- Proverbs 22:7
There is a reason it is called "servicing debt".
We are a nation with an insatiable appetite for borrowing and consumption fueled by that borrowing. Working hard, saving and waiting have been replaced by easy credit, massive debt and instant gratification. When you step back and look at the big economic picture you see a nation teetering on the edge of disaster thanks in large part to debt and the resulting wage and housing inflation it has caused. In terms of actual debt already incurred and liabilities promised with no feasible means of payment (public pensions, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, etc.) America is already fiscally dead but the nation keeps shambling along like a zombie.
Here is a little exercise, please bear with me. Just around the corner from our home there is a decent sized plot of farmland coming up for sale, a little over 600 acres. That is a sufficient amount of acreage for a full-time farmer. Thanks to inflated crop prices, government subsidies, a culture of "get big or get out" in farming and readily available credit I am guessing that the whole deal will sell at some $6000 an acre. That actually might be kind of low. $6000 for an acre sounds pretty cheap if you are buying a lot to build a house on but multiply that by 600 and you get $3,600,000. Over 3 1/2 million dollars is nothing to sneeze at. Using some random numbers for a 20 year loan at 5% you get monthly payments of $23,000 and total interest paid of over $2 million. That is over a quarter million a year in just mortgage payments. If you plant corn that yields a very nice 185 bushels to the acre you get 111,000 bushels of corn. Now with great corn prices, say $7 per bushel, you get $777,000 from a corn crop. That is what prices were hovering at around the beginning of last week. As Reuters reports by the end of the week thanks to ample rain in the corn belt prices had plummeted to around $5.50 a bushel which equates to a potential drop of over $150,000 in income in just one week. That is farming, great weather and great crops equals low prices, bad weather and poor crops means great prices but little to sell. Anyway the difference between the mortgage and the crop revenue is a huge number, somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000. So why don't more people get into farming with that kind of revenue? Well you also have to feed and house your family, buy seed and fertilizer and pesticides to get those big yields, buy and maintain enormously expensive farm equipment. Other than a small few who have an enormous amount of land, probably passed on for generations by a business savvy farmer, most farmers live right on the edge and choose to farm for the pride and the lifestyle rather than the money. Someone who wants to get into farming? Good luck going to the bank and getting a multi-million dollar loan based on potential revenue from farming. Thanks to the debt system that has inflated land and machinery prices, few young people can get into farming leaving us with a bunch of old farmers and fewer and fewer giant farms. Many of the very policies allegedly designed to "help" farmers have actually worked to drive aspiring farmers out of the fields and into regular jobs.
Farming is hardly the only area that government tinkering in lending has hurt the very people it was supposed to help. Student loan debt that was supposed to make college affordable and accessible to everyone has instead achieved the opposite, driving tuition prices sky high and saddling new graduates with a crippling debt in return for the promise of a life of working in a cubicle. Meanwhile the value of a college degree has diminished but people are fed the lie that the only way to make a decent living is by getting a four year degree. Meanwhile skilled workers are desperately needed all over the country but we keep churning out grads with the magical Bachelors degree in sociology or art history. Then there is the mortgage business where political pressure to make "the American dream" accessible to everyone created a situation where lenders were given an incentive to make stupid loans and shockingly that whole thing blew up when borrowers who couldn't afford the loans they were given started losing houses that were overpriced thanks to those same loans. Meanwhile people who had saved and built decent credit get to pay the same inflated prices thanks to government housing policies. So creditworthy borrowers were hurt, people who were not creditworthy got loans they couldn't pay making them more un-creditworthy and the whole system has been in distress for years.
The church is not only not immune to this craving for debt but largely a willing and enthusiastic imitator of the culture. Both corporately and individually the church is virtually indistinguishable from the world on this question.
We send young men to seminary to learn how to "minister" and at the same time accumulate a bunch of debt that will hamper their ability to apply all of that leaning later on in life for years or likely decades. Rather than learn under the local elders of the church by observing and imitating they study expensive academic concepts from relative strangers and then are thrust into the world with a degree in hand and no useful job skills to show for it. No matter what he feels called to do, like move to an inner-city or a poor rural area, the new seminary grad really is limited by having to service that debt (as well as the costs of caring for a family which means a mortgage). So that means going to a small church until he builds up a resume to move to a larger, better paying
Corporately our local churches borrow enormous sums of money for buildings and improvements and then spend years asking church attenders to put money in the plate to keep the doors open so they can come back next week to put money in the plate to keep the doors open and on and on. Show up, pay up, come back next week, repeat. Enormous sums of money are tied up in maintaining our religious institutions and by tying up our giving in budgeted expenses to maintain buildings, service debt and pay staff we are left with precious little left over to minister to the poor and needy, not to mention funds to support missionaries.
Debt is a sickness and it is slavery. We are two and a half year into a 15 year mortgage and I can't wait to pay this house off. Having a mortgage, even a very modest one like we do, impacts everything we do and we only have a dozen years left. For those with a 30 year mortgage, it is unlikely to ever get paid off. A 35 year old couple, assuming they don't keep refinancing and extending that 30 year mortgage, will pay their house off the same year they retire having paid an enormous amount of interest. The church needs to address this sickness and I mean more than just sponsoring Financial Peace University classes. The issue is not one of poor budgeting, it is an issue of worldliness, of covetousness, of fear of being different, of sin. We cannot be blind to this log in our collectives eyes while wagging our finger at the speck in the world's eye. When we turn a blind eye to our own sinful attitudes and behavior we lose much of our standing to be salt and light to the world. Our embrace of the American love affair with debt is just one more place where we have compromised and exhibited the exact sort of hypocrisy that we are warned about in Scripture.
I would also recommend this great article by my friend Matt Jabs, Debt Slavery - What it is and ways out