Month: June 2011

Churches Left Out of Charitable Giving Increase in 2010

While total estimated charitable giving edged up by 3.8% compared to 2009, gifts to churches and religious organizations actually declined when adjusted for inflation.  Philanthropy toward other human services groups, like those which sought funds for the Haiti earthquake disaster, fell even more, registering a 1.5% decline when adjusted for inflation.

The latest information on charitable giving is out, courtesy of the Giving USA Foundation.   Their Giving USA 2011: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2010, is an invaluable tool for those interested in charitable giving, including churches and religious institutions.

Here are the charitable giving recipients who benefited from the rise in giving (subtract approximately 1.6% to adjust for inflation):

  • Educational institutions up by 5.2%
  • Foundations up by 1.9%
  • Health research and organizations up by 1.3%
  • Public-society benefit causes up by 6.2%
  • The arts and humanities up by 5.7%
  • International affairs up by 15.3%
Here are the losers in charitable giving in 2010:
  • Religious groups and organizations at 0.8% (adjusted for inflation -0.8%)
  • Human services at 0.1% (adjusted for inflation -1.5%)
  • Environmental and animal causes at 0.7% (adjusted for inflation -0.9%)
Trends in how people give are also in flux.  While charitable giving as a whole was up 3.8%, individual giving was up by only 2.7%, meaning that the 10.6% rise in corporate giving raised the overall average in giving significantly.  But, giving by foundations is actually down 0.2%, which may reflect a poor return on endowments, or a drop in giving because many foundations would come under the categories of human services, environmental and animal causes, or religion.

What does this mean for small churches in particular?  While overall religious institutions claim the largest piece of the charitable giving pie, at 35% of total giving, contributions to religious groups are not rebounding at the same rate as education, the arts, and international affairs giving.  Based on the demographic that church memberships tend to be older than the population as a whole, the failure of religious giving to recover might reflect the continuing poor returns on investments held by many older adults.

But, I believe that the continuing decline of religious institutions, churches in particular, also means that there are fewer people to give to support churches and their ministries.  To address this problem, and to qualify for gifts from foundations and even government programs, many churches have formed not-for-profit corporations under which they fund and run their programs designed to benefit the common good.  Some churches will have ideological difficulties in making that leap, but other churches which have successfully done so can serve as models.

The good news for churches in all of this is that charitable bequests are up 18.8%.  Your church might consider doing what ours has just done — establish an endowment fund and encourage your members to leave a bequest to the church in their will.  You will need to consult estate-planning professionals to help your church craft a program that will ensure benefactors that their money will be handled carefully to ensure the long-term viability of the congregation they love.  But, with careful planning, churches can take advantage of this trend in charitable giving.

You can view and download a free copy of this giving report at

Credit:  Giving USA Foundation (2011). Giving USA 2011: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2010. Retrieved from

Sermon: The Significance of Small Gifts

Tomorrow I’m preaching about Jesus sending the disciples out to do great things — heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons.  But to that list of great things, Jesus added giving a cup of cold water to a little child.  Small gifts have great significance in God’s Kingdom.

The Significance of Small Gifts

Matthew 10:40-42

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome

When I was a boy of about 8 or 9, I loved to go to my friend’s house and play.  We would get busy riding our bikes, exploring the creek at the bottom of our street, or playing ball that sometimes, often, I would stay longer than I had intended.   Invariably, when I got home from my friend’s house, my mother would tell me not to stay so long next time, because “you don’t want to wear out your welcome.”

Like many of those wise parental sayings, I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I knew it had something to do with my friend’s mother getting tired of having me at her house.  It was good advise then, even if I wasn’t entirely sure of its full meaning, and it still is today.

Here in these three short verses we just read, Jesus has some words about “welcome.”  And apparently he wants his disciples to understand the significance of welcoming others, and of the significance of being welcomed in turn.

But to understand that, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 10, and look at the setting.  Jesus isn’t just randomly tossing out some “here’s how you ought to behave when you’re traveling” advice.  No, there is a specific setting, a context in which Jesus offers these closing words.  We know they are the closing words of instruction, not only because they come at the end of the chapter, but because Matthew begins chapter 11 by saying, “Now when Jesus had finished instructing the disciples….”

Jesus Sends Out The Twelve

But what was he instructing them for?  Jesus was equipping and preparing the disciples to go out and do exactly what he had been doing.  They were to go and do exactly what they had seen Jesus doing.  The disciples were to go and proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Remember that last week we talked about Matthew’s Gospel being the Gospel of the Kingdom of God?  Well, in the next few weeks we’ll have an opportunity to look at Matthew and at the teaching of Jesus as Matthew presents it.  Each gospel writer has a unique message and approach, and for Matthew the Kingdom of God is it.

So, let’s look at the words of Jesus as he gets the disciples ready.  Here’s the setup in Matthew 10:1-4:

“1 He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil[a] spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”  — Matthew 10:1-4 NIV84

Okay, that’s the setup.  Jesus called the disciples together, then gave them authority to do what he had been doing – drive out evil spirits, heal sickness and disease.  These are signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus has been doing these very things, plus others, to not only announce the Kingdom of God as a present reality, but to demonstrate what life in the Kingdom of God is like.

Remember last week when we talked about the Great Commission, we said that the verses that precede Matthew 28:19-20 were important.  Why?  Because Matthew 28:18 says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  Here, prior to Jesus final instructions to his disciples, he gives them that same Kingdom authority, although limited to evil spirits and healing diseases.  In other words, this is a trial run for their ultimate mission.

Luke’s Gospel has a similar account, coincidentally found in Luke 10, where Luke records the sending of the 70 or 72, depending on your translation.  The number is not so important as the idea that here a multiple of 12 – 6 x 12 – is being sent out.  Luke’s version tells us that now there are more than 12, there are 70 or 72 who have the same authority, are given the same instruction, and who go to proclaim and demonstrate the same kingdom.

And, of course, getting back to Matthew’s Gospel, this becomes the ultimate mission of the disciples, and the last instruction Jesus gives to them, before he ascends back to heaven.

So, this idea of mission, of being sent, of a divine decree directed toward the disciples is a key point.  Jesus is not just the Messiah, he is the Messiah with a mission – let everyone know that the Kingdom of God is inaugurated!

The Specifics of the Mission

But, they are not just to run willy-nilly all over the place in their going.  No, the sending has specific instructions.  There are ways the disciples are expected to behave, there are things they are expected to do.  This is not make-it-up-as-you-go, but a well-defined mission.  For that we have to read the next verses, Matthew 10:5-15:

“5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[b] drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.9 Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10 take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.

11 “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15 I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”  — Matthew 10:5-15 NIV84

I don’t have a lot of time to spend on what all of these instructions mean, but some are pretty straight-forward.  Here’s a quick run-down:

Don’t go to the Gentiles or Samaritans.

Do go the “lost sheep of Israel.” By the way, the lost sheep of Israel weren’t lost because they were morally inferior to the Pharisees or other overtly righteous Jews.  They were lost because they were the marginalized, the outcasts, those who were lost to the way God was being worshipped, and the Torah was being observed.  They weren’t lost due to their own sin, although they were sinners; they were lost because no one in positions of religious authority wanted to have anything to do with them.

Proclaim the good news, “The Kingdom of heaven is near.”  That was the message, and to demonstrate that this message was true, they were to perform the signs of the Kingdom.  We call them miracles today – healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers and driving out demons.  These also are all theological problems that keep the lost sheep of Israel from worshipping God, that marginalize them and push them to the outskirts of respectable society.

Obviously, being dead keeps you from attending Temple, but raising the dead demonstrated that God’s power reached even to the world of the dead, to the other side of death.  Of course, God would demonstrate that most tangibly and dramatically in raising Jesus from the dead.  But, being sick either prevented you from traveling to the Temple for worship, or made you ceremonially unclean.  The same thing applied specifically to lepers, who had to proclaim in a loud voice and with the sounding of a warning bell that they were unclean.  Leprosy wasn’t just a bad disease that in the first century was uncurable; leprosy separated a person from family, friends, and most importantly, the worshipping community.  Finally, casting out evil spirits or demons did two things:  first, it demonstrated God’s power over evil; and, secondly, it reclaimed those thought to be not in their right minds, like the Gadarene demoniac, for service to God.  So, all of these instructions on what to do were for the lost sheep, the outcasts, the marginalized, the despised, the unwanted in society.

In contrast, the disciples are to bring the peace – the shalom of God – to the homes which receive them.  For those who do not receive them, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, and more, awaits them.  And, with these words, Jesus turns the disciples’ attention to the the unpleasant side of their journey.

Conflict and Persecution Are Part of the Assignment

You would think that with the ability to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons, there wouldn’t be a downside.  But, just as Jesus encountered opposition and persecution, so will his followers, even on this preliminary training mission.  Listen to some of what the disciples will encounter:

17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.

21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[e]

37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This does not sound like a picnic, does it?  So, here is this grand mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and to demonstrate its power by healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons.

The bad news is that the opposition is strong and on a mission of its own – to stop Jesus from spreading the ridiculous notion that he, Jesus, is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior promised by God.

Because if Jesus is all of those things, and if the Kingdom of God is really coming, then obviously the religious leaders are not in the lead.  They are being passed over.  God has not included them in this Kingdom revolution that is taking place.   Their power is threatened, their prestige is at stake, their livelihood is at risk.  Oh, and by the way, the Romans won’t be too happy either, if an insurrection breaks out.

This is pretty dramatic stuff.  Majestic in its scope, cosmic in its design, eternal in its duration.  This is the greatest drama the world has ever witnessed.  And, the disciples get to be part of it.

It’s Not Just About the Drama

But, it’s not just about the drama.  For as this chapter closes, and we finally return to our text for today, Jesus has some very simple, calm, and plain words:

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

To get in on this grand Kingdom epic, you don’t have to be a disciple.  You just have to welcome one.  Jesus promises that anyone who receives his disciples receives (welcomes) him; and anyone who welcomes him welcomes God, the one who sent Jesus.

But, it gets better.  Anyone who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet (which means because he is a prophet, or out of respect for a prophet) will receive the same reward as the prophet.  So, the widow of Zarephath who gave food and lodging to Elijah received the same reward as the prophet Elijah, who stood up to 450 prophets of Baal, among other things.  Jesus even mentions her in Luke 4.  So, this lowly widow gets a prophet’s reward for welcoming a prophet.

In other words, her obedience to God was just as important as Elijah’s obedience to God.

The same thing happens when someone welcomes a righteous person.  They receive the same reward as the righteous person, because they are being used of God in the same way.

In other words, it’s not just about the drama.  We often mistakenly think that unless we can do something big, something grand, something great, that God will not be pleased with us.  Part of that I attribute to William Carey, who in his zeal to get English pastors to support sending missionaries to India, said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

But maybe Jesus wants us to rethink that.  Of course, some will continue to do great, dramatic, world-changing things.  But not everybody.  The last instruction Jesus gave to his disciples in this passage was for the rest of us.

“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

And, here is where the rest of us come in.  Most of us haven’t healed the sick, raised the dead, or exorcised demons.  Most of us haven’t even seen anyone who was demon-possessed.  Personally, I’m thankful for that.

But all of us have seen little children.  All of us know how good a cup of cold water tastes on a hot, dusty day.  And all of us can do that – we can all give a cup of cold water to a thirsty child.

Mother Theresa, who certainly did great things, said, “There are no great deeds, only small deeds done with great love.”

So, if those of us who believe that we’ll never do great things like the disciples did for God, that’s absolutely okay.  Because even the disciples tried to run off the little children who wanted to see Jesus.  Even the disciples tried to turn away the most fragile and least regarded members of their own society, little children.

Of course, it does take some effort. A cup of cold water in Jesus’ day didn’t come from the water fountain, or the refrigerator dispenser.  There was no ice to cool the water, and water sitting in the sun quickly grew tepid and brackish.

No, to get a cup of cold water, one had to draw from the well, or a deep spring.  In either event, effort was involved.  So, I’m not saying small things don’t take effort, I’m just saying that Jesus thought they were pretty special.  And a cup of cold water gets lumped right in there with disciples on a mission to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons.

I could go on and on, explaining in detail what I think this means, but really, that’s it.  You know what cold water is, we know who children are.  You can make the translation to any situation in life.  Small gifts, given with great love in the name of the One who loved us, have great significance in the Kingdom of God.

Changing Demographics to Impact Small Churches


MSNBC reports this morning that “For the first time, minorities make up a majority of babies in the U.S., part of a sweeping race change and a growing age divide between mostly white, older Americans and predominantly minority youths that could reshape government policies.”  

But not only will this demographic change to a “majority of minorities” impact government policies, it will also impact small churches.  The article points out what we already knew:  minority populations are growing at a faster pace than the aging white population.  The previously reported American Community Survey had pegged white children under 2 as 51% of that demographic, but larger than estimated rates of minority births have moved the needle.  White children under 2 are now just below 50% of that group.

What does this mean for small churches?  First, small churches, especially rural or small town churches, tend to be segregated by race.  Obviously with a declining white population the handwriting is on the wall.  Small, predominantly white churches will either broaden their outreach or eventually die as their members age and die.

But, white churches cannot just say “We need minorities to survive” because that demonstrates a self-serving attitude that is not biblical.  Attitudes change slowly among older church members, but even older members can be led to broaden their vision, and begin to take intentional steps to reach out.

Most small churches will need to develop what Wendell Griffen calls “cultural competency.”   This involves an understanding and appreciation for the ethnic diversity of God’s creation.  And, it involves understanding that to meaningfully reach out to others means more that “signing them up.”  It also involves sharing decision-making, leadership, and authority.

Professor Soong-Chan Rah, who wrote The Next Evangelicalism:  Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity, has excellent insights to offer in his book, and on his blog.  If you haven’t read his book, it is one of the must-reads for this decade, and will give you (if you are white) an entirely different perspective on how other ethnic groups view evangelicalism as a whole.

Add to this new perspective, the additional insight that now married couples comprise less than 50% of US households for the first time; that same-sex couples are now 1-in-10 of unmarried couples living together; and, that several states, my own Virginia included, will flip to “minority-majority” status in the next 10 years, and we have the ingredients for major sociological shifts.

What we do not need are shrill voices of doom using these figures and trends to forecast the end of society as we know it.  Social patterns, including family patterns, in the US and world are changing.  These changes present challenges to churches in communicating the gospel, and in reaching out to include a diverse representation of our communities within our congregations.

Sermon: The Kingdom of God In Today’s World

I preached this sermon today on Trinity Sunday from Matthew 28:16-20.  We know this passage as The Great Commission, but the final words of Jesus to his disciples are about the Kingdom of God.  Even though this scripture has been used to validate the sending of Christian missionaries to other nations, Jesus’ instructions carry important messages about the Kingdom of God for all Christians.

The Kingdom of God In Today’s World

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  — Matthew 28:16-20 NIV

Today we come to the last Sunday of the Christian Year before we enter Ordinary Time.  This is Trinity Sunday, and this passage reflects both a Trinitarian awareness and the sending of the disciples by Jesus into the world.

This passage, called The Great Commission, is the final instruction Matthew records Jesus giving to his followers.  And, the interesting thing about this is there is no ascension into heaven, no angels appearing to reassure the awestruck disciples, nothing but the final command of Jesus to the Eleven.

Matthew’s Gospel has been called The Kingdom of God Gospel because Matthew features the Kingdom so prominently in his record of the life and ministry of Jesus.  Even though the words “Kingdom of God” do not appear in these verses, the Kingdom’s presence and impact is very evident.  Last week we looked at “What Pentecost Means To Us Today.”  Today I want us to think for a few moments together about “The Kingdom of God in Today’s World” — in other words, what the Kingdom of God means to us today.

The Kingdom of God is Predicated on Jesus’ Authority

As I mentioned earlier, this passage has been known as The Great Commission for a long time.  William Carey, the cobbler and preacher, invoked this passage to plead his cause for the sending of missionaries to those in India and other nations who had not heard the Gospel.  The entire modern mission movement, which began in the late 1700s, owes its genesis and success to this command of Jesus.

But too often we begin the reading of this passage with verse 19 — “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”  But, if we do so, we miss the reason for our going and the means by which we go.  We’ll get to the going in a minute, but first we must back up to verse 18 to capture the profound context and the reason for our going.  I have deleted the verse numbers so you can see how verse 18 flows logically into verses 19-20:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”

The reason we are to go is because Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth.  This authority is his because God has vindicated Jesus and made him both Lord and Christ, according to Paul, by raising him from the dead.  While we might argue that Jesus always possessed the authority of heaven and earth, Matthew is making both an historical and theological point by including this account at this place in his Gospel.

After his resurrection, the disciples are told to go to Galilee and wait for Jesus there.  That’s all Matthew offers us.  There are no other appearances of Jesus in locked rooms, or on the seashore.  Matthew’s focus is on this one appearing (although Jesus does appear at other times in other places) and Matthew does not close his account with the ascension.  Rather the entire focus of Matthew’s account is on this one encounter with the Eleven, and Jesus’ final instructions to them.

For Matthew, this is the culmination of the Gospel.  This is the moment in which the Gospel is entrusted to Jesus’ followers.  And, not only entrusted, but entrusted with explicit instruction on what to do (go), the purpose of their going (make disciples), the scope of their mission (of all nations), the practices involved (baptizing….teaching), and the assurance that they did not do this alone (I am with you…).  This is Matthew’s version of the continuity of Jesus’ life and ministry, now entrusted to his disciples.

In addition, Jesus echoes the words of the Lord’s Prayer, in which Matthew records Jesus saying, “…Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”  When Jesus says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” he is revealing that the prayer he taught his disciples to pray is being partially answered in his own life.  The idea is that God’s will be done on earth as it is done in heaven, and Jesus was the example of that for the first time.

Make Disciples Of All Nations

But Jesus’ teaching was not for the disciples alone.  They were to go and make disciples of all nations, which was a new notion to the Jews.  Prior to Jesus the Jews had a vague notion that other nations were also to be part of God’s plan.  The Temple in Jerusalem contained the Court of the Gentiles, the largest court of the Temple compound.  The implication was that all the nations were afforded a place in the presence of God, even if access was limited to the Court of the Gentiles.

But, by the first century, the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple had been reduced by the presence of vendors selling sacrificial animals, and moneychangers exchanging Roman currency for Temple currency.  The space allotted to the nations had been turned into a marketplace.

So, Jesus braids a whip from leather cords and drives the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple, with the words, “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.”  The international scope of God’s redemptive plan was very much on Jesus’ mind during his ministry and in this instruction to the disciples.  The Book of Acts records one way in which “the nations” hear the Gospel on the day of Pentecost.  But the disciples were to go themselves and make disciples of all nations.  That would happen not only on Pentecost when representatives of all the nations were gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, probably having stayed over after Passover.  But it would also happen when the church in Jerusalem is persecuted and then the disciples are dispersed from Jerusalem into the known world.

Baptizing Them Into The Name

The result of the disciples going and making disciples was that there would be those who would follow Jesus.  These new disciples, in the manner of the original Twelve called by Jesus (now Eleven after Judas’ death and before Matthias’ election and Paul’s call), were to be baptized.  John the Baptist sets the scene for water baptism in the New Testament, and Jesus himself submits to John’s baptism as both sign and symbol of his submission to the Father’s plan, and to validate the call to repentance, or a change of heart and mind from the traditional thinking of first century Judaism, to the ministry of Jesus.

These new disciples, not called believers here but disciples, were to be baptized “into” the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This Trinitarian invocation meant that followers of Jesus recognized that the Father had sent the Son, and the Son had promised the Spirit, and the Spirit would empower and send the church into the world.

Baptism was identification with the missio Dei, the mission of God, that involved all three expressions of the Trinity.  It was identification also with the community of faith, the followers of Jesus as Lord, who quickly established a koinoinia, or fellowship, that characterized their common belief and practice.

Their immersion into both water and the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was also a theological as well as a liturgical statement.  And, remember these new disciples are from “all nations” so this is not merely John’s baptism for repentant Jews, but Jesus’ re-imagined baptism that builds on John’s but carries meaning of the Kingdom of God with it.  Those being baptized had repented of their sins (primarily their wrong understanding of God and his purpose), identified with Jesus, and were empowered by the Spirit.  The prime example of this unique joining of Spirit and water baptism is found in Acts 10 with the Holy Spirit and water baptism of Cornelius and his entourage.

Teaching Them to Obey Everything

But it wasn’t that the disciples were merely to get the volitional assent of these new disciples.  They were also to teach them to “obey everything” Jesus commanded.  This is where we in the 21st century both misunderstand what this means, and fail to carry out this part of The Great Commission.

Since the modern missions movement particularly, we have done a good job of getting decisions, and baptizing believers.  But what we’re really supposed to be doing, if we are obedient to Christ, is making disciples like the original 12 who followed Jesus.  That means that this next generation of disciples is to do what the first generation did — follow and obey Jesus.  Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “You are my friends if you do what I command.”  And here the command is to “obey everything” Jesus taught.

Matthew gives us a good idea of what those commands are in The Sermon on the Mount section in chapters 5 through 7.  The things Jesus commanded were things like “turn the other cheek;” “go the second mile;” “do not repay evil with evil;”  and, so on.  In other words, the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount were the teachings of how life is lived in the Kingdom of God.

These new disciples were to live Kingdom values, just as the original disciples had been instructed to do.  These Kingdom values were to illustrate life as God intended for it to be lived.  Violence was no longer the operative force in the world — self-sacrificing love was to replace violence as a way of life.

Some evangelical theologians are concerned about the dumbing down of the Gospel to attract as many people as possible.  While crossing cultural and social barriers to communicate the Gospel message effectively is praiseworthy, the reduction of the Gospel to the lowest common denominator that attracts people is not.  One theologian observed that the Gospel is in danger of being reduced to the phrase, “Jesus was nice, so you be nice.”  Obviously, that neither honors the Christ who holds all authority in heaven and in earth, nor does it meet the test of obedient discipleship that Jesus commanded and which is part of The Great Commission.

Of course, our North American consumeristic culture drives the strategy of churches which seek to appeal to as many as possible.  Whether we admit it or not, we in evangelical expressions of Christianity have been more guilty than even mainline denominations, or even the Catholic Church, of changing everything we do to “reach more people.”  But, is that the commission that Jesus gave us, or did he give us and the Eleven the commission to make obedient disciples.

A Story About Peacemaking

John Paul Lederach tells a story in his wonderful book on peacemaking, The Moral Imagination, that illustrates what I believe is a Kingdom approach.  The story is about Tajikistan and its civil war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the new-found independence of former Soviet satellite states.

Tajikistan borders Afghanistan, and also has a Muslim majority.  Civil war was at full throttle when according to Lederach, a Tajik university professor, Dr. Abdul, was enlisted by the government to contact a Mullah who was also commander of an army of rebel fighters.  Professor Abdul was asked to open a dialogue with the Mullah, which appeared to be both unlikely and dangerous.

Finally, a meeting was arranged, and Professor Abdul arrived at the Mullah’s camp.  Because he had arrived later than expected, the Mullah insisted that it was time for prayers, and so they observed that essential practice of a Muslim man’s life together.  Surprised at his participation in prayer, the Mullah asked how the professor, a communist, could pray.  Professor Abdul said that his father had been a Communist during the Soviet era, but that he was not.

The Mullah then asked what the professor taught, which led to an extended conversation about philosophy and Sufism, a mystical form of Islam.  The appointment which was scheduled to last 20-minutes, extended itself for two-and-a-half hours.  After many such meetings, many cups of tea, and many stories shared together, a bond of trust began to form.

After many months of talking, eating, and sharing their stories with one another, Professor Abdul finally thought it was appropriate to ask the Mullah if he would consider laying down his arms and help end the civil war that was tearing apart Tajikistan.  The suggestion that the Mullah meet with government representatives was offered.

The Mullah considered Professor Abdul’s suggestion thoughtfully.  Then he said, “Can you guarantee my safety if I go?”  Professor Abdul knew he could not guarantee the Mullah’s personal safety.

Professor Abdul moved beside the Mullah, locked arms with him and said, “No, I cannot guarantee your safety.  But I can guarantee that I will go with you, and if they kill you, they will kill me also.”

When the Mullah arrived at the meeting with the government’s representatives, he said, “I come to this meeting out of respect for Professor Abdul.”  With that the slow, but certain peace process began which ended the civil war in Tajikistan.

That is the kind of life we as followers of Jesus are to lead.  The Great Commission to go, make disciples of all nations, and baptize and teach them to obey Christ must be done in the same way that Professor Abdul won over the Mullah — with self-sacrificial love.  Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The Great Commission is a call to go, but to go in the same self-sacrificial love with which Christ was sent from the throne room of heaven to all of creation.  We go, we make disciples, we baptize and teach with the same commitment to others — in this case “all nations” — that Jesus had to this world, as expressed by John —

“For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…”  Just as God sent Jesus, and Jesus sends the Church, then and now, to obey all things he commanded which includes giving our lives in Kingdom living for others.

Social Media or Social Suicide?

Recently I cancelled my Linked-In and Plaxo accounts.  I had previously cancelled my Twitter account, but now have one under @PeaceFriendsCom to promote my blog, PeaceFriends.Com.  I mostly look at my own family’s Facebook posting and photos, and spend almost no time posting to Facebook, except for my blog posts which go up automatically.  In short, I’m pretty unsociable about social media.

Here are some of the pitfalls of social media, as I see them, especially for pastors:

1.  You think you’re anonymous.  “Public anonymity” sounds like a oxymoron.   You know, like airline food, military intelligence, hot ice, and so on.  But Twitter, Facebook, et al, while appearing to really connect us with others, don’t.  What social media do is to create an exchange “as through a glass darkly” to quote the Apostle Paul.  There is a sense that one can post comments or quotes that would not be said or shown in a face-to-face encounter.  Hence, public anonymity.  How else can you explain today’s “boy-behaving-badly,” Rep. Anthony Weiner.  Either he has a political deathwish, or he thought somehow he was anonymous.  The Emperor’s New Clothes comes to mind here for some reason.

2.  Nuance is lost in social media.  The raised eyebrow, the tone of voice, the wry smile, the sense of humor are all lost in social media.  Emoticons, I’m sorry, are not good substitutes for human facial expressions, even if they do help clarify (“is he mad, or just joking”) the writer’s intent.  I won’t even get into correct spelling, grammar, syntax, and all the other skills of proper writing that are lost, but nuance is a big one for me.

3.  It’s easy to be stupid.  While we might choose our words more carefully in a real-life encounter, social media is a linguistic drive-by shooting — quick, blunt, and irrevocable.  Of course, you can delete your tweet, but that won’t prevent someone else from capturing a screenshot and putting it on Twitter again.  Rep. Anthony Weiner, again, is a good example.

Of course, being stupid isn’t limited to explicit images or inappropriate comments.  Pastors and church leaders need to consider carefully their social media interaction, whether on blog posts, Twitter, Facebook, or any of the other social media platforms.  The now ubiquitous stories of employers checking out an applicant’s Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter accounts before hiring make my point about caution.  Do not think that your social media account is your private business.  If you’re out there, someone in your church or community will be reading and watching.

All of this doesn’t mean that pastors are limited to tweeting Bible verses or Christian platitudes.  But, a good rule of thumb is “if you wouldn’t show it to your ___________ (deacons, elders, spouse, senior pastor, mother, etc) don’t Tweet it.”

“Please re-Tweet this article, hit the Like button, post it to your Facebook accounts, and help me get this out there in the blogosphere,” he said ironically. 😉