Feb 08 2011

“Prosperity gospel” for Christian institutions? Part 2

The previous post in this series is here, and will help provide background for what follows.

There are many instances of people and groups who take risks for the gospel, do the unpopular thing, and God does bless them.But obvious worldly blessing is not a given.God has His own agenda and ways of doing things, and we cannot assume that our worldly success is due to God’s blessing, nor our difficulties evidence of our failure to seek God’s will and do it.Some missionaries are murdered, and martyrdom in Christ’s service did not end with the fall of the Roman Empire.Lesser difficulties also occur with some regularity, even in the modern world.

Yet how many boards and leaders of churches and para-church organizations proceed with the assumption that apparent worldly or financial success equals God’s blessing, with such a rigid conflation of the two that any policy which carries some attendant risk of worldly disapproval is assumed to be the wrong one? Consider the logic: if we are doing good, God will bless us in worldly ways. Therefore, we should not consider doing something that risks getting worldly disapproval, since if the world disapproves, by our benighted definition, God is not blessing us.

So how can we decide if we are making our decisions according to God’s plan, from a fully Christian worldview, or if we are simply doing what seems best to us, within our human expertise (and afflicted with human pride and desire for power), as we try to strengthen our organization or institution in a worldly sense?There is no way to know for sure, of course.

But one thing seems indicative.

If we find we are mostly making decisions from the point of view of what the world will think of us (not from the point of view of God’s will, God’s commands, God’s moral precepts, and Christ within and among us), even if we have great institutional and public success, even if we are doing some good, we are not doing what God desires of us. Christ’s way is one of sacrifice and risk-taking for the sake of the gospel, most particularly the risk of being misunderstood and vilified by those who do not know Him. This is true whether we are explaining His way to the world, or standing for the principles He taught.

I’ll be developing this idea further in subsequent posts.

The next post in this series is here.

Feb 07 2011

“Properity gospel” for Christian institutions?

Much is made of the centrality of sacrifice in the Christian life, and justifiably so. Christ’s own life on earth was one of individual sacrifice and service, and not only on the cross, though that is the preeminent example. Simply being incarnated was a sacrifice (Philippians 2:5-9), and his very manner of living was sacrificial, in that he never married and had a family but instead lived for others, took risks of many kinds at various times for the sake of doing his Father’s will and speaking the truth, and so on.

As individuals, we are all called to sacrifice in one way or another for the sake of Christ and the gospel, though it’s a mistake to assume that everyone should live sacrificially in the same ways. One may choose to live simply and have greater financial freedom to give more (though all should give some), another may choose to give greatly of time and service (though all should do this some), and another may choose a lifestyle of great self-denial of one kind or another (though all of us must deny ourselves in some ways), all for the sake of doing God’s will. Few are called to sacrifice all. What seems fairly clear is that a person who has sacrificed nothing, not time, not finances, not manner of living, is likely to be a person who is not listening to God’s whispers, and probably a person who has not closely read the scriptures.

Yet some churches and para-church organizations seem to operate as if it is God’s will for them never to suffer or risk suffering, and never to choose a path that is hard and uncertain, or one that is likely to earn some degree of disapproval from the world, especially the secular world. Some para-church organizations operate as if their leadership believes in a sort of “prosperity gospel” for their organization (even when they deny that as a proper perspective for individuals), assuming that their role is to manage their organization with the same professional risk management as they would apply for any secular organization. And this risk management is fine, up to a point.

The “prosperity gospel” approach to a church or para-church organization is that somehow it can just get bigger and bigger, more and more popular, and it will all be because of God’s blessing. This may work for a time. And God may indeed be blessing certain efforts of the institution, while at the same time some of the institution’s apparent success may be coming from “playing it safe,” maintaining “good public relations,” even innovative business practices and good luck with market demographics or placement. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for people in an organization, including its leadership, to really know what measure of an organization’s apparent success is due to God’s blessing of its efforts, and what proportion is due to good business practices, smooth marketing, or just plain good luck. The temptation, of course, is to ascribe all success to God’s blessing, especially in public pronouncements.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. The assumption that God will increase the institutional strength and vigor of any organization that is doing His will is itself evidence of “prosperity gospel” thinking, not scripturally sound thinking about the nature of sacrifice for Christians, and Christian organizations. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament and church history reveals many instances of people and groups (institutions) who appear to be following God’s commands, but who suffer in various ways, sometimes almost in a “no good deed goes unpunished” sort of way, which is of course, the intention of Satan. The point is that apparent prosperity in the world is not proof of God’s blessing. Indeed, it is a sort of heresy to assume so.

I will develop this line of thinking further in future posts.

The next post in this series is here.

Jul 30 2010

Hate speech in action

Category: church,family,gay marriage,Group-think,left,ministry,missions,Scriptureharmonicminer @ 8:54 am

You tell me who is practicing hate speech here.

Imagine if the roles were reversed…

If the speaker was a gay minister, speaking gently of our responsibility to pray for our unfortunately confused brethren who don’t understand that Jesus was for gay marriage, saying that tactics of intimidation aimed at straight people are wrong, and the speaker was being shouted down by conservative bible-thumpers carrying signs saying things like “Gays hate God” or some such, you’d have seen this all over the evening news.

But the intolerant Left almost always gets a pass.

Apr 21 2010

Christian Psychology? We really need it to be developed further.

Category: higher education,ministry,theologyharmonicminer @ 8:47 pm

Another shot at understanding integration of psychology and christianity

Over the 40 plus years of our profession’s existence, Christian counselors have tried in numerous ways to model the relationship between Christianity/theology/bible and the study of psychology. Unfortunately, many model building efforts created more barriers than dialogue among brothers and sisters. Counselors staked out territory with titles such as biblical counseling, integration, levels of explanation.

However, in recent years, more authors have tried hard to articulate a distinctly Christian view of persons and a humble articulation of the change process that builds on the good insights of others (e.g., McMinn & Campbell’s Integrative psychotherapy, Johnson’s Foundations of Soul Care, Malony & Augsburger’s Christian Counseling, etc.). These authors have taken the time to examine their control beliefs, theological assumptions, and more in order to make their psychology truly Christian and not merely a rehash of secular ideas.

This looks interesting.

Aug 25 2009

Consoling the inconsolable

Category: church,ministry,religion,theologyharmonicminer @ 12:38 pm

I have a friend who is a chaplain for the local sheriff’s department.    We’ll call him Fred (not his real name).  He is a former Navy man, and he also served many years as police officer, I think mostly as a Deputy Sheriff, though I’m not entirely certain.  He’s a middle aged guy now, retired after some hard years of service, but on call when there is a need.  As you may expect, these things come in waves.  He may go a few weeks without a particular issue that requires his services..  and then an officer may be severely injured or killed on the job, or some young man commits suicide and the department calls my friend to be with the family, or a toddler falls in a pool and is in a permanent coma, or simply dies, or…..  you get the idea.

There are several aspects of this that come to mind.

It’s fairly common for a certain segment of Christendom to portray Jesus as being sort of an extra-spiritual community organizer who took care of the poor while sharing profound narratives with subtle meanings about the responsibilities of the rich and privileged.  People who are so inclined tend to downplay the aspects of His teaching that involved life after death, salvation of the soul, eternal destination, and so on.  But whether or not Jesus was an ancient socialist just doesn’t enter into the picture when you’re trying to minister to people in extremis.  They are struggling with the single most important issue of life, namely the certain death we all face.

What do you say to someone who is suddenly, shockingly bereaved, or so injured that life will never be the same?  Pastors deal with people dying all the time…  but, thankfully, there is usually some warning, some opportunity, however inadequate, to prepare for the inevitable.  But Fred has to walk into a context where the entire family is stunned, in shock, perhaps blaming God for the entire situation, and somehow he has to bring the peace and love of God with him.  I’m sure that sometimes all he can do is just be there with them, and share in their suffering.  Jesus wept.

And I expect that, sometimes, when people in great pain are asking where God is right now, it may only be later that they realize that He sent an emissary to them, in the form of a chaplain who didn’t have to be there, but felt sent by God.

Consider the task.  Some people in these situations will be believers, and the job is to comfort them, and reinforce their faith that God is God.  Others will be complete agnostics, perhaps only now confronting the bedrock issues of life and death, and this can be an opportunity to show, without preaching directly at them, that there is another reality worthy of their attention.  There may be people who are “nominally” Christian, but haven’t taken it at all seriously…. and oddly, these may be inclined to blame themselves, thinking if they’d been “better Christians” maybe it all wouldn’t have happened.  And on the other side of it, these “nominally Christian” folks may be the ones most likely to blame God for it all.

So what kind of person can DO this work?  To start with, you must be steady as a rock.  You have to be able to confront great pain, and not melt away, which means this work can mostly only be done by those who have suffered plenty already.  You have to be enormously grounded yourself.  And you have to know that no one is really prepared for this work, and so your only recourse is to trust God to speak and show His love through you.

It takes a lot of courage.  I have the feeling that, tough guy that I know him to be, Fred sometimes goes home and simply mourns for the loss and pain that people must endure.

And God prepares him for the next call.

UPDATE:  I happen to be in the hospital at this update, for what will probably not be a major matter, though it has caused some discomfort.   My friend “Fred” just came to visit with another friend from church.  After he left, another friend from church called, and asked how Fred was doing.  I asked what she meant, and she told me that Fred had just spent 30 minutes doing CPR on an accident victim he’d come across on the highway, in a remote area where services were slow to arrive.  The man had probably been dead before Fred started…  but Fred just did what needed to be done until emergency services arrived.  Typically, he didn’t mention it to me when he visited me.

Mar 01 2009

Pray for missions groups

Category: Mexico,ministry,missionsharmonicminer @ 10:26 am

I am not certain of the value of all the short term missions trips that high school and college students make to Mexico over Spring Break. I’m not saying there is NO value. But I always wonder if that value is more in terms of general inter-cultural contact than actual benefit to the indigenous population of Mexico. And I always find myself wondering if more good would be done by giving the enormous amount of money, spent in sending all those students to Mexico, directly to the missions groups who live there year-round, as opposed to parachuting in and leaving a few days later.

I am not suggesting “neglecting” Mexico, but I am suggesting that sending a hoard of students who consume voluminous resources is perhaps not the best stewardship of those resources, which could be directly given to the professional missionaries who LIVE there, and who could really use the help.

It is, of course, much less glamorous to students to raise some money and just send it somewhere than to raise some money and GO somewhere.  I get that.  It’s not as much fun.  The emotional high of “being a missionary” is missing.  They don’t have a story to tell after coming home.  But the Great Commission does not say, “Go on cool missions trips.”  It presupposes some amount of wisdom and discernment in what we do and how we do it.

Things have really, really deteriorated in Mexico, and it now appears very possible that some “short term missions trip” is going to end tragically, and that tragedy will cause a re-thinking of the purposes of the entire program.  Many who have made these trips for years will disagree, pointing out that it hasn’t happened yet.  The “frog in boiling water” analogy comes to mind, of course.

Below is an excerpt from one of thousands of articles on this topic of Mexico’s collapse as a polity.  People who know what’s going on in Mexico are worried, and delivering warnings.  We should listen, and carefully consider the programs now in place.  It is popular for Christians to discuss “counting the cost” in these circumstances, but when that phrase is used, the assumption is always that, whatever the cost, it must be paid.  I am not so sure.

This entire article is worth reading, and discusses, among other things, the warning by the US State Department to students planning to go to Mexico on Spring Break.

ThreatsWatch.Org: RapidRecon: We’ve Been In Denial

The drug violence in Mexico killed more than 5,800 people last year; since January 1, 2009, the murder rate has already hit 1,000! The revelation of warning students on Spring Break to avoid “crossing the river,” is ludicrous. All of a sudden this is “sage advice”? That anyone would vacation or worse, send a child to a university in Mexico given the lengthy trail of violence in Mexico is beyond my imagination.

To paraphrase: Maybe it’s better to stay away, and live to minister another day.

An excellent place to start is in the USA, which has enormous opportunity for ministry. What could tens of thousands of college and high school students accomplish in local USA communities that could use the help?  What relationships could they establish that could continue year-round?

Those whose administrative expertise and public relations savvy have gone into building very large programs of short term missions to Mexico might consider what could happen in the USA, if programs of similar size, enthusiasm and funding were directed at the neediest areas here.  And those same people should very prayerfully be considering what the effect will be on the entire enterprise if one carload of students is machine-gunned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In discussing this with a friend who is involved in planning these kinds of programs for a large institution, I was told, “Oh, the odds aren’t even one in ten thousand of there being any kind of trouble.”  Considering how many people go on these trips, those are very poor odds.  And I’m afraid the odds aren’t actually that good.

Pray for our missionaries, and for discernment on the part of program planners.

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