The future of the world is becoming increasingly unsettled. This article describes ways that people can prepare to cope with any crisis that emerges. To understand some of these issues, readers will need to understand the place of the Division of Labour in economic activity. I will explain the meaning of this expression in the first few sections before going on to talk about preparation in more detail.
Specialisation and Subsistence and Self-sufficiency
In a traditional society, people often live by subsistence. They do not depend on any other people for survival, because they grow or produce everything that they consume. If they cannot grow or make it themselves, they do not have it. Living on subsistence allowed the people to be self-sufficient, but this was quite limiting, because they spent so much of their lives producing food and shelter, they do not have time to develop and make other products that they may want.
Trade changes everything, because it allows people to specialise. One person specialises in growing grain. Another specialised in catching fish. A third person specialises in baking bread. Each one does what he is most skilled in doing. By focusing on one task, each person could increase their skills and find ways to do a task more efficiently.
The person who specialises can produce more than they need to survive. They can trade their surplus production with others to get all the things they want. Trade improves the situation of almost everyone.
Over the last fifty there has been a vast increase in specialisation and trade. The Japanese have specialised in making flat screen TVs, New Zealand has specialised in producing milk powder and special effects for movies. Americans have specialised in making autos. The Chinese have specialised in manufacturing clothing. This trade and specialisation has made most people better off.
I do not have a clue about how to make a computer or a flat screen TV. I could not make a decent automobile, if I worked on if for a hundred years. If I made my own clothes, I would look like a caveman. However, by specialising in tasks that I am skilled at doing, I can afford to buy all these things and many more.
Division of Labour
The name that economists use for this specialisation and trade is the “division of labour”.
Division of labour or specialization is the specialization of cooperative labour in specific, circumscribed tasks and roles, intended to increase the (productivity of labour).
By increasing the productivity of labour, supports trade and improves the standard of living in a society.
The division of labour is really important, because even a small decline in the division of labour will make most people will be worse off. The reality is that no Western country can make all the products that modern people are used to consuming. When specialisation and trade diminish, standards of living decline.
The division of labour and specialisation is a Christian way of functioning.
Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us (Rom 12:4-6).
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men (1 Cor 12:4-6).
The church functions best when the prophets prophesy, the apostles apostle, the pastors, pastor, the evangelists evangelise, the servers serve and the encouragers encourage. When each Christian tries to do a little bit of everything, the body of Christian is weakened.
Life in the City
The division of labour makes life in cities possible. Without the benefits of specialisation and trade, life in a modern city would be impossible, even for those who live simply. Several companies in the city where I live produce top quality electronic equipment that is exported all over the world. However, this city does not have the capital equipment are the range of skills needed to manufacture the full range stuff that people need to survive in a modern city. The only way that we can maintain a city lifestyle is to specialise in manufacturing and exporting a very limited range of products and import the other goods and services that we need.
What is true for a city is also true for a large country. Even the United States does not have sufficient capital and skills to produce the full range of goods and services needed to sustain life in and American city. If America attempted to be self-sufficient, living standards would suffer as the benefits of the division of labour and specialisation disappeared. Life in the city would be terrible.
Self-sufficiency is not a practical for a city or country, but it is even less practical for an individual. An individual who attempts to be self-sufficient loses all the benefits that have come through trade and the division of labour. A man fending for himself will be hard pressed to produce enough food and clothing for his own family, even if he was very industrious. He will not have time to produce all the things that we need to live in a city.
In difficult economic times, trade declines. A reduction in the division of labour and a decline in living standards inevitably follow. We will have to deal with this, if it happens, but we must understand that a total collapse of trade and return to total self-sufficiency would be a total disaster for people living in a modern city.
A collapse of trade would severely damage the lifestyles of people living in the country. Most country people in the Western world are dependent on the division of labour and lack the skills and equipment needed to be self-sufficient.
People in some parts of the world may be forced into subsistence and self-sufficiency, but that should never be our first response to crisis. Whatever our circumstances, we should always attempt to specialise and trade as much as is practicable. We should always maintain as much division of labour as possible. Being dependent on other people will strengthen our community and enlarge our lifestyles.
Preparing for Economic Crisis
The credit crunch has created a great deal of economic uncertainty. Christians are starting to think about life in difficult times. Some are preparing to cope with an economic crisis. This sense of urgency is good, but we must focus our efforts wisely.
When preparing for difficult times, most Christians think about returning to a subsistence lifestyle. Their first response is to start growing vegetables. Some Christians consider moving to the country, where a self-sufficient lifestyle will be easier. Growing vegetables might be a sensible away to support other people, but is probably foolish if the aim is to be self-sufficient. The self-sufficient lifestyle is actually a subsistence lifestyle, and that is an awful way to live.
Returning to subsistence is not the best way to prepare for tough times when most people live in cities. If Christians want to provide a lead, we will need to develop models for life that will work in a city. Before rushing into the country, we should think clearly about what happens in an economic crisis. Once we have a clearer idea of what we will be facing, we can prepare more sensibly.
At the personal level, an economic crisis affects people differently.
Some people will lose their jobs. They will face a massive drop in income. If they find new work, it may not match their skills, so they will be less well paid.
People who keep their jobs will continue to live quite well. If prices fall, they might actually be better off than they were before the crisis.
Most business owners will face a reduction in income. They will generally be able to continue to operate, but their profit will decline.
Some businesses will fail. The owners of these businesses will face a severe reduction in income.
The situation will be varied. Some people will have a dramatic decline in income. Others will carry on living as normal. The relative size of these two groups will depend on the severity of the recession.
Pauls spoke about the situation where some are well off and other are suffering.
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little (2 Cor 8:13-15).
Paul suggested a solution for the situation where some have plenty while others are hard pressed. The solution is generous giving. A key to preparing for difficult economics is to learn how to give and share. Christians can best prepare for difficult times by building relationships and building channels through which those who are better off can share with those who are hard pressed.
Deacons will have a role in facilitating this giving and sharing. Acts 6 describes how people with this calling were set aside to care for those in the Christian community who were poor. We should be working and praying to raise up this ministry.
At the economic level the main impact of an economic crisis will be a reduction in the division of labour. Trade will become more difficult, which will reduce the level of specialisation. New Zealand may not be able to afford to import so many autos, computers and flat screen television. A decline in the volume of trade and in the degree of specialisation will make us all worse off, but it does not mean we have to return to self-sufficiency and subsistence.
Whatever happens, we should maintain as much division of labour as possible. When trade gets more difficult, we might need to shift to sharing to get the benefits of specialisation, but we should not return to subsistence unless that is the only alternative. Sharing can strengthen the division of labour when declining trade weakens it. A return to self-sufficiency should not be necessary, if people have learnt how to share.
Networks and Relationships
When a financial or social crisis causes trade to collapse, networks and relationships will have an important role in ensuring that goods and services flow from those who are skilled at producing them to the people who have the greatest need. This presents an amazing opportunity for God’s people. We are experts at relationships. We should have strong networks with other Christians. We should be really experienced at giving and sharing. If Christians get prepared, they should be able to lead the way in the giving and sharing that will enable people to survive through difficult times. Every Christian should thinking about what they can be share with others.
During an economic crisis, there will be plenty of Christians living in the country who are skilled at producing food, so there will be no shortage of food. However, the collapse in trade may make it more difficult for people in the city to buy the food that they need. City Christians might need to share fuel and other resources with those growing food in the country. Sharing between Christians living in the country and Christians living in the cities should ensure that food is provided to those who need it. Christians with strong networks will have an important role organising the flow of surplus food from the country to the city.
City people will also need to share among themselves. If we cannot buy new appliances, we might need to get better at sharing what we have. People with plenty might give clothing to those with none. The owners of vehicles might provide transport for those who need to travel.
Over the last century, Christians have entered into the modern suburban lifestyle with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the world. This works fine when markets are operating effectively. People can live wherever they choose, because the market brings everything they need to them. If they want to meet with other believers, they jump in the car.
If Christians believe that the market will collapse in the future, they should think more strategically about where they live. Giving and sharing will be much easier for people who live in close proximity to each other. In troubled times, isolation in suburbia might mean separation from those who can care and share with us. If the economic crisis affects supplies of fuel, the cheap transport that sustains life in suburbia might disappear. Sharing transport will much easier for Christians who live closer to other Christians.
Returning to subsistence makes an economic crisis worse. Whatever the situation, we should try to keep the division of labour going as much as possible. Sharing skills is a good way to capture the benefits of specialisation. Each Christian should think about their skills and identify ways to bless other people in their community. These skills might not the same as they exercise in their calling or their paid employment. The prophet might have skills in repair electrical equipment. The accountant might have repaired old cars as a hobby. In some situations these skills might be more valuable do their community than what they usually do.
Christian leaders should look out for people with skills that their community might need. Networks that link needs with skills will be really important for the well being of a community. If we cannot buy new automobiles, we might need to keep older ones going for longer. The person getting their car repaired might not have money to pay the person repairing there cars, but they might be able to deliver vegetables to those who are suffering. Each person should be encouraged to use their skills to bless the rest of their community.
Some skills that are now redundant might become more valuable. These days very people bake their own bread, because it is not economic to put energy into making something that can be bought so cheap at a store. If the economic system really collapsed, bread might be hard to buy. Bread-making skills would be really valuable. People with skills in repairing electrical appliances .and vehicles might suddenly find they have plenty of friends.
A person who loses their job might be tempted to plunge into self-sufficiency by growing their own food. That might be sensible, if they are skilled at gardening and know people who would enjoy the surplus vegetables, but for most people gardening may be totally inappropriate. Each person should find ways to benefit their community doing tasks that utilise their skills. Not everyone is a gardener and man cannot live on vegetables alone.
Apostles and Deacons
Deacons will develop strong networks between those with plenty and those in need. This is a division of labour. People with business skills may be good at producing surplus wealth, but lack the compassion and patience needed assist poor people struggling to get back on the right road. Deacons will be specialists in helping poor people how to manage their lives better. The body of Christ will be stronger if deacons can focus on doing their calling, with others providing resources for them to distribute. Barnabas handed his surplus wealth over to the deacons to hand out, so that he could get on with his ministry as an apostle (Acts 4:26-37: 6:1-6).
During a crisis, deacons with lots of contacts will take the responsibility for building networks between town and country. They will facilitate the flow of food from the country into the city. They will also ensure that the Christians growing food in the country get the resources they need to support their ministry.
Another role of the deacon is to identify people with skills put them in touch with those who need word done. If an auto mechanic is unemployed, the deacons will link him with people that need their cars repaired. They will also make sure that the giving flows back the other way, so the mechanic’s family does not starve.
If apostles have been sent out to establish new churches, they will have links with Christians in other regions. Paul was able to link the Macedonian Christians who lived in plenty with their brothers and sisters facing famine in Jerusalem. These links and relationships will be really important for ensuring that food flows from the country to the city and arranging for the Christian farmer to get his tractor repaired by the mechanic who lives in the city
Releasing apostles into their ministry might be the best way to prepare for economic crisis. Developing the ministry of the deacon is probably the best way to prepare for social decline.
How Giving Works
In a money-based economy, the gardener pays the hairdresser for a haircut. The butcher sells lamp chops to the motor mechanic and buys potatoes from the gardener. The farmer pays the mechanic to fix his tractor and sells the flour to the miller. The baker buys flour from the miller and sells bread to the hairdresser. In this system, the goods and services flow one way and the money flows back the other way.
If the money system breaks down and the cash machines are empty, these exchanges would be impossible. If money loses value, buying and selling might become difficult. The world will have to go back to barter, where two people swap their surplus goods and services. Barter is very restrictive, due to search costs. If a hairdresser wants some bread, he must find a baker who wants a haircut. Economists call this the “coincidence of wants”. The problem is that when the hairdresser finds a baker with surplus bread, he might be bald and need a new shirt. A lot of productive time will be wasted looking for people who want to make exchanges, so everyone will be worse off.
Christians can escape the barter trap through giving and sharing. The hairdresser might bless the gardener by giving him a free haircut. The gardener can bless the butcher by giving him his surplus potatoes. The butcher can bless the motor mechanic by giving him some lamb chops. The motor mechanic can bless the farmer by repairing his tractor. The farmer can bless the miller by giving him some surplus wheat. The miller blesses the baker by giving him some flour. The baker can then bless the hairdresser by giving him some of his bread. Giving and sharing provides everyone with what they need without any money changing hands.
In the circle of giving, goods and services flow in the same way as in the market. The difference is that money does not flow the other way. What does flow is blessing. Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Each person gets what they needed, but they also get God’s blessing because they gave to those who are need. The giving and sharing makes the whole community better off and increases God’s blessing at the same time.
Giving and sharing will only work if there is a high level of trust between the various Christians. The will be committed to giving and be constantly looking out for people in need. If the Christian farmer does not know the Christian miller, the circle of giving could break down. If the baker knows the hairdresser, but do not care enough to find out what he needs, the links will break. Often the circle of giving will be much larger and more complicated than I have shown.
The world would have to trade on a reciprocal basis: you scratch my back and I will polish your shoes. Blessing flows round and round, which is more effective than reciprocal swapping.
Sharing and the Gospel
The objective of sharing is to spread the good news and not to keep God's people comfortable. Christians should also use their resources to help people who are not Christians. When the Arameans were besieging Samaria, four lepers were shut outside the city. When they found the army had panicked and fled, the hungry lepers were the only ones who noticed.
They ate and drank, and carried away silver, gold and clothes, and went off and hid them… Then they said to each other, "We're not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves” (2 Kings 7:8,9).
Christians must not fall into this trap. We should aim to feed all the poor living in our communities, not just the Christians.
Everything that happens should be an opportunity for evangelism.
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them… went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21).
Economic crisis will create opportunities for proclaiming the good news.
The impact of any economic crisis will vary from region to region and country to country. The preparation that is appropriate for the current crisis will vary according to where people living.
In many countries the current economic crisis will manifest in high levels of unemployment. The main challenge will be transferring income from those with plenty to those under pressure.
In other countries, business trade will be disrupted. Assisting the flow of food from country to the city might be important. The methods described above will work effectively.
In some regions the economy and its infrastructure might totally collapse. This has happened in Zimbabwe. The supermarket shelves are empty, so no one has food, even the rich are hungry. In this environment, skills like baking bread and growing food will be really important. Sharing will be essential for survival.
In a few places, society may collapse into total chaos. These situations call for a different level of preparation. I will deal with preparation for living in a collapsing society in the next few sections. A collapsing society could become a dangerous place for Christians to be living.
The problem for those trying to prepare is that none of us no how bad things will get in our city or region. The wisest option is to be conservative and prepare for the worst. If the worst does not happen, we will not have lost anything. We will be able to assist those who have not prepared. Jesus parable of the ten virgins should guide our preparation.
At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps…. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps (Matt 25:1-4).
If the economic crisis gets really bad, the fabric of some societies will be torn apart. If work gets scarce unemployed people might start rioting and looting. If the government runs out of money, it might stop paying the police. In the worst case scenario, gangs of youths might roam streets of the city terrorising the population. The city would be a dangerous place, but the country would be no better. If food is scarce, hungry hoards might trample the countryside searching for something to eat. Personal security would be a big issue.
Very few western countries will experience social chaos and mob rule as a result of this economic crisis. The powers that be will simply not let it happen. Troops have already been deployed in many countries ready to prevent riots and looting. When faced with a choice between disruption of their comfort and dictatorial government, the people of the West have voted consistently for their comfort. We are more likely to see autocratic governments than mob rule in the West. Repressive governments will not be a threat to Christians, as they will mostly ignore us, unless we become an irritant.
In some parts of the world however, where governments are less secure, economic crisis might collapse into social and economic chaos. Christians living in these nations would be wise to prepare for this season.
See Preparation for Social Collapse for more.