Rising Up in Decline

After sixty years of unprecedented growth and development, nearly every meaningful social and economic indicator in the United States is shifting. Over the last decade, economic globalization has redistributed power worldwide. As a result, the social, cultural, and economic fabric of nations is rapidly changing in the developed, underdeveloped, and developing world.

While previous global economic shifts occurred over decades, if not centuries, modern communications, computation technologies, and logistics capabilities are serving as accelerators that allow for these changes to take place in years. For the past 500 years, Western civilizations have dominated economically. Half-way through the last century, the United States assumed economic and political hegemony. Over the past decade, the erosion of the international economic role of the United States began to accelerate and was made evident by the decline in economic opportunities for its citizens and its business sectors, which are now competing worldwide. This underscores a deeper issue for the United States; there is a global transfer of dominance in production and consumption away from Europe and the United States. A new economic environment is emerging in the United States—an environment that is defined by an under-developing economy and fewer, lower-valued economic opportunities for the majority of the population. Evidence of this economic decline can be seen in the Great Lakes states and inner cities of the US. For example, 43% of all public school students in Ohio are disadvantaged as measured by free and reduced lunches. The United States must acknowledge its own declining standard of living, as well as the Asian and developing world economic juggernaut.

Statistics alone do not tell the whole story of an empire in decline, but unemployment, underemployment, lack of job creation, outsourcing, education shortfalls, manufacturing reductions, major demographic changes, and overreliance on financial services and sectors are symptomatic of the state of the US economy. Compounding these developmental indicators are increased levels of income disparity, increased poverty rates, record high home foreclosures, soaring debt levels, stagnate wages unprecedented spending on the military and high incarceration rates. As a result, a two-tier society is rapidly emerging in the United States with a small wealthy elite and a large marginalized majority.

With unshaken faith in the concept of American exceptionalism, many argue that the current economic decline is temporary and that unemployment is cyclical. However, there are permanent structural changes on many fronts of the US economy. For example, numerous Fortune 500 companies (e.g. General Electric, Coca-Cola, and 3M) receive over half of their revenue overseas and many of these companies have been able to tap into lower cost workers in China, Brazil, and India. Iconic American businesses such as Caterpillar, IBM, and Honeywell now have more employees outside the US than domestically. Manufacturing jobs in the country are rapidly dwindling and not being replaced as technology increases efficiency and globalization drives down wages. Almost every profession—accounting, law, medicine, architecture, engineering, computer software, service call centers, and research—has witnessed an exodus of jobs overseas. Under a capitalist system, corporations are obligated and mandated to look for ways to save on costs; digital technology allows companies to do this like never before. These job losses are creating core structural changes to the US economy, and they are not being replenished with new professions or industries of any significance.

This assessment is not welcome news to citizens who have experienced unparalleled prosperity during their lifetime. Whether the Romans, Mayans, or Ottomans, declining powers never admit or understand they are declining. Today’s decline is rarely mentioned in the mainstream press, professional journals, or religious circles. However, recognizing a new economic reality allows one to make adaptive actions.

This new world economy will place demands on the social, economic, and spiritual resources of states, cities, and towns across the country. A decrease in government revenue and a decline in the number of non-profits will further tax the country’s ability to meet basic needs. The US middle class will begin to experience significant erosion of its way of life. The days ahead will require a rethinking of the roles of the public, private, and civil society sectors. Each sector will have many challenges and opportunities. How will these lasting changes in the economy affect the church?

The church has been resilient over the last two thousand years, weathering empires, monarchies, revolutions, and governments. Like previous generations, churches, denominations, and seminaries throughout America will have to rethink how they define themselves as faith communities under a new landscape. Given the downward economic trends, the church will likely see an increase in the number of people looking for answers, now that the economic ladder of opportunity is contracting. People might feel betrayed and angry at the government, as witnessed in Tea Party rhetoric. Others might blame God for what happened to them. Fear and insecurity has begun to permeate the culture. Accordingly, churches may experience an increase of membership while church revenue becomes harder to obtain. Furthermore, there will be an increase in the number of people seeking immediate aid of food, shelter, and other resources. Unless there is a rapid turnaround among denominational leaders in their thinking and leadership, denominations will quickly lose their relevance as local churches will be swamped with competing needs and decreased funding.

In the midst of adversity, there is always hope, grace, and vision. Listed below are a set of tools or directions in a new environment.

Besides providing regular faith development, churches will need to find ways to increase social, moral, and spiritual capital. First, churches would benefit by developing centers or places of learning that focus on psycho-social needs, the arts, and healthful living. Faith communities will need a wide range of low-cost tools (yoga, support groups, and self-care skill building) to help people deal with anxiety, depression, and insecurity. Second, in order to avoid losing priceless wisdom about the Great Depression and World War II, churches and society would benefit by creating a ‘Wisdom Library’ from individuals born between 1920 and 1935. These individuals can contribute significant insights to new generations about community, resourcefulness and faith. Additionally, capturing stories from those who have immigrated from the Global South would be valuable because many of these people have experienced economic hardship, personal struggle, and continually starting over. Third, faith communities will need to learn from and create meaningful dialogue with the Global South, as well as with the rapidly growing immigrant populations since they represent the new face and future of Christianity. Fourth, churches will need to provide vision and moral leadership and create broad-based partnerships in the delivery of social services as the United States enters an age of underdevelopment. In the new era, philanthropy and governments will likely shrink; churches can and should step forward and lead—building and modeling constructive coalitions left void by institutions in retreat. Lastly, the faith community will need to rapidly develop and train capable leaders as the church takes on an increasing role within society.

Faith communities are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of society in the years ahead if they are willing to recognize and plan for the new world economy.

For a footnoted version of this essay or more information contact us at slovaas@comcast.net

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