Month: June 2009

Sermon: Materialism–Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?

Here is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  This is the 4th in a series of 8 sermons under the theme — Seven Cultural Challenges Each Church Faces.  I hope your Sunday is wonderful!

Seven Cultural Challenges Each Church Faces
Materialism: Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?

Luke 18:18-30
18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

19“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”

21“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

26Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

27Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

28Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”

29“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”

Has Jesus Lost His Mind?

Okay, imagine you live in the first century and you pastor a new church in Jerusalem.  So far the only members you have attracted to your congregation are 12 guys who, to say the least, are not the cream of the crop.  Several of them are fishermen, which is a smelly, messy business.  One is a tax collector, or rather former tax collector, because he left a fine source of income to follow you.  One is a domestic terrorist, Simon the Zealot, and he’s on the “no fly” list at the Judean Department of Homeland Security.  One of them, Judas, is a self-taught accountant — at least that’s the story he told every one.  Actually, all of these men, all 12 of them, are technically unemployed.  They all left their jobs — fishing nets, tax collection booth, accounting, what have you — to follow you.  Which is great, except the offerings have been down for some time now.

So, one day a really nice looking, extremely well-dressed young man comes up to you.  He addresses you in polite and polished Aramaic, not the slanguage of the fishing village that most of your guys speak.  And, he graciously calls you “good master.”

But, it’s his sincerity in asking his question that really gets to you.  “What must I do to obtain eternal life?”  So, this is a serious young man, too.

Here is a prime candidate for discipleship.  He’s rich, young, and he’s a leader.  Luke calls him a “certain ruler,” which probably meant he led a synagogue or was a leading member of a religious party with authority over others.  In any event, he’s the best looking, wealthiest, and most articulate person who has questioned you.

That’s the situation that Jesus found himself in.  Mark’s Gospel says everything that Luke’s does, plus it adds that this man “ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees before him.”  So, the young man was not only rich, and powerful, but urgently seeking some answers to his spiritual questions.

Jesus replies by saying, “You know the commandments,” and Jesus begins to recite them:

  • Do not commit adultery,
  • do not murder,
  • do not steal,
  • do not give false testimony,
  • honor your father and mother.

Now, what do you notice about this list of commandments that Jesus quotes?  Well, first, these aren’t all the commandments.  Jesus only quotes 5 here.  There are 5 more, which is why the original list is called the Ten Commandments.  But, why these five?

You might remember the Ten Commandments, but if not, let me give you a quick run-down from Exodus 20.  Here they all are:

1. You shall have no other gods before me.

2.  You shall not make for yourself an idol…

3.  You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God..

4.  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

5.  Honor your father and your mother…

6.  You shall not murder.

7.  You shall not commit adultery.

8.  You shall not steal.

9.  You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet…

The first 4 commandments have to do with our relationship with God, and the next 6 have to do with how we treat others.  Jesus totally skips over the first 4, and goes right to numbers 5-9, not in the exact order, but he gets them all in there.

Isn’t that interesting?  Wouldn’t you, if someone asked you how to obtain eternal life, wouldn’t you start with stuff about God, especially the first 4 commandments — no other Gods, no idols, no taking God’s name in vain, and keep God’s day holy.  I would, but Jesus doesn’t.

Jesus, instead, focuses the young man’s attention on 5 of the 6 commandments that are pretty straight-forward, and that deal with how you relate to other people.

The young ruler’s answer is — I’ve done all that since I was a kid.  He had honored his father and mother, hadn’t killed anybody, hadn’t committed adultery (obviously he was not the governor of South Carolina), hadn’t stolen anything (after all he was rich), and hadn’t lied in court.

Now, Jesus probably knew that he was a good guy, and that this was going to be his answer.

Because then Jesus says, “But you’re missing one thing.”

At this point, all eyes and ears are on Jesus.  The rich young ruler especially is completely captivated.  And I am sure the look on his face is a mixture of both relief and expectancy.

He’s probably thinking at this point — “Okay, only one thing, that’s good.  Just one more thing, and I’ve got this in the bag.”

Then, Jesus says, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Silence.  Dead still.  Nobody moves.  They’re all in shock, not the least of which is the rich young ruler.

The Bible says “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.”

The young man turns his back on Jesus and walks away.  End of story.  But not quite.

Because the disciples are stunned.  “If this guy can’t make it, who can?” they ask Jesus?  Why did they ask that?  Because first, he was a righteous man.  He took the law seriously and thought he kept it.  Jews in the first century did not have our false humility about “nobody can live up to God’s law.”  They fully expected to keep the law, and to do so developed thousands of rules to explain exactly what the law meant, and how far you could go and still be “keeping the law.”

Of course, Jesus blew all that nonsense away in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said over and over, “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you.”  And he reimagined what it meant to keep and break the law of God.  But, that’s a sermon for another day.

But, even more than the young man’s righteousness, was his wealth.  If a person was wealthy, others assumed God’s favor on him.  God blessed him with wealth, therefore God smiled on him.  He was one of God’s favorites, and his wealth was the sign of God’s blessing.

Now we know that wealth is not necessarily a sign of God’s favor, but there are still thousands of folks who today think so.  The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” movement is built on the idea that God will bless you materially, if you do certain things.  Most of those things involve sending money to your local television evangelist, who promises you that your “seed faith” sown in trust will reap you a great material harvest.  So, the idea that lots of money is a sign of God’s blessing is still with us.

The disciples are stunned.  How can anybody be saved if those whom God has blessed can’t be?  Jesus reply, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

Then, Peter sees an opportunity to score some points, and he blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you!”  In other words, “Hey, Jesus, look at us — we’ve left everything just like you told the rich guy to do.  Pretty good, huh?”  Jesus is not impressed, and doesn’t commend Peter, but he does say that “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”  So, you are going to be rewarded in this life and in the life to come no matter what you give up.

But, back to our story.

If We Were Jesus

If we were Jesus, here’s how this conversation would have gone:

Rich young ruler:  What must I do to obtain eternal life?

Us:  Keep the commandments.

RYR:  I’ve done that since I was a kid.

Us:  Great!  Sounds like you’re our kind of people.  By the way, that’s a stunning tie you have on? Did you get that at Brooks Brothers?

RYR:  Why yes I did.  If you like it, I could get you one.  They’re only a $100 each, so not really expensive.  As a matter of fact, take this one, and I’ll get another one later.

Us:  Well, thanks.  Say, let me tell you about our plans to build the largest synagogue in the world.  God has given me a great vision for reaching people, and you can play a big part in that.  Here’s a donor card.  Could I put you down for a lifetime membership for only $10,000.  Of course, for just $5,000 more you could be in the Pastor’s Circle, a very special group of those who support the ministry.

RYR:  And that will get me eternal life?

Us:  Actually, no, but we can talk about that later.  Of course, God will be very pleased with you if you’re a good steward of the things he’s blessed you with.  Could I put you down for a gift today?  Our books close on June 30, so you’ve only got a couple of days left.  Oh, of course, it’s all tax-deductible.

RYR: Well, I was really looking for eternal life today, but sure, why not.  Maybe this is a first step in the right direction.

Us: I’m sure it is.

Okay, you get the point.  If we were Jesus, we would not have told this guy to sell all he had.  Or if we had, we certainly would not have told him to give it to the poor.

Have you ever thought about how he would give it to the poor?  Would he had out 100-drachma coins on the street?  Would he build a new homeless shelter in downtown Jerusalem?  Would he have people sign up, and make sure they qualified by filling out a lot of paperwork?  How would he actually give this money away to the poor?

And if he gave all his money away, he would still be young, but would he be a ruler?  Probably not.  Why, because money is power.  Always has been, always will be.  The rich young ruler knows that money is power, and asks “how can I obtain (get, purchase, acquire) eternal life.”  He’s been able to parlay his wealth into position and prestige, now perhaps it will help him get a guaranteed ticket on the Heaven Express.

The Way We Handle Money Matters

I’ve heard preachers say, “Did Jesus really mean for him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor?  Absolutely not, Jesus already knew he wouldn’t and so this was the young man’s ultimate test.”

And here’s where I’m going to disagree with those preachers.  Jesus usually meant what he said.  I think he meant for the rich young ruler to sell everything he had to follow Jesus.  After all, why would he need it.

  • Jesus had already told his disciples that the birds have nests and the foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
  • He had taught the disciples to pray “Give us this day our daily bread” reminding them of God’s feeding the nation of Israel with manna while they were on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land.
  • Jesus had shown them the power of God to provide by feeding 5,000 people with a boy’s lunch.
  • Jesus had sent them out 2-by-2 and commanded them to take nothing with them, and the disciples returned amazed at how God had provided.
  • Jesus had already told them to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
  • Jesus had healed people for free, fed people for free, cast out demons for free, and preached to the crowd for free.  In God’s economy, God is the source of all supply whatever the need.

Suppose Jesus were to ask us, “Sell this church and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Our insurance company tells us the buildings and furnishings are worth about $3-million.   Not a small sum, even in today’s economy.  We could do that.

I read recently of a church in California that abandoned plans to build a multi-million dollar building and instead began to meet in homes.  All the money they were going to spend on building and maintenance they decided to give to feed people, clothe people, and help people.

The decisions we make about money cannot be hidden under the “we’re doing this for God” excuse.  God doesn’t need our money or our buildings or our wealth to accomplish his purposes.  God needs our obedience.

The Current State of Our Economy

According to the American Almanac, even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 26% of the world’s energy.  Well, of course, we do.  We have to in order to run our air conditioners, our washers and dryers, our TVs, our DVD players, our computers, our hot water heaters, our microwaves, our refrigerators and freezers, our electric lights, our stereos, our cell phone chargers, our answering machines, our electric razors, hairdryers, curling irons, treadmills, and soon our electric cars.

So, our economic status separates us from the rest of the world.  Because we use 26% of the world’s energy, we are leaving only 74% of the world’s energy to the remaining 95% of the world’s population.

And, do you know what the developing world tells us when we say to them, “Wow, we’ve made a mess of this planet, let’s all cut back and conserve energy.”

They say to us, “We want the same thing you have.  No fair cutting off the power before we get to have our own cars, microwaves, TVs, computers and so on.”  In other words, they want to be just like us.

I was in Shanghai, China very close to Christmas one year, and I was amazed.  The Chinese malls and shopping districts were decorated for Xmas.  Santa Claus was pictured, presents were wrapped, Christmas songs like “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer” played over the PA systems.  It was just like being in the US during the Christmas shopping spree.  Of course, no Jesus, but hey, they had everything else!

The United Nations last week announced that now over 1-billion people are officially listed as being hungry, not having enough to eat.  1-billion, while we battle obesity here in the United States.  Forgive another China story, but Americans eat such large servings, Dan Ryan’s restaurant in Hong Kong has a disclaimer that says, “We serve American portions.”  Translation: you’re going to get a lot of food!

The Church World is No Different

But, you might say, those are all stories and statistics of the non-Christian world.  Unfortunately, the church world is no different.  Michael Spencer quotes the Charlotte World as saying,

Examples of the Christian-Industrial Complex are easy to see. The Women of Faith conferences, for example, rake in more than $50-million per year and are part of a for-profit, publicly traded company. The Christian retail industry topped $4.5-billion last year. (A bit of context: $30 per month can support many pastors in developing countries. That means that Americans spend enough annually on “Jesus Junk” to support 250-thousand Third World pastors — for 50 years.)

As they say in the ginsu knife commercial, “But, wait, there’s more!”  Beliefnet, which claims to be the world’s largest spirituality site, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.  Zondervan, one of the oldest and largest evangelical publishers, is owned by Harper/Collins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.  Beginning to see a pattern here?  Obviously, Rupert Murdoch, an Australian billionaire and media mogul, believes there is big money to be made from the Christian market.

But suppose we quit buying “Jesus Junk” as Michael Spencer calls it.  That would free up $4.5-billion annually for hunger relief, education, medical missions, and anything else you could think of.

Suppose our call to “sell all you have” just means quit buying useless stuff, even if it’s Christian useless stuff?

Economics divides the world into haves and have-nots, and the have-nots are usually not courted by our churches because they can’t contribute financially to the church budget.  Years ago, I heard Rick Warren talk about the type of church member that Saddleback Church went after.  Warren called him, “Saddleback Sam” and his complete demographic included the following profile:

“Saddleback Sam” is a well educated young urban professional. He is self-satisfied, and comfortable with his life. He likes his job and where he lives. He is affluent, recreation conscious, and prefers the casual and informal over the formal. He is interested in health and fitness, and he thinks he is enjoying life more than 5 years ago, but he is overextended in time and money, and is stressed out. He has some religious background from childhood, but he hasn’t been to church for 15 or 20 years, and he is skeptical of “organized religion.” He doesn’t want to be recognized when he comes to church.

I am happy to tell you that since Rick Warren’s runaway bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, Warren has turned his attention to the world’s poor, particularly those with HIV/Aids.  But “Saddleback Sam” is the kind of person almost every church wants — young, rich, professional.  A modern day rich young ruler.

But are we telling these rich young rulers that Jesus says to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him?  Nope, we’re asking them to give to our budgets, our mission programs, and to buy our Christian products.  In short, we who follow Jesus have forgotten that God’s economy is not the world’s, and that Jesus came to make all things new, including how we handle possessions and money.

We who follow Jesus must model a different economic reality for the world to see.  An economy that is based on trust in God, care for God’s children and creation, and a new sense of what is enough in light of the need of the world.  An economy where there is an abundance of resources, and those resources are shared with others so that no one is lacking.

Our new economy must reach out to those who struggle and bring them along with us.  Our new economy must build lives, not monuments to our own pride.  Our new model must put possessions in proper perspective, and we must see the “stuff of our lives” not as material to be hoarded, but as a blessing to be shared.

Our new model must reflect our belief that whoever gives up “home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will not fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”

We’re in the middle of VBS

We do a community VBS with 4 other small churches in our community — 2 Baptist, 2 United Methodist, and 1 Presbyterian.  This year we’re using Group Publishing’s Crocodile Dock.  Here are some photos of the week so far:

DSC06147DSC06161DSC06182

Sermon: Nominalism – Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?

This is the third sermon in an eight part series titled, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.” I’m preaching this one tomorrow, and I hope your Sunday is a great one.  Happy Fathers Day to all the dads out there, too!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
Nominalism — Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?

In his startling book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ron Sider said out loud what had become all too apparent — America’s most conservative Christians, evangelicals, live no differently than other Americans who claim no relationship to Jesus Christ.

George Barna, Christian pollster and trend watcher, said, “American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century because Jesus’ modern disciples do not act like Jesus.”

Sider points out in his book, subtitled Why Are Christians Living Just Like The Rest of the World?, that Christians are no different than the general population when it comes to failed marriages, domestic abuse, sexual conduct, materialism, and racism.  And if you find that hard to believe, let’s do the numbers:

  • Marriage and Family. In 1999, Barna reported that divorce rates for evangelicals and the total population were exactly the same — 25%.  Brad Wilcox, a Christian sociologist pointed out that “Compared with the rest of the population, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce.”  Sadly, in many families that stay together, domestic abuse occurs within evangelical families at approximately the same frequency as in the general population.
  • Materialism and Stewardship. By 2001, evangelical Christians were giving 4.27% to their church, down from 6.15% in 1968.  And, from 2000 to 2002, evangelicals who tithed (gave 10% of their income) dropped from 12% to 9%, and the trend continues downward.  One study pointed out that if all evangelicals tithed, we would have over $143-billion dollars to send to world missions, hunger relief, poverty eradication, and other ministries.  The UN has estimated that it would take $70-80-billion per year to provide the world’s 1.2 billion poor with essential services like basic health care and education.  In other words, if only half of evangelical Christians tithed, we could raise the standard of living for the world’s poorest to a more humane level.
  • Morality and Sexual Conduct. In 1993, the Southern Baptist Convention started a sexual abstinence program for young people called True Love Waits.  About 2.4-million kids signed the promise to keep themselves sexually pure until marriage.  But researchers from Columbia and Yale Universities tracked 12,000 teens who had signed the “I’ll Wait” pledge.  The results were disheartening — 88% of those who had signed the True Love Waits pledge had engaged in sexual intercourse before they were married.  Only 12% maintained their promise.
  • Racism. In a 1989 survey, George Barna asked different groups whether they would object to having an African-American neighbor.  Only 11% of Catholics and non-evangelicals objected.  16% of mainline Protestants objected, but 20% of Southern Baptists objected to having a black family on their block.  Hopefully, since 1989, some attitudes have changed.  Southern Baptists have gone on record as apologizing for the enslavement of black Africans, and for the role slavery played in the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention.  But, some have viewed that apology with cynicism, citing SBC studies which show that for Southern Baptists to continue to grow, we must reach out to minorities and establish minority churches, and train minorities for leadership positions within the SBC.  Still our denomination remains one of the most segregated of denominations in our nation.  11 o’clock Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America.

The act of failing to live up to the teachings of Christ is called nominalism, from the Latin word nomen, which means name.  Nominalism, then, distinguishes that which is real from that which is in name only, or nominal.  In other words, evangelical Christians are for the most part, Christians in name only.  Our walk does not match out talk.

Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “I would become a Christian, if I could see one.”

How Did We Lose our Way?

Why did I include nominalism under these 7 cultural challenges that churches face?  Because culture plays a tremendous role in influencing all of our society, including those of us who claim to be followers of Christ.

Paul writing to Christians in the first century who were in the midst of the culture of Rome, had this to say about the Christians and popular culture —

1Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  — Romans 12:1-2

Christians in the 21st century, it seems, have become so enmeshed in the culture in which we live that we have been conformed to the culture — the world — rather than being transformed by Christ.  But how did this happen?  Well, there are several answers.

The Marriage of Church and State

The first answer to that question is found in the 4th century.  For its first 250 years or so, Christianity was a minority and persecuted faith.  All of the apostles were martyred, with the possible exception of John.  The story goes that authorities attempted to kill John, but he survived and instead was banished to the Isle of Patmos where he received the great apocalyptic vision we call the Book of Revelation.

That book, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, is about the persecution of the people of God, the church.  Written during the reign of the emperor Domitian, John’s vision gives hope to the Christians of the first century that their deaths were not in vain, that God saw their suffering, and that they had a special place in God’s kingdom.  And, most importantly, one day Jesus himself was coming with the whole host of heaven to vindicate the martyrs, and take them to their eternal glory as all things were made new by Christ.  In other words, God was giving hope to his persecuted people.

The early church was persecuted because the followers of Jesus were not like those around them.  In an age of dishonesty and everyman for himself, Christians were honest.  In an empire where sexual promiscuity was celebrated, Christians maintained the bond of marriage.  In a culture where the weak were viewed as a drag on society and were outcast or overlooked, Christians were generous and cared for the poor and the widows.  In a culture where rich masters owned slaves, Christians put aside positions of class in the ekklesia and slaves often served as leaders of the congregation.

Gerhard Lohfink has called the early church a “contrast society.”  And it was.  The values and lifestyle of the Christians of the first and second centuries contrasted dramatically with that of the culture around them.  Barry Harvey says the early church saw themselves as “another city” — in contrast to the great city of Rome, the Christian community became “another city” in governance, values, lifestyle, relationships, and conduct.

Because of their contrasting lives, Christians were easy targets for the failing Roman empire.  Nero was the first to blame Christians wholesale for the failures of his regime.  Subsequent emperors seized upon Nero’s idea, and expanded the blame placed on Christians until it reached fever pitch during the reign of Domitian.

But, as Christianity spread and grew, and Christians became more numerous, the empire began having second thoughts.  When Constantine ascends to the emperor’s throne, he needed to do something to bring a decaying empire together.  Christians were now as sizeable part of the population, and so Constantine decided to embrace Christianity as the unifying factor in his empire.

The famous legend of Constantine’s vision of the cross in the sky, and Christ’s words to him, “By this sign, conquer” makes for a great legend, but Constantine was no committed Christian, only accepting Christian baptism as he neared the end of his life.

For centuries, the church celebrated their new found status in the empire, sharing some power with the emperor himself.  As is always the case when the religious community seeks favor with politicians, the church woke up one day several hundred years later to its own corruption and loss of witness.  The church had become nothing more than the extension of the state.

That’s the historical setting, but it doesn’t fully explain how we in the 21st century, almost 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, are still being conformed to culture, rather than to Christ.  And, how culture shapes us, rather than Christians shaping culture.

A Missed Chance at the Reformation

It seems that even the Reformers — Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others — also fell for the same fatal idea: church and state should be one.  Which meant that church and culture would become one, and we live with that bad bargain made 500 years ago still today.

Of course, Baptists and American evangelicalism contributed the idea that religious freedom should prevail in America.  That we should be free from government establishment or prohibition of religious expression.  Baptists were highly influential in persuading Thomas Jefferson, and other colonial leaders, to write the Bill of Rights, which first took hold in Virginia where the Episcopal Church has already been established as the official state church.   The Episcopal Church was disenfranchised, and freedom of religion became the law of the land.

But, escape from government control did not mean escape from cultural influence.

The stories of faith and freedom were so closely tied in the newly-born United States that we as a people assumed they were one and the same.  And, the slide into Americanized Christianity took place over that past 250 years or so.  Now, American Christianity contributed some great things to the cause of faith — we focused on the individual, not the class or family, so that individuals were free to trust Christ without the constraints of social status or family heritage.  As a matter of fact, John Wesley’s Methodism sought out the disenfranchised first in England, and then in America, and presented the Gospel to them as well.

But, God and country are not the same, and when pressed to pledge allegiance to one or the other, Christians should have chosen God, as they did in the first century.  Instead, too often we chose American culture.

An example of the choosing of culture over Biblical faith is the founding of our own denomination — Southern Baptists.  Prior to 1845, with slavery becoming more widespread in the South where labor intensive crops like tobacco and cotton dominated the economy, Baptists in the North began to object to Baptists in the South holding slaves.  That objection extended to the rejection of mission offerings from Baptists in the South, until such time as these southern Baptists divested themselves of their slave holdings.

Baptists in the South were outraged and offended.  So, in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was born, allowing Baptists in the South to send their own missionaries to China and India and Africa, without the judgmental interference of their Northern counterparts.  Clearly, our Southern Baptist forefathers gave in to the culture and the economy, rather than to the Gospel of Christ.  Of course, numerous passages of scripture were quoted and re-quoted justifying slavery, and bolstering the status of Southern Baptists.

With 150 years of hindsight, slavery is a sin of which we should still repent.  One wonders if a denomination born in strife, and on the backs of enslaved human beings, can or should survive.  That is a debate for future Baptists, but I wonder if the fractious history of our denomination, which continues to this day, is a part of our denominational DNA.

The State Cannot Impose Our Values On Others

History is full of failed moral experiments, Prohibition being one of them.  During Prohibition, our country learned that you can’t legislate one morality for all people.  While the Temperance Movement was thrilled when Prohibition passed, legions of Americans (including many in our own community) broke the law to either get a drink or make liquor out of economic necessity.

So, before I go any further, let me state that I do not believe that the Bible teaches that we as followers of Christ should impose our moral system, whatever it is, on others.  We cannot make people act like Christians, who do not follow Christ.  Of course, some laws that accomplish our purposes are laws passed for the common good.  Laws that protect children from being exploited either by unscrupulous factory owners, or pornographers, are good laws.  They serve Christian purposes, but also the higher good.  So, we are not opposed to laws that protect and define conduct that makes the world a better place for all.

Back to my illustration of Prohibition.  Even though it is now legal in many places, including Chatham to sell and purchase alcohol, it is not legal to drive while intoxicated, sell alcohol to minors, or sell non-tax paid liquor, known as moonshine.  All of those laws serve our Christian idea of good, but are not specifically Christian laws.

No, the answer to why we don’t walk like we talk is not found in the local town ordinance, the state legal code, or federal law.

We Lost Our Way, Because We Have Left The Way

I believe that Christians have lost influence with our society because we have lost our way, The Way of Jesus.  You and I could debate endlessly what a Christian could do, should do, and ought to do.  That, in part, is why we have so many denominations.  Some find great latitude in how to live the Christian life, others like our Amish brothers and sisters, follow a much more narrow path.

But being a follower of Christ is about being a follower of Christ.  When we began to look for the loopholes, the exceptions, when we begin to ask ourselves “where’s the line?” in our conduct, we have missed the point completely.  The Pharisees were far better a walking that fine line between religious legality and illegality.  Jesus completely dismantled their thinking every time he said, “You have heard….but I say unto you.”

For it is not in the letter of the law that we find Christ, it is in the Spirit of the law.  It is not a matter of how little do we have to do, or how much can we get away with in living and still be called Christian.  Rather, we should live our lives with Jesus, as though he were here, present with us.  For he is.

Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. 22If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. 23He who hates me hates my Father as well. 24If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’

26“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” — John 15:18-27

Why don’t we walk like we talk?  Partly because we don’t want the world to hate us.  We want to fit in, we don’t want to stand out.  We want to be like everybody else, and that is our problem.  We want to be like everybody else, when we ought to want to be like Jesus.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except by me.”

Jesus did not say, “I know the way” or “I’ll teach you the way” or “This idea is the way.”  He said, “I am the Way.”  Period.  In the first century Christians were called followers of The Way.  It was Jesus’ Way because the Way was Jesus himself.

We do not walk like we talk because we are not following Jesus.

More than 25 years ago, Graham Cyster, a South African Christian struggled against the wickedness of apartheid — the institutionalized racism and genocide of the South African government.  Other groups were also working to move South Africa away from the apartheid, and Communists were among those working in South Africa to bring equality to all South Africans — black and white.

Graham Cyster was smuggled into an underground Communist cell of young people one night, in hopes of presenting the message of Christ.  Amazingly, the young Communists gathered that evening said, “Tell us about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” half-hoping for an alternative to the armed, violent struggle they knew they faced.

According to Ron Sider, Graham gave a clear and powerful explanation of the Gospel, telling how faith in Christ can transform individual lives.  He talked about how Christian love could break down the barriers that separated people, and quoted from the Apostle Paul that there was no longer male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but that faith in Christ builds a new community where all God’s people live together in love.

One 17-year old exclaimed, “That’s wonderful!  Show me where I can see that happening!”  Graham’s face fell as he had to report that sadly, he knew of no place in South Africa where that was true, even though there were many churches in South Africa.

With that the young man cursed, and left the meeting.  Less than a month later, he had joined an armed band of Communist guerrillas who were committed to the violent overthrow of the South African government.

The world around us is not interested in what we believe.  Nor are most of them interested in where they will spend eternity.  The world around us wants to see that the message of Jesus, the message of God’s love is possible.  For if it is possible, then there is hope.  If it is possible, then there is a heaven.  If it is possible, then there is a God who loves even me.

Churches adapt ancient models for the 21st century

For many of us who care about church, it is becoming increasingly apparent that church as we know it must change in order to maintain its mission in the 21st century.  This change will not be cosmetic.  This change will not be a debate about traditional worship versus contemporary worship, or small groups versus Sunday School.  The kind of change the church must adopt is transformational change — change that fundamentally reshapes how we think about church, and what church actually does.

Three ancient church models are gaining traction in the first decade of this new century:  the marketplace church, the monastic church, and the mission center church.  Each one of these church models existed in previous centuries, but now each has been reimagined for this new millennium.

The marketplace church. This is the church that is a coffee shop or an art gallery or a clothing consignment store during business hours, engaging its community through the medium of the marketplace.  A good example of this is Knox Life Church in Knoxville, Tennessee which operates Remedy Coffee, and then gathers for worship on the weekend. The old Celtic Christian abbeys maintained farms which engaged the local population, generated income for the abbey, and provided employment for their neighbors.

The monastic church. This is the church where community, a committed community, is the core value.  The monastic church might do good in their neighborhood, or they might share table fellowship with each other on a regular basis, or both.   Participants in the monastic church community do not necessarily live together, but they share a rule of life that mimics that of the ancient monastic orders.  Gordon Cosby’s Church of the Savior is probably the oldest and best-known example of this type, but Shane Claiborne’s group might be a more recent example.

The mission center church. The all-time winner of this category, and the sole occupant of this slot for decades, is the Salvation Army.  Their mission work overshadows the other things they do like worship.  A good example of a local church that is a mission center is Solid Rock United Methodist Church in Olivia, North Carolina.  Solid Rock UMC died as a struggling storefront church, and was reborn as a mission with a mission.  The Celtic abbeys also were mission centers in the midst of great need.  One abbey fed over 1,000 people a day.  Most abbeys gave refuge, cared for the sick, welcomed the stranger, and provided food, shelter and clothing to those who needed it.

These ancient models are with us again because all three — marketplace, monastic, and mission center — express the vision of their participants to be a new expression of church built on a specific approach to being the people of God.  Some churches combine all three, and more, of these models to become “the church as abbey” that I have written about previously.  I think this is the wave of the future for church, and that any or all of these expressions are legitimate and effective ways of engaging the world with the gospel.  Notice that none of these models emphasizes worship as the connection with the surrounding community.  More on that later.

Strip down the church and start over

John Temple, former editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, blogs about what newspapers must do to survive.  Temple should know because the 150-year old Rocky Mountain News folded this past February, the victim of a sagging economy, the digital revolution, and journalism’s failure to adapt.  What does this have to do with churches? Listen to Temple’s advice to newspapers:

Strip down the newsroom and start over with this mission (serving as public watchdog) in mind. Reconstruct the entire news operation on all platforms to make sure the newsroom has this mission at its heart. This will be difficult. Many internally will ask, ‘Well, how can we stop doing this?’ Or, ‘How can we stop doing that?’ The answer is if newspapers don’t perform their central function well, nothing else will matter. If it’s not clear by now that things have to change, the battle may be lost anyway.

Sound familiar?  Substitute the word “church” for “newsroom” and Temple could be offering good advice to churches.  And, of course, he’s right — it will be difficult to stop doing some things we’ve always done.  But we have to.  Just like newspapers, churches that fail to adapt will be as obsolete as newsprint in the age of the Kindle.

Of course, the problem we have in church is deciding what our mission is.  For some it’s evangelism, for others worship, for others service.  But whatever you think your church’s mission is, ask yourself the same question Temple asked of newspapers — “What are you spending your money on?”

If the most of your church budget goes to something other than your mission, then you’re not serious about your mission, whatever it is.   Agree or disagree?

Sermon: Pluralism – Why Doesn’t Everybody Believe Like We Do?

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  This is the 2nd in an 8-part series titled, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.”  This week we’re dealing with the challenge of pluralism — a culture of many faiths. I hope your Sunday is wonderful!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
#2. Pluralism — Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?

Acts 17:16-34

The old joke was told like this:  “A Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Baptist preacher were together in a boat fishing…”

The joke was pretty funny, but that’s not my point today.  Today if you were to tell that joke, you’d have to add to the priest, rabbi, and preacher, a Buddhist monk, a Muslim imam, an Indian guru, a New Age spiritualist, a Wiccan witch, a Native American elder, a Mongolian shaman, an African witch doctor, a Haitian voodoo practitioner, and an aggressive atheist.  And maybe a partridge in a pear tree.

Then, not only would the joke be too long, the boat wouldn’t be big enough either.  My point, of course, is that we live in an age when we are aware of and exposed to many faith traditions, but it hasn’t always been that way in America.  When I was growing up, my buddy Charles Norris lived in the house behind ours.  We went to the same school, climbed over our backyard fence so often that we broke it down, and got into trouble several times together.  Once we set the backyard on fire, which was quite a show.  Another time we shot out the neighbor’s storm door with our BB guns.  But mostly we did 11-year old boy things together.  We built model cars, camped out in the backyard (which is how we set it on fire), rode our bikes all over Columbus, Georgia, and generally hung out 6-days a week.

We hung out 6-days a week, but not on Sunday, because Charles and his family were Catholics; we, of course, were Baptists.  Charles ate fish on Friday, I didn’t — mostly because I didn’t like the fish sticks the school cafeteria tried to pass off as fish.  Charles had to do some weird stuff like go to confession occasionally.  He’d tell me what he told the priest, and what the priest said to him.  Mostly, Charles had to say a lot of “Hail, Marys” — and I had no idea what that meant.

I asked my parents what the difference was in Baptists and Catholics, and got more information than I needed. Among other things they told me that Catholics prayed to saints and to Mary.  The Pope was the head of the Catholic church.  While we were living in Columbus, John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for the presidency.  Of course, we were voting for Nixon because Kennedy was a Catholic.  One day when I got home from school, my mother said, “Want to hear a joke?”  My mother seldom told jokes, mostly because she was too busy keeping up with my brother and me, so I said, “Sure.”

She said, “Do you know what phone number Kennedy will call for instructions everyday if he’s elected president?”  I had no idea, and really didn’t think this joke was going to be very funny at this point, so I said, “No, who?”

“Whom,” my mother corrected me, which she did a lot.  Then she said, “3909.”  She wrote the numbers on a piece of paper, and then turned the paper over and held it up to the light shining through the kitchen window.  The reversed numbers now looked like letters which spelled, “P-O-P-E.”

“Pretty funny, Mom,” I said.  It actually wasn’t that funny, but I was trying to be nice to mom.

Catholics were my introduction to folks who don’t believe like we do.  Of course, as I got older, I learned even more things about Catholics, mostly from Baptists, and most of it not complimentary to the Roman Catholic Church.  I grew up in the era when Southern Baptists believed, if we didn’t out-right say so, that we were the ones with the real truth about being Christians.  And, of course, when we talked about who was going to heaven, Catholics weren’t because they worshipped Mary, and hadn’t been baptized properly.  I am thankful to say that both my parents and I became much more tolerant and open-minded about Catholics and other faiths as the years moved on.

The Challenge of a Pluralistic Culture

Of course, now we have to deal with not just one, but many different faith traditions.  The events of 9/11 shocked us into a new awareness that the ugly face of religious fundamentalism is not just a Western face, but is also a Middle Eastern face.  Before 9/11 most of us, myself included, knew little of the Muslim faith, and thought it had little to do with our daily lives.  On that morning of September 11, 2001, we realized how much the strongly held religious views of one group can impact another group.  We as Americans became very much aware of the pluralistic culture in which we lived that tragic September day.

Twenty-five years ago, unless you lived in one of America’s largest cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few others — you had to travel internationally to encounter a significant number of people of another faith tradition.

I think I have told you about our first trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong together in 1989.  When we landed in Taiwan, I made the mistake of telling our host that I would like to see some temples.  For the next three days we looked at temple after temple.  I did discover that there were Buddhist temples, Confucian temples, and temples devoted to local ancestors and local gods.  We saw lots of temples, and it was a fascinating experience.

Temple worship was not like worship in a Baptist church back home.  The temples were mostly open-air, with people coming and going.  The monks sold josh sticks, and the josh sticks were burned as prayers for their departed loved ones, and also as prayers for prosperity, health, and other requests.  The temples were noisy, they smelled of burning incense, the monks were more like gift shop attendants than religious figures, and I was intrigued by the whole thing.

One of last year’s best-selling books, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, chronicled her travels to Italy where she ate; India where she stayed at an ashram and prayed; and Bali where she fell in love.  Her book has sold millions of copies because it is the story of one woman’s search for meaning.  But she found meaning in a multi-cultural, international, exotic cultural experience where the Christian faith played no part.

The challenge for those of us who are Christian, is how do we live in a pluralistic world as followers of Christ?  Paul’s encounter with the men of Athens holds some lessons for us.

Three Typical Approaches to Pluralism

Over the centuries, Christianity has struggled with how to address the world that did not embrace its beliefs.  Christianity, after all, was born in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society.  Even though the Roman Empire held the civilized world together with is Pax Romana, the world was filled with Jews who worshipped the One True God; with worshippers of the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods; with oracles and those who spoke ecstatically; with the demon-possessed; philosophers; and, those who simply wanted to debate intellectually the idea of gods and their role in the world of men.  These are the men whom Paul addressed in Athens, men who were religious, and interested in debating about religious ideas.

So, Christianity is not new to a pluralistic world, but we are.  How do we as 21st century Christians relate to other religious traditions, and how does that shape our own faith.

Typically, there have been three approaches by Christians to other faiths.

The first approach is the “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach. That was the approach I grew up with.  Baptists were right, Catholics were wrong.  As a matter of fact, everybody else was wrong.  Which presented a problem when we went to see my mother’s side of the family, most of whom were Methodists.  My mother explained to me that Methodists and Baptists were really pretty much alike, except Methodists sprinkled when they baptized people, but you could be immersed as a Methodist if you wanted to.  Having that option made Methodists not quite so suspect in my opinion.  At least some of them could get it right, I thought.

The “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach is known in theological circles as exclusivism.  In other words, everybody but us is excluded from salvation.  That doesn’t sound too kind or appealing today, but in the 1950s Baptists were pretty much exclusivists.  Some still are.  I remember reading a newspaper published by John R. Rice, Tennessee’s fundamentalist twin to Bob Jones down in South Carolina.  John R. Rice wrote in his paper, The Sword of the Lord, that Billy Graham wasn’t a Christian because when Billy Graham held a crusade, and people got saved, the Graham organization told them to find a local church, any church.   And, if they were Catholics, the Billy Graham team did not tell them to leave the Catholic Church.  John R. Rice thought that was blasphemy, and apostacy, if I remember his words correctly.  Personally, I thought John R. Rice was a bit intolerant, and I threw my free copy of The Sword of the Lord in the trash.

But there is an aspect of Christianity that is exclusive.  In John 14:6 — “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  So, there is the sense in which we as followers of Jesus are followers because we believe Jesus is what he said he is — the way to God.  There is a exclusivism to that statement and to our belief, because by saying Jesus is the only way, we are also saying Buddha is not the way, Mohamed is not the way, and without Jesus there is no way.

Paul, however, preaches the gospel message without saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong.”  Rather, he lays out the “good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul doesn’t have to dismantle their faith to speak of his.

The second approach is the “as long as you’re sincere” approach. That approach was the polar opposite of exclusivism, and is called universalism.  In other words, everybody is going to be saved.  And, it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.  That line of thought emerged as America became a more educated and sophisticated society. Religious intolerance seemed so out of fashion, so why shouldn’t everyone who believed anything go to heaven, too.  Of course, the old Baptist line for this was, ‘if you sincerely drink poison thinking it’s medicine, you’re not going to get well, you’re going to die.’  I heard that illustration more than once, and it has some truth to it.

The other problem with the “as long as you’re sincere” approach is that no other religion believes that to be true.  Each religious tradition presents its own truth claims as definitive.  So, this approach, while it sounds like a very tolerant embrace of all faiths, really leads us nowhere. And, while Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice by saying, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious,” he does not let them off the hook because of their sincerity.

A third approach is the “we think we’re right, but there may be other possibilities.” This is the inclusivist approach.  We’re all included regardless of our religion, as long as we’re seeking God.  The inclusivist approach humbly admits that we may not have it right, and there may be other possibilities for salvation, but we leave all that to God.  It’s a kind of uncertain certainty, if you will.

Granted, I am painting each one of these positions with a broad brush and not doing justice to the nuances of difference between them.  But, the problem with each of these approaches is that WE are the center of conversation.  Each one of these approaches is about what we think, about what we believe to be true or rational or tolerant or palatable.  And that is the problem.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God.

A More Faithful and Humble Approach To Life In a Pluralistic Society

At the center of the Christian faith we find Jesus Christ, not ourselves.  Christ is the expression of God in human form, and his followers were called “Christians” — “the little Christs” — because they lived like Jesus.  So, how do we deal with the challenge of a pluralistic society, a society in which many religions present their claims to absolute truth, in which many cultures have found new pride for their traditions in the world community, and in which Christianity itself is often seen as a less tolerant, less open, less gracious Western religion.

First, we as followers of Christ should not give up our faith practices just because we live in a pluralistic culture.

Christians follow Christ, there is no way around that.  Without Christ, there is no Christianity.  And, without Christ as the centerpiece of our faith, we are not Christians.  So, we can’t roll over when the culture asks us to pray in God’s name, but leave off the name of Jesus as we have seen in recent controversies.  We can’t dumb-down our faith so that Jesus is not offensive to others.  Of course, we don’t have to act obnoxiously either, which is what we Christians have often done.

Here’s a personal story — For many years, I was ambivalent about offering prayer for a meal in a public restaurant.  Does it look too pious to others?  Is it necessary?  Will others think I’m “holier than thou?”  But, then I saw Muslim men on TV one day, kneeling on prayer mats outside their place of business, not once but three times a day.  I thought, “If they have that much conviction and are faithful to the practice of their faith, then I should be also.” So, Debbie and I pray before each meal whether at home, which we always did, or in public.  It is a way I express my faith publicly.  Of course, I will ask others dining with us if I might offer thanks for our meal before we eat.  I am courteous to others, but not apologetic about my practice.

Paul is completely unapologetic as he talks about Jesus, and his place in God’s plan.  Luke says in Acts 17:18 — “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.  They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul did not change his message because some disagreed with him.

Secondly, we should be humble about our faith.

The exclusivistic approach — “we’re right, you’re wrong” — has led to family fights, hurt feelings, the Crusades of the 11th century, and the Spanish Inquisition, among others.  Explorers to the New World often decided that if the local natives would not become Christians, then they would have to be killed in order to save them — a religious version of the 1950s “better dead than Red” motto.  Exclusivism is arrogant, unloving, and presumes we know as much as God does about the soul of the person or persons who are the object of our wrath.

Humility in living our faith does not mean apologizing for our faith.  Rather, humility acknowledges that God knows things we don’t, like who’s going to be saved and who isn’t.  Humility about our faith acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is, as Leonardo Boff says, the first evangelist.  In other words, God is at work in the hearts and lives of people that we don’t know anything about.  The Bible contains stories like that of Lydia who was a God-fearer, and to whom Paul brought the gospel message.  Lydia responded to Paul’s message, because God had already prepared her heart.  The Ethiopian eunuch is another example — an African official who was reading a sacred scroll, possibly the scroll of Isaiah, and already had the desire in his heart to know God.

We must be humble, because arrogance and triumphalism is unbecoming to the gospel message and the love of God.

Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice, and does not seek to discredit the gods they serve, or even the monument to the Unknown God the Athenians have erected.  Rather, Paul reinterprets the history of the universe with God as creator, sustainer, and eventually judge.  Paul is both humble, and candid, courageously presenting a new way of looking at the history of the world.

Finally, we just have to tell the story.

We do not have to make the story debate-proof.  We do not have to have an answer for every objection.  We do not have to discover Noah’s ark, an original copy of the Gospel of John, or any other archaeological artifacts to prove our faith.  We do not have to apologize for the story of God sending his son Jesus, to live, die, and rise from the grave.  We do not have to be embarrassed at this 2,000 year old story because it is the same story the apostles told on the day of Pentecost.  It is the same story Stephen told before he was stoned.  It is the same story that Paul told as he carried the message of Christ from Jerusalem, to Judea, and to the uttermost part of the world.  The writer of Acts tells us that some believed Paul, and some didn’t.  Others said they would like to hear some more about Paul’s story.  And then Paul moved on to another place to tell his story, again.

Like the stories of our childhood, the story of Jesus is our story.  It is our story because we have found ourselves in it when God saved us.  It does not matter if it contradicts the story of Islam, or the story of Buddhism, or the story of Judaism.  We do not have to apologize, or change our story, we simply have to tell it.

Our reluctance to tell our faith story is more in our own heads than in the responses of others.  I have visited hundreds, if not thousands of people in hospitals in my 30-years in ministry.  Only once was I turned down when I offered to pray with a concerned family member.  I have travelled to China, governed by a system that is opposed to both American capitalism and Christianity.  But I have also had Chinese men ask me about being a “priest” (they don’t know the difference in priest and pastor), and about church, and about Christianity.  I did not have to apologize, or change my story, I just had to tell it.

Since moving here, I have heard from the Chinese man who works for the company in Nantong, China with which I did business for several years.  About three years ago, after we moved here, I got an email from Mr. Wang, stating that Mr. Chen and Mr. Zhu were coming to the U. S. and would like to see us, again.  They wanted to come to our church where I was a “priest,” so that (these are his words) “they could hear me pray.”  Mr. Wang closed his email by saying, “We are all lost sheep.”

Their plans changed and they did not come to Virginia, but I thought that was an interesting admission from a Chinese man who knows little of the Christian faith.  God is at work in his heart, too.  And he is right, we are all lost sheep.  The difference in our lives is that we know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Let’s add value to the Kingdom, rather than milking it for all we can get

Over at Harvard Business’s online blog, Umair Haque launches a blistering attack on Wonga, a UK payday lender that charges 2,689% annual interest!  In other words, a $100 loan paid back a year later will cost the borrower $2,689.  Incredibly, Haque points out that three venture capital firms have invested in Wonga because they think they’ll get a great return.  Haque disagrees, and contends that Wonga is part of what got us into this financial crisis in the first place — greed.

Haque says that Wonga has the worst business plan in the world because it is based on extracting value from others rather than creating value for others.  Creating value is the new business model, Haque argues.  Which brings me to the spate of requests, solicitations, and “check out my site” invitations that I get every day.  From Facebook to Twitter to email to snail mail, I am bombarded everyday with Christian ministries trying to sell me something.   Half my “friends” on Facebook and more than half my followers on Twitter are pushing something they want me to buy — trying to extract value from me rather than create value for me.

I have often thought that if you have a better way to win people to Jesus, or a better way to do church, or a tried-and-true method of discipleship, shouldn’t you give it away?  Shouldn’t we all be trying to add value to the Kingdom, rather than extract all we can from it?

And, if we all did that — pooled our collective gifts, talents, and abilities — wouldn’t we all be better off? Wouldn’t the Kingdom cause advance more quickly and effectively?  Instead, we’re all trying to sell stuff to each other.

The whole “Christian-industrial complex” reminds me of an well-known multi-level marketing event I went to several years ago.  Turns out the speakers made more money from selling how-to tapes, books, CDs, and trinkets than they did actually running their businesses.  The same thing is true of those real estate infomercials, or other pitches offering you the tried-and-proven secrets to making a million dollars.  But first they have to sell you their system for $299 or $29 or whatever.

Of course, I want to write books, too.  I want to speak at conferences, too.  But, first I want to create some value for you and others like you who pastor small churches like I do.  I try to do that, and I try to give away the best that I do — sermons, ideas, methods, outreach programs, links to articles — so you can get value from them.

I realize that goods and services cost real dollars to produce.  But it seems like we have more folks trying to extract value from us, rather than add value to us.  Soong Chan Rah, in his new book The Next Evangelicalism,  laments the fact that while there are only about 150 “emerging” churches in the US, over 50 books have been published about the “emerging church.”  Where, he asks, are books about minority pastors who drive a taxi during the day, attend seminary at night, and pastor their churches on the weekend?

Les Puryear at Joining God In His Work has had little success trying to get a book about small church ministry published.  Why?   Book agents say publishers see it as a small niche market — in other words, they can’t make any money.

But, what if we in small churches created our own network of individuals, ideas, books, resources, and encouragement.   And what if we gave it all away for free because we are the ones creating it?  An “unconference” of small church leaders could develop its own agenda, collaborate to produce its own content, and present it to any and all who wanted it for free.  Same for resources, videos, outreach methods, sermons, Bible studies, mission projects, and so on.

What do you think?  Am I just crazy, or are you tired of all the promotion and hucksterism today?  Let’s do something about it.  Let’s start our own small church resource conversation and figure out how we can add value to the Kingdom.  Let me know what you think.  Our church is available as a host site, we can cook our own meals, plan our own agenda, and I’ll find homes to stay in for anyone who’s interested.  Any takers?