Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Debate Rages On: Evangelical Views of Education

Back on June 19, I wrote an article that addressed the debate among Christians concerning public vs. private education. The context surrounding that article was a resolution proposed by some Southern Baptist leaders that, if sent to the floor and approved, would have called upon parents to pull their children out of the nation's public schools. Thankfully, a milder version of the resolution passed. But wow, did I ever step into a hornet's nest when I spoke on this topic!

Since that article was published online, I have received much feedback, both positive and negative. Most recently, a group at Men for Modern Reformation, a Florida based ministry dedicated to Biblically based cultural engagement, decided to use my writing, among others with different viewpoints, to spur their readers to discernment concerning which choice--public school, Christian school, or home school-- was the most Biblically faithful and God honoring choice. While there were a number of contributors of far greater popularity and influence than myself (When seeing the web site at first, I felt like the "who's he" among the "who's who."), one pastor and Christian school administrator decided to address my article specifically, which prompted me to counter-respond. Needless to say, this debate is much more galvanizing than I thought!

Nevertheless, I remain more convinced than ever of a number of things. First of all, I believe this is a worthy debate. Unlike the almost totally abstract discussions about the minutae of the atonement (i.e. General vs. Particular) or the seemingly endless drone of trying to determine all the particulars of Christ's second coming, this issue holds much at stake, chiefly the development of our children.

Second, I remain convinced that the issue of Public vs. Private education is not simply a "black and white" issue that can be universally answered, because each public school system is different. While my original article could have been interpreted as an apologia for public education, this was not my intention. Instead, my goal was to state that public education should not be automatically jettisoned as an option simply because it is "public" education. Certainly I would agree that there are school districts that are beyond redemption, and in those circumstances, the best decision would be to home school, or enroll one's children in private school. But I would contend equally that this is not the case for every school district in America. Furthermore, I believe that parents are and must remain the final arbitors in this discussion, and that the church's role is to guide parents in understanding the particular educational context in their area, as well as the best ways to help their children develop.

Finally, I would stress more strongly than ever the "salt and light" factor when parents are struggling with how best to educate their children. This does not mean that we sacrifice our kids for the sake of a disingenous "evangelism." It does mean, however, that as we make educational decisions that affect our kids, we consider the question of how best to impact our communities. After all, the schools are the point at which culture is created. How can we impact culture apart from impacting the developers of culture? To the Christian parent struggling with where to send their kids, this is certainly not the only question to ask. Nevertheless, it is a question that is both essential, and unavoidable in light of the Great Commission.

As you will see from the link below, there are those who strongly disagree with me. Nevertheless, this is a discussion that needs to take place. If nothing else, the approach of fall, and with it the reality of a new school year should spur believers to greater discernment. Some parents will come to conclusions that mirror my own, while others will come to conclusions that are diametrically opposed to what I advocate. Neither of these groups is the problem. The problem rather, is parents who don't think at all! Those who send their children to Christian schools based solely on the "fear factor," as well as those who send their children to public schools merely for financial reasons are missing the point. The point is developing mighty men and women of God who will impact their culture in a maximum way.

What is the best way to accomplish this end? If you are a parent, God places the burden of arriving at a final answer to that question squarely on your shoulders! I encourage you to go to the link below. It contains my original article (published on this weblog June 19), as well as contributions from others, a response to my writing from Pastor David Bryant, and my counter-response. Read with discernment, and may God grant you wisdom as you raise your children to His glory!

To read more of this debate, visit First Blast, the online journal of Men for Modern Reformation. Click on the link below to access this material:

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Peril and Promise of "Vision."

The concept of "vision" is at one and the same time neccessary and confusing. As both the church and business world continue to employ this buzz word, its meaning becomes ever more fuzzy. While Proverbs 29:18 is true, there is a corollary truth to the statement "Where there is no vision, the people perish." That corrollary might well be summed up in this way: "Where there is unclear or misunderstood vision, the people just die more slowly and painfully."

Nevertheless, I fear that many churches and pastors, as well as many in the business world, are buying into a consumerist, commercialistic understanding of the term, largely due to our stress of "emphasis" over "explanation." Widening the discussion a bit, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, opens his newest book Winning with a discussion of how terms like vision, mission and values are "among the most abstract, overused, misunderstood words in business." Exacerbating this problem are the business schools, which Welch accuses of "having their students regularly write mission statements and debate values, a practice made even more futile for being carried out in a vacuum. Lots of companies do the same to their senior executives, usually in an attempt to create a noble-sounding plaque to hang in the company lobby."

In short, when vision is discussed, and even crafted, the end result is often far from the mark of reality. This is an unfortunate truth, mainly because vision is so vital, especially when one is planting churches. While our church planter assessment process here in Maryland measures for about 16 different behavioral characteristics, visionizing capacity is at the top of the list, and is considered what we call a "knock-out" category. Regardless of how well a potential planter may assess in every other area, if he proves unable to project beyond the present into the future, arguing in a way convincing to others the need for something that does not presently exist and verbally painting a picture of what the needed church will look like, we don't place him in the field to plant.

The reason for this is primarily Biblical. As Proverbs clearly states, the lack of such a futuristic picture and its possibilities leads ultimately to death. The literal translation of the text is actually that without vision, people "are unrestrained," or "wander aimlessly." Obviously, the first readers of this text would have had an instant flashback to the forty year Sinai experience, in which all but two members of an entire generation died because they lost their sense of purpose and destiny. That story is an eternal testiment to Solomon's claim that without clear vision and direction, aimless wandering ensues, and death eventually results.

Still, this begs the question: "What is vision?" The normative definition used in church planting is that first coined by Aubrey Malphurs, who describes vision as "a clear and challenging picture of the future, as the [church] leadership believes it can and should be." In short, vision is not a drawn-out strategic plan that includes all of the milestones involved in planting and/or growing a congregation. Nor is vision always incredibly specific. It is, in the end, a 'snapshot' of where the people in a given church should be headed. And in church planting, we are more specific to state that the church planter must have the capacity as the primary "visionizer."

The problem here is that often, in an attempt to match a perceived idea of what it means to be a 'visionary,' pastors and church planters end up sounding more like Amway salesmen than prophets of God's truth. Our culture has for the past two decades developed a picture of what a "visionary" looks like that is driven more by popular perception than reality. Yet pastors, church planters, and even business leaders have seemed to buy into this pop-picture, and the tragedy of this shortcoming is two-fold. First, those attempting to be "visionary" feel it neccessary to pretend that they have the future all figured out: where the land is going to be located, how many square feet the first, second, and third sanctuaries are going to be, and the exact demographic and psychographic "target" that will be reached. In the end, the church planter or pastor comes off sounding like the "autonomous knower," arrogant, over-confident, proud, and overly-obsessed with his own "Kingdom-building." Second, aspirations toward acheiving identification with this pop-version visionary keep the leader from becoming what he really needs to become to lead his church to greatness.

Jim Collins' best-selling book Good to Great, which addresses these issues from a business world perspective, states that the best leaders of the best corporations are not flamboyant, charismatic, eloquent salesmen. Instead, Collins found that the leaders of the world's most successful corporations exhibited modesty, resolve, and a commitment to build something that would outlast their tenure at the company. Similarly, Thom Rainer's new book Breakout Churches, which is patterned after Collins' work, revealed that Senior Pastors in the most successful "turnaround" churches in America brought to the table a blend of humility and confidence, love and persistence, all of which was undergirded with a high view of Scripture and solid belief in a miracle-working God. In short, neither these visionaries nor the visions they cast would have been recognized as particularly compelling when compared to the more "colorful" personalities of some of their colleagues. Nonetheless, these leaders were able to bring their corporations and/or congregations to a point of owning a vision and accomplishing far and beyond even what they themselves expected.

Transposing these thoughts exclusively to the area of church ministry, it might be suggested that the particulars of what makes a given church significant aren't neccessarily the key ingredients to a compelling vision, but instead, it is the overall vision of the universal church given by Jesus as it is contextualized for a given local body. Add to this God's propensity for doing "abundantly beyond all that we ask or think," and you have a picture of the future that may lack in worldly attraction, but will guide the church in becoming most effective.

In my experience as a pastor, church planter, and now a strategist/missionary, I have seen churches with the most sophisticated and particularly detailed vision statements fail miserably. Conversely, the most successful church plants I have seen have followed the most elementary of vision statements.

Beginning in 1997 as a congregation of about 25, Marathon Community Church in Easley South Carolina was led by two brothers, neither of whom possessed any theological training. But Eddie and Brian Cox were determined to reach the growing unchurched population of this upstate area. Today, Marathon has over 4000 in attendance in multiple services every Sunday, and they have helped to plant over five other churches in the surrounding area. The mission that guided them wasn't sophisticated. In fact, it wasn't even original. It was borrowed from the Hard Rock Cafe. Still today, the banner that once hung over the bar at a Hard Rock in Florida now hangs in the sanctuary at Marathon's new campus, and on that banner are found only four words: "Love all, Serve all!" These two guys had no huge dreams of a mega-church. They simply wanted to serve their community in the name of Jesus, and remove unneccesary barriers to people coming to faith in Christ. This was the exact "vision" they cast to their core group, and it was the reference point that kept them from "aimless wandering," as they grew from an Elementary School cafeteria to a warehouse, to their present facility. The result? Well, needless to say, it was "abundantly beyond" what they asked for.

This is, I believe, the essence of "vision." It doesn't need to be flamboyant to be powerful. And leaders don't need to have the personality of a televangelist to be a visionary.

One story from the business world illustrates how simple vision can direct an organization to greatness, and that is the story of the Hard Rock Cafe referenced above. In 1974 two Americans opened up a burger joint in Great Brittan, with a simple vision of providing their clientele with a friendly atmosphere and great food. In fact, most readers will recognize the name of one of their first, and most famous customers. Musician Eric Clapton was a regular at this new food establishment, and one day, suggested to the owners that they provide him with his own reserved table. The owners jokingly suggested that if Clapton would donate his guitar, they would mark his reserved table by placing it on the wall. But Clapton wasn't joking, and not long after this conversation brought in a signed Fender to mark his territory in his favorite restaurant.

The story doesn't stop here. Not long after Clapton's guitar was hung, the owners received a package in the mail from Pete Townsend of the Who. Enclosed was one of his signed guitars with a note that read "Mine's just as good as Eric's. Love, Pete." And so began a collection of Rock 'n Roll memorabillia that to this day is unparallelled, housed in restaurants all over the world now universally recognized by the yellow, neon guitars posted outside. The Hard Rock Cafe began with a vision not nearly as sophisticated as the end result. Nevertheless, these two American shop-owners remained true to their original plan of a welcoming atmosphere and great food, and the rest is history.

That story contains much promise for those who serve God with a simple yet compelling focus. The Hard Rock began with a simple vision caught by some very recognizeable musicians. But the church begins with a simple vision that is empowered by God Himself! To ignore the crucial importance of vision in church planting is to play fast and loose with eternal souls who may end up in aimless wandering because of complacent and ultimately uncaring leaders. But to think that one has to have everything "figured out" to be a true visionary is to deny the sovereignty of God in the process of establishing His church. For church planters, this means prayerful planning that expects God to do so much more than you ever dreamed possible. In the end, if God has His way, noone will be talking about the visionary capacity of the pastor and/or planter. Instead, everyone will be speaking the greatness of God. And in the end, there can be no greater vision than this!

Other Resources:

Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't. New York: Harper Business, 2001.

Thom Rainer. Breakout Churches: Discover how to Make the Leap. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Andy Stanley. Visioneering: God's Blueprint for Developing and Maitaining Personal Vision. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishing, 1999.

Jack Welch. Winning. New York: Harper Business, 2005

Friday, August 12, 2005

Wealth in Tribulation and Poverty: Lessons from our Brothers in the "Third World."

American Christianity truly presents what will likely be one of the most amazing ironies of the 21st Century. On the one hand, the church in North America boasts more material wealth than all the churches in all the other nations of the world combined. Yet at the same time, missiologists tell us that North America is the only inhabited continent on the globe where the church is in retreat. Conversely, it now appears that the segment of Christ's body that currently poses the greatest threat to the Kingdom of darkness is located in the poorest regions of our world.

Over a quarter century ago, Anglican Priest David Watson noted that "it is widely held that the battle of the century will be between Marxism, Islam, and Third World Christianity." Those wondering why Watson would credit this particular corner of the church with maximum effectiveness, as opposed to more affluent segments of the body, were met with a sombering observation: "Western Christianity is considered too weak and ineffective to contribute anything significant to this universal struggle." This is a serious indictment on the church in the west, particularly in light of Luke 12:48. God has blessed the western church, more specifically the church in the United States, with unparallelled affluence and influence, and the church has as a whole responded to that blessing with lethargy and complacency.

These observations beg the question of how the American church can begin to move toward being good stewards with the enormous supply God has given. And the answers to this question come primarily from examining the efficacy of the church as it exists in other parts of the globe, and most notably in the poorest countries in the world. What I want to suggest here are three primary barriers the American church has yet to overcome, along with ways in which we can overcome them. Ironically enough, many of these lessons come from our third world brothers and sisters that we so often marginalize:

BARRIER #1: MATERIALISM. Admittedly, this barrier is not exclusive to the US. In fact, I have missionary friends in some pretty poor countries that tell me this is a problem everywhere. One colleague tells me that in certain parts of poor, sub-Sahara Africa, "If a man has a straw hut, he wants a mud hut. If he has a mud hut, he wants a brick hut." In other words, materialism has less to do with one's pocketbook and more to do with one's attitude. Wealth is not sin, but a desire for wealth that is greater than the desire for God is sin, and this is where many in the American church have been held back from much greater influence in the Kingdom of God. In many parts of the western church, the "American Dream" has supplanted the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the message of focus. The message of repentance from sin and faith in Christ's substitutionary death and bodily resurrection for salvation has been replaced in many "seeker-friendly" pulpits with the message of health, wealth, and prosperity. The challenge to follow Jesus has been largely usurped with messages of how to gain "success," as the prevailing western culture defines that term. The result of this substitution is a perverted view of what constitutes faithfully following Jesus. Let's face it: American Christians don't want to hear the suggestion that they or their children might be called by God to go to the hard places of the world; even to lay down their lives in martyrdom for the sake of God's Kingdom. When it comes to the Biblical principle of "suffering," there is a suspicious kind of cessationism going on. We in the US don't believe those texts apply to us.
The way of overcoming this barrier is that of returning the western church to an eternal perspective, and those in the less affluent regions of the globe can teach us much about how to make this turn. One of the greatest examples of this eternal perspective is seen in a massive church planting movement currently underway in the nation of Honduras, led by Pastor Humberto del Arca. Pastor del Arca heads a multiplication movement of new churches that tenders an average of one new congregation per week. Having none of the technology or resources we possess, del Arca's movement is witnessing results that truly make our best church planting efforts in North America look anemic. They share the Gospel , baptize converts, and then focus on laying up "heavenly" treasures. Post conversion conversation centers around Romans 6, and the first follow-up question is: "What sinful habits do you have that need to be changed by the power of the risen Christ?" No frills, no messages on how to increase your income or raise "successful" children. Just a simple, Gospel-centered approach to discipleship that is radically focused on the eternal perspective. This is an effective cure for the heart that is sick with the desire for material things.

BARRIER #2: NATIONALISM/ZEALOTISM: Now before I go any further, let me clear something up: I believe Christians should think Biblically in every aspect of life, including the political. Applying a Christian worldview in the voting booth is something more followers of Christ should be doing. Issues like the murder of the unborn, the blessing of sexual perversion, and government disdain for religious expression in the public square are issues on which the church dare not be silent. Give me the issues and I'll vote accordingly. Show me the petition and I'll sign it. The problem however, is when followers of Jesus confuse political action with the accomplishment of the Great Commission. When we confuse the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of America, the resulting Nationalism becomes an attempt to accomplish God's goals with man's Kingdom resources.
Exhibit A of this tendency is seen when looking at the declining rate of abortions that took place during the Clinton administration . . . . yes, that's right, during the administration of a "pro-choice" President, the rate of abortions decreased significantly. Statistics reveal that the rate has actually ticked up a bit since George W. Bush took the oath of office for the first time in 2001. Does this mean that abortions go down because of a "pro-choice" approach to abortion? Of course not! Those who would permit the murder of an unborn child are not even fit to hold public office! But that 's not the point. The point is that during Clinton's presidency, American evangelicals knew they would get no help from Washington in defending innocent human life, so they rolled up their sleeves and went to work! The lesson learned from this slice of history is simple: Just because "our guy" is in the White House, Governor's Mansion, or seat in congress does not mean that we can stop being the missional people of God!
Conversely, the church is spreading like wildfire in nations where religious persecution of Christians is strongest. A dear friend of mine who is very familiar with the church in other nations tells me that if certain oppressive governments fall in some of the eastern coutries, the world will be aghast at how large the evangelical church is in those nations. Similar stories could be told in Ambon, Indonesia and other nations of the world. Our brothers and sisters who live under the constant threat of persecution understand what Jesus meant when he told Pilate "My Kingdom is not of this world." If we hope to have a fraction of the impact they are having, we too must learn that God's Kingdom is not advanced through culture war, but rather through joyful suffering. It is strange but true. Throughout its history, the church has always been the most effective when her enemies were in power. Perhaps this is because when found in this situation, the church patterns her behavior after her Savior, who Himself claimed to build His Kingdom through suffering. (See Isaiah 52 and 53 for the connection between the "suffering servant" and how the coming Kingdom of God will be inaugurated.)

BARRIER #3: PLURALISM: Make no mistake. When we speak of pluralism, we are speaking of what will undoubtedly be the greatest threat to the integrity of the preached Gospel in the west. It is already demonstrating itself to be the next great heresy with which Gospel-loving believers will have to contend, as well as one of the most dangerous of false teachings. Yet the American church is to a large extent delusional with pluralistic deception. Research conducted by Doctor of Ministry students at one Southern Baptist seminary revealed that 40% of Southern Baptists believe "good people go to heaven, whether or not they have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ." The solution to this is simple: We must return to John 14:6, Acts 4:12, and other texts which clearly state that outside of Jesus Christ, there is no way to fellowship with God and a secure eternity.
Think for a moment about our brothers and sisters undergoing persecution in the Sudan. If pluralism has merit, wouldn't you think they would simply convert to Islam to avoid being martyred? After all, if heaven belongs to all the "good people" regardless of whether they know Jesus, what is the use of remaining in Christ to only be killed in the end? Let this much be clear: The Apostles freely allowed themselves to be persecuted because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. The reformers risked excommunication and even death because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. Many of the earliest settlers in this nation came because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. There is most assuredly a line between who is "in" and who is "out," and our fellow believers in other parts of the world can teach us about the preciousness of guarding that truth, even if it costs us our lives.

There can be little doubt that the American church is to a large extent in a state of continuous lethargy. Our consumerist approach to the Christian faith has left us largely impotent to effectively transform ouur culture for the sake of the Gospel. In his recent book on church membership, Chuck Lawless laments that church in the west "is more about receiving than giving, more about coming than going, more about being served than serving." Yet in the midst of this morbid complacency, the Savior commands us to return to our first love. But He also gives us a pattern for effectiveness, and just like Jesus, notorious for using the prostitute, the child, the poor, and the disenfranshised as examples of the "greatest" in His Kingdom, He now calls our attention to the "least of these" in the third world. Have we considered these servants of God? The world is not worthy of them! May God grant us the grace and the guts to follow their example.