it as they met the challenges late Greco-Roman antiquity threw at the early church. Having met those challenges, Christians met new ones offered by the fall of civilization and its long recovery through the medieval ages. Then came Islam. After that, the Enlightenment. Orthodoxy is what we call the result of their work and offers, we believe, a unique perspective on economic life. Now it is our turn as we work through the issues raised by our globalized, post-modern culture and to add to this heritage of Christian orthodoxy where economic life is concerned.

That is the main reason we have come to Acton and why a pastor should be excited about what happens here.

This long introduction may, at first glance, have little to do with the question I have been asked to address: the nature and future of America’s mega churches. I suspect that I was given this topic based on the lecture I gave last year however and so felt that I should explain the reasons why we are talking about the mega church in this conference.

I spoke last year about the economic impact of mega churches upon their members. It was a relatively easy lecture to prepare. I simply told the story of how two men (Dave Ramsey and Dan Miller) affected the financial culture of our local church.

Dave Ramsey, I said, taught us how to resist the temptation of a consumer society and to live within our means. He said we should tithe, save, invest and grow our assets to the level our vocation and abilities allowed.

Dan Miller, I added, taught us how to discover and live out our chosen vocation with joy, and to do it regardless of how society views the status of our chosen vocation.

The central idea of that lecture was that economics is more about what Dad and Mom create in their house more than it is about what our leaders do in the White House. As Dave Ramsey and Dan Miller poured their ideas into our congregation, the Dads and Moms who heard them made fundamental changes in the way they ran aspects of their homes. This had an enormous impact on our church, and through our church, on our entire city.

That story is true. It is powerful. However, it is also old news because it happened a generation ago.

In a world that has substantially changed since -- locally, nationally and internationally -- our church, like many others, is dealing with new challenges. We face those challenges with physical, organizational and ideological structures we built in response to last generation’s needs. Also, to be truthful, we have drifted somewhat from the principles we propagated back then: curiosity about the world, faith that we had what it takes to meet the challenges, a commitment to continual learning, and a belief that our faith is central rather than peripheral to one’s personal life.

This year, I cannot coast on great stories from the 1980’s. I must address a contemporary situation still in process.

As for what this has to do with economics, I will say that the reason so few of us understand economics is because we think it is mostly about money. Money, however, is a fruit rather than a root of economic theory and practice. What we believe, teach and live affects our financial lives. It is this entire picture that concerns a real economist and not merely the money that results from the structures that produce it. The word “economia” means after all, having to do with one’s oikos, or house. The Christian Church is the household of faith. What we teach and practice in this household affects every part of every person in it.

The subject of this lecture is a particular type of Christian household called the mega church. Because of what they offer or fail to offer, these massive communities affect, for good or ill, all those who choose to attend them. Because so many American believers now attend them, their spiritual health ought to be a concern of all believers. Indeed, they ought to concern nonbelievers as well, influencing as they do a considerable part of American cultural and economic life.

So there is my justification for talking about theology and the management of a mega church at a conference on economics.

With that, I cast myself on your mercy and proceed.


Dan said...

In 1942 Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay titled Why Work. Here’s a quick segment from that essay:
How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

Ben Baxter said...

Pastor Dan,
Would you mind being a call-in guest on a local Birmingham, AL radio show? Recently, our show, Knowledge is Power, has been in a phase that is very much related to what you speak to here in this particular blog about church, scripture, and economics. The city of Birmingham is going through a lot right now. Many of its citizens are Christians, yet the churches, especially in the low-income communities, seem the most willing to ignore the hard economic times. If you’re interested in a being a guest, please let me know at BenBaxter.Bama@gmail.com