Last November, I posed the question in a blog, “If gas hits $4/gal, what will your church do?” We are beyond $4/gallon gas now, and the future looks different than we ever thought it would just a couple of years back. But, there are other crises which will affect churches in the next few years:
1. The gap in moving from oil to other fuels. The buzz is already out there about electric cars. T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore have both challenged America with their visions of an alternative energy future. Talk about $12-$15/gallon gas is getting serious airtime, and no one is predicting a drop in oil prices. In the transition from oil to other fuels, transportation will change from private cars to public conveyance. The entire automobile culture that we have known in America will slowly and painfully be reformed to meet new energy challenges. How will congregants get to church in the future?
2. Increasing electricity costs. Google “rising electricity costs” and you find articles like this one predicting that electricity costs will double in five years. Why? Increasing demand as we move away from oil. Electric cars will only add to the demand, straining an already over-burdened power grid that is in serious need of upgrading. Imagine that the electric bill for your church, and each family in your church, doubles in five years. How do you cope?
3. Rising food costs. Accompanying rising gas prices–and increasing scarcity–and rising electricity costs are rising food prices. Riots have broken out in developing countries this year over the price of staples such as rice. According to Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, the entire food industry is facing a crisis of quality, nutrition, and cost. Roberts might be easy to ignore as “Chicken Little” alarmist, but he’s also the author of the 2004 book The End of Oil, which predicted the current oil crisis. We might want to pay attention to what he says about food.
4. Scarcity of water. If you think it’s not possible for America to run out of water, talk to the residents of Atlanta, where last year Lake Lanier dried up to record lows.
5. Economic/financial institutional uncertainty. The federal government’s “bail outs” of investment banks, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, plus the falling dollar, the increasing national debt, the war in Iraq, low consumer confidence, and the continuing subprime mortgage crisis have converged to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. The next couple of years will not be business as usual for any institution, churches included.
The implications for the future of churches are great if only one of these crises matures. But, if all continue to move toward more critical levels, then churches will have to rethink standard operating procedures. Implications include:
1. More family income spent on basics. Food, housing, utilities and transportation costs are all basics. If families have to spend more on these items, they will have less to spend on other things, church and charitable gifts included.
2. Increased building operating costs. If electricity doubles, and natural gas and heating oil prices double, the costs to maintain and operate church buildings will displace staff, program and missions expenditures.
3. Rising unemployment or underemployment. Churches will be faced with more families needing help than ever before.
Experts are predicting these scenarios in the next few years. A future column will discuss what churches can do to transition to effective ministry as these crises unfold.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs at Confessions of a Small Church Pastor.