BAM Think Tank Report #11: Business as Mission In and From China

BAM Think Tank China Regional Group Report

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Executive Summary (© BAM Think Tank 2013)

China’s economic growth of eight to ten percent annually for the last twenty years, creates an ideal commercial environment for business as mission (BAM) within China. There are many opportunities for doing business and large amounts of foreign investment available.

At the same time, as one BAM practitioner in China has noted, “China has one of the largest unreached populations in the world, business is a significant channel for Christians to effectively impact countless people and help set them free from sin.” Business brings relationships and connections that are a natural context for showing love and sharing the message of the gospel. Business people have many opportunities to share the gospel and establish close relationships and friendships with people from different walks of life including owners of large businesses and government officials. These opportunities are available to them because of their business involvement.

The business as mission companies profiled in this report tell the stories of many decisions for Christ, the discipleship of new believers, Bible study groups formed, church leaders trained and local churches added to or planted. These businesses in China have also had an influence through job creation, improved working conditions and benefits, improved standards of living, training up the workforce, imparting biblical values for work and family and challenging corruption, among other things.

At the same time, as the Church in China grows exponentially, the desire to do mission from China is also growing. As a Chinese contributor observes, “First, we must be involved in the Great Commission; second, we must grow into maturity through giving; third, the Chinese Christians will bring a new dynamic into world missions, both to the international Christian community and the unreached people groups.”

With a conservative estimate of 70 million Christians in China, the potential impact of their mission involvement can be far-reaching as they grow stronger and become better equipped. However, the Chinese mission movement is still growing into maturity and experience of business as mission is very new. The Chinese church both inside mainland China and overseas has a long way to go to fully understand and embrace the strategy of business as mission. They must learn from their own difficult experiences and also connect with the wider BAM movement in order to be more effective for the future.

In this report the opportunities and challenges of doing business as mission both in and from China are shared. These observations from surveys, case studies and a SWOT analysis confirm great potential for BAM in and from China. It is a desirable approach to mission and Kingdom transformation as both the missional and commercial aspects show continued strength and abundant opportunity. Fruitful strategies, recommendations and action plans, plus available resources and networks are also shared in the hope that they will contribute to a multiplication of effective BAM practices in and from China.

This report is written for those interested in knowing about BAM in or from China, Chinese BAM practitioners, BAM practitioners in China, and organizations or churches facilitating BAM in or from China.

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Raphah – Be Still

“Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10a

Be still here is the Hebrew term raphah. It has several meanings which we will explore in three installments. I have tried to group twelve different nuances of raphah into subsets of four related meanings.

Raphah: Respite, Relax, Wait, Be Still

The central thrust of the verse above is toward the idea of resting. While it may pertain to both physical and mental activity, perhaps of greater importance is the release of anguish. We often think that a person who is grieving the loss of a loved one should “get some rest,” by which we mean, “go to sleep.” We know that deep rest rejuvenates the body. How often we set aside a problem until the morning and while the problem has not disappeared or diminished, when we are fresh and re-energized, we are more able to deal with it without the same levels of frustration or fear.

We are told of times when Jesus, feeling pressed by the crowds and the depth of their needs, slipped away, into the desert, across the water, or into a garden, to pray. He took a break to be rejuvenated by the Holy Spirit, and strengthened by an angel of God (Luke 22:43).

Western culture, and increasingly global culture, seems always to be speeding up but consistently we hear the sentiment of Psalm 46:10 reflected in Scripture but perhaps most importantly in Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.”

When I reflect on my surrounding culture here in North Atlanta, which is one of the busiest commercial centers in the U.S., I am reminded of Thomas Gray’s description, in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, of the busy-ness of modern society, even in 1751, as the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. The frenzy of life easily makes us anxious, harried, and tired but Jesus says “Come away, rest.” It is as if He in himself is a place of escape from the insanity of the striving world, even in its midst.

When we can “get away from it all,” whether to a sunny summer hillside, or an overstuffed chair in a quiet corner, or a favorite secluded chapel, it is there that we can be still, and in our stillness wait to hear the voice of God, not in the rending of the earth, the roaring wind, or raging fire, but coming in the quiet moment, as it did for Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12).

We often recognize the intense tiredness that comes after a long day of solving work problems or interacting with others in troubled relationships. Our bodies respond to the weariness of our minds. Getting away to clear our heads, especially in prayer or reflecting on ministering passages of the Bible, or perhaps to listen to favorite worship songs, re-sets our agendas, restores weakening faith, encourages the heart and gives us the opportunity to begin again, re-focused on Christ and the importance of pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” – Philippians 3:14.

In stillness, forcing ourselves to set aside all the intrusions and worries that life throws our way, we can commune with God, knowing that “those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength” – Isaiah 40:31.

Raphah – Abandon, Cease, Let Go, Fall Limp

The second grouping of meanings we impute to raphah leans toward reaching an end, especially of our own strength to accomplish something, or moving beyond performance expectations. Perhaps it is best summed up when Jesus says, “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it” – Matthew 16:25.

When Adam and Eve fell from grace it was essentially due to the sin of self-determination. But self-determination, which is a product of pride, has a deeper cause. They chose to disobey God because they questioned whether what God had told them about eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was true. In essence, they removed the authority from God to decide what was best for them, taking upon themselves the mantel of moral authority. But that action was merely symptomatic of their loss of faith in the integrity of God. They distrusted Him. They stopped believing God.

Ever since the Fall and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, humankind, in one way or another, has striven to “re-gain” the lost intimacy with God, or pursued a variety of panaceas to replace His presence, whether through wealth, power, alcohol, drugs, sex, or fame. All those, without a relationship with God, end in the desperation of trying to fill the void left by His absence from our lives. Often those pursuits will bring us to a crash, recognizing enough is never enough, whether it is in the diminishing psychological returns of increasing wealth or the dissatisfaction and emptiness wrought from deeper and deeper addictive behaviors.

Unfortunately, we sometimes also strive after religion, which is nothing more than trying to achieve righteousness by our own actions, as one of those panaceas. We get in our heads that if we can be good enough, to discipline ourselves to perform the right way every day, we will be good enough to go to heaven, good enough to earn God’s love that saves us.

Even if we have turned from overtly sinful behaviors, we often put on religion as a new addiction and find we are drawn toward legalism, following the checklist of God’s commands to justify ourselves. God proved by giving Israel the Ten Commandments that they were a fallen people. We seldom think about the fact that He gave Adam only one law . . . and Adam broke it!

Because we cannot atone for our own sin, that is, to make right the wrongs we have committed against God, our striving after holiness outside of the finished work of Christ on the Cross will fall short. But until we come to the realization that we cannot save ourselves, we strive on and become increasingly anxious wondering if we are yet good enough to please God.

In a word, raphah in Psalm 46:10 speaks to abandoning any notion of our own righteousness or our ability to attain in. Be still tells us to release our agendas or false notions of our own holiness. Here raphah also encourages us to release the anxiety that comes from falling short of the glory of God . . . and we all fall short (Romans 3:23). It is not until we fall limp in our inability, in our weakness, to become holy, that God can manifest and we begin to understand how the power of Christ is “perfected in our weakness” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

You see, it is not until we come to our own end, recognizing our utter lack of righteousness and ability to save ourselves, that we come to the recognition of our need of a Savior, one other than us who is able to atone for sin, one already holy and willing to sacrifice self completely, in the very character of God, for the sake of the one fallen. Only Christ can take that position in our lives and only as we collapse under the crush of our indebtedness to God and abandon our self-justifying ego. In that moment of our coming to terms with our brokenness, His strength comes into the middle of our relationship to God and is made perfect for our restoration into the Kingdom of God.

Raphah – Become Discouraged, Lose Courage, Fail, Become Helpless

By now, I hope that you are beginning to see the richness of the word raphah, and why I consider the first phrase of Psalm 46:10 as pivotal in our relationship to God. But the meaning is deeper still as we take this last look.

It may seem odd that we can “know that God is God” when we are discouraged, or back away from following Christ, seeing only the pressing and demoralizing circumstances of life or the depth of our weaknesses when we fail, stumbling in sin. Can we “know that God is God” when we become helpless?

In Western thought, we are driven by a sense of self-worth based in our ability to perform. Individualism and our standards of success compel us toward independently striving for success, pulling ourselves up “by the bootstraps,” so to speak, to be recognized by our peers and families as worthy of acclaim and respect. Our economic system is geared toward working harder and smarter to carve out our place in the world. As the saying goes, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone” (from Solitude by Ella Wheeler Cox).

When we fail or find ourselves discouraged, we also often find ourselves alone. It is easy to think that we are the only one suffering in such ways, that others in the church are surely more holy than we, or the folk down the street do not have the same depth of financial, career, or marriage struggles we face every day. Isolation deepens the darkness of our despair.

But we are not alone. Foremost, God is with us. When Isaiah prophesied of the coming Messiah, he said that the One would be called Immanuel, meaning God with us (Isaiah 7:14). A major component of the incarnational (in the flesh) presence of God in Jesus Christ was God condescending to share human experience with us. He faced the trials, tribulations, and temptations we all face. Life is hard and God knows it . . . firsthand.

So, when we are discouraged, or failing God, or recognize our helplessness to be holy, how is it we can “know that God is God?” Though Christ ascended back to heaven after the Resurrection, He did not leave us without resources, especially resources for the moments of our deepest spiritual needs. First and foremost is the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit within us. It is by the presence of the Holy Spirit that God helps and teaches us (John 14:26). The literal translation of helper (parakletos) is comforter. When we think of the gentleness of God, it is in the moments that the Holy Spirit invites us to look to God for our salvation and help rather than to self in the midst of our daily madness that we can perceive the comforting voice of God’s presence, calling to us, inviting our return, so “Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” – Hebrews 4:16.

God has also given us the Bible. There have been many verses that have been soothing to me over the years of my walk with God. One of my favorites in the times when I am mostly acutely aware of my sinfulness is 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” When I read this verse, I am encouraged to be honest with God and myself about my weakness and my stumbling. There are a lot of promises in the Bible that encourage, such as Philippians 1:6: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” It reminds me to not try taking on God’s transformational work in my life and encourages me to reflect on times past when God has demonstrated His faithfulness in my life, and to think about His ability to save me when and where I am unable.

Finally, there is the church which is instructed to “come alongside each other daily for encouragement” (Hebrews 3:13). There have been countless times that I have feared the vulnerability of revealing my true self to others for fear of being rejected. We are created to live in community and fear being put out of fellowship with others. But inevitably, if I confide in those I trust in Christ, I find encouragement, sometimes exhortation, prayer, restoration, and forgiveness, all by the power of God’s grace, present in His church.

When we are hard pressed by the world or our own weakness, we should be still before God and know Him as our loving, Heavenly Father.

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BAM Think Tank Report #6: Business as Mission and Church Planting

Fruitful Practices for Establishing Faith Communities

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Executive Summary (© BAM Think Tank 2013)

Many within the business as mission (BAM) movement, especially those from church planting mission agencies, are hopeful that the BAM concept can become a key strategy in starting new churches and transforming communities. This report will confirm that indeed the potential exists for these goals to be attained. However, while there is a good rationale for integrating business and church planting, to date there has been a relative lack of working examples and resources on best practices.

The objective of the Business as Mission and Church Planting Issue Group has been to research current practices and trends in the BAM movement and to identify fruitful practices that lead to the formation of new churches. We conducted interviews with BAM practitioners to identify foundational principles, key challenges and fruitful practices for BAM and church planting. Real examples from BAM companies are shared to illustrate some of the lessons learned by current practitioners.

Fruitful practices for integrating church planting and business include:

• Make sure that the business provides regular contact with the focus people. 

• Invest substantial time in learning language and culture before attempting to start a

business.

• Make business sustainability and profitability an essential goal.

• Give thoughtful consideration to staff selection.

• Clarify and communicate your strategic mission.

• Build local partnerships.

• Work in a team.

• Incorporate prayer right from the start.

• Incorporate biblical values and teaching.

• Work with a coach or mentor(s).

• Witness by doing business ethically and with care.

• Provide excellent products and services.

• Intentionally invest in relationships.

• Be socially responsible in the wider community.

Most BAM practitioners were able to share illustrations of transformational business practices, discipling conversations, significant relationships and anywhere from one to a handful of new Christ-followers in their company or work community. In some cases the double bottom lines of profitable business and planting churches has been achieved.

Therefore, the results of our research indicate that God has already used business to launch new churches. However church planting alongside operating a viable for-profit business presents significant challenges. Furthermore, we discovered only a handful of examples that have helped initiate a new church that can reproduce itself on its own.

Areas for further consideration and research are suggested, as well as practical recommendations for making greater advances in this area of business as mission. Our hope is that in the future there will be many more companies that do business well and at the same time help establish communities of faith that will be a reflection of God’s glory.

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BAM Think Tank Report #10: Business as Mission in Haiti

Case Studies and Insights from Business as Ministry at the Base of the Pyramid

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Executive Summary (© BAM Think Tank 2013)

Christians in Haiti have been in business for centuries, yet, within the last decade, have come to see that there is no dichotomy between their vocational calling to business and their Christian faith. According to data and interviews collected from many entrepreneurs in the Partners Worldwide network and other networks, entrepreneurs throughout Haiti now sense an affirmation to allow their Christian faith to guide every part of their lives, including their businesses.

The main difference is in the daily ways business people live out their faith. Business as mission (BAM) practices have tremendous influence in a culture where voodoo, mystics and irrational thinking prevail and negatively affect the workforce. Businesspeople and other stakeholders in a business sector are able to join force to utilize BAM practices that reflect the life of Jesus Christ and can influence societal and individual transformation through the direction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Ralph Edmond, Evelien de Gier and Daniel-Gérard Rouzier are among these inspiring businesspeople living out their faith in Haiti. Although they have practiced Christianity throughout their lives, they have very rarely been affirmed—and oftentimes even been criticized—when they tried to see the direct connection between their Christian faith and their sphere of influence: their business and community. This is all undergoing transformation today, especially as they are now affirmed by other Christian believers to follow their calling from God to be in business.

Through the affirmation of business as ministry in Haiti, the BAM movement is bridging the gap between the church and business, by bringing Christian entrepreneurs and business professionals to a new affirmation and deep understanding of their sphere of influence they have always had, yet never recognized before. As a result, the BAM movement is moving throughout the country and region. This affirmation encourages and equips businesspeople to bridge the gap between business and the global church, and to humbly, faithfully, and practically follow their calling as Christians while serving God with the talents of their business skills. To God be the glory.

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The Divine “E” of Christian Marketplace Ministry

I previously wrote about three vocational “E’s” that marketplace Christians can leverage for the sake of advancing God’s mission in the world: education, experience, and expertise (From Milk to Meat: Applying the Three E’s of Marketplace Christians). There are other e-words that we might apply, like energy or effort, to consider the work that marketplace Christians intentionally direct to missional activities and ends. But the Divine E, is the impetus of God as partner in the work of the Holy Spirit working through us: in Hebrew, the `ezer.

We first come across `ezer in the phrase `ezer neged in Genesis 2:18 when Eve is conceived as a “suitable helper” to overcome the inadequacies of Adam’s isolation. The “suitable” – neged – implies “one in front of, visible, present with, or corresponding to.” Eve is Adam’s co-worker but of equal and perfectly paired roles. We find the superiority of Adam’s position in the relationship (to rule over her – Genesis 3:16) comes only in God’s response to Adam and Eve’s sin.

The concept of `ezer recurs in the Old Testament, occurring 21 times in all. Of those, five pertain to human assistance – the two occurrences in Genesis 2, where coupled with neged, and once each in Isaiah 30:5, Ezekiel 12:14, and Daniel 11:34. The other sixteen occurrences refer to God as the `ezer, the help or helper. This occurs most famously in Psalm 121:1 ­– “I Will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From whence shall my help come?”

Perhaps most telling about the relationship between the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, and Jesus Christ, as the man-God of the New Testament is a similar sounding sentiment between Psalm 124:8 – “Our help (`ezer) is in the name of the LORD, Who made heaven and earth,” – and Romans 10:13for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved’” (Paul citing Joel 2:32, emphasis mine).

Seeing the connection between these verses, surrounds the concept of `ezer with salvific overtones. The introduction of Eve, as the `ezer neged, was for the communal working out of Adam’s salvation (Philippians 2:12), to overcome the shortfalls of his isolation. She was his co-worker in the temporal toward his material prosperity. She was his collaborator to deepen his cognitive reach. And she was his partner in the practice of holiness, that is, obedience to God. She was able to help him to some degree, we can be sure, on the first two counts. But on the third, she, as do we all, fell short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Adam put his trust in her words and leading, turning his back on God’s command, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But when we turn back to God as divine `ezer, we can be assured of wise counsel and positive intervention in our endeavors. The cooperative and collaborative nature of the community of the Triune God is not only the example we follow but puts forth the impetus to move our hearts, compelling us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within us each to act according to holiness. It is this helping power, the `ezer of God’s Spirit and presence, that creates in us right thought and, moving outwardly, right action to undertake ministry in every arena of life. Just as God moves us to love and serve our families, to take on charitable causes, to glorify him as readily as we breathe, it is by God’s help that we are moved to embrace our work as the stamp of God’s image (imago Dei) of who and what we are when we carry forth his nature, character, and will into the marketplace.

It is by the `ezer of God that our education, experience, expertise, energy, and efforts (and one might even include our entrepreneurial leanings!) are woven together (Romans 8:28). These, working well together, contribute to the productive wellness of human life, giving households incomes but also supplying the funds to meet every need, whether through charitable gifts, regular purchasing, or the application of taxes to common goods like parks, schools, police and military protection, and transportation corridors.

God’s Spirit has opened our eyes to a great opportunity: to glorify his name by our works (Matthew 5:16). When we pursue economic development and financial security for the poor through the wise use of all those other “e’s,” but most importantly with God’s help – his power and leading – it is truly Good News, a strong proclamation of God’s goodness and grace, divine kindness extended to all humankind. Marketplace ministries, extolling and demonstrating the righteousness of God, and offering our labors sacrificially for the sake of others, have the indwelling power of God infusing our witness. Marketplace Christians, for too long relegated to pew sitting and serving only as checkbooks to Christian churches and missionaries, have the opportunity to carry the Gospel to the world in unprecedented ways.

The lever is the simplest of all tools. By its use, one can create enormous advantage. God has gifted us with a wide variety of education, experience, and expertise. These are levers for our advantage and the advantage of the world. The `ezer, the help, of God is our fulcrum, the pivot point of our ability and productive existence, and by it, with apologies to Archimedes, we can transform the world.

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From Milk to Meat: Applying the Three E’s of Marketplace Christians

“I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it.” – 1 Corinthians 3:2

Over the past two years, I have thought a great deal about the twelve models of marketplace ministries I identified in two earlier essays: An Overview of Marketplace Ministry (MPM) Models and Bridge Ministry: The Twelfth MPM Model. As a result of review, I have separated these twelve models into two discipleship categories. One I identify as inward discipleship and the other as outward discipleship, as shown here:

Inward Discipleship                                                     Outward Discipleship

Workplace Discipleship                                                  Business-as-Mission

Executive / Business Leader Discipleship               Tentmaking

Financial Stewardship                                                      Advocacy and Mobilization

Workforce Development

Enterprise Coaching and Mentoring

Microfinance Initiatives

Business-for-Mission

Community Development Corporations

Bridge Ministry

There is an obvious 3:1 disparity between the lists, and that is as it should be. Christ-followers should move beyond the Bible studies and small group discussions of theological and ethical issues to begin spending their time, energy, and resources in outward demonstrations of Christ ministering to the world. I would venture to guess, however, that the number of organizations that fall into the first column, and correspondingly the number of participants that fall into the first column, outnumber those in the second easily by a factor of twenty times or more.

My argument is that the first column, where most of us spend the bulk of our religious commitments, represents the milk of the Gospel, to use Paul’s term. The first question then is, why is this milk? It is because sitting under the teaching of another in the Word is for our nurture, the exercise required initially to bring us to maturity in Christ. In these Bible studies, small group discussions, and Sunday sermons, we receive the teaching that helps us grow to the ability to eat meat, or, again as Paul puts it, solid food.

How then does the activity of the second column represent solid food? It does so because it is precisely that: active. The milk of the Gospel, the knowledge of God in Christ, instills strength in us to grow and to begin crawling, then walking, then running, and finally moving out from our rabboni, our teacher, to undertake the implications of the teaching. When we put ourselves into the game of actively ministering to the world (eating the meat), continue to gain strength as the very life force of God, the Holy Spirit, works in us to work through us.

So long as we continue to only intake milk, our bodies will not gain the strength necessary to carry out the Great Commandment, to love one another (in tangible ways, rather than simply by emotional commitment), and the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations (teaching others to move from milk to meat). We will simply continue to return to the source of milk week after week, year after year, to an end of impotent, inwardly-focused ministry.

Unfortunately, this has become the plight of most of the Church in the Western world. We continue in a shallow understanding of what it means to worship God by limiting that calling to Church services or superficial activities within our own church establishment. We do not typically understand the works set before us to glorify God (Matthew 5:16) as a form of worship, but it is by the very nature of obedience.

The solid food of the Gospel replicates the Incarnation of Christ. It moves Christ followers outside the security of the arms of the mother (the Church as the bride of Christ) for each to undertake ministry to others in the world, just as Jesus sent his disciples out, just as Jesus set aside the “comfort zone” of his divinity to come unto humankind, unto the Cross.

Hebrews 5:12-14 repeats Paul’s admonition then goes on to say those mature in Christ should be able to discern good and evil. How do those concepts – good and evil – play into this dichotomy of partaking food versus partaking solid food? The goodness of God always moves outwardly and creates. Evil withdraws into self, and wreaks destruction, perhaps in a withering away of the vital, divine energy manifest in those created in God’s image. Good is not simply a character definition. It is more because character is ultimately defined by one’s action. We know that God is good by the testimony of his actions. We know people are courageous by their strength in the face of adversity. Character always manifests in action and action, as solid food, continues to shape character, reinforcing what has been learned by rote by adding the fibrous layers of experience.

If there is any doubt as to the correlation between moving onto solid food and taking action in the cause of Christ, compelled by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, simply read James 2:14-26. Then read it again and again and again until the truth of faith at work sinks in. Creation itself stands as the first clear biblical assertion that the love of God moves outwardly, in action, creating, especially as provisional allowance for “other” (what we might label “charitable action”). True love cannot be contained by thoughts, words, or heartfelt sentiments. It must act because it is the very central characteristic of love to act. In a sense, love is a form of intelligent energy.

But why is the Church, again, predominantly in the West, so arrested in this development? There are, I think, three main reasons, though to be sure there are many other related causes. The first is isolation. The Church in the United States, for example, is oft accused of operating the most racially-segregated hour of the week every Sunday morning. The vast majority of churches are racially homogenous, or at least nearly so.  However, if any institution in the world should be fighting against bigotry and racism and for integration, it should be the institution made up of every tribe and tongue and nation – the Church. Sadly the Church has not embraced the war on racism and the surrounding culture still largely lives in communities of social isolation. Blacks live in black neighborhoods, Hispanics cluster, whites tend toward areas dominated by white population, and so on. To be sure there is more racial blending now than there has ever been but we still have a long way to go.

Why would I turn this discussion to race? Because poverty is an actionable need in the world, one where the Church should be leading in alleviating efforts, and poverty changes dramatically across racial lines. Is it any wonder that our cities have pockets of poverty that often look nearly homogenous racially?

But what motivates the isolation? A friend recently published a graphic with two distinct circles that did not intersect. Inside was written “Your Comfort Zone.” Inside the other was written “Where the Action Is.” Our comfort zones, which include clustering according to financial security (income and wealth distribution), educational achievement (well-educated people tend to live in more upscale neighborhoods, and it is easy to understand why), and race, are just that: comfortable. Birds of a feather flock together. Our comfort zones reduce the stress of being exposed to alternative worldviews and standards of living. But they also hinder the growth we might achieve by facing the challenges of living and communicating across social barriers with neighbors unlike ourselves.

Some of that isolation comes from pure selfishness. Without exposure to those in need, we can limit the sense of obligation or guilt we might face in light of making self-indulgent market choices, like fine dining, expensive entertainment, opulent housing, or expensive luxury automobiles. Hence, I can feel less the sense of my own unrighteousness if I am not in much contact with real need. I believe the Bible would lead us to see this, continuously sinning against the shalom of the whole community, as a searing of the conscience (self-justification, 1 Timothy 4:2).

Our isolation leads us into the second reason, like smoke calming bees, complacency. Most of our acts of charity are conducted as arms length from those in need. Without direct contact to see how little our benevolence actually changes things, we become self-satisfied that we are doing good and must therefore be good. But goodness, in a biblical sense, goes far beyond make small cash sacrifices or handing out sandwiches and bottled water once a month. The Bible, in following the example of Jesus, asks us to lay down our lives for others (John 15:13), that this sacrifice of our time, resources, and energy is the acme of what it means to love in accord with the divine nature, character, and will of God. Real sacrifice, not just making token tithes and offerings, sacrifice that costs us something substantial, causing some real “pain” on some level, is the biblical definition of the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Complacency is self-indulgent but comes as a soothing balm, even seemingly as a blessing from God. But it is ultimately a deceptive strategy of God’s enemy, Satan.

How do we find ourselves in such comfortable places of unchallenged, homogenous churches and complacent lifestyles? This is due in large part to our willingness to accept a superficial reading of the Bible and seek out leaders who will simply feed us milk. It is easiest for us if we do not have to undertake the hard work of leaving our comfort zones. Therefore it makes perfect sense that we would prefer to hear from teachers who will give us enough nourishment to sustain life but without asking us to chew anything that requires effort. Think about it for a moment. Drinking milk is easy. Chewing stringy vegetables or sinewy meat takes time, effort, patience, and energy. This does not coincide with our lifestyles of leisure, time-saving, and convenience. We want paths laid out that are trouble free, that cost us nothing, especially sacrificially.

Poor (shallow, half-truth) teaching which does not point toward the life of the Church outside institutional walls is simply reinforcing what we want to hear. Poor teaching appeals to our fleshly nature but is wrapped in sermonic platitudes that please the ear. And so, we attain unto a form of godliness but without the power of true godliness (2 Timothy 3:5). Real godliness affects change in the world, not just in individual lives but in cultures and institutions, in economies and national governments. The Church has abdicated much of its power to influence the world for Christ, as a living testimony (or witness) participating in the mission of God, by adhering not to necessarily false teachings but to the Word diluted.

To conclude, I want to bring this back around to the discussion of the marketplace ministry models that led into my offering. Every human being has some connection to the marketplace and the marketplace represents the greatest opportunity to put experience, education, and expertise (the “Three E’s” of vocation) to work for the Gospel. There is at least one discipline in the “second column” marketplace ministries listed above where Christians can leverage their Three E’s to make the world a better place, as witness to the glory of God.

To utilize our Three E’s will require creative thinking (chewing the meat, so to speak) and stepping outside the bounds of normalcy (swallowing) to reap the benefit of eating (strength drawn from the nutrients within). It requires greater effort than simply maintaining the status quo. It takes sacrifice but can very well be the Cross we are called to take up, that is, to live graciously for the sake of others in response to the grace of the Cross that has been expended on our behalf.

The meat of the Gospel has been placed before you, the opportunity to be Christ in the world in tangible, meaningful, world-changing ways, by optimizing the Three E’s you have been given vocationally. Is this your calling, to optimize the greatest collection of influence, of time, energy, and productivity of your life? Will you partake?

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Stirring the Pot: “Risking” Intellectual Exposure

“When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the sons of the prophets were sitting before him, he said to his servant, ‘Put on the large pot and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.’  Then one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds, and came and sliced them into the pot of stew, for they did not know what they were.  So they poured it out for the men to eat. And it came about as they were eating of the stew, that they cried out and said, ‘O man of God, there is death (poison, NLT) in the pot.’ And they were unable to eat. But he said, ‘Now bring meal.’ And he threw it into the pot, and he said, ‘Pour it out for the people that they may eat.’ Then there was no harm in the pot.’” – 2 Kings 4:38-41

“and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them” – from Mark 16:18.

While my ponderings here are not direct exegesis of the passages above, I want to incorporate two themes from them in a broader discussion. I recently attended a Christian conference where I presented a paper. I sat in on the four plenary sessions and attended other sessions during the conference to hear what others had to say on a myriad of topics. Some of the sessions addressed key hot topics in current Church discourse including interfaith dialog, sexual orientation, environmentalism, evolution, and so on. Some of what was shared was, to put it mildly, pushing the envelope of orthodoxy. As I listened, I also prayed that God would give me ears to hear and eyes to see what He was up to in this conference and within me in particular in being present to hear and see the goings on. In the end, I had to walk away clinging to the unity of the Spirit present within each who claim Christ as Lord and Savior no matter where we might disagree on doctrine or praxis. That is a very tall order.

I came away with the impression that God’s intention in my learning by being there was twofold, both requiring self-reflection and Bible reflection.

First, as seems always to be the case, the conference presented an opportunity to rely on God for discernment, that is, for discerning the spirit of the things being shared (1 Corinthians 12:10). That is most often accomplished by “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). This latter is a reliance on the voice of the Holy Spirit, especially as it unfolds the Bible’s meanings for us.

Hebrews 5:14 says “solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” Two questions arose. 1) Am I “mature” in Christ, able to discern good and evil? And, 2) what was I discerning? Mostly, I discerned truth in love, I believe. The heart of compassion of most of the presenters seemed apparent. Their intentions seemed good no matter what I might think of their general approach or methodologies. On the other hand, some presentations left me a bit uneasy. But discernment only works if I can also rightly divide between that which disturbs my flesh (ego) – “I don’t really want to think ‘X’ is acceptable, because I want to cling to what I ‘know’” – or my spirit – “This is something I need to be open to to grow in Christ because, in this, I am falling short.” As should be obvious, any disturbance in one has a corresponding disturbance in the other.

Second, I need to be exposed to ideas that make me uncomfortable, to force me into deeper prayer and study and to allow the Holy Spirit to convict me where my own views are less than holy and to strengthen me where I may have already arrived at Truth. Let us consider the two passages above in this approach.

The stew was made with the fruit of wild plants. Everything from God is good but not everything in creation is now good given the introduction of sin into the world at Adam’s fall. The Bible consistently encourages us that creation reveals the glory of God. We do not know what that fruit (the gourds thrown into the pot in the passage above) was, just that it obviously was not good. But Elisha added meal, some form of ground flour or corn, to the pot, and the stew was made good. He did not eliminate that which we might have equated to sin (death) in the pot . . . he redeemed it, making it good, by the simple addition of one more ingredient, what we call grace, which “removed” (or at least, neutralized) the poisoning effect of the bad fruit.

Consider that in light of my exposure to new ideas or ways of thinking theologically or interpreting biblically. Both knowing God (theology) or the Bible thoroughly are beyond the comprehension of any single mind or lifetime. We all “see as through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). This is simply a function of our finitude in the face of an infinite God. So, I should always be aware of my limitations and understand that in those quarters where I fall short of God’s holiness (many of which I am blind to), exposure to new ideas will disturb the status quo. But in those areas, the introduction of that one new ingredient may well be God’s redemptive stroke to transform me incrementally from glory to glory into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), moving me along the path of growing intimacy with God.

On the other hand, what if that one new idea is a deception, either as a come-on by the enemy or a worldly temptation to satisfy my own flesh (ego)? Should I cloister myself behind the walls of a fortress to guard myself from such possibilities? I think not, as the Psalmist wrote: God goes before us (into spiritual battle) and is also our rear guard (139:5). Hence, I can be assured that what may be poisonous (Mark 16:18 above) will not harm me. I believe and can trust in this only insomuch as I believe God is greater than any threat that other influences may represent. Again, as the Psalmist says, “Even though I walk through the valley of shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (23:4). Why? Because perfect love casts out fear, even of judgment if I should stumble (1 John 4:18) and because God is (perfect) love (1 John 4:8). Who (or what) can stand against me? (Romans 8:31). Whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1).

But why would we willingly enter into discussion with those we may even think are advancing the enemy’s agenda unawares? For one, we cannot witness to those with whom we have no contact. We cannot find a child lost in the woods if we stay on the safe, beaten path and avoid the risks of entering the treacherous terrain of the wilderness. But we can enter any place with confidence before the roaring lion seeking our destruction (1 Peter 5:8) because we are assured that the gates of Hades will not prevail against God’s Church (Matthew 16:18). That is, the Church, by taking the battle to the enemy and attacking those gates, will triumph over death itself just as Christ has already done. And, entering that battle, we “do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28a).

God is on the offensive in the spiritual battle for the redemption of all creation. The Incarnation was God walking right into the enemy’s camp, “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31). In those environs we do not have to be offensive and combative . . . we need only be holy and present according to the pattern of Jesus coming to the world in the flesh. Holy presence changes things but only as love / holiness is willing to self-sacrifice. Jesus said “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35). Demonstrate the living presence of God in your life in sacrificial ways. Embrace them and support them where you can. Show them you mean them no harm. Even allowing their ideas and words to be stirred into your pot, remember all the while that where the stew may be made poisonous, a little meal of the Bread of Life, can make it sweet and nourishing. Only by our own sacrifice, leaving our safe houses and running the risk of being rejected, even killed, may redemption come! Living for God in the face of death (separation from God) in the world is our calling to follow Jesus.

One of the most influential writings in history, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, mandatory reading for any candidate for military leadership, offers sage advice for Christians. Sun Tzu admonishes would-be warriors to “know thy enemy.” He also advises to “know thyself.” This is exactly why sports coaches constantly watch film of their upcoming opponents. Everyone has weakness(es). By close observation, those weaknesses can be perceived in the opponent and in ourselves, the former to serve as the target of our attack, the latter the place of our own shoring up. Even when we fail, the redemptive stroke is in our reflection to understand where our breakdown came.

Judo is another good example where the kinetic energy of the attacker is turned against the attacker. What the attacker perceives as strength – their speed and agility – becomes their downfall. David slew Goliath because Goliath’s ego had convinced the giant that he was so powerful as to be beyond any measure of attack from the puny Israelites. His pride, the ego behind the forehead penetrated by David’s stone, was his downfall.

Two more Bible stories show us that when we enter into the camps of the enemy, God goes before us. When Gideon’s 300 broke their clay pots, confusion reigned in the enemy’s camp and the Midianites were turned against each other, slaying their own comrades and ending in the utter destruction of that army (Judges 6-7). We find also that Jonathan and his armor bearer were able to overcome the Philistines by first putting themselves at risk then, by the boldness of their action, all of Israel, even those cowering in fear in the hills, was rallied to triumph and set the people free (1 Samuel 14:1-23).

In the end, just as Daniel was encouraged and strengthened by God (Daniel 10:19), we need not fear coming under the oppressive power of any enemy. Victory in Christ is already ours. We can eat of whatever is set before us without fear of our own corruption (Acts 10) but by so doing, we may gain access for witness to the unholy, like the smallest lamp dispelling the deep darkness of a place previously without light. Stir the pot of your own thinking. Expose yourself to the ideas that may now offend and the people expressing tem. Let God add the meal, to be the wheat of your consumption, to sweeten the pot and bring whatever seems poisonous to redemption.

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