Richard J. Mouw: What to say about the downturn?

What do institutional leaders say about the financial downturn? If we are speechless, we can turn to Christians in the financial sector who are themselves trying to make sense of this.

He’s a young Christian leader here in Hong Kong who works in the financial district. We were chatting recently about the current economic crisis—his preferred term for what is happening is “tsunami.” I asked him what he was learning in all of this. “We saw the fall of communism in 1989,” he said, “and now it looks like we are seeing the fall of capitalism two decades later.” He then offered a slight revision: “Well, maybe it isn’t exactly the end of capitalism as such—but it certainly will be a big departure from the capitalist system as we know it.”

There was a slight note of sadness in his voice. But he made it clear that he wanted to emphasize something positive. “It’s a good thing, really,” he said quietly. “Even those of us who see ourselves as serving the Lord in the marketplace needed the wake-up call. We had gotten too used to growth and prosperity. Now we are forced to think about what life is really about. That’s the message I am preaching to my friends.”

I was impressed. Indeed, I was more than impressed—I was inspired.

His interpretation of the recent downturn was the sort of thing I am inclined to offer. But I must say that I am a bit reluctant to state the case so clearly. I have felt the effects of the recent events personally, to some degree. I have certainly felt them as the leader of an academic institution. But this young man has seen much bigger shifts than I can fathom, and has seen them up close. While he revealed no particulars of his own situation, he did speak about close associates whose personal losses have been in the millions.

We need Christian voices like his right now. There was an authenticity to what he said that I cannot capture in my own voice when speaking about the economic crisis. People have asked me often these days what I think the church ought to be saying about the downturn. I think the church should be saying what this young man said to me. And the truth is that he is also “the church.” In his own words he is a person who is “serving the Lord in the marketplace.” I am glad there are servants like him around who can speak an authentic word to the present situation. Someone has been doing a good job preparing him “for such a time as this.” If the rest of us who claim to be Christian leaders are not clear about how to speak about current events with an authentic voice, maybe we ought to ask for forgiveness for not having been as effective in spiritual formation as the people—whoever they are—who have been this young leader theological and spiritual mentors.

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary.