Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Professional Goals for 2012

In addition to personal and family goals for the new year, here is my list of what I want to accomplish in 2012 professionally. Now, of course, I hope to get a new job and have published articles and help students be successful. And I certainly desire to see those things happen as a result of my actions, but what follows is a ("working document") list of only those things that I have control over. So, I take responsibility for carrying out these objectives:
·         Implement a new formative, student-guided, assessment system in my classes (which can serve as a "pilot" of a system to replace traditional grading)
·         Begin a “math academy” for parents at RBMS
·         Supervise an effective student-run peer tutoring program at RBMS
·         Share my learning with faculty & staff from the “Beyond These Walls” experience
·         Participate in implementing the “Four Expectations” on my campus
·         Apply and interview for an Asst. Principal position
·         Submit at least five article queries by June
·         Maintain “How Much Greater” blog with at least two posts per week
·         Read 30 books and write reviews on at least 20 of them (just finished one, and yes, I'm counting it!)
·         Write a simple church orientation/guide for use by groups in our area
·         Speak at least five times to churches/groups
There will be much involved in the process behind making many of these things happen. I need to work hard, and listen to, and learn from, many others along the way!
Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"I Kan't Taik Anuther Speling Be"

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the soft-spoken principal announced, “that ends another round.” It happened to be the tenth round of the annual Spelling Bee at my daughter’s elementary school, and the audience filled the gym with applause.
Ten rounds. By this point in the competition among third, fourth, and fifth graders, anxiety levels were through the roof, obviously more so for the parents than the students. The minute hand on the clock had rotated over one hundred times since the original 79 children took their places on the stage, and I felt exactly 100 times more nervous than when it all began particularly for one fourth grade girl – my daughter.
The sighs and moans, the “oohs” and “aahs,” were growing louder with each passing round as the disappointment became palpable for many of the kids, and their families, as they met untimely disqualifications. A queasy feeling was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach, while drops of perspiration multiplied exponentially and my own nervous movements became more noticeable. And to think, I was going to be the reassuring, soothing influence for my wife throughout this experience.
The first moments of the contest made it clear that I would have to be the calm in the storm as my wife gripped my arm with the intensity of an Olympic weightlifter when each young person approached the microphone to face the #1 fear of virtually every adult in the room – public speaking! It turned out that those first moments deceived me. Being calm was a distant fantasy; the storm had engulfed me. Still trying to present an outer shell of poise and serenity, inside I was being blown by every wind of emotion.
Next, round 11, with fifty fewer competitors. Anyone around me could have immediately diagnosed me with restless leg syndrome. My daughter stepped to the microphone and heard the lady’s voice declare, “The word is temperature.” In nano-seconds, my mind instantly figured out the conspiracy to take my child out of this competition with a word that has an unfairly placed ‘a’ in the middle of it for no good reason. I was convinced that justice would demand that she be offered up words like dad or big or top. I mean, come on, who do these people think they are, setting out to shatter the dreams of a nine-year-old?!?
Common sense returned quickly enough for me to hear her quietly pronounce each letter correctly. She returned to her seat and advanced to the next round. Oh good!
Round 12, as the only remaining representative of the fourth grade, I observed my child survive yet another overt attempt to eliminate her – paprika! Success. Oh no! That means another round.
Thirteen. Everyone knows 13 is an unlucky number. For the same reason that buildings don’t have thirteenth floors, should spelling bees not have thirteenth rounds? I made a mental note to contact the coordinators of such a poorly designed contest when this is over if my daughter were to meet her demise in a round that shouldn’t even exist!
Back to reality, the stage was filled with empty chairs, symbolic of all the fallen victims of the two-hour event. Only four students remained. No time for a deep breath. Suddenly, my little girl was again before the judges. The voice announced, “The word is carnivore.” I leaned forward and listened closely. “Carnivore – C – A – R – N – pause – I – V – pause – O – U – R – Carnivore.” And the storm left.
Carnivore. How appropriate! This flesh-eating, child-devouring, ruthless Spelling Bee committee had ambushed another innocent pupil.
In the end, my daughter achieved her goal of making the top five. She was dismissed from the stage with raucous cheering and instantly gained celebrity status as she walked quickly through the crowd of classmates on the gym floor. Giving and receiving high-fives and hugs from her adoring fans, apparently she had “arrived.”
The final three spellers lasted another two rounds. The winner was an amazing speller and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins the county bee. Fortunately, I left for much more relaxing, less stressful rest of my day, working with groups of early adolescents and making presentations about the dangers of bullying. Compared to my morning, I was ready for such a peaceful walk in the park.

Friday, December 9, 2011

How Much Greater - Blog Launch

2000 years ago, one of the first apostles and missionaries of the new movement known as Christianity wrote a letter to a group of Jesus-followers in ancient Corinth. In it he describes that everything associated with their old ways of knowing God represented a fading glory. Then, he inspires and challenges with these words, "If what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!"

Much of the New Testament introduces people to this new way, which makes things that were impossible before available to anyone! Glory, perfection, righteousness, peace, truth, renewal...were now within grasp of every human being! All through Jesus Christ! Life and meaning had changed forever!

Because of this reality and its impact, the apostle Paul explains to all Christ-followers of that time that they are to be competent as ministers of this new covenant. Furthermore, in a letter known as Hebrews, readers are told clearly that this new covenant makes the first obsolete. It was said to be aging and disappearing even then. So, for us today, it has had plenty of time to definitely be dead and gone!

The old law was only a shadow of things to come; the reality is in Jesus alone (see Colossians 2:17 and Hebrews 10:1). And that reality is filled with grace and justice and freedom! And that reality is where we can and should live. And that reality is the one truth we must pass on to the next generation with more diligence and persistence than anything else! Then, they will realize HOW MUCH GREATER this new life is! Then, we will know HOW MUCH GREATER their existence can be!

Welcome to the journey!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Having the Tithe of My Life (7) - Final Thoughts

What I Believe & Teach NOW
As I have already mentioned in earlier posts, not long ago, I went back to our denominational Manual to re-read the stance on tithing and look up the Scripture references included with that doctrine.  My denomination includes explanations and directions for "storehouse tithing."  Beneath these paragraphs were almost 15 different Bible passages.  As I went through them one by one, I found something rather shocking.  Almost none of them have any form of the word "tithe."  In fact, almost none of them even relate to the practice of tithing at all!  Of the few that do, I have discussed all of them in the previous posts.

Quite frankly, if we were to form our beliefs and practices about financial stewardship from the references listed, then it probably wouldn't resemble the challenge to "tithe to the storehouse" as our Christian duty.  No, it would actually raise the calling much higher.  The call on the Christian life is to give
everything.  According to the New Testament writers, money needs to be put in its proper place as far as level of importance.  The amount of money isn't the issue; the heart is the issue!

Let me share some of the examples:

Matthew 6:24-34 ~ Do not worry because God meets needs.

Matthew 25:31-46 ~ Separation of the sheep and the goats.  Take care of the needy because that is how we serve Jesus.
Mark 10:17-31 ~ Jesus tells a rich young man to sell everything and give to the poor if he wants to enter the kingdom of God.  (Not an "altar call" invitation I hear often!)
Luke 12:13-24 ~ A parable about a rich fool to warn the readers to guard against greed.
Luke 19:11-27 ~ A parable of 10 Minas to stress the point of putting your talent to work.
John 15:1-17~ Not sure what the thinking was as to why/how this got thrown in as a "proof text" for tithing, but it is about the importance of abiding, or remaining, in Christ, and illustrates how we are nothing apart from him.
Romans 12:1-13 ~ Paul's famous teaching about "living sacrifices."  There is a reference to sharing with those in need in verse 13.

There are others, like
1 Corinthians 9 or 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 or 1 Timothy 6:3-21 that are also cited.  These passages discuss the rights of an apostle and encourage generosity and caution that the love of money can lead to evil.  Even the oft-quoted 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, which instructs the reader to "be a cheerful giver" makes NO mention of (or even implies) tithing!

So what do I teach people now when tithing or money or stewardship comes up?

1.  Read the Bible.  Seriously!  Read it for yourself.  Go directly to the Scriptures and look it up.  (I am ashamed to say that this is not something I taught much in the past.  I would tell people what the Bible says so they wouldn't have to go look it up on their own.  What a service I provided them, huh?)

2.  Stand on what is certain.  Just because we might be confused about some things in the Bible doesn't mean there are not some obvious, clear convictions in it that we can "take to the bank" (poor pun intended).  For example, James is pretty emphatic when he states, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).  This is one of many references throughout the Scriptures that clearly and consistently indicate that
God cares for widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor, and in turn, desires that we care for them, as well.  God's priorities do rise to the surface when people honestly read the Bible, whether they have a seminary degree or a 3rd grade education.

3.  Allow for FREEDOM where you can't be certain.  Let me conclude again - It may be that some people should tithe.  Others probably should not.  This series of posts is NOT a tirade against tithing.  It is about receiving truth from God's words outside of our distorted denominational and traditional lenses.  The truth is that God may want someone to give 10% of their income to one cause and someone else 40% to another cause.  It is apparent that Jesus invited people to salvation in different ways.  We need to be open to the idea that entrance into salvation for some people might be selling everything they own and giving their profit to the poor, while for others it might be declaring Jesus is Lord and confessing it with their mouth publicly.  To some he says, "Be born again!"  To others, he says, "Believe in me!"  All these ways point to the same place, but we must allow for people to freely live in Christ in unique ways.

God wants it ALL!!!  My final word on all this is that the irony of this whole discussion is that it is actually pretty silly.  A debate of whether we should give 10% here or there, or in which way, gross or net,...blah, blah, blah.  Can you imagine the early disciples who gave their lives for following Jesus being time-warped to our day and hearing these conversations and sermons?!  They could only react, "This is so ridiculous! What are these people talking about? Where in the world did you get the idea that you owe God 10% or 23% or 90% of anything?"  We would do well to look at what Jesus demands of his followers in the New Testament.  Guess how much? Yeah, ALL OF IT!!! Everything. Everywhere. Every time. No exceptions. He says that if we won't give our whole lives, then the deal's off. And we're sitting around debating about 10% of our material wealth! Hmmm...something's wrong with this picture!

But don't take what I teach as your gospel.  Review the passages referenced above for yourself and see what conclusions you reach.  You will know the truth and the truth will set you free!

I have a friend who, when asked now about whether he tithes, he answers that he now practices
radical generosity. I like that. Let's try that for a bit, shall we?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Having the Tithe of My Life (6)

Why Even Bring It Up?  FREEDOM!!!
If this topic of tithing (or money, in general) has the potential to be so controversial, then why bring it up?  Am I doing this just to cause disagreement and division?  Is my motive to show someone is right and someone else is wrong?  Well, I certainly hope not! 

There is one reason why I want to reflect on this teaching.  It is freedom.  Notice that I have not argued that all Christians should change or stop how they tithe.  At the same time, I have also not argued that everyone who tithes should continue to do so without understanding why.  My bottom line is this:  Do what you believe God is leading you to do!  For some people, God may use the practice of a tithe to teach and shape them into what He wants them to become.  For others, He may not.  Each person has to evaluate the cause and effect of their tithing routine.  Sometimes, it is healthy and helps to advance the kingdom.  In other cases, it may actually be counterproductive and there are better ways to spread the gospel.  The point is NOT for me to tell you what to do!!!

So, the final measure at the end of the day is, Are you FREE in the TRUTH?  The truth of God and His Word can and will and does
set us free.  It is true!  We are people created to walk in freedom.  Some who tithe do so out of the freedom they enjoy; others do so out of a sense of obligation and duty.  It weighs them down.  In short, they are in bondage.  They are tied down to a rule and checklist of misunderstood discipleship.  It is not healthy or right for them to be in such a state.  Our job is to be administers of God's grace, helping people - all people - move toward the truth and set them free!
That is why I bring it up.

Keep in mind the context of my blog – “How Much Greater” we can make the world, faith and life for our children and teenagers as they grow up. It definitely matters what we teach them in terms of what we say God thinks about their money.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Having the Tithe of My Life (5)

Jesus & The Early Church
Interestingly, for as much as tithing is emphasized in churches today, if you were to do a Bible study on the practice of tithing in the New Testament, it would be a short study indeed.  Now that we've looked at some of the Old Testament background behind the tithe, we must wonder what Jesus said about it.  How often did he instruct his disciples to do it?  What instruction did Paul give the churches he helped plant in regard to receiving and distributing tithes?

Strangely, the New Testament is virtually silent on the issue.  Some will argue against that statement, but a lot of our teachings about tithing and stewardship and giving that we take from New Testament passages may have more to do with what we read into them than what we discover out of them.  So, let me bottom line this point by saying that we have no record of Jesus ever directing his followers to give tithes to anyone.  We also have no record of any first-century church practicing the ritual of giving/receiving a tithe.  This will probably come as a surprise to some because many of us have been told our whole lives how tithing is a biblical practice and a divine expectation of church members.  (I confess to believing this and teaching it to others in the past. See my first post in this series.)

Let me share an interesting discovery I recently made.  I went through our denominational manual and looked up the section on tithing.  It begins by explaining that we teach and practice storehouse tithing for all the reasons I used to teach people.  Then, it lists all scripture references related to the topic (you know, as the "biblical backing" for why we do what we do).  I looked up every single one and read it in its context.  The main ideas ranged from not worrying about anything because God meets needs (Matthew 6:24-34) to guarding against greed (Luke 12:13-24) to understanding worship as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-13).  There were others:  "Rich Young Man" (Mark 10), "Vine and the Branches" (John 15), and the ever famous "love of money" passage in 1 Timothy 6.  While all these are wonderful teachings, do you know what was remarkably, strangely absent?  Any reference to tithing!!!

Even the oft-quoted "be a cheerful giver" reference from 2 Corinthians 9 makes no direct mention or even an implication to the practice of tithing.

Tell me why, if it is so Christian to tithe, is it so difficult to find a single commandment in the New Testament telling believers to do it?!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Having the Tithe of My Life (4)

The Law of Moses
One thing is for sure - tithing is definitely a subject brought up multiple times in the Mosaic Law.  In the Old Testament, we see a system set in place full with sacrifices, rituals, ceremonies, offerings, and priests.  There was much discussion about ceremonial cleansing and holiness.  It was clear that God introduced the concept of certain individuals mediating between him and everyday people, and at some level, we can attribute all of this to the simple reality that he was perfect and they were not.  And there is one other enormous reality of their day and time that warranted such a ritualistic, disciplined system of worship...Jesus had not yet come!

One practice that was in full effect for the Israelites under the old covenant was the tithe.  So what can we observe about this component of their religious life and community?

1.  Before, and upon, entering the Promised Land, Moses sets out clear responsibilities for one of the tribes known as the Levites.  They are the priestly tribe, responsible for the work at the Tent of Meeting.  "The Levites are to be responsible for the care of the tabernacle of the Testimony" (Numbers 1:52-54).  Because the Levites were set apart for special duties, they were not to receive an inheritance of land as they moved in to Canaan.  All other tribes were given a specific allotment of land.  Rather than being in charge of their own dwelling like everyone else, the Levites had to be concerned, in a very serious manner, with "the Lord's dwelling" so to speak.  Thus, one of the tithes instituted helped serve the purpose of providing food for the Levites, and giving them something to sacrifice to the Lord in offeringsIt was a tithe given by the other Israelites and received by the Levites.

2.  Another important aspect of Israelite worship was that of national festivals and celebrations.  God instituted events such as Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits, the Feast of Trumpets (which was their version of a New Year's party), and more.  Remembering how God had intervened in their lives was a crucial part of Israelite worship, so these festivals became an instrumental way of shaping the attitude of repentance and gratitude to solidify the bond that God desired to have with his children.  The Bible tells us that one of the tithes required of Israel was intended to be use to provide for these corporate events.3.  Another significant and repeated word of instruction in the Law of Moses is that a tithe should be received so that, in addition to the Levites, the aliens, fatherless, widows, and poor would be sufficiently taken care of.  People facing these hard circumstances were to be comforted and looked after appropriately.  Not doing so seemed to elicit God's anger with his own people.

**Some Scriptures you might want to look up include
Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18 (verses 21 & 24 specify Levitical roles), Deuteronomy 14:22-29, and Deuteronomy 26:12-15.
To conclude, if you read through the referenced passages above, then you may begin to make some additional observations without having to read anything into the text.  For instance, it will probably stand out to you (from the Bible text itself and the notes above) that more than one tithe is commanded.  There were annual tithes and triennial tithes, and you may also note that they went to different "causes."  Many scholars agree that this certainly puts our "ten percent" rule under scrutiny.  In fact, some argue that with the combined tithes, the Israelites were required to give more like 23% of their produce or income!  I am not personally familiar with any church teaching this kind of tithing.

Finally, I will end on something that should be easy for us all to agree on.  Whatever, or however, the tithe was given and received, there was a clear emphasis on giving the best, or first, of what you had.  Regardless of where we fall on this debate, I think this should be a point we all walk away with firmly in mind and heart.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Having the Tithe of My Life (3)

Hebrews 7, Genesis 14 - Abraham's Tithe
One of the more often used passages to "prove" the universal, long-lasting ordinance of tithing is taken from Genesis 14 (and Hebrews 7).  Basically, Hebrews 7 gives us the lens at which to view the events of Genesis 14:18-20.  To summarize, Abraham presents a tithe to Melchizidek, and thus, the argument is that this demonstrates that the practice of tithing occurs centuries before it is mandated for the Israelites in the Law of Moses.  Therefore, tithing is meant to be practiced, it is said, by everyone following God, not just the Israelites bound by the laws found in the Old Testament.

(Before continuing, I recommend that you click on the links above and read the text of these passages for yourself.  In fact, while linked to the Bible Gateway site, you can even read them in a few different translations.)

Some observations and questions about these passages:

1.  As with most verses taken out of context, the mistake is usually taking what is a description of what happened there and then, and turning it into a prescription of what should happen here and now.  Genesis 14
describes what Abraham did.  There is no dogmatic commandment to tithe or not to tithe in these passages.

2.  Abraham does indeed give a tithe.  Let's not pretend that is up for debate.  The nature of his tithe is that it was a voluntary gift/offering of the plunder from battle.  In other words, it was the stuff he had just taken from other people, not his own belongings.  This is the only record of Abraham ever tithing, so the only evidence we have is of a one-time act, but admittedly, the "absence of evidence" doesn't necessarily equate to "evidence of absence."

3.  What is the point of Hebrews 7?  Is it telling the reader to model behavior after Abraham?  It clearly emphasizes that Jesus is in the "order of Melchizedek."  Melchizedek is described as an extraordinary priest with extraordinary authority that supercedes the role and position of the Levites.  The 16th verse explains that he was a priest of a different sort to say the least, "not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancenstry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life."  He blessed Abraham, not the other way around.  That makes him the greater figure, according to Hebrews.  What kind of man/king/being was this Melchizedek?  We're left wondering to some extent, but Hebrews paints him as a
type of Christ, a foreshadowing of the Messiah!  In fact, I would encourage anyone to enjoy the blessing of reading through the rest of chapter 7 and even on in to chapters 8 and 9 of Hebrews.  There is tremendous theological content here that helps make clear just how special, powerful, and sufficient Jesus is as our High Priest.  There is also much said that highlights the "new covenant" over the "old covenant."  In short, the question needs to be asked, "Is the point of the passage what a great example Abraham is because he gave a tithe, or is the point what a profound example Melchizedek is because of his authority to receive a tithe?"

Friday, November 18, 2011

Having the Tithe of My Life (2)

Malachi 3 - Robbing God
Now that I've discussed where I have been generally with this teaching, let's begin to explore where I am going.  Let's get started with what is arguably the best known passage of Scripture read from pulpits all over when it comes to tithing:  Malachi 3.

The following comes directly from a script I used to teach from in a seminar about Christian maturity in the section on giving: 
"The first practical way you give as a maturing Christian is to tithe, or give a tithe.  Tithe means a tenth.  Now, for millennia, and throughout Scripture, the tithe has served as the foundation for giving.  It is a basic, minimum level that all other giving is built upon.  This is really the first part of practical giving that we have to get down in this life." 

Then, with conviction, I would later add that refusing to tithe is stealing from God, and then immediately quote Malachi 3:8-10.  I even included fill-in-the-blank notes so the participants could write it down.  I must confess that I taught this interpretation of this Scripture at that time for one simple reason - it is the only one that had ever been presented to me.  Moreover, it was reiterated time and time again by pastors, books, ordination courses, etc.  I have heard this preached about and lectured on, and I had no reason to doubt that this interpretation was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the help me God!  As I stated earlier, I didn't (and still don't) teach anything that I didn't believe myself.

Before breaking this passage down, first I want to mention one basic, common sense reminder of an obvious fact.  There were no 501c3, IRS-designated non-profit organizations called "churches" in the Middle East in the first century, and especially not at the time of Malachi's prophecy!  The idea that any and all teachings about tithes in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, are automatically transferable to our current church structure in the West today is quite a leap, and even absurd in many cases.  After all, there is a reason Christian churches don't practice animal sacrifices today even though it is clearly a Biblical concept. We must consider the context of the teachings!  Second, I want to note the major difference between the passage I quoted in my class script above and the passage I referenced at the beginning of this post.  That difference is about 15 verses!  In other words, my past understanding of this passage always came from only three verses!  Taking the whole chapter into consideration, we might walk away with a different perspective, a new revelation.

For example, I had always thought that not tithing was what the verse referred to as "robbing God."  However, the text actually says that the robbing of God was occurring "IN tithes and offerings" (3:8).  I don't want to make any dogmatic claims about this reading.  I guess it could be taken either way, but I think we should be open to the idea that the tithes were indeed taking place and yet the people were
STILL robbing God!!  So, maybe we need to ask if there is more to the story.

What is the prophet talking about in the preceding verses?  Let's see...he brings up the Levites in verse 3, and talks about what constitutes righteous offerings and acceptable offerings as in the past (v. 3-4), and quite significantly, he condemns fraudalent and oppressive behaviors and reminds the readers/hearers that God's focus is on the laborers, widows, fatherless, and aliens (v. 5).

I want to be careful here not to imply too much.  The passage may honestly leave me with more questions than answers.  I don't think the passage instructs anyone not to tithe, so we can't walk away with a "free pass" based on these words.  I don't think the passage in any way whatsoever teaches people to give a tenth of their income to an organization.  I DO think that the passage is clearly grounded in the context of God being more than a little upset with the Israelites for not keeping His priorities in place.  I have to wonder if God's "beef" with Israel is not that they were not tithing, but perhaps that they were not using the tithe for its appropriate and intended purposes - to support justice and restoration for those with the greatest need.

And just for good measure, I will also add that I would be more cautious than many of my Christian friends about taking verse 10 to mean that God will pour out material blessings on us if we would just honor him by tithingThis "slot machine" theology is dangerous, and possibly worse, heretical.  We don't pay for God's grace or favor.  That would undo everything we understand to be so great about the gospel.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Having the Tithe of My Life (1)

Well, it was only a matter of time I suppose.  I had to quit beating around the bush and plunge headfirst into a controversial topic.  My take on it will surprise some, bless others, and still offend a few more.  The issue I intend to take up in the next few posts is the subject of tithing.  Before I begin, let me make my often used disclaimer yet again.  My goal with these writings is to get people, including myself, to take the Bible seriously and contextually.  What I mean is that I don't want to be guilty of just imposing my own beliefs on the text while totally disregarding the "when, where, and why" the words were originally written in the first place.  These factors go far in shaping its meaning.

Today, let me begin with what I used to teach about tithing.  I spent a good portion of my ministry in the IC proclaiming these ideas, and even encouraging others to turn around and proclaim them also.  I apologize for any false teachings I may have spread along the way, and I can only say for myself that I did so with an honest and sincere heart.  And might I add, the same is true for me now!

So, what did I teach?

First, I taught that tithing was a duty of the Christian life - that it was a mark of discipleship, of spiritual maturity.  I encouraged people to give one-tenth of their income as a minimum, or "starting place."

Second, I taught that the concept of storehouse tithing known in the days of the Israelites in the Old Testament was still applicable today.  I taught people to think of our present churches (501c3 non-profit organizations) as the modern day equivalent of the ancient storehouses.  Therefore, I promoted the practice of bringing "your tithes to the storehouse" or church building.
Third, I taught that it was appropriate to use a significant portion of the tithes to pay clergy and staff as well as fund religious programs.  This teaching was partly based upon the Old Testament practice of using the tithe to support the Levites, who were the religious leaders (priests) of the people of God.

Fourth, I taught that tithing in the manner that I have described so far was justified biblically.  I offered several Scripture passages, including ones that I interpreted in such a way as to persuade people that tithing was both a serious obligation and a means to spiritual and material blessings.
Finally, I taught all of this because I wholeheartedly believed it.  I lived it.  I practiced it.  My family budgeted around it, and the practice of tithing was a strong conviction that I personally connected with my own integrity and discipleship.  It was literally one of the measures of my "walk with Christ."

That should suffice to set the scene for what I believe and teach now.  If you, like me, hold to many of the above ideas, then please proceed through upcoming posts cautiously.  In my final post on this topic, I will explain why I even write about it at all since I know it can potentially cause much disagreement.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Could This be the Christ?

Here is something to consider today.  At least it has made me think over the past couple days since reading it again.  I'll be short and to the point.  In John 4, there is a famous story about Jesus having a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a place known as "Jacob's Well."  After a transforming experience of meeting the real Savior, the woman is overwhelmed and becomes a follower on the spot.  Furthermore, she is so excited and changed by the encounter that she then returns to town to tell everybody about what happened.  And that's the important part - she just told what happened and was honest about it.

Rather than telling others to believe what she believes or forcing anything on anyone, she poses a question.  Could this be the Christ?  Maybe we would do better to stop all this talk about evangelism and witnessing and programs for reaching the lost, and instead live our everyday lives with eyes and ears open to what could be the Christ at work.

And personally, what I need to work on is having that conversation out loud, with others - not just myself.  The question we could have for the world around us is simply, "Could this be the Christ?"  Allowing people to arrive at their own answers may very well bring a revival.  It did with the woman at the well.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Better to Be Good Than Right

Well, actually, it is best to be both! (This post originally went with our description of a commitment to reach out through serving and point to unity, not division, with kindness.)

In a real sense, we are all apostles of Christ. Quite simply, an apostle is a messenger, or representative sent with a message. We, as the Church, are called to represent (or "re-present" as in present him again) Him to the world and carry His gospel message.

In the western world, we have understood this point, but usually made the focus of the gospel message about how to reach heaven in the afterlife rather than saying or doing much to impact this life. These don't have to be, and should not be, mutually exclusive points, but to paraphrase one author, we often focus so much on being right and dismiss the responsibility to be good in our world...maybe if we gave more attention to being good, this might help others to see that following Jesus is right. The gospel message is that Jesus is not only right, but also good. And the truth is that one cannot be correct without the other.

I want to throw out a couple comments from one author for your consideration.
"Remember, in a pluralistic world, a religion is valued on the benefits it brings to its nonadherents." 
"We must rejoice that God cares for the whole world and set our hearts to join God in caring."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Heretics in the House

One of the most cited points of resistance to the organic church is that it will give fertile ground for heresy (false teachings) to spring up.  Many say that there is no way to prevent heresy and control doctrinal integrity.  Since this is an important concern, let me address it briefly.

First, the assumption inherent in the argument is usually that it is important to have a denominational authority or church hierarchy that can provide us with guidelines, or boundaries, for our theology and doctrine.  Practically speaking, people want a board or committee or pastor/priest or bishop or superintendent or...somebody who they view as "official" enough to spell out the beliefs of the church properly.  This contention is actually one of the best signs that we've become so dependent on IC structure without realizing it.  Furthermore, what we've painfully realized over time is that even with all that structure, heresy flourishes in many ICs.  I have heard crazy things preached from pulpits over the years, and I have heard even more absurd things taught in Sunday school classes or, worse yet, children's ministry meetings.  In fact, this obsession with doctrinal correctness on what are usually secondary issues is what has led us to this point in Western Christianity where we now have more denominations, labels, and distinctions than ever before, which ultimately just means more division in the body.  (And history teaches us that in many cases this hierarchical structure actually fostered less accountability and more greed, power, and corruption!)
Of course, pastors and church leaders are usually the first to caution people about the organic churches, saying it is their "job" after all to "protect the flock."  This issue kept coming up at a conference I attended last April.  The "senior pastors" of congregations repeatedly voiced the concerns over losing the church's "identity" or having the cardinal doctrines get watered down.  In short, they wanted to know what would organic churches do about false teachers.  My response was, "That's a good and valid point.  We need a plan.  Tell me what you do in your church to prevent false teaching and preserve doctrinal integrity."  Guess how many responses I have received or found?  Nada!  Zero!  None!  This is no surprise to me because I understand how difficult it is in congregations of 50, 100, 150, 200, or so to practically oversee what is being taught at all times.  Not just difficult, but really impossible.  At some point, trust comes into play.
But more than trust, there would be some practical ways to help ensure doctrinal integrity and proper biblical teaching.  One, make sure the Bible itself is the core curriculum rather than denominational literature or another book or study guide.  Two, have smaller churches where oversight is much easier to carry out and more people can see and understand what is being taught.  Three, create an environment where teachings can actually be questioned.  In other words, allow everyone to participate in a dialogue and converse about questions, misunderstandings, clarifications, etc. rather than a "monologue" setting where one person does all the preaching or teaching with a "take my word for it" mentality while a bunch of other people passively listen.
Most importantly, though, let's remember what the New Testament teaches us.  IC structures were clearly not in place at that time.  The Holy Spirit was the main Conveyer of faith and truth.  Early churches understood their dependency upon Him.  And finally, it is worth honestly noting that the very fact that we have much of the New Testament is because of false teachings.  Paul, in most of his letters, addresses genuine believers (and some not so genuine) about issues that he thinks are causing harm to the Body of Christ.  This is a good indicator to us that there is no foolproof way of ensuring that false teachings never enter the church, but it is still worth fighting against them.  So, let me end this entry with an admission that yes, heresy can definitely enter the organic (simple, house) church movement, and even do so wildly at times.  But the simple church can also provide the best setting to avoid it, as well.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Who's in Charge?

The point that Jesus is the Builder of His Church is the primary issue at hand.  While we give this much lip service, our everyday conversation betrays us often.  For example, think of a local church right now (could be the one you attend).  If someone in the community asked about the leader of that church, then what would the typical response be?  Most likely, it would be a pastor's name (or a key layman, worship leader, music minister, board member, etc.).  If I played a word association game with you, and asked you to give me a name when I mention a prominent church in America, then who would you say?
Saddleback.  (Rick Warren?)
Willow Creek.  (Bill Hybels?)
Lakewood Church in Houston.  (Joel Osteen?)

...Are these the names that came to your mind?  (You can do the same thing with churches in your city.)
This does NOT in any way make these men bad or anything like that!  Please don't miss my point.

But now let's continue the game with the first century churches in the New Testament...
Church at Ephesus?  Church of Galatia?  Church of Rome?  Church at Thessalonica?  Church at Philippi?  The seven churches mentioned in Revelation?
Well, who did you say?  Paul?  Apollos?  Timothy?  Peter?

As immediately as you might want to mention one of these names, you also realize that they weren't the key leaders in those churches.  Paul may have been responsible for "planting" many churches and visiting lots of them, but the leadership was always turned over to others.  Now, pick a couple of them and tell me who the pastor was.  Good luck!

The answer that sensibly surfaces very quickly is that the "key name" associated with any of those churches if you asked someone in the first century would have been, JESUS!  If it was meant to be any other way, I believe we would have better records of who was "in charge" of what.  But that organizational structure did not exist in the early churches of Christianity.

The most important question to ask of a church is not, "Who is the pastor?" or "Who heads up the music department?" or "Who leads the youth?", yet by default almost, these are the questions we're left with in our society because of how the institutional church is designed.  No, the critical question of any church group must be, "Who is the Head?"
And not in theory or on paper, but in practice!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Abducting Jesus (10) - "Calling the Qualified" (continued)

So then, just how do people become disciples if not by attending more Bible studies and classes and sitting through more services?

By encountering Jesus!

Listen, sometimes the truth is so simple that it somehow becomes difficult for us to accept.  The simple truth is that Jesus Christ changes people's lives!!!  We become disciples by following Jesus.  We remain disciples by following Jesus.  That is the simple discipleship formula.  Everything else is stuff that we have added to the equation, and quite frankly, it messes up a lot of people.  It exchanges relationship with the life-changing Lord for religion.  It is not the way that people are set free!

Instead of believing people are qualified for ministry and sharing their faith by the number of classes and programs they attend, what if we believed what the Bible actually teaches?  That what qualifies a person for ministry and spreading the Good News is whether they have met Jesus and received His Spirit!!  Could it be that simple?

Well, let's look at some examples of people who changed the world around them with the life-giving truth of Christ.  Let's see, for starters there was the Philippian jailer in Acts 16 who was supposed to keep Paul and Silas imprisoned, Levi the tax collector (hated by many) in Mark 2, and a severely tormented, demon-possessed man that no one could ever restrain in Mark 5, and let's not forget the woman at the well in John 4.  We could add Roman centurions and Pharisees to the list (think apostle Paul!).  What do all these people have in common?  History records testimonies of each of them bringing other people to faith in Christ.  They reached other sinners, entire households, sometimes whole geographic areas with the gospel message.  The other thing they have in common is their reputation for sin and/or hostility toward the early Christian movement before meeting Jesus.

Do NOT miss this reality.  After a genuine encounter with Jesus (no more, no less), they all became "empowered people on mission" (aka. the Church)!  Not one was told to go to training, attend a class, sign up for a program, order evangelistic materials, join a club or small group, or anything!!!  They were all immediately qualified to carry out all ministry and missional tasks!!!  Why?  They had encountered the real Jesus, and He TRANSFORMED them!!

Now, for the last important point here.  WHEN did these people win others to Christ?  When were they ready to introduce others to Jesus?  When did they lead people they knew (other "sinners") to faith?  In every case, it was within 24-48 hours after meeting Jesus!!!  No six-month "Growing in the Lord" course.  No four-year ministerial course of study.  No ordination process.  No seminary.  No Bible college.  No membership class.  Nothing but JESUS!

Oh, how I need to hear that again!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Abducting Jesus (9) - "Calling the Qualified"

My contention with this topic is that maybe the Church has the whole idea of discipleship all messed up! Now, that's quite a claim to say that the institution over a certain business has that very business wrong, but over the past few years I believe that is the conclusion at which I have arrived. And like the other areas, this one goes a long way in hiding Jesus from people. The abduction of Jesus has happened right under our noses with our main "business," how we make disciples.

Some observations about how we do things now:

(1) Our current training (aka. "spiritual growth" or "discipleship") models teach people to keep coming back for more. The Church implicitly, or even explicitly, tells its members to keep attending classes, youth group meetings, Sunday School, seminars, workshops, programs, etc. if they want to "grow spiritually." I know in my church I even taught a progression (the famous Purpose-Driven model from Rick Warren) in the spiritual life in which one moves from just a believer to a disciple to a minister to a missionary. After reading the Scriptures with a new perspective over the past couple years, I wonder where did we ever get some of this stuff?!?!

(2) Many churches keep the people dependent upon the pastors or other church leaders for their instruction. Most Christians in America actually believe that going to church is a key to their spiritual growth. They talk about "getting a lot out of" the sermons (whatever that means since research consistently shows that most people leaving a service can't even tell you what the sermon was about!) or needing the worship service to "get through" the rest of the week. In fact, I heard these very comments just this weekend from friends of mine. The scary part is just how unbiblical these concepts are without anybody even noticing or caring!

(3) Now for the most controversial and offensive claim I will make here. Based on my observations, the reasons for the first two points are power and paychecks. The simple fact of the matter, regardless of what anyone says, is that most churches in America are simple businesses. They are organizations that enjoy 501c3 non-profit, tax-exempt status, full with boards, staffs, and budgets...and they act accordingly. They are in the job of running businesses. This is a plain and simple fact! This means that, like any other company, the "bottom line" to stay in "business" is having money and customers. This is why many churches are driven to keep people coming back for more. It is the only way pastors receive salaries and utilities get paid. Period! It has to be that way.
(4) There is another reason why things are the way they are. It is what people believe is right. Many people have spent so long in a system that promotes this kind of discipleship that they simply think it must be the right thing to do. I don't question the motives of many laypeople or pastors. They genuinely believe that God wants them to preach sermons, plan services, go to church, attend classes and Bible studies, and on and on, all toward the aim of growing closer to Him. Most churchgoers really believe that pastors know the Bible better than they do, that trained evangelists are better at leading people to Christ than they are, and that Sunday School teachers/children's church leaders/youth pastors are best equipped to guide the next generation in issues of faith. I believed all this once too. People really think there is something to all this training, seminary education, ordination, and professional conference stuff that goes on. We have bought into the idea - a frighteningly false one - that these people are learning to be better Christians than all the rest of us.
Our next post will look at things from a different point of view, that of Scripture.