Evangelism and Pyramid Schemes

One of the most touted strategies of evangelicals is “relational evangelism”. While this can describe a valuable pursuit, I would like to take a closer look at its roots. In particular, in this post I wanted to offer some critiques of making friendships for the sake of evangelism, while also offering possible ways to make this pursuit more God glorifying, based on scriptures.

Relational Evangelism?

Relational evangelism is typically a strategy of forming friendships for the sake of evangelism. One of the first concerns of the specific strategy of making friendships for the sake of conversion is fairly simple: it seems surprisingly absent from the Bible. From what I can tell there is virtually no examples of or instructions telling anyone to make friends for the purpose of evangelism. The best reason I can find for the strong emphasis on relational evangelism is that it is a relatively successful mechanism for getting converts (lessons learned from the business world, perhaps). This isn’t to say that outcome-justified strategies are bad, in general this would be a strong reason. However, the outcome-driven reasoning for relational evangelism has other problems based on questionable assumptions. The first problem is that relational evangelism can have negative side-effects in the pursuit of its goal, and secondly a singular focus on the outcome of conversions may misrepresent our essential goal as Christians.

In considering possible side-effects, we need to face the potential deceptive nature of relational evangelism. If friendship is pursued, with the implied goal of a relationship, when in fact, the real goal is conversion, this is disingenuous. Often this deception isn’t a sophisticated covert operation, but when underlying motives are hidden in relationships, that can easily lead to feeling slighted by the (apparently) insincere motives.

Again, I can find no direction in the Bible to pursue relationships for the ulterior motive of evangelism (in fact, surprisingly, evangelism is never even given as a universal mandate for Christians). Instead, within the Bible, I find pages and pages of instructions for how to do relationships for the sake of… good, loving relationships themselves. The God of the Bible doesn’t seem to treat relationships as a means to some other end, but rather something to be cultivated themselves. If it has a further end, it is for nothing short of God’s glory. God seems love to healthy caring relationships simply because he desires this for his people, it is his nature, reflected in humanity, and this glorifies Himself. Relational evangelism, then, runs the risk of degrading the value of relationship, lowering relationships to merely a tool, instead of having intrinsic worth itself (or at least in finding its worth in directly glorifying God).

Pyramid Schemes

I believe a helpful analogy in understanding the concern with relational evangelism can be expressed by comparing it to a pyramid or multi-level marketing scheme. Let’s consider the basic definition of a pyramid scheme: A pyramid scheme is a model in which participants receive rewards for enrolling other people into the scheme, rather than supplying any products or services to the public.

So how can a religion be similar to a concept that we typically apply to a business model? The core analogy is that a religion behaves like a pyramid scheme when it conveys that the highest and most valued activity is the conversion of others into the religion. The problem with this type of approach is that it is an empty cycle of recruitment. When the goal is nothing but converting people who will in turn seek to convert people, we are left with a circular pursuit that lacks any real substance. As a friend once said, we are recruiting soldiers, whose battle is nothing more than doing more recruiting.

The alternative to this empty scheme is that we pursue being obedient followers or disciples of Christ that make meaningful contribution to those around us, bringing blessing and peace. We want to make real disciples.

However, even “disciple-making” can easily shift into pyramid scheme. One can easily teach disciple-making as an alternative to evangelism for the purpose of making reproducing disciples. But again, if the goal is simply reproduction, without meaningful transformation that leads to substantive impact for others, in which case, disciple making has simply become a more sophisticated and effective pyramid scheme.

In a pyramid scheme, marketing (particularly by leveraging friendships) has overtaken the product or service itself, as the central component of the organization. Christianity must not be centered solely on marketing or reproduction, because it demonstrates that the core essence of Christianity (the fruit of the Kingdom, and the King himself) are not worthwhile themselves, and that relational manipulation is needed to grow. Followers of Christ exist to glorify the ways of God, not to demonstrate their own marketing and growth expertise.

To illustrate this further, I like to compare Amway and Apple. The former company is known for relying on multi-level marketing to sell products. No one (except the participants who are trying to sell) really considers Amway to have exceptional products. Rather they are known for exceptionally successful recruitment and marketing push. On the other hand, Apple is a company that has thrived on the reputation of their products. People buy their products not because a friend, who will get commission if he makes a sale, has convinced them they are good, but because of their reputation for, and people’s direct experience with their beautiful, well-designed products (this isn’t always the case, I am actually not a big fan of Apple products myself, but I certainly recognize their high reputation. There are a number of other companies that are perhaps even better examples of being built on product reputation, with very little marketing investment, like Asics, Krispy Kreme, and Sriracha.)

Scriptures frequently use the analogy of fruit to describe the result of meaningful faith. The primary significance of fruit is that it is distinctive in substance and nature from the rest of the tree. A tree consists of hard wood, but fruit is an entirely different substance. When a fruit tree grows, this can be good and healthy, but it is not fruitful if it only increases in size and branches. It must produce an distinct substance (something that can be distinctly tasted as good) from just more wood. Likewise, this means that while it is very good when Christians spread Christianity, and this growth is important, this alone is not fruitfulness. Fruitfulness is demonstrated not when Christianity produces more Christianity, but when it produces distinctive fruits (love, joy, peace, etc.)

Ultimately, the Gospel is good news, not good marketing. To love the gospel is not to be a lover of persuasive communication, but rather a lover of the revelation of the goodness of God.

Ultimate Purpose

The second questionable assumption of relational evangelism is that the outcome of conversions, and the number of conversions, is the central goal of Christianity. Indeed this is a logical conclusion if we assume that all humanity is destined for infinite joy or infinite sorrow, and every other finite matter (reward or punishment) is infinitesimal in comparison. This conclusion makes logical sense to me. But apparently it didn’t to Jesus, as his ministry does not align at all with this conclusion. Jesus, throughout the gospel, consistently pursued a holistic ministry, not a sole focus on conversion. However, this conclusion is perhaps most clearly contradicted in John 6. Jesus teaches that “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (vs 56). The response: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (vs 66). We are left with one of two possibilities. Either Jesus had no idea how poorly his sermon would go over, or he had something more important in mind than how many people would simply label themselves as followers or “Christians”.

I believe that the Bible makes clear that the central mission of God is to glorify Himself. And He works through the church to reflect his amazing wisdom, grace, love, and justice (Eph 3:10). God is honored and glorified by a church that truly reflects these characteristics. The church in America has reflected many of these characteristics at times, but in contrast we also struggle with dishonoring God as our actions and attitudes build up a reputation of hypocrisy, judgment, arrogance, and selfishness. This struggle for the church to properly reflect God, to pursue His honor, is our most critical pursuit. And it seems nearly absurd to think that this struggle will be solved or even significantly helped by increasing the numbers and size of the American church. In a country where tens of millions, the majority (or nearly majority) of the country, identify themselves as Christians, the quality of the church properly representing and glorifying God hardly hinges on growing or shrinking a few percentage points (and possibly it may even fulfill its role better with fewer numbers).

As we consider how to glorify God, imagine that we were to make a serious research inquiry into who was the greatest leader in human history. How might we evaluate different leaders? While we might consider the number of followers as a simple filter for who to consider, we would almost certainly value things like integrity, inspiration, morality, and courage above simply the number of followers. For example, who would seriously think that Hitler was a greater leader for leading tens of millions than Oskar Schindler, simply because he only led a few thousand?

After leveling some criticism at relational evangelism, I want to try to now more clearly affirm the positive aspects of relationships and evangelism:

  • God delights in healthy, loving, self-sacrificial relationships themselves. Relationships don’t have to serve some other end, to be God glorifying, relationships that reflect His love and selflessness can honor Him regardless of whether they lead to presenting the gospel.
  • Relationships can authentically reveal the gospel that have developed in the spirit of mutually, humbly pursuing a right, just lifestyle.
  • A true, genuine relationship is characterized by people sharing their deepest cares. If God is the center of our lives, than honestly revealing ourselves should include revealing our passion for Him.
  • A community of healthy, loving relationships can be a brilliant display of God’s character and a great attraction to others.
  • Relationships themselves can communicate God’s hope.
  • Disciples in a mutual pursuit of God, and learning to obey His ways, can be one of the most power foundations of a friendship.
  • We are called to be ambassadors for God. Part of being reconciled to God is helping others be reconciled to God.
  • Evangelism can be one of the higher forms of praise. When we freely proclaim God’s goodness in response to how we have genuinely experienced Him, we are offering one of the greatest forms of worship (more than simply evangelizing out of duty or reward).
  • While I believe the American church doesn’t lack for size, many cultures and regions of the world lack a viable expression of the church. Strategically building trust and relationships that communicate the good news to enable the worship of God in every ethnicity is clearly integral to God’s vision of being glorified and worshiped in great diversity (Matt 28:19, Rev 7:9).

While I have perhaps been a bit critical of some evangelistic strategies, strategy is definitely in the Bible, and next I want to look at some of the strategy that is revealed.

Nikki’s 2015 Book Reviews

Since Kris posted about the books he read or skimmed this last year I thought I’d do the same. I do love reading and so don’t count books if I’ve just skimmed or not finished them.:-)

Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach–I heard about this book on NPR over a year ago and thought it sounded interesting. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be! For what could have been a very grizzly and uncomfortable topic, the author perfectly balances humor with the somberness to keep the reader interested without being disgusted. She is careful to not come across as calloused.
I learned so much about the history of human interaction with death and cadavers. Many, many of the advances we benefit from today are somehow connected to research done with bodies donated to science.
I would recommend this book with some reservation. Anyone who is squeamish might find some of the research described as overwhelming. However, anyone with a fascination with science or the human body will love this book. It’s a fast and informative read, entertaining while you learn something.

How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill–Years and years ago this book was recommended by an instructor during a Perspectives class. I think if I were to title this book I would have gone with: Why Civilization Fell and How the Irish Saved It. A large portion of the book is spent explaining the condition and mentality of the Roman Empire just before it fell. It’s not a pretty or flattering picture. What was once great, refined and outward focused became trivial and perversely inward focused. The civilized world stood to lose nearly all its advances, most of which were recorded in writing, were it not for their savage, uneducated, heathen neighbors, the Irish…and the life-long service of a few extraordinary individuals.
This is a great, great read. It’s a little dry in places but worth pushing through.There’s much to be learned from this book, not just about our history, but also our future.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo–This summer while we tore out and remodeled our kitchen I spent a lot of hours in the garage stripping, sanding, and painting cupboards. During that time I listened to Les Miserables read aloud. I knew the story and already loved it but I was surprised at just how much I loved this book. Hugo’s observations about humanity, poverty, and inequality feel like they could have been written yesterday, not over 150 years ago.
I will confess that I don’t know if I could have finished this book had I actually been reading and not listening to it. There are many, many passages and whole chapter even that discuss French politics which went way over my head. There are many references to French individuals, locations, and even events that were obviously significant at the time Hugo wrote this but that I didn’t understand.
However the classic story of poverty, crime, corruption, grace, sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption is so beautifully portrayed that it is well worth struggling through the difficult parts. No wonder this book is a classic.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin–Twelve year old Suzanne has lost her best friend and is trying to make sense of a senseless death. To add to this trauma, her last encounter with her friend was terrible, certainly not the last way you want to relate with anyone you love.
This is a quick read–written at a middle school level-but that does not detract from the beauty of this well written story. Kids (and adults) will be able to relate to Suzanne’s grieving process as she tried to find a way to make sense of this death. Suzanne may have mild autism. At any rate she is a very concrete thinker; she likes numbers and lists. Yet she has these strong emotions that she cannot ignore or reason away…but she has no idea what to do with them. I think most of us can relate to that feeling. As the reader we get to join her, see her thought process, while all those in her life are shut out and worried about her.
This is a wonderful story about growing up, people changing, feeling awkward and like everything is wrong with you (who hasn’t felt this way!) and ultimately about grieving and regrets. This will be a book my kids will read when they reach that weird preteen age.

For the Love by Jen Hatmaker–I loved Jen’s previous book, Se7en and had cautiously high hopes about this, her newest book. Yet I’m always a little wary of books that everyone raves about. How can something with any real substance appeal to the masses? Jaded, I know.
It took a little while for this book to convince me that it was worth the time. The first few chapters are entertaining and funny, but not much more than that. However, after about chapter five, I feel like Jen settled down into the meat of the book. The small talk is out of the way and now she can really share her heart. She is a gifted writer with really good insights for any Christ-follower, not just women and moms.
If you decide to read this book I suggest really choosing to invest some time and thought into it. Don’t just read it because everyone is talking about it or because she makes you laugh. She really is very funny and there is an appropriate time and place for that. But don’t miss the important things Jen has to say. She says some hard things and some really encouraging things. Don’t skip over these parts for the next funny section.
As a side note this book has the BEST recipe for Beef Bourguignon I’ve ever had.

Bread and Wine by Shauna Neiquist–This is 100% my kind of book. I’ve never read anything by Shauna but really loved her writing style. Each chapter is like a little vignette into her life, experiences, and what God is showing her. She shares some very hard experiences as well as the rewarding ones. I loved her heart for community, for authentic, real, equal relationships that challenge, encourage, and cause each of us to grow in Christ. She talks about the sweet times together over food, how that is where people relax, open up and are real. Good food feed our physical bodies while good relationships feed our soul and spirit. After reading her book I felt so encouraged to see my love of hospitality and good food no longer as a silly insignificant hobby but as a real gift that can minister to others. I’ve been challenged to open up my home more and be intentional about feeding both the body and soul.
As an added gift at the end of nearly every chapter she shares a beloved recipe. I always love a tried and true recipe.

Yes, Please by Amy Poehler–Parks and Rec is one of my favorite shows so I was excited when this book came out. I wanted to see how authentically funny Poehler is. Her book is entertaining but writing a book is not something that seems to easily flow for her. There are parts that are clever, witty, and insightful but this book is nowhere near as well written or entertaining as Tina Fey’s book.
I did really appreciate Poehler’s down to earth style. It’s clear that she has worked really hard to achieve her goals and she doesn’t seem to be blinded by the glitz and glam of fame. She remains one of my favorite comedians, even if is isn’t that great of a author.

The Seventh Child by Erik Valeur–I read this while on vacation and it’s a good thing because this book frustrated me and wasted my time. Maybe something was lost in translation for me. I feel like I missed out on something. The plot is excellent, a well thought-out web that drew me is. But that was part of the problem. I got restless with the length (600 pages!) and (I felt) needless telling and retelling of the same plot. I also found the many, many references to Fate and God tiresome. They felt cliche-ish and were more a distraction than an addition to the plot.
The author clearly loved Denmark and I assume those native or familiar with the towns and cities found the details descriptions enjoyable. I found them to be long and mostly meaningless, or like perhaps they were referring to a theme or allusion I should have understood but didn’t.
Finally, and again this may be a translation issue more than anything else, I found it confusing to have two major character have such similar names: Ole and Orla and then further confused by often only referring to them by nickname.
In conclusion, had this book been a mere 300 pages instead of double that I would have enjoyed it so much more.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed–This was made into a movie a couple years ago but I wanted to read the book before I saw it. I had high hopes for this book just because of the parts of the PCT that I’ve hiked. Many people have hiked the full length of the PCT before, she wasn’t the first to do it. But she may have been the first to do it with absolutely no prior hiking experience and very little preparation or research. Grief makes people do funny things, I get that, but her story is crazy to the point that it almost felt like she did these crazy things simply for a good story. She makes a series of bad choices that lead to more grief and regret and her solution is to go hike… for months. Even while hiking her choices were often unwise and could have gotten her hurt or placed her and others in danger. I found it interesting that her way of dealing with the grief in her life was so extreme and unhealthy (not the hiking part, hiking is good for you, but some of her other choices that came along with the hike weren’t so great), especially after I’d read The Thing About Jellyfish which was such a realistic, graceful look a grief.
Anyway I wouldn’t recommend the book, or the movie for that matter, they are both disappointing.

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling–I was never allowed to read these books growing up (they were banned from our household) but my daughter has mentioned them a few times. Several of her peers are reading them and  I am anticipating the day that she asks if she can read them too. So I thought I’d read through the series first and be prepared to answer that question.
I’ve read three of seven so far and, like everyone else, have found them to be entertaining and well written. I do plan to read all seven, mostly because they are fun reads. I don’t see a lot of dark allusions in the books that make me uncomfortable. The central theme is good verses evil and love and courage verses selfishness and hate. There are good lessons to be learned and there is a pretty clear picture throughout about how dark and powerful hate and the love of self can become. In general, these are good lessons. Yes, there’s magic, lots of it. But I guess it doesn’t bother me because I never feel like the book tries to sell it as real. It’s all very fictitious and as much as some of us would like to travel by broom or cast a spell on that annoying acquaintance, it is all very clearly just make believe.
Having said that, however, I will tell you that it will be quite a few years before Jennika will be allowed to read these books. The scary parts are scary and I while I won’t object to her reading them when she is able to handle that level of intensity, I certainly don’t think she, or most 8-year-olds, are ready to handle such heavy themes.

I think that’s the extent of it for 2015. I am excited about what’s on my reading list for 2016 and sharing it with you next year.

Advocating For the Poor

There are well over a hundred verses in the Bible about caring for the poor. These take various forms: some condemn the wicked for their oppression or disregard for the poor, some talk about God’s concern for the poor and the hope He offers them, and many are also direct mandates to care for the poor. Of these verses, most of these speak in general terms about caring for the poor, but others discuss the specific ways that we should care for the poor. While the general nature of these verses should compel us to care for the poor in any way possible, there are more specific mandates. There are two main mechanisms to help the poor;we find a number of passages instructing us to give to this poor (financially, or with goods), and there are also sets of passages instructing us to advocate for or defend the cause of the poor. These passages include verses like Psalms 72:4, Proverbs 29:7, and Proverbs 31:5-9.

These verses are translated in variety of different ways, including “defend the afflicted”, “care about justice for the poor” (NIV), “defend the poor”, “care about the rights of the poor” (NLT), “defends the poor”, “knows the rights of the poor” (ESV), “considers the cause of the poor” (NKJV). In contrast to giving to the poor, these verses speak to the importance of working to ensure that the poor have a just, fair, and equitable life and opportunity in society. This might have the most literal implications for a judge, but for us (assuming you aren’t actually a judge), we need to think a little more about how we can proactively pursue this command.

Outside a direct position of making judicial or governing decisions in regards to the poor, I believe our primary role in fulfilling this command is found in advocating for the poor. As citizens we do indeed have an influence on government. And following these two Biblical categories of instructions for the physical welfare of the poor, giving to the poor and advocating for the poor, the first can be carried out by offering our material (financial or goods) resources, the second by offering our influence (certainly we should also pray for the poor and care about their spiritual and relational needs as well). Our giving page talks about opportunities for the first, but I wanted to consider our second in this post. While often it may feel that the only way we can help the poorest of the poor is with money, advocacy gives the opportunity to invest our time and voice as well.

I have previously written about how our citizenship is a profoundly substantial resource. And this isn’t just a subjective superlative, our influence as an American voter can be objectively and literally measured; every voter effectively influences roughly $25,000 per year in government funds, which doesn’t even include other impacts the government has. If we are called to defend the poor, our voting privileges give us the ability to defend the poor with advocacy that has potential for very meaningful and substantial benefit to the poor.

So what are ways that we can defend and care for the poor through advocacy? And what does that look like for an American citizen?

The great opportunity that we have is found in simply contacting our representatives and encouraging them to have concern for the poorest. There are numerous bills to consider and budget decisions that they will make, and as they come to focus, we can easily email, write, and call them to push that to consider first and foremost how to protect the most vulnerable. Even calling a representative is very easy. An aide will answer the phone, you can tell them what position you want your representative to take, and they will politely record your response. Remember, they want your vote, so they are always very friendly, and will never argue or dispute (unless, perhaps you insult them, but I have never tried that).

Probably the easiest and most effective way to get involved in advocacy is to join or even just follow (mailing list, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever you prefer) a poverty advocacy group. These groups often will research and follow legislation as it is considered, and send information on who you can call and when, to promote bills that help the poor. These groups all invest effort in research to ensure that they are advocating for the most effective measures and policies to help the poor. There are several great groups that help citizens advocate for the poor:
Bread for the World – This is Bible-based Christian group, working to fight for the poor, here and abroad, although they tend to be more focused on domestic issues (I tend to believe that domestic policy tweaks are more complicated with smaller impact).
RESULTS – This group is probably the best organization at specifically equipping and training people to advocate for the poor in an effective way. They offer numerous ways to engage, and provide a lot of assistance in how to influence representatives, and will often organize in-person meetings with representatives and letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers.
ONE – This is probably the largest poverty advocacy group, and they do a great job staying focused on the most severe international poverty issues. This group is more focused on mobilizing large numbers of people, so they offer very-low effort advocacy opportunities (sometimes just clicking through to sign a petition, sometimes encouraging a quick phone call), but don’t tend to push for as much depth as RESULTS.

There are also a number of other advocacy groups that also do great work, but tend to be more focused on technical suggestions and in-person lobbying, or advocacy with foreign governments, rather than getting members to advocate. This is very important and effective work, but these groups are supported more through financial donations, and rely less on personal advocacy. This may be a great way to be involved if you have more money, and less time (but I wanted to focus more on personal advocacy in this post). These include groups like Jubilee (focused on debt relief and more technical trade and tax issues), International Justice Mission (focused on criminal justice systems in other countries), and Oxfam (focused on an array of social justice issues with various governments).

It is easy to be cynical of online advocacy. We often see online petitions going around. Does this really have any impact? Recently, our local RESULTS group sent out a request to contact representative Chris Stewart to encourage him to co-sponsor a bill that starts a working group in USAID to better support child and maternal health in developing countries. There were about seven or eight of us that called his office to encourage co-sponsorship, and sure enough, he agreed to sign on. It is worth understanding the significance of this. Representative Stewart represents about 700,000 people. Each of us were effectively representing the voice of about 100,000 residents by our simple phone calls! This is an incredible level of influence and impact! People often think that voting is the key to change, but our vote has a relatively small influence compared to the influence we carry by actually contacting our representatives.

Some may be concerned that some of the policies may not be effective. These groups’ advocacy is often focused on aid efforts, and often “foreign aid” is frequently criticized. However, “foreign aid” tends to be an unhelpfully vague term, often encompassing completely different types of international funding from military funding of other developed countries, to programs really directed at the poor, and an anecdotal examples of waste and misuse tend to ignore the incredible impact of well-targeted aid programs. Most of the efforts that advocacy groups fight for are around health initiatives, education, and microfinance. They are very well monitored, with excellent accountability, that save and empower countless lives and really are about giving the poor a fair opportunity, saving them from the injustice of preventable diseases, inaccessible schooling, or lack of basic capital. There may be critics of other types of foreign aid, but there is little, if any actual debate about the positive impact of such efforts to help the poor. In fact, it is almost undisputed that these efforts save more lives per dollar than basically any other government expenditure. This is less of question of efficacy and more about making the poor a priority. This is very straightforward way of simply being a voice to help the poor.

Finally, in closing I’d like to point out that one of the great things about advocacy is that it is complementary to giving. Are you already giving all you can to help the poor? Great, you can engage in advocacy without have to cut giving somewhere else. While you glorify God with your finances by giving, advocacy is something you can do with your time and voice.

Kris’ 2015 Book Reviews

It’s a little late, but here is a review of the books I read in 2015. I actually didn’t finish most of these books, or in some cases skimmed them pretty quickly. I think I have increasingly felt that when my goal is to gain more knowledge (or wisdom), with limited time, the time it takes to fully read a book is sometimes better spent spent quickly skimming or reading several book summaries, and gaining the broader perspective of multiple authors. Of course, I don’t expect that to be true for everyone. If you have more time to read, or actually enjoy reading… Anyway, here are some quick summaries of things I have read (at least some of, even though I didn’t finish all these books).

A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof – This book followed Nicholas Kristof’s amazing book, Half the Sky. This is a great book, as it looks at some of the great injustices in our world, and focuses on practical ways that we can help. This book is not mere theory and sad stories, it is full of hope and concrete, positive suggestions. However, I personally grew a bit bored reading this book; I think Kristof follows all the same blogs and research that I do, and his suggestions echoed what I heard others say (although I certainly agree with them). However, I don’t think that would be as much of an issue for others.

A Farewell To Mars by Brian Zahnd – A friend posted that this book was available for free, so I thought I would skim some of it. I was very impressed, Zahnd is in incredible author, and this book is remarkably thought-provoking and challenging. Brian Zahnd is focused on resisting the urge towards violence, and even though I am not a pacifist, his perspective is very thoughtful and his challenges to the church should definitely be heard.

Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly – Easterly is a well-known aid critic, so I wanted to read for another perspective. He offered some good insights. Most of these critiques are actually more aimed at improving the quality of our research, approach, and efforts to help those in developing countries, not to eliminate such efforts. Unfortunately, his comments are often pulled out of context and used by those looking for an excuse to not be generous and help the developing world.

The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier – This book examines the countries where the poorest of the poor live, and what are the forces that have kept them in poverty. This looks at the frustrated issue of fragile and unstable states and the economics of international trade and considers the right time for military intervention in countries that face violent upheaval. This book is considered a classic of international development, and I learned a lot.

Politics for Christians by Francis Beckwith – This book is more about political philosophy. I suppose it is a decent survey of how different philosophies have shaped politics, but it ultimately doesn’t deal directly with existing political issues (at least in any useful or distinctively Christian way), nor offer any real meaningful or new thoughts on the subjects. The preface, by J.P. Moreland, on Christian integrative thought was really good, though. But it went downhill once the book actually started.

Healing by Francis MacNutt – This is a good book looking closely at the subject of healing, and is regarded by some as the definitive book on the theology of healing. I didn’t read the entire book, but skimmed through some of the key parts. I am already a believer in healing, so I don’t think he really suggested anything contrary to what I already believed. One particular entertaining aspect of this book is seeing the intersection of a Catholic priest in pursuit of social justice working side-by-side with the charismatic movement. What a fun combination this must have been (and I am not being sarcastic, there are great stories at these intersections of perspectives). Probably the most challenging and defining question about healing (at least for those that believe in it) is how we understand and respond when healing doesn’t or hasn’t yet occurred for someone. He had a chapter on this, which offered some insights, but I think there could be a lot more to explore and consider on God’s purposes in this, that the book only lightly touched on it.

Most of my reading during a typical day is outside of books, so I thought I might mention a few favorites there. My favorite blog (of original content) is probably still Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology, who continues to produce very thought-provoking content (even if I don’t agree with all of it). My favorite new (to me) blog I started reading is Bruce Wydick’s Across Two Worlds. Wydeck is a Christian economist who has extensively studied and researched child sponsorship programs, and found very positive results, and he offers a lot of unique perspectives.

Giving Cash to the Poor

As we approach the end of the year, we often like to make some suggestions about good giving opportunities, based on research of what has been effective in making an impact in the lives of the poor. While we have a page with giving suggestions, I wanted to write a little bit about a giving opportunity that has received  some attention lately: giving cash.

Giving cash may be the simplest way to help the poor, but it has some very interesting implications. It may be a very old way to help someone, yet it has received a lot of attention lately, due to some more recent reasons. First, giving cash has typically been a high-overhead venture, as you need to pay people salaries to distribute money. With advances in cell-phone based payments, organizations like GiveDirectly are able to transfer money with extremely low overhead. Second, there has been significant, detailed, and careful research on how people respond to being given cash, with very positive evidence and robust results.

I believe that the success of giving cash should cause us to stop and think about how and why we give. While this has been touted as the result of economic research, the basic premise and motivation for giving cash is surprisingly simple. If we want to do for others what we want done to us, it behooves us to turn the tables, and think how we might want to be helped if we were in need. If you were in severe poverty, and someone had $500 to help you out, how would you like them to help you? I think most of us would agree that we would probably choose cash as our first option. This would give us the most freedom in using the money for exactly what we need. We might use some to buy food and some to pay for school fees for our kids. If we needed shots or medicine, we could use some money for that. And maybe we could save some of it. Generally speaking, if someone has money and really wants to help us with our most pressing needs, most recipients would naturally say that they have a better knowledge of what they really need than the donor, and the freedom of cash would be the best way to help.

If we think about this from the perspective of a recipient, this seems quite obvious, yet as donors we rarely choose this option. Why is this? Why would we almost all choose cash as recipients, yet choose completely differently when giving? This seems like a strange contradiction. I think there are several good and bad reasons for this discrepancy.

First, we may often have a natural reaction that this will create dependencies. However, the great success of cash transfer programs should force us to challenge this reaction. In fact, dependency itself is not negative, it is actually positive. If we look at any successful organization, society, or group, you will find that people are heavily dependent on each other. However, there are harmful side effects that are sometimes (mis)labeled as “dependency”, like perverse incentives, displacement, lack of accountability, and market crowding which definitely should be carefully considered and avoided. But simply “avoiding dependency” without a more nuanced consideration of how the poor respond to donations and incentives can easily lead to the wrong response.

Second, probably the worst reason that we might avoid giving cash, is that it is not that exciting. Videos of wells with fresh water, children racing to school, and smiling medical recipients is certainly more engaging than someone who has received a cash transfer and used it for 10 different parts of their budget that were lacking.

The next reason one might avoid cash is that we claim to know what recipients need more than the recipients themselves. This generally suggests a fairly arrogant and paternalistic attitude. Again, turning the tables, if you were a recipient, you may well be grateful for whatever you receive, but the idea that someone thousands of miles away knows what you need better than yourself, may feel a little demeaning.

However, this isn’t always a bad reason. While it may be difficult to avoid the paternalism accusation, it is possible to do enough research to find opportunities to help, that may actually be better than what that someone might choose for themselves. In fact, we probably have personal experience with making bad financial decisions, where outside objectivity might have helped. And sometimes we even constrain our own immediate financial freedom, with tools like retirement funds, for the sake of our future self. But, we must approach this motivation very carefully. It is a very high bar to really claim you know what other people need better than they do.

Finally, probably the most legitimate and substantial reason to give to something other than cash is the social reason. Playing the table-turning game again, let’s remember that there isn’t just one person in poverty when we give. Imagine for instance if instead of being personally given $500, a donor said that they were going to give $5,000 to 10 of your neighbors. Now how would we like to see the money spent? This could clearly lead to very different preferences. Obviously many things, like food and clothing, might be very appealing for yourself, but it doesn’t do you much good when your neighbor spends the money that way. On the other hand, there many things that your neighbors or community might purchase that would really benefit you. Spending money to prevent infectious disease and building infrastructure like well/water or schools are the types of community improvements that might not be your own first priority of your own money, but would really be helpful if the money is being distributed or shared with others as well. And, in fact, efforts based on the collective needs of a community, fighting infectious disease, providing clean water, and improving education are some the most effective and helpful types of programs we can invest in.

I personally prefer other giving opportunities over giving cash, and I have mentioned a few considerations of this type of giving, but there are definitely some very compelling reasons to donate with cash. It is extremely low overhead, the poor can directly receive nearly the full value of your donation with hardly any administrative expense. It is a very “safe” and well-established mechanism as well. And finally, if you believe that offering the gift of freedom, personal-responsibility, and opportunity is the greatest of gifts, it is hard to beat the freedom and opportunity that cash in the hands of the poor will give them.

The Church and the Kingdom, Part 2

This is part 2 in a series on the way my understanding of certain term used in the bible and in Christianese has changed and how that has affected my faith. You can read the first part here
In the previous post, I looked at what I have been learning about the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Kingdom. I used to vaguely consider these simply other words for Christianity, but I have come to think of these as very distinct. The Church has the specific purpose of nurturing, training, and preparing people to follow Christ, and ultimately model the community that should arise from following Christ. The Kingdom is the actual actions of following Christ. In this post, I want to consider a few other terms, and how they relate.

Other Terms

Within scriptures, the word “Christianity” is never actually used, and other forms, like “Christian” are only used a few times. There are instead several other words that are used that are applicable to our concept our “Christianity”, and I wanted to try to describe my understand of these distinct words and concepts.

The Believers

This is the most simple and straightforward description in scriptures for the collection of people that believe in and follow Christ. This is probably most analogous to what we mean when we say “Christians”.

The Way

“The Way” was the initial term that Christians used to describe their religion. This term obviously emphasized the teachings of Jesus as a distinctive “way” of living. In Acts, it is reported that they soon started to be called Christians by outsiders. The Christians didn’t seem to object to this, and as the early church increasingly understood and formulated the divinity of Christ and His centrality, the name seemes fitting, even though it was rarely mentioned in scriptures.

Brothers, Children of God

If you look up all the references to brothers and children of God, they seem to exclusively refer to believers. However, it can be easy to recognize the object of these terms, but miss the meaning. If we take these terms to be nothing more than a synonym or replacement for believers, this would seem to suggest that the Bible uses these words as a code word, to obscure the meaning, rather than using the clearer term “believer”. But of course these terms aren’t intended to be obscure, but rather add meaning. So while the object of these words is the believers, the descriptive meaning that these terms add to the reference to believers is to describe a familial, relational connection between believers with each other and with God (which builds our understanding of the Church and the Kingdom). When we see these terms we should recognize that scriptures is pointing us to a relational element (and not just a code word for believers).

Christianity

Again, the term “Christianity” doesn’t appear in scriptures, but I was comparing other words with it, so it seems worthwhile to try to define this as well. Being more colloquially originated, Christianity has come to mean more of the culture of Christians. Christians certainly do have their own sub-culture, with certain language characteristics (Christianese), worldview, ideologies, and traditions. However, not only does the term “Christianity” not really have a Biblical origination, but the sub-culture, like any other sub-culture is often a mix of perspectives and ways, some that are redemptive, and some that are in opposition to Christ’s teaching. Christianity, as a culture, needs to be transformed and redeemed by the Kingdom of God, just like every other culture.

OT Precedent

Perhaps another helpful way of distinguishing between the Kingdom and the Church is to look at their Old Testament precedence. For the Kingdom, the precedence is found in the theocratic kingdom represented by the Davidic line of Kings. The Davidic succession of Kings found its ultimate fulfillment in Christ as the ultimate King of the Kingdom. And their battles they waged, in their partial understanding (Col 1:25-27), are representative of the real battle that was to be revealed.

For the church, finding the precedence might seem a little harder. Conventantal theology sometimes is described as treating the church as a successor to Israel. While I definitely affirm conventantal theology (that there is no distinct spiritual category of people with obligated blessing based on ethnicity, Matt 3:9, which clearly contradicts dispensational teaching), the church as a successor isn’t quite precise. According to Romans 9:6-8, it is the believers, the children of God, that are the true heirs of Israel. It might also be tempting to compare the Church, or at least its ministers, to the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. This is also misguided. The purpose of this priesthood was to act as a mediator between the people and God. The necessity of this function was decimated at the cross, when the veil was torn, and all believers were effectively made priests, with direct access to God. This also means that the associated rituals of the Aaronic priesthood, like animal sacrifices, a temple, and required tithes do not carry forward to the church.

However, finding the precedence of the church in the Old Testament is actually much easier than searching for metaphors. Why? Because the church is actually frequently referenced in the Old Testament. Now, of course, this may sound like a bizarre claim, as you probably have never seen the word “church” in the Old Testament. But, that is because you are reading an English Bible, and an artifact of English translation is the Hebrew equivalent word is traditionally not translated into “church”. However, the Hebrew word that is most equivalent to “church” or “ekklesia” is the Hebrew word “qahal”. And this Hebrew word for church (and it is varying forms, including a verb form) not only is mentioned in the OT, it occurs over a hundred times in the Old Testament (and even in the Septuagint, this is typically translated to Ekklesia, and occurs 80 times there). If you want to see the church in the Old Testament, just look for this word, which is typically translated more literally as “assembly”, “congregation”, or in verb form as “gather”. Now, I would certainly affirm that, thanks to Paul’s epistles, the church is much more fully developed in the NT, but it certainly is present and described in the OT.

What does this mean for us?

In response to my first post, a friend asked how (mis)understandings in these things work themselves out (for good or ill) today. This is a great question, and I don’t really have a complete answer. I wrote this post more to try to wrestle with the relationship and responsibility of these different aspects of God at work in His people. As a church leader, I feel it is important that I try to understand this. However, to take a rough stab at how a lack of distinction in these concepts might affect our thinking, I will offer this: I think we have tried a little too hard to make our virtuous efforts be tied to a Christian source. My assertion would be that when we pursue helping the poor, social justice, or evangelism, that there doesn’t need to be a church banner flying overhead, because the church isn’t and doesn’t need to claim direct responsibility. God will be glorified by these actions, (eventually), even if the immediate audience isn’t aware. This may diminish the church in one respect; in terms of our expectation of its direct capabilities. However, I think this (greatly) magnifies the Church in another respect. I like to characterize the role of the Church as a catalyst, and a catalyst can often trigger something that is orders of magnitude greater and larger than the catalyst itself. The Church has, can, and will continue to plant seeds of change that permeate and grow far beyond what the individuals themselves could ever accomplish. Through the Church is a thrilling and amazing potential! Lowly followers of Christ, by gathering to disciple and encourage, have triggered new patterns of living that have rippled through generations and have truly formed and shaped the world we live in today. We can and should legitimately hope to see our gatherings do the same today and tomorrow.

Putting This All Together

If I were to try to weave these together, I think I would say this:
Believers are called to periodically come gather together, like a family, relationally and lovingly, to train, nurture, equip, encourage, and prepare each other for following Christ’s way, that we might live our lives (not only inside, but outside the church) obeying the ways of the Kingdom, showing the way, like a catalyst, for transformation (for all cultures including Christianity) to a new way of living. As we do this, and manifest the Kingdom of God, demonstrating compassionate, merciful, and just ways, we tear down the barriers between ourselves, and draw people to gather together in harmony, a delight to Christ, radiating as His bride, walking in ways that anticipate our future closer union and gathering as relational community with Him.

The Church and The Kingdom, Part 1

The New Testament is very focused on describing the Kingdom of God, and the Church. Often times we use these terms interchangeably with Christianity. However, one of the most notable shifts in my Biblical understanding has been in seeing these concepts as very distinct in what they describe, and their function and purpose (for better or for worse). I wanted to describe how I currently understand these words. Some of these differences may seem minor and even pedantic, but I believe that these distinctions are indeed important in making well-informed decisions on our priorities and goals.

The Church

The church isn’t a building, its the people, right? Well, kind of, but not exactly. The word “church” is specifically for describing the greek “ekklesia” in a Christian context. And while the English word “church” is religious, the meaning of “ekklesia” isn’t actually a reference to a group people, nor did it originally have a Christian connotation. It literally means “assembly”. It was most often used to refer to something like a town hall meeting, or other gathering. And when we talk about an assembly or meeting, we don’t mean that the people are equivalent to the meeting. They obviously exist outside the meeting as well. The main meaning of this word was focused on the gathering of people (and the teaching, discipling, worshiping, etc. that we do together), more than the people themselves. Now to be fair, scripture does use the term somewhat loosely, and sometimes it is used to refer to people (like the churches of the different cities), but the reference still draws its basis from these people’s gatherings.

The assembly or gathering of believers has two purposes, a functional purpose and a representational purpose. The functional purpose is centered around the equipping of the saints (Eph 4:12), and is focused on the discipleship, teaching, training, and exhortation that will help fellow believers to obediently follow Christ. The representational purpose means that the church not only exists to facilitate the action and participation in the mission of God, but it also exists as an an example or demonstration of the outcome of the mission of God. The church gathers to train people to follow Jesus, and following Jesus ultimately leads to people gathering in harmony. The gathering is both a catalyst for a means and an end to those means.

I used to think that the church represented and was responsible for the whole mission of God. However, I have changed my view, thinking of the church in much narrower terms, as the training, enabling, and support part of the Kingdom of God. I believe the church should be the main catalyst and instigator for the ways of God, but carrying out the efforts of the Kingdom isn’t primarily done by the church, but the people who the church has shaped. This doesn’t lessen the importance of the church, but more tightly defines its scope. Like a productive business, the direction, training, and organization is absolutely critical and defines the success or failure of the business, but it must also not be the majority activity. Any company whose employees all endlessly spent the majority of their time in training and vision-casting, rather than putting their training in practice, will quickly fail. The major focus should be on actually carrying out the mission.

Often there are exhortations that the Church should rise up to fight poverty, slavery, and other forms of oppression, and to evangelize the world. I certainly agree with this sentiment. However, I am not sure if this is technically precise. It is not the direct responsibility of the church to do these things, rather it is the direct responsibility of believers to evangelize and fight poverty and oppression. The church, on the other hand, as an indirect responsibility, it’s responsible to call and equip believers to action in these areas.

Another important note about the distinction between the Church and Christianity is that one can be a Christian, but if you are not gathering with other Christians, you aren’t a part of the church. Likewise, you could gather with the church, and not be a Christian. Being a part of the church is not synonymous with being a believer.

How We Gather

I believe it can be naive to think of gathering in only physical terms. While we certainly have traditionally done church in terms of physical gatherings, if we actually think about the key elements of the church, physical presence is pretty minor and petty compared to the elements of communication, encouragement, forgiveness, and love that are not dependent on physical presence. In fact, it is interesting to remember that the much of the foundation of the church, established in the New Testament, was actually done in physical absence, from prison cells (where Paul and John wrote much of their letters).

Likewise, just as the church grew through “gathering” with the apostles who were imprisoned, and communicating remotely, the church can easily exist in our remote communication, like email and even social media. Any medium where we communicate and encourage each other to follow Christ is place where the church can exist and function.

The Bride of Christ

This term is used in Revelation (and a similar analogy is found Ephesians). It does not come with a precise description, but Ephesians does equate it with the church, and their future union with Christ. This metaphor seems to be focused on describing the representational purpose of the church. Revelation does make a specific description of the adornment of the bride as “the righteous deeds of the saints”, which would presumably be what Christ savors in His bride. This term similarly adds a relational connection with Christ, but with a strong emphasis on an anticipation of union together. Again, the church represents what Christ anticipates, a harmonious gathering of His people. We are looking forward to greater union with Christ. This anticipation that the term “bride” indicates, might be obscured in Christian culture, because for some strange reason, Christians commonly misuse the term “bride” to refer to their wife, even after their wedding and honeymoon (and associated anticipation) is long over and past (I have no idea why the wrong of use of this term is common in Christian culture).

The term “bride” seems to be reference to the representational purpose of the church. I think it is fair to say that Christ’s anticipation of the bride isn’t about the functional purpose of the church. I don’t think He is looking forward to sitting in on sermons and Sunday school lessons through eternity. Rather, as the bride, the church is representation of the family-like assembly that foreshadows our future society under Christ.

Kingdom of God

Jesus used this term frequently, which refers to that which is in accordance or subjection to God’s will, His purpose, His plan, and His vision. Again, a kingdom is not technically really a reference to a group of people, but a subjection to a King. Of course we can talk about the subjects of kingdom, but those who are subjects are not defined by the Kingdom directly, but are derived from their obedience to the ways of Kingdom. The laws of the kingdom are not defined by what the subjects do, but rather the subjects are defined by who follows the laws of the Kingdom. If you choose not to follow His ways, that doesn’t mean you are still a subject and changed His ways, it means you are no longer acting as a subject.

When I described the church as the catalyst of a means, and an end to a means, the Kingdom of God fills in this gap: the Kingdom is the means. To follow the way of the Kingdom is what the church is to train people for. The church points people to the Kingdom. The Church equips people to follow the way of the Kingdom. The mission of the Kingdom is the real substance of our calling.

This also means that the Kingdom of God is perhaps the hardest to pin down. One can’t isolate the Kingdom of God to the church or too a certain people. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to yeast in bread. You can not look at rising bread, and say “there, that’s the part that’s do the rising”. While we can look at a can of yeast, and say that is where it comes from, but once it is actually in use, mixed and in action, it is transparently permeated through the bread. The yeast itself, once activated, is nearly impossible to see, but its affects are plainly visible. Likewise, the Kingdom of God is something that can subtly permeate lives, organizations, and cultures, and we can’t pin the Kingdom down to a group of people.

This isn’t just an idea illustrated by yeast, Jesus himself makes this aspect of the Kingdom very clear and explicit:

“The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

When we pray that God’s Kingdom come, this is not a prayer for the growth, victory, growth, or promotion of any earthly group of people, institute, political party, or even church. We see Christian groups “win” or “lose” battles against non-Christians, this is not wins and losses of the Kingdom of God. Jesus clearly taught that the Kingdom can not be identified in this way. Rather the Kingdom consists of the various acts of compassion, mercy, grace, and justice performed in the world. These can not be identified by the people, they can only be identified by their fruit.

And again, one can be a believer but rebel against the Kingdom in behaviors and areas of our lives (we basically all do this), and one can be a non-believer and yet have behaviors that are in accordance to the Kingdom (and virtually all non-believers have these areas too).

The terminology of the Kingdom also highlights the struggle against or opposition to the kingdom of evil. The Kingdom represents not just rule within the Kingdom, but united battle against the opposition. And again, just like the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of evil isn’t something that we can pin down to a group of people, it is not ISIS, non-Christian religious groups, or a political party. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12). We battle the forces of evil like greed, oppression, exploitation, arrogance, and entitlement. We are called to “destroy the works of the enemy” (1 John 3:8).

Not only are the Church and the Kingdom referenced in scriptures, they are used in distinctive ways with distinctive meanings, and the these differences provides insights into how we relate to each. Again, I am still trying to learn more about what these mean, and I would love to hear what you think. In my next post I want to look at a few other terms that are often used to describe different aspects of Christianity, or Christianity itself, for the purpose of contrasting.