Yesterday John Stumbo, President of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, posted an electronic letter to C&MA pastors addressing the decline of financial support from Alliance churches for the Alliance missions. He is seeking prayer and strategic discussions to reverse the trend, which he refuses to call inevitable or acceptable. It’s an outstanding letter. I highly recommend it.

You can find Stumbo’s letter here:

At the bottom of the link is an individualized chart with New Life Church’s ten year history of support for C&MA missions. It’s worth a look and it will encourage people in Clarfield. We are above the national average in our giving to missions and above the goal set for churches by the national office.

When I entered C&MA pastoral ministry in 1985, Alliance churches gave around 19% of their total income to the Great Commission Fund. Pastors were encouraged to challenge their congregations to present 20% as a goal. Today churches are giving about 7% of their total income to the Great Commission Fund.  The president is now challenging pastors to set 10% as a goal for their congregation.

Something has changed. We’ve seen this coming for 30 years, but so far we’ve not been able to stop it. When John Naisbitt’s Megatrends was all the rage in the 1980s, some people saw an application to the church. Naisbitt noted megatrends from centralisation to decentralisation of power; from hierarchies to networks, and from limited choice to multiple choice. In response, some church leaders declared it was becoming a difficult age for denominations and predicted the kind of decline Stumbo describes in his letter to pastors.

It gets even worse for denominations. Naisbitt’s sequel Megatrends 2000 culminated with the overarching megatrend of the triumph of the individual. Twenty-five years later, that’s exactly where we are. We have become a culture of self-absorbed individuals. David Henderson put it this way: “Self has become the modifier of choice.”

The bad news is that narcissism doesn’t satisfy in the long term. But that merely opens the door to the good news–the Gospel–which calls for believers to deny themselves rather than gratify their appetites. In other words, the darker the night, the brighter shines a candle. I see a lot of hope here in the simple message and living of the Gospel.

I’m not a futurist, but I’m not surprised to find us where we are in 2015. John Stumbo is asking us to pray and discuss this megatrend as church leaders. That sounds like a good place to start. I’m in.




Does Jesus care for me?

To many people, faith is a self-help program wrapped up in religious terms. Their motto is whatever works for you. 

To other people, faith is a set of beliefs wrapped up in a doctrinal statement. Their motto is whatever is true for all.

Often those two groups don’t get along well together. In the ensuing scrum, some hard questions arise for those who would rule the top of the proverbial sandlot mountain: Why does God seem to care for some people more than others? Why are some people “healed” and others not? Why are some people “blessed” and others not?

If we’re going to get to know Jesus—the real Jesus, not some trumped up version of Jesus—one question digs at those apparent contradictions. It’s intimate and personal: Does Jesus really care for me?

“My private world is falling apart. My faith doesn’t seem to work. Does Jesus care for me?”

“I don’t agree with what some Christians say is true. But I’m willing to look Jesus over. Does He care for me?”

“Jesus may have helped other people. What about me? Does Jesus really care about me?”

Let’s investigate Mark’s gospel this Sunday. We’ll be unpacking Mark 7:31-37 and 8:22-26.

The Same Old Thing

I listened to a segment of The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, this morning. The terminology sounded archaic to my ear, but the truths are timeless. The audio version sent me searching for my old paperback version. Found it! The pages are brittle, yellow, falling out, and marked with my notes from youth. But the devilish Screwtape is as relevant now as it was when I was in college.  Here’s a sample:

“If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

“The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating Pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together on the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual ear; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.

“Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship. If we neglect our duty, men will be not only contented but transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas. Children, until we have taught them better, will be perfectly happy with a seasonal round of games in which conkers succeed hopscotch as regularly as autumn follows summer. Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.” (The Screwtape Letters, pp. 115-117)

Lewis goes on to note how the incessant demand for novelty diminishes pleasure while increasing desire. This week I’ve spent several hours controlling leaves around the church and the house. It’s the Same Old Thing, just like every other October when the leaves fall. But holding a rake isn’t a horror. The falling leaves remind us of God’s faithfulness in the turning of the seasons. Collecting leaves does feel mundane rather than spiritual, but when we get to heaven I think we’ll discover many of our most spiritual moments were mundane.

The Harvest

The first frost of the season arrived last night in Clarkfield. It was a hard freeze, so the gardening season is officially over. Carol took the grand-kids over to the garden yesterday and salvaged what was left, which actually was quite a bit. What a summer it was! We raised lettuce and radishes, snow peas and onions, beets, tons of tomatoes, five or six kinds of beans, a million peppers ranging from green mild to red hot, broccoli and cauliflower, turnips, Brussels sprouts, spinach, carrots (most of which are still in the ground), and giant sunflowers. We also grew kale, which a website says is the healthiest food in the world. Well, the world can have it. Good health to everybody (else)!

The owner of the community garden (where we gardened) kept us supplied first with sweet corn and then squash. Another man from the church invited us to raid his apple tree. Carol canned, froze, dried, and gave away all people would take. And, of course, we ate and ate. I lost very little weight this summer, even though I was super active and didn’t eat much added sugar or dairy.

The other night I walked down to the elevator, which is humming 24-7 right now, and watched the golden corn pouring from the conveyor under the lights onto the massive pile, which is bigger than several houses. I thanked the Lord for the bumper crops the farmers are harvesting; in a broken world it won’t always be like this. I can empathize with the sugar beet farmers who are required to plow under a portion of their crop. The harvest is so huge, government regulations require them to destroy some of it. Apparently there are environmental reasons for this. But I feel for the farmers who can’t even give away their surplus.

It’s a moment for reflection. The farmers are still in the fields working hard to bring in their crops. As they say, it’s not all in the bin yet. But for gardeners, it’s time to thank the Lord for the harvest.

“Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.” (Jesus) 

A Sense of Entitlement

About three weeks ago my wife Carol and I hosted Gordon and Cheryl Roedding, missionaries to Mali, in our home. They are experienced, wise, humble, and engaging. So I asked them question after question. Here’s one of them:

Q: “What is different about missionary candidates today than when you first went out on the field?

A: “A sense of entitlement.” 

The Roeddings went on to explain how they had very little input regarding their first assignment. They were asked to go to a place they had not anticipated (rural Mali). There would be no electricity from the utility grid for ten years. Education for their son would be at boarding school in a different country. And their choice was basically “take it or leave it.” They took it and quickly realized the joy of effective ministry and recognized their life calling. Gordon and Cheryl have served in Mali over twenty-five years.

Missionary candidates today choose where they will serve and enjoy options for their children’s education. The Roeddings certainly weren’t complaining about that improvement. But it reflects a generational change.

When the Roeddings first arrived on the mission field, they were called “junior missionaries” for the first two years. They were expected to learn from those who had experience. Gordon told me that would never fly today. Now rookie missionaries expect a full voice in team leadership decisions.

Former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently lamented what he called “youth’s age-old insistence on their Entitlement to Ignorance” (Time Magazine, October 5, 2015, p. 30). He laid the blame largely on one end of the political spectrum, but I suspect conservatives and liberals alike face the same challenge of a sense of entitlement among their youth.

Youths aren’t the only ones with a sense of entitlement. Those in middle life have it, too. The hardest adjustment we faced in our move to Clarkfield was an unanticipated downsizing from a newer house to an older house which was about half the size with a tuck-under garage that’s death defying in winter. We’re used to it now and I call the house a blessing in disguise, but the sense of entitlement remains a challenge. There’s still too much stuff in the basement we feel entitled to keep.

Several days ago I tested our furnace to make sure it would fire when needed. It didn’t fire. So I called a repairman. He said it would take a few days to look at it. That’s perfectly reasonable for October in Minnesota. And the weather was still warm. But I wanted immediate action. Why? A sense of entitlement. Privilege. A feeling of prominence.

When the repairman came, he quickly determined the furnace would need a new part. By then we also had learned that the basement zone would heat, just not the main level where we live. He said we could heat the house through the basement. I didn’t believe him. However, I didn’t say it out loud.

He ordered the part, but it didn’t arrive on the day promised. Or the next. We’re still waiting. It’s getting colder and our grand-kids arrived last night to visit for a few days. I felt heat. Or rather, we didn’t feel heat. So I called the repairman again to urge him to come as soon as possible when the part arrived. Again he said we could heat the house from the basement. Again I didn’t believe him.

But it got chilly last night. So we turned up the heat in the basement, which we had rarely done before. Within minutes the entire house was toasty. We were amazed. I had to go to the basement and turn the thermostat back down! Experience trumps entitlement.

Unfortunately, that repairman has to face a sense of entitlement in nearly every phone call he receives. So do teachers, doctors, grocers, bankers…, and even pastors. People expect a full-service church with excellent programs based on their personal preferences. I’m not complaining about that. It’s just reality. I want excellence in the church, too.

A sense of entitlement was a challenge in Jesus’ time, too. It was rare for the Savior to meet someone without a claim to privilege. The outcome was always delightful when he did meet such a person. This Sunday we’ll talk about one such encounter in the Gospel of Mark.

The Apostle Paul offered a radical antidote to a sense of entitlement. It’s called contentment. He wrote: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

Through Christ we can be content in any circumstance, but we learn contentment only when we experience discomfort, such as downsizing. God knows what he’s doing when he squeezes our comfort zone. He’s adjusting our sense of entitlement. That famous verse about doing all things through Christ is about learning contentment, not about winning a contest or acing a history test. Come to think of it, contentment is one of the biggest lessons in life after high school. But we won’t learn contentment if we hold on to a sense of entitlement.

Update: Just as I completed this entry, Carol called to say the repairman had come with the new part for the furnace. The house is now warm. The grand-kids are playing with Legos. All is well. We’re content. 

Enemies of Jesus

Currently I’m getting to know Jesus better by reading the Gospel of Mark. I’m finding it’s impossible to track the life and ministry of Jesus at any level without running into his detractors at almost every turn. In just the first four pages of the book, Jesus encountered strong opposition, mostly from the Pharisees, at least six times. By the third page they were plotting to kill him (Mark 3:6).

Jesus made a lot of enemies. Fast. What fascinates me is who those enemies were. We might expect them to be non-religious people, those who were irreligious or didn’t care about God at all. But in reality the enemies of Jesus were highly religious. There were various religious groups in that time and place–Zealots, Essenes, Sadducees, Herodians, but the sect most often identified as opponents of Jesus was the Pharisees. Here are three handles to understand the Pharisees:

  1.  Pharisees were mostly non-professionals with extremely high moral standards. They were the “good” people of their time. They paid their taxes on time. They scrupulously tithed from the gross, not the net. They never missed a religious event or synagogue class. They didn’t watch R-rated movies privately at home. They never ate a ham sandwich on the sly. They applied the ceremonial rituals of priests to all the people. They prayed without ceasing.
  2. Pharisees were people of the Book. They knew the Bible backward and forward. They were doctrinal purists. They memorized whole chapters of the Scriptures. They didn’t tolerate error in themselves or in others. They could spot a heretic a mile away.
  3. Pharisees were energized by politics. They sought to impose their interpretation of the law onto the entire nation. They were a special interest group which pressured both Jewish and Roman politicians to bend to their will.

I don’t have to study that list very long to realize I’m looking in the mirror. Remember, these weren’t Jesus’ friends. They were his avowed enemies. And they were the only people Jesus condemned. That gets my attention. Big time.

The first question is “Why?” Why did the Pharisees oppose Jesus and why did Jesus single them out for condemnation? Why didn’t Jesus condemn secular, non-religious people? Instead of condemning them, he made friends with them. And if we’re just like the Pharisees, is there any hope for us? Fortunately, there is hope. That’s what we’ll talk about this Sunday morning from Mark 7:1-23.

If you want to learn more about the Pharisees, I highly recommend Tom Hovestol’s excellent book Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees. This is a very readable book for non-professionals.

The Gideons

The Old Testament abounds with unique characters who accomplished singular tasks: Noah built a huge boat which floated through a massive flood. Moses parted the Red Sea and led Israel to safety on dry ground. David slew Goliath. Elijah rode a chariot to heaven. Elisha made an axhead float. Daniel spent a safe night with several shaggy roommates of kingly proportion. Pretty heady stuff for us postmoderns who live in a world of unparalleled scientific advances. Some might even call it strange. But that’s a different conversation.

There’s another name which belongs on the list of Old Testament heroes. If you’ve spent much time around New Life Church, you’ve already heard of him. His name is Gideon, who lived in Israel during the time of the judges in the 12th century B.C. Gideon life is described in just three chapters of the Bible. Go ahead, read his story in Judges 6-8. It’s a genuine page turner, even if you have to turn only two or three pages to read it all. I won’t ruin it with any spoilers here.

If we could speak with Gideon today, he probably would insist he doesn’t doesn’t belong in the hall of faith. But he’s there; check out Hebrews 11:32. What made Gideon an unlikely hero was his complete lack of confidence. As a general rule, high achievers don’t lack poise. Look again that that list above. They were all men of great courage and initiative.

But Gideon was the opposite of a hero’s stereotype. He had an inferiority complex. He didn’t take the initiative to act in a time of great need. Gideon shied away from the spotlight. He struggled with fear. He was self-depreciating. And everyone knew it.

That’s when God stepped into Gideon’s life. Again, no spoilers here. Read it for yourself, even if you think you know the rest of the story. Note Gideon’s fear and repeated hesitation.

Gideon reminds us that God doesn’t use us because of our strengths. He works in us in spite of our weaknesses. Highly gifted people usually claim personal credit for their accomplishments. Often the world heaps acclaim on the likes of Moses or David. But the credit really goes to God. Gideon demonstrates that truth perhaps more than any other character in the Bible. There was simply no possible way for Gideon to take credit for his personal successes. God got all the credit. For obvious reasons. Gideon didn’t possess the right stuff. In his own strength, he wasn’t a hero. He was a coward. But God changed him from the inside out. And God got all the credit.

This Sunday at New Life Church we’ll hear a presentation by two men from an organization called The Gideons. I don’t know if they would describe themselves as men of natural courage and influence. Maybe. Maybe not. If not, they’re in good company. They call themselves Gideons. That’s a good name. They do a fine work of Bible distribution. Let’s support their ministry and learn from their namesake.

Are you willing to be a Gideon?