For years I have prayed that God would do whatever it took to get our attention—to turn us from false idols and back to Him. If the current economic meltdown is an answer to prayer, God is certainly getting our attention.
Like everybody else, I find myself squirming. My personal retirement plan has taken a hit and our ministry, like so many others, has to cut its budget.
As bad as things are, I've also seen good things emerge. Christian friends tell me unsaved acquaintances are increasingly asking about their beliefs. Many Christians themselves are rethinking their priorities. Americans, maybe, are relearning important lessons: the need to lean on God, depend on one another, and to create a sense of community—the kind we forget about in our affluence, but which I remember from my childhood.
I grew up during the Great Depression. Few complained about hardships; we were too busy helping worse-off neighbors. And we're seeing the same attitudes develop today. For instance, when a Texas woman recently lost her home to foreclosure, she cried as she watched it auctioned off. Observing her, another woman impulsively bid on the house, won, and then gave it back to its original owner—a total stranger.
Why did she do it? Her answer was, "People need to help each other, and that's all there is to it."
Other Americans—newly on tight budgets—are discovering that it's much nicer to eat a home-cooked meal as a family than to grab a burger somewhere. Others are opening their homes to adult children who can no longer afford their own apartments—and enjoying family life once more.
Another surprising benefit of renewed community spirit is that history tells us crime rates will go down. An extensive study by Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the Kaiser Institute, found only one reliable predictor of crime rates in a community: whether it had, or lacked, a strong sense of community values and a willingness to impose those values on public space—what researchers called "community cohesion." Crime was low in neighborhoods where people felt free to discipline neighborhood kids caught skipping school or scrawling graffiti on walls.
Sociologist James Q. Wilson found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, crime always drops in hard times. "The Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime," he writes. It also lessened divorce, as Mike Gerson noted in the Washington Post. Many Americans "adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption that lasted through their lifetimes—and that have decayed in our own," Gerson writes.
Finally, a 2007 study by professor David Beckworth shows evidence that the church grows in hard times.
While I did not wish for this economic collapse, we can at least be glad to see some lessening of our moral decay and signs of renewed spiritual interest.
As the recession plays out, Christians should be looking with confidence to God, living radically holy lives, truly loving God and our neighbors—and letting a fearful world watch us. That would be a powerful witness.