Our country has witnessed significant natural and man-made disasters over the past several years, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. Now world supplies of food and oil are being stretched, and our country with them. And all this just as a credit crisis hits, affecting not only financial markets but the housing market as well.
Despite the warning signs these provide about our nation’s fragility, we have a strong tendency to continue with “business as usual” and simply hope for the best. But a more deliberate course of seeing these signs and acting upon them would be wise. A ship pointed toward a large wave is more likely to stay afloat than a boat hit broadside by the same wave. Let’s look at some of the challenges we’re facing and examine ways that elders and deacons can help their congregations prepare for them.
Seeing the Challenge
As mentioned, both natural and man-made emergencies have rocked our country in recent years. Natural disasters alone provide good reason to make at least physical preparations for emergencies. But the emotional toll that acts of terrorism exact increases our need for spiritual preparation.
With regard to man-made threats, we must face the facts: al-Qaeda has openly stated that it wants to take four million American lives. It has also been planning for more than 10 years to recreate our attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima—here. Groups like Hezbollah (Iran’s foreign legion) pose a threat to Americans abroad and possibly here. With open borders and a determined enemy, we may likely face a terrorist attack as bad as or worse than 9/11.
Financially, our $9.3 trillion federal deficit and personal addiction to credit have left our nation vulnerable economically. And our federal entitlement programs (Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security) are expected to hit crisis points within 10 to 15 years. The credit crisis has already affected many people directly or indirectly, threatening homes and incomes.
It is easy to see that we are in trouble. But that does not mean the church should lose hope. Far from it, if we place our trust in God Himself—not in our income, our savings, our economy, our country, or even our own preparations.
The problem is that most of us have grown up in a seemingly stable and prosperous nation where it has been easy to trust in earthly means of support. But if much of that is stripped away, how will the American church respond?
Meeting the Challenge
This is where the careful work of church leaders should come into play. We often see the need for diaconal (physical) assistance in times of crisis. But in Scripture, elders are charged with shepherding the church, which includes preparing it for difficulty. In Acts 20:17-38 Paul told the elders of the Ephesian church that he was “free from the bloodguilt of all” because he did not hold back from giving them the “whole counsel of God.” This included warning them about the hardships they would soon face (for them, persecution and heresy).
As an elder, I’m asking this: is the leadership of our local church faithfully preparing people for the difficulties we face now, and the ones we may be facing in the not-so-distant future? Elders and deacons must prepare believers both spiritually and physically for difficulty, including difficulty on a scale we may not have seen before.
From a teaching and preaching standpoint, elders and deacons can point to examples from Scripture, such as Joseph and the early church, where God’s people prepared physically for difficult times. In Genesis 41, Joseph stored grain for years to prepare for coming famine. And in Acts 11, the early church took up a collection to help the large and poor congregation in Jerusalem through another famine. Those actions helped save lives and were a means of God’s provision during times of difficulty.
Given the real possibility that we may have financial and material shortages ahead, elders and deacons would be wise to encourage storing funds and supplies in the event of an emergency, both to sustain God’s people and to help others. The PCA’s Mission to North America (MNA) has a ministry designed to help local churches prepare for and respond to emergencies (www.pca-mna.org/disaster/index.php). The Southern Baptist Church has also done work on emergency preparedness. Resources for families and organizations are readily available at www.ready.gov and through local fire and police departments. Emergency preparations should be done first at the individual/family level, and at the congregational and presbytery levels whenever possible. No home or church is an island. Coordinating with local and state authorities is very important.
Rather than fearing emergencies, a prepared church can see them as opportunities to be what the church should be—a community whose hope is set on heaven, not earth. A community like that will be better equipped to point people to a place of true security (God’s kingdom) and share generously with others during a crisis.
But in addition to physical preparation—and perhaps even more importantly—elders in particular need to prepare the hearts of their congregations for trying times. This should include teaching that both the love and sovereignty of God are at work even in painful circumstances. Christians must disconnect their love for God from their circumstances, as Job did when he lost all he had: “The Lord gave and the Lord took away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). This is easier for Christians to do when we have few or no earthly resources to rely upon (just ask our poorer brethren here or overseas), but can be much more difficult for Christians who live in “well-to-do” communities.
Likewise, the prophet Habakkuk said he would “rejoice in the God of my salvation,” even though Israel’s entire economy was going to be destroyed before his eyes by a seemingly “worse” people, the Babylonians (Habakkuk 3:17-19). This same principle could be played out in our country if God chooses to lift His protection from us.
We know that it is good to have faith like this, but it is especially needed during a crisis. Waiting until a crisis comes to instill this kind of faith is a terrible mistake. We should help people view tragedy through the lens of Scripture, with the love of God in mind, beforecalamity strikes. Otherwise they, and we, may be tempted to respond to emergencies out of emotion rather than faith.
We also should encourage our churches to pray, just as God commanded His people to pray when they were exiled in Babylon: “Pray for the city to which you have been exiled, for in its welfare is your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7). We can’t assume that because God has been merciful to us in the past that He will be in the future.
Being a Lighthouse in the Storm
People who are prepared for hardship can be a great blessing to others when that hardship comes. The early church probably seemed odd following an obscure prophet named Agabus who warned about a pending famine in Acts 11. In a time of plenty, Joseph must have seemed insane storing grain for years. But when famine came, he was a savior to his family, the people of Egypt, and many others. With all the warning signs available to us, we don’t need modern-day prophets to know that we should prepare for difficulty. A careful look at the news should be enough.
But our tendency is to think that tomorrow will be like today (Isaiah 56:12). When an earlier world superpower, Rome, fell in 410 A.D., about a century after it was “Christianized,” many Christians were caught off guard. The early church leader Jerome, seeing refugees from Rome come to his monastery in Bethlehem, wrote: “Who would have believed that mighty Rome, with its careless security of wealth, would be reduced to such extremes as to need shelter, food, and clothing?”
After Rome fell, Augustine wrote The City of God to remind Christians that Rome was not that city. American Christians, who have often blurred the distinctions between God’s kingdom and our country, need the same reminder now.
If the American church gets serious about preparing for emergencies while also showing a deep trust in Christ, it will be a peculiar but much needed community when the time comes. May God help us to be that community, and may God convict and empower church leaders to prepare, lead, and equip Christians for that time.
Steve Hall is a ruling elder at Stony Point Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Richmond, Va. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently practices law while studying to be licensed for preaching in his presbytery.