Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Prayer Poem: The Eyes of God

When I gaze into Your eyes,

I see the calm depths of the deepest oceans and to the heights of the glorious stars above.

Your eyes, the window to the very soul of God . . .

I search to see You into the depth of your heart.

The joy of being with You, Lord,

A friend to walk and laugh, to talk and cry, to care beyond all others.

Thank you, Immanuel, God with us,

Just to be together, a Friend, hearts-bound for all eternity.

Jesus, let me look into Your eyes. Amen.

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Observations on the State of the Church and Ministry in the Marketplace

Europe was the birthplace of the most significant growth of the global Church for more than 1500 years. The Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions there reached out to the world in significant missionary movements to North and South America, Africa, and Asia. Today Church observers and researchers voice concerns of the post-Christian culture of Europe and North America. The world often mocks us for being out of step with reality and relevance.

The consensus seems to be that, while Europe has slipped significantly away from its Christian heritage, the United States has remained significantly more adherent to its Christian faith, though even that adherence appears to be slipping as well. The “American Religious Identification Survey (Aris) 2008”­ reports that from 1990 to 2008 religious self-identification as Christian among U.S. citizenry dropped from 86% to 76%.[i]

“Adherence” among those 76% is also questionable as only about 40% of the U.S. population attends weekly worship services.[ii] The data suggests that of the 125 million who attend weekly services (40% of current U.S. population at 313 million[iii]), about 95 million are regularly practicing Christians (effectively just over 30% of the general population). Many suspect that these data reflect a declining interest in religion in general in recent decades (and surely there are humanistic trends that have gained favor with many) but research on historic trends suggests that the movement toward organized religion, from just 17% of the population at our nation’s birth to 62% in 1980, has generally been on a positive trajectory.[iv]

So questions arise: Why is there a perception that the church is becoming less effective in its mission? And if it is actually becoming less effective, why is it? Is the Church simply inept, given its empowerment by the Holy Spirit to transform individuals and cultures?[v]

Disunity is likely the greatest detriment to ecclesial success. More than a decade ago, there were reportedly 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world.[vi] Given the track record, there would seem to be little to encourage us that that trend has been reversed but that the splintering of the church will just as likely continue toward exponential divisiveness.

I see the disunity of the Church operating simultaneously on the spiritual plane and the functional plane. On the spiritual plane the divisions have largely come due to doctrinal differences motivated by the inability and unwillingness to “live and let live” (or in Wesleyan parlance, to think and let think) in the liberty of the Spirit we have all inherited from Christ. This inability and unwillingness is too often grounded in the politics of power. It may as likely be caused by lacking the intellectual wherewithal necessary to dig deeper in our faith and the Word to discern the spirit of Truth and then, in humility, accept where we might each be wrong or to rejoin having reached consensus that there are issues where God has chosen to not yet reveal “final” truth. Personally, I find it difficult to think that whatever nonessential doctrinal beliefs I hold are the definitive answer to theological questions. I believe what I believe while fully recognizing that I have incomplete knowledge (ignorance) and that I (can it be?) may have drawn wrong conclusions along the way to establishing those beliefs. At worst I hope that I am willing to hear “the other side” of issues but I will not separate myself from other Christians simply because we cannot agree on points that ultimately have little direct bearing on “loving God and others as myself.”

Doctrinal differences are an enormously spiritual issue because how we interpret things may or may not be wrong. But love covers a multitude of sins. If we are not gracious to brothers and sisters in our disagreements with other traditions or interpretations, how are we better, more intellectually responsible, than the humanists of the world who assume human knowledge and wisdom are the end all? Trying to relate to one another through the relationship with an infinite God means that we are each, as finite beings, ill-equipped to judge what we assume to be in the heart or understanding of another. There are times when being fruit inspectors (Matthew 7:17) may require our going separate ways but we often turn to doctrine to determine our alliances before we consider the outcomes (the fruit) of the lives of those with whom we disagree.

The practical issue manifests from the spiritual disunity, whether it be born out of the fear and pride of political and spiritual fiefdoms, ignorance of God’s desire to overwhelm the world by the inward-loving (John 13:35) and unified witness of His Church (John 17:22), or the lack of strategic initiative and intelligence required to work cooperatively and collaboratively to advance the single agenda of the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations.

Our family owned a small business in Montgomery County, Indiana for nine years. The whole county has a total population somewhere around 35,000 people. Given the conservative and nearly homogenous nature of the community (predominantly white with a significant Hispanic influx in recent decades), one might assume that the 76% cited above (self-identification as Christian) could be closer to 90%. But if only 40% of the 90% are active churchgoers, or roughly 12,600 (a little over 1/3 of the general population), it would divide their church attendance among the more than 120 churches county-wide. Each church then would have an average weekly attendance of just over 100 people. Do you suppose there was any kind of practical organization even remotely similar to United Way operating within that county’s church community? I think you can guess the answer is “No.” There were a few churches which cooperated on a few fronts as concerned food and clothing banks, and such (and usually limited to a single digit participation of churches) but nothing suggested the churches might share building spaces for various functions, or form a cooperative to purchase goods and services at discounted prices, or even consider seriously having joint worship services (other than the Easter sunrise service) to promote unity of spirit and purpose….let alone outreach ministries or community development.

My point is that the church does not often think about the realities of operating on a business model where practicalities of revenues and expenses restrict effectiveness (scarcity in a blessed community where there should be one–Deuteronomy 8:9). While churches do operate on budgets, the one aspect of the business model we could easily leave behind, if we were to so humble ourselves, is competition. We all claim the aim is for the glory of God but any other organization with dozens of facilities and disconnection of function under the headship of a single leader (as we are under Christ) really should face scrutiny as to its worthiness to receive financial and volunteer support. The level of disservice to our witness as salt and light to the world, cause by our disjointedness, tends to overwhelm our effectiveness…and seldom with even a passing thought in our church staff or committee meetings.

Over many centuries the influence of the Church has accomplished astonishing things, like the advancement of public education, the spread of quality healthcare, and the abolition of slavery. But how much more could we do and be in mission if we simply stepped back from the fear, pride, shallow theology, or stupidity we so easily slip into to avoid confronting the challenges, the iron sharpening iron, of Church unity. Is it any wonder Jesus referred to us as His sheep?

We are living in a day of unprecedented global connectedness. We are also witnessing God empowering and releasing His people where they work. Marketplace Christians have the opportunity to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in ways and with impact never before seen. Will we use the gifts and talents God has given us, of revenue generation, of marketing and communications, of logistics, of strategic planning…all these for His glory? The opportunities are right in front of us to coordinate our good works, to let our Light shine before the world in ways the institutional church and its multitude of denominations have yet to accomplish, and likely cannot.

It is right that we attend and support our local churches for fellowship, pastoral care, and teaching. But if we can come together we can “move” the church outside its own walls. Working through the mechanisms and disciplines of the marketplace and setting aside the non-essential disagreements of the teachings of man, by the Holy Spirit, we can witness to the world in unity, actively demonstrating the Gospel in new and dramatic ways. We tend the Garden in a myriad of vocational disciplines but we have been called to work together for such a time as this.


[i] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (2009). “American Religious Idenitification Survey (ARIS) 2008”. Hartford, Connecticut, USA: Trinity College, 2008. Available at http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf.

[ii] Robert D. Putnam and David E Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[iv] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1992.

[v] The mandate to influence culture is hotly contested within and across denominational lines. I would recommend Christopher J.H. Wright. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

[vi] David B. Barrett, et al. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press USA, (2001).

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Economics: Slaying the Two-Headed Beast

Morality is a form of law that governs behavior. Nothing like opening by stating the obvious. External influences, whether institutional, cultural, or spiritual, shape our morality and guide us in knowing right from wrong. We are compelled to act by external forces then shape our responses to them either according to our value systems or altering our value systems to facilitate the expeditious action, internalizing a moral modification. It is a conundrum, like the chicken and the egg, of which comes first – behavior or values. The integration of behavior and values can cloud which holds priority and the adjustments we make in either are often all but undetectable nuances. But we also sometimes deceive ourselves, claiming certain value systems of which we hold imperfect or incomplete knowledge then act discontinuously with our claims. The result is a bifurcation of reality which results in what the Bible labels as double-mindedness, a result of spiritual immaturity and ignorance misinforming faith, of which we all are guilty by varying degrees.

One example occurs in the dis-integration of faith and economics. Technicians have appropriated economics in the last century as a science, and in a strong sense, it is in so far as it is merely formulaic for interpreting data for historic analysis and predictive modeling. But economics is also a study of moral philosophy as economic decisions involve the social contract we hold with all others affected by our decisions. Hence, we tend to think of economics in these two ways and largely in isolation. This divide in our thinking gives way to making business decisions based solely on the numbers and resorting to axioms like “It isn’t personal, it’s just business,” when it comes time to lay off workers during work slowdowns. The unemployed find their status intensely personal and it affects their entire household and external relationships that depend on their spending or giving. The ripples on a pond go a long way.

We need to understand the “two natures” of economics. The scientific one is analytical, i.e., collating data for historic understanding and predictive modeling. The moral nature is applying social value to economic decision making. We will do neither particularly well if we neglect either aspect. That is to say, if we do not understand the consequences of our actions we will make poor decisions, AND making decisions devoid of creational (including not only humankind but also the whole earth) consideration we undermine economic potential.

The study of economics throws around the phrase unintended consequences. These are the things that happen that we simply did not anticipate. These are sometime hidden effects but likely as often result from shortsightedness due to a lack of due diligence in thinking our decisions through. Unintended consequences may also come from willfully not thinking about how far the ripples will reach for fear, even if subconscious, that we will run into a conflict of values. Those conflicts tend to reside on the threshold between worldly values and heavenly values. Avoiding them excuses us from having to make hard or even (seemingly) illogical choices.

Worldly values are an interesting study which leads all the way back to Genesis 3 and Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. In the Garden of Eden, their provision was growing all around them. One suspects that in every season there was low-hanging fruit, easy to reach, ripe and ready to eat at any given moment. In perfect communion with God there was no need of sweating income statements or balance sheets. It was more like a business enjoying an eternal fast growth curve. Granted there was no downside to the provision of the Garden. There were no investors and no concern over profitability, shrinkage, market fluctuations, union strikes, or other effects which are detrimental to commercial success in our time.

The difficulty of work increased substantially after the Fall due to the curse on the ground. The weeds stole precious minerals and water from Adam’s good crops. But the greater setback came in confidence, or rather its loss, in the availability of low hanging fruit, a product of God’s goodness and abundance. Adam relied on God for his daily provision before the Fall. With that direct provision compromised, Adam had to turn to his own wit and wherewithal to provide for himself.

Then there is a long passage of time to 2012. The conflicts that we encounter in our marketplace value judgments are the result of sin, whether systemic or personal. Our culture conditions us to accept that we live in a less than perfect world with no real hope of seeing it changed. Hence, we let less than ideal circumstances “force” us into making difficult and ungodly decisions. But the power of sin in the world has been broken in Christ’s submission to the Cross. That means we have the power to make hard decisions, not according to sight but, in faith according to Truth.

By the power of Christ’s blood, we undertake a revolution countering the introduction and prevalence of sin in the world. It may seem impossible but we have the power to turn the world on its ear. Many of the economic issues we face in the world today seem insurmountable but we have the assurance, poignantly from the story of the rich young man that Jesus encountered, that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 18:27). Do we believe that? Will we act like we believe? How can we bring the world to an economic model of godliness? The impossible can (and will) be accomplished “‘not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6b).

It is time for the universal church to slay the two-headed beast of economics and re-integrate our work and stewardship (appointed to Adam–Genesis 2:15) with our relational nature, which emanates from being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26a) and in keeping with the communal reality of Eve’s title of helpmate (Genesis 2:18). To right the economic injustice of the world’s ways will be enormously challenging, both spiritually (demanding intimidating levels of faith) and experientially (facing circumstances and decisions that challenge the culture of reason of the marketplace).

The thesis of my book, Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, is that the marketplace is an institution of God, implicit in the creation narrative of Genesis 1–2 and vital to the mission of God in the world. Sin has enormously corrupted God’s original economic design and the nature of righteous exchange. The hurdles that must be overcome look a lot like the giants in Canaan (Num. 13:28–31). But, “if God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31b).

Many of the assertions drawn from Scripture in this essay appear to be little more than platitudes if there is no vision of how these things may come to pass. I will discuss visioneering (to borrow gratefully from Andy Stanley) next time. Suffice it to say for now that only emboldened faith in an all-mighty and righteous God can bring the sentiment of these citations to fruition. Smith Wigglesworth, the famous Pentecostal plumber-cum-preacher, espoused a personal credo of “Just believe,” to see the miraculous of God’s power in action. Jesus did not do many miracles in His hometown due to the unbelief of the residents (Matthew 13:54–58).

The Franciscan monk, Fr. Richard Rohr wrote in his daily devotional broadcast about the lack of teaching on the transition from living under law to walking by the Spirit:

Laws serve us well at the beginning and everybody must go through this stage and internalize these values. But as Paul says, laws are only the “nursemaid” (Galatians 3:24) to get us started. The fact that we have not taught this makes me think that history, up to now, has been largely “first half of life.” (from “Living a Whole Life” daily devotional–February 4, 2012).

The fields are ripe for the harvest (Revelation 14:15e). Now is the time for our righteousness, like Father Abraham’s, arising from faith, to restore the marketplace to God’s intention, to overcome the divided minds that praise God on Sunday and worship at the altar of the world, succumbing to its deceitful intimidations, at work. The “second half” of life is at hand for the church in the marketplace. Will we step out faithfully, trusting God beyond our vision? Will we slay the two-headed economic monster? It is not a matter of “can we” but one of choosing to obey God in faith.

The research that I have conducted over the last several years leads me to believe we are about to see an outpouring of God’s Spirit in the marketplace. The next two or three decades could see a wholesale shift in how many businesses assess success. We are at the threshold of an epochal change. As Ghandi might ask, “Are you ready to be the change you want to see in the world?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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