How Evangelicals Handle Wealth, Fame, and Mission

“Not by bread alone we live,
Thy good word our life shall be;
Not for all the earth can give
Shall we worship ought but thee;
Nor the word of promise bend
E’er to tempt our God in heaven;
Never for unholy end
Was the gracious promise given”
(Faint and Weary Jesus Stood by Walter C. Smith)

It’s in our human nature to assign blame. We want to know why something happened and who was responsible. This is true in our legal processes as much as within our own relationships and family life. If something has gone wrong someone is to blame.

These tendencies are amplified when your community is facing big challenges. Presently, evangelicals are facing big challenges. Very few evangelicals are looking at the future and seeing bright and vibrant possibilities for the evangelical faith.

People are giving a multitude of reasons for the declining influence of evangelicals. For those outside of the community the culprit is the right-wing politics. Evangelicals would be better off practicing their religion and leaving politics alone. In fact if evangelicals did this many outside of the community might change their judgments from negative to just quirky.

For those inside of the community the reasons tend to be legion, but there is a tendency to say that such things are happening to us rather than to say that we are causing such things. Without a significant unifying figure like Billy Graham many evangelicals are breaking into a kind of tribalism. With various people picking their favorite way of practicing faith or doing it the right way. This has spawned a whole social media industry of blame.

So, what has actually gone on?

Seek first the Kingdom and His Righteousness.” How are we doing with such a focus when it comes to wealth, fame, and mission.

There is a tendency for posts like this to descend into a sort of blame game as well. But I submit to you that God calls us to discernment not to sit in judgment of specific people. Ultimately judgment belongs to the Lord and such a thought should cause us each to tremble. I know it does for me.

As best as possible we want to keep our judgments sober, modest, and in line with helping to extend the mission of the church as it is united with Christ. With this kind of charitable spirit let us look at some hard issues.

Money

Perhaps there is no challenge greater in the present church than the role of money. Beyond the sermon to give generously we don’t talk a lot about money. Yet, our day to day is dominated by needing to navigate finances. Money can buy material goods and we’ve even developed a special term for when our relationship with money is going well: financial well being.

Pastors are not immune from how our society grapples with money. And you can see this play out in the life of the church. From lavish amounts being spent to make sure the church keeps pace with the business world or not enough being spent keeping pastors in unnecessary hardship. We run the gamut from pastors who charge exorbitant speakers fees and fly private jets to those who never save for retirement. In our community you would be hard pressed to say we handle money well. The words of Jesus come to mind if you can’t handle the riches of this world who will give you the riches of the kingdom.

Scriptures are clear you can’t serve God and money. Money is not morally neutral. It’s not what you do with it, it’s what hold it has on your life and ministry.

Without the proper spirit on money, money easily rules the life of many evangelical Christians.

Perhaps we have seen our witness squandered in part by the way we’ve handled ourselves with money. It’s one of the unspoken areas of church life. Money often determines our comfortability with risk in the kingdom, should it really be that way?

Fame

This is a harder one to talk about, but in some ways as pervasive as a dynamic as wealth.

We live in a celebrity culture and evangelicals are not immune from such tendencies. In fact many crave attention and recognition. The problem is that seeking fame is not the same as seeking the kingdom.

If one wants to seek fame they might actively brag about their access to the corridors of power and influence. Yet the kingdom is not impressed with such things. The riches of the kingdom surpass the riches of any temporary fame. The way of the cross and salvation is not the way of cultural glory.

We should hold those who embody a holy life in high esteem. If that leads to recognition so be it, but let us all be on guard for the temptation to seek recognition for its own sake.

Mission

Seeking first the kingdom means seeking those things of the Father in all places and at all times. It requires peace of mind, awareness, intense prayer, and a deep love for others. This should be what motivates our focus, when such things are lacking we are falling short on Christian mission and in some ways we should consider refraining calling things that don’t resemble Christianity, Christian.

Mission creep is certainly very present in the evangelical world. So let us return to a passion for the mission of the kingdom in all of its rich forms.

The point is not to just say see look at three areas that aren’t normally talked about it is to actually encourage a turn and repentance in order that we might more fully seek the kingdom.

Repent, turn, and actively turn from the old ways. This is true for me as for you. Don’t just say I repent demonstrate repentance with actions that match a truly turned heart. Ask what God would have you do even if it is sell half of your possessions to atone. Have sorrow for how things have happened and move towards the heart of the kingdom. Seek the true treasurers. Don’t wait the time is now. Amen.

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Has Thanksgiving Lost Its Christian Meaning?

I love Thanksgiving. I love the time off and the time with family, but over the years I’ve noticed that Thanksgiving has not been too connected to much if any Christian meaning. Although there is a rich theology of giving thanks  to draw from, the holiday itself seems a bit a drift. For many churches Thanksgiving is that short break before the hectic programming of Advent and Christmas.

Origins of Thanksgiving 

Thanksgiving has a rich Christian tradition, a tradition that has been marked by the call for thanks, praise, repentance, and humility.

The first Thanksgiving proclamation was given in June not November of 1676 by the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts.  The text of the day is mostly focused on the relative success of their war against neighboring tribes of Native Americans. Simmering tensions between the various tribes of New England and the English had resulted in a 16-month war. The first Thanksgiving proclamation was issued towards the end of that conflict.

It is not a surprise that Puritans were the forerunners of days of Thanksgiving in America. They viewed God as taking an active role in the history of his people. So going back to the 1500s, various Puritan and other Christian groups held days of Thanksgiving (one of these celebrations in the early 1620s has become vaguely stuck in America’s popular imaginations) to mark special times and moments of God’s work among his people. This is itself an extension of the traditions of scripture, to mark special moments in the life of God’s people with thanksgiving and celebration.

This view may seem a bit odd to us present day Christians, as we are much more uncomfortable assigning special significance to national, regional, or even corporate events.

George Washington started us on the trajectory which would become the present day celebration of Thanksgiving when he issued a proclamation in early October of 1789.  The first national Thanksgiving Proclamation urged Americans to pray:

to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed

The emphasis on pardon for national sin and transgression is particular notable, if not uncomfortable for the present day reader.

Thanksgiving became a  truly national holiday in the midst of the Civil War. Regional days of Thanksgiving were celebrated through any number of states, but in 1863 Lincoln proclaimed a national day and issued this statement. Addressing his fellow Americans Lincoln also takes on the theme of repentance and sin:

With humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Thanksgiving in its current form owes its legacy to legislation adopted in 1941, when the 4th Thursday in November becomes the official day of celebration. During that proclamation Franklin D. Roosevelt writes: 

Let us ask the Divine Blessing on our decision and determination to protect our way of life against the forces of evil and slavery which seek in these days to encompass us.

On the day appointed for this purpose, let us reflect at our homes or places of worship on the goodness of God and, in giving thanks, let us pray for a speedy end to strife and the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice for enduring time.

Present Thanksgiving Day proclamations have taken on a far less Christian tone, even from notable and recent evangelical Presidents. Consider this one from President George W. Bush. The President urges Americans:

Our citizens are privileged to live in the world’s freest country, where the hope of the American dream is within the reach of every person.  Americans share a desire to answer the universal call to serve something greater than ourselves, and we see this spirit every day in the millions of volunteers throughout our country who bring hope and healing to those in need.

And this one from President Bill Clinton:

Across this land as people gather together with loved ones to savor the bounty of the Thanksgiving Holiday, I invite each family, each religious congregation, each community and city, to celebrate your experience of the American heritage. Reach out in friendship and cooperation to the people of your hometown.

Shying Away From Thanksgiving

Although Thanksgiving has strong Christian origins it has a rather mixed reputation within the present day church. In part it is because we have a rather mixed, uneven view of the role of Christianity in forming American culture and political identity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the various strands of American life have given rise to many explanations and identities within the American experience.

Culturally speaking Thanksgiving has become that time when families gather and throw the football around. Families may or may not go through a process of giving thanks, though there is enough of an emphasis where undoubtedly some think about what they are thankful for. Politically speaking Thanksgiving has not had the same cache apart from a time of national crisis. Probably not since World War II has Thanksgiving taken on a national moment of thankfulness for provision through uncertain times.

Of late the holiday is all marked by the start of the Christmas shopping season. It is the weekend where you can get a jump start of the many hot item sales.

Revisiting Thanksgiving

751869707_757e710a89_zEven without the tie to culture and politics, American Christians ought not to resist re-Christening the holiday for the modern moment. A season to give thanks for provision and the goodness of the Lord is always right and good. A season for repentance and humility is also befitting a day of thanks. In the midst of joy and in the midst of pain, it is good and right to give thanks for what is given.

In that realm I offer this prayer for Thanksgiving:

Father God, the author of light and life we give you thanks for giving us the abundant life found in your son our Lord Jesus Christ. Grant us this Thanksgiving the eyes to see your goodness and provision in our lives. We thank you for our creation and perseverance. Lord we repent for our sins, debts, transgressions, and wayward tendencies. Have mercy on us Lord Jesus. 

In seasons of abundance or scarcity,  joys or sorrows, mourning or rejoicing, thanksgiving or grieving, we ask that you would help us trust you and know you most holy Trinity. In the days ahead grant us a deeper knowledge of you in our lives so that we might be a people set aside for your purposes in the world. We ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

The State Wants to Be Like the Church

“Acclaiming Jesus, as Lord plants a flag that supersedes the flags of the nations, however ‘free’ or ‘democratic’ they may be. It challenges both the tyrants who think they are, in effect, divine and the ‘secular democracies’; that have effectively become if not divine, at least ecclesial, that is, communities that are trying to do and be what the church was supposed to do and be, but without recourse to the one who sustains the church’s life” (Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright)

N.T. Wright is not primarily focused on the church’s approach to public life in Simply Jesus. If anything Simply Jesus is a precursor to a longer book on Christians in the public square and culture. Yet, we get glimpses of where N.T. Wright is going. One of the more thought provoking pieces comes at the end.

4089419553_9b96997714_zWright briefly makes mention that secular democracies are taking up space that the church ought to be in, except that western cultures and states are not accountable to the one that sustains the life of the church. It’s a pretty bold statement. Democracies that are not explicitly accountable to Jesus are in some ways shadows of what real life and real society ought to be. Cut off from the fountainhead of Life our cultures may run adrift.

You can see this drift in our national discourse. The state is now primarily concerned with the care of the poor, with the protection of the environment, with product safety, and even with the protection of the consumer from financial transactions (think sub-prime mortgages). Yet when you take a look at the program implementation you see that programs aren’t always helpful in lifting the poor out of poverty, products and drugs are still occasionally recalled, and consumer protections become less robust over time.

The state is taking on more and more social protections that it is not designed to do effectively while the church is less and less engaged with understanding these matters or programs. We have two big reversals. The state is becoming more like the church, while the church is content with abdicating its role to the state. Instead of becoming an innovator of ideas that life up communities of poverty, or a leader in advocating for fair lending, the church is mostly on the sidelines. Or let me put it another way, the more God’s people do to solve the problems of poverty, stewardship, and ethics the less the state will need to do.

Now don’t get me wrong the church is heavily engaged in compassion ministries. We are on the front-lines of care for the least of these, we are growing in our stewardship ministries, and many of us know that people do get taken advantage of and also make bad decisions with their finances. I am not talking about awareness or number of programs, I am talking about the ideas that go behind the programs and initiatives that are out there. How do we transform local communities? We need to be much more engaged with our own ideas and we need to be aware of current policies and programs. That’s the level of robustness that is needed, because these problems aren’t just the isolated problems of individuals they are the aggregate problems of society. We need the wisdom of business and the wisdom of the local community. We need to know economics as much as we need to know social dynamics and program effectiveness. It’s not either or on the challenges that face us. It’s both and. The church can be a safe place for these discussions, because if you can’t have these discussions at church, where else will they happen? If we are God’s people, let’s take that role seriously when it comes to our social challenges.

There are some real questions on how much the church should or could take up in extra programming for the poor, but at the very least we ought to more fully advocate for the poor. We can be on the frontier of innovative thinking. We can stand for basic fairness. The church can be a signpost to another way of living even if the implementation will always be carried out by sinners and less than perfect institutions. If anything the church can have those liabilities in mind when engaging publicly.

Our whole system is supposed to be based on checks and balances, which assumes the worst possibilities in human intention and nature and yet still produces a process to govern.

Ultimately this isn’t what Wright is writing about, what he is doing is helping us remember that ultimately we are all accountable to the Lord of Life, Jesus himself. Such a starting place would help clarify and simplify how we should proceed in the realms of life.

Praying for Peace in Egypt

This Friday please set aside some time to pray and fast for peace in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Check out this great initiative calling Christians to pray this Friday. Here is the prayer point for Egypt.

  • Please pray for peace among all people in Egypt. Pray for mercy and compassion to break through. We pray for your Spirit to act among all people. We pray for the end of all violence, oppression, and loss of innocent life. We pray that you would be near to those who are mourning. We pray for people of peace to be bold.

Here are the rest of the prayer points.

The Future of Family

As I’ve written about before, my generation, the millenials, stands at the cusp of some very interesting trends. By the time our parents pass away, over 1/2 of them will have divorced at least once. In terms of American history this is unprecedented, and hopefully will be the high water mark for divorce for the foreseeable future.

What this means, among other things, is that many of us have grown up with fractured homes. You know the marriage is about love thing, has been around for at least the last few hundred years. Apparently love wasn’t enough for our parents. Many families needed a lot more than love to really provide functional models for our marriages.

Beyond the economic factors, is it any wonder that culturally speaking we’re delaying marriage, not only delaying, but seeing if we can live together first, before making a lifelong commitment, or let’s be honest even a 20-year commitment?

Have you also noticed, we’re a statistic crazy culture. We always have ways of explaining why bad stuff won’t happen to us. Take these stories here and here, which reassures us that college educated couples will have a lower divorce rate. We love numbers to tell us that if we work hard, do the right thing, make the smart choices, we can forestall pain, suffering, and even failure.

Culture creates a sort of cocoon around the truths we choose to hold dear.

So why marriage, why life-long, why any of this stuff? Because it’s what it means to be human. We lose our humanity when we miss out on the milestones, when we miss out on the full orb of human experience.  Marriage and children are a part of the human story. We sell ourselves short when we opt-out.

We also miss out on the people we would have been, if we had taken to the time and the energy and the risk in marriage. There is risk in almost every decision in life, but there is a special risk in commitment and in having children. We miss out on the sort of people, the sort of character that we could have developed if we had taken the risk. We become fuller people for doing so.

Marriage also reflects God’s relationship with people. God does not forsake, God rescues, God endures, God loves, God sacrifices. This is the Christian message that Christ came into the world to secure us in relationship to himself. You don’t hear about it put this way that often, but that’s the analogies you hear when it comes to marriage.

It sacrifices  it endures, it binds, it bears children. It goes back to the very beginning, when God says that it wasn’t good for people, for a person, to be alone. God gets our isolation and knows that we need someone who will commit to be with us as we venture forth in life. That’s the idea, but love isn’t enough.

Commitment, admitting mistakes, in Christian terms repenting of sin, but also sacrificing for the betterment of the family, that’s the Christian option. That’s the intent and it’s an open invitation for all of us. Your parents didn’t have to be successful for you to have a successful marriage, what it takes as an ability to trust God, to trust another person with your vulnerabilities  A realization that God entered this human story through Jesus, a man who wept, cried, and knew what it meant to be human.

Christians and Politics, Why Bother?

Why should Christians bother themselves with politics and public life? After all if the world is not our home and salvation is our chief concern, what use do we have for the realm of politics?

It’s a good question, especially when you consider how fruitless many of our public efforts have been. 40 years after Roe v. Wade and we still have high rates of abortion, prayer is no longer taught in schools, divorce rates are still high, etc. When social trends seem so disproportionately unhelpful, and when others seem to be happy when we don’t engage, what’s the use, surely we are just a “passin through.”

I’d say there are many half truths in statements like these. For instance we ought to be concerned with salvation, but the gospel is about far more than the method of salvation or even a one time experience, the gospel is concerned with bringing all our life, and community life, and even cultural life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Here’s a helpful illustration. When a 40 year old businessman gets saved, the gospel isn’t just concerned with his devotional life and Sunday worship, instead the gospel is concerned with his home life, his work life, his relational life. The gospel is concerned with bringing all of these elements, the whole person if you will into the Christian way of life.

Another half-truth, we haven’t made much progress in our concerns therefore we should disengage. We’ve tried politics and it hasn’t worked. It’s true we have tried political engagement, but why hasn’t it worked? Well in part we haven’t developed a deeply rooted public theology, but we have also used political tactics and strategies that by their nature fail to bring about change. We have used a knight’s narrative that says we are righteous and good and those who oppose us are wicked and godless. Therefore we will go out and defeat those who oppose us through the ballet box and push for large one party majorities to advance our interests.

When you approach politics in this way, you will strengthen your opponents and you will inevitably end up in the sort of deadlock and loss of moral influence that you see today.

Are we surprised that our approach has sparked a counter-reaction? We shouldn’t be. Whenever you move from the realm of the human conscience to the realm of real politick you will pay a cost. Instead of morals people see a grab for power, and unless you can broaden the tent and influence culture with additional messengers you will never be able to speak about shared values. This is a major stumbling block for the church, because so many of our core concerns are moral in nature, yet we pursue strategies in public life that diminish the very morals we seek to preserve.

Instead of rooting our view in the reality that we are all sinners, and that people by nature will set their ways apart from God, we have rooted our views in a winner takes all approach. We have failed to cultivate the sort of relationships and ideas of the common good that will bring about lasting change. We have assumed that because we are right that things will simply fall into place, and we have neglected our obligations to work with and persuade others that our norms are worth pursuing.

So what does this all mean? It means that true faith does not allow us to abandon culture and politics. If we take the claims of scripture seriously that in Jesus we have the King of kings and Lords of lords, and if we believe his kingdom isn’t just about spirituality and the life of the church, then we need to engage, but to engage we must once again root ourselves deeply in the scriptures and in our understanding of human nature. When we do these things we will start to see the sort of cultivation that is so desperately needed in our day.

A Signpost in a Crowded Public Square

The church has holes in our public witness. We have championed life, marriage, and religious liberty. We have stood up for persecuted Christians, now it’s time for us to more fully and more completely represent the moral dimensions of the Kingdom in our public life. The beauty of Christianity is that there is no area of public or private life that does not have some moral dimension. There are no amoral policies no amoral transactions. Everything we do and say has a moral dimension.

When the church limits itself to a few stances it ultimately truncates the very witness it is called to. For there will be a day where the Kingdom of God is fully realized and that Kingdom will encompass every dimension of life.

While we wait for that day in anticipation, the witness of the church is a signpost of another way of living and another way of doing our common life together. Making that signpost shine clearly is of chief importance.

The church must not be tempted or driven by power and influence, but must use what influence it is given wisely. The church needs to cultivate the public square so that the nature of the church and the nature of Jesus himself is more clearly seen in the way and manner of the people of God. For the church proclaims a king who is King of kings, Lord of lords, President of Presidents, and Lawmaker of lawmakers. Our own actions and lives in the public square need to reflect that reality.

Practically speaking we need to hold our commonality as God’s people more closely than our political identity. We need to let our tradition and scripture more fully shape our notions of our witness in the public realm, and we need to treat those in the body with special dignity and honor, even more highly than we regard our favorite political pundit.

In these times of uncertainty for the church, we need to pray for uncommon unity, wisdom, and grace.