Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Practicing Greatness -- Reggie McNeal

Practicing Greatness is a good book for young leaders, but also for people like myself who have 25+ years of leadership experience behind them. For young leaders the book is an excellent guide ito becoming a great leader. For people like myself, who have been in leadership for a long time, it is a good book to take inventory of one's leadership and make the necessary adjustments to becoming a better leader. After reading the book, I think I have been a good leader -- not a great one. But, the book has also challenged me to aspire to becoming a great leader. I have a new determination to ibecoming the leader God has called me to be. I don't want to stay where I am, I want my last years in ministry to be my best.

What follows is an outline of the book as well as some of the key things he says.

. . . greatness begins with a clear vision that inspires people to get into the act of forgetting about themselves and committing to the greatest good.
- Ken Blanchard, from the Forward

. . . greatness in the kingdom of God is a journey toward humility. . . . Humility derives from the leader's awareness of where his or her source of strength lies . . . greatness in the spiritual world cannot be pursued without cultivating God-consciousness. . . . Jesus idea of greatness revolves around humility and service.

Great leaders bless people. . . . Great leaders help people be a part of something bigger than themselves. . . . great leaders leave people better off than they were before the leader entered their lives.

After introducing the book, McNeal goes on to describe 7 disciplines every leader must consciously and intentionally commit themselves to. McNeal also makes it clear that these disciplines are a process and that leaders need to be committed to these disciplines their entire lives.

1. The discipline of self-awareness is the most important because it protects leaders from being self-absorbed or merely role driven.

McNeal goes back to this discipline throughout the book. He also states that "family of origin" issues/lessons are the most important ones for a leader to deal with because they will spend the rest of their lives either building on or trying to overcome the lessons we have learned from our family of origin.

Another aspect McNeal focuses on is the idea of "the call". He believes that great leaders center their lives around their call, cannot be understood apart from their call, and have a relationship with God that is inextricably linked to the call.

McNeal concludes the chapter by stating that if leaders are not self-aware, they become hollow with no sense of self and work only from the expectations of others. The other option is that the leader becomes completely self-absorbed, so that everything is "about them".

2. The discipline of self-management acknowledges that great leaders must not only be great managers, but primarily and foremost they must manage their own emotions, expectations, temptations, mental vibrancy, and physical well-being. Leaders that fail to manage themselves are vulnerable to self-sabotage and/or derailment.

McNeal talks about most of the usual areas of self-management. The issues he raised that I appreciated the most were:

  • The importance of "muse time". Regular time to spend with God and to think about direction, strategy, calling, etc.
  • The importance of "emotional intelligence" -- the ability to work with people. McNeal believes only 1/3 of a leader's effectiveness is based on raw intelligence and technical expertise. 2/3 of a leaders effectivness is his/her ability to manage themselves and work with others.
  • The importance of managing money. Spiritual leaders hold attitudes toward and beliefs about money that color not only how they treat money but also their overall lifestyle and life choices.

3. The discipline of self-development is a life-long commitment to learning and growing and building on one's strengths. Great leaders NEVER STOP being curious and intentionally learning and building on their strengths. Unlearning the past is a key to learning in the future. Unlearning is harder the learning. The key to learning is becoming part of formal and informal learning networks of those effectively engaged in ministry and business.

McNeal also focuses on the importance of developing your strengths. Focus on your talent and develop it. One of the statements in the book that made an impact on me was this:

Our strengths are also our needs. . . . we each need to do what we do well. If we don't get a chance to perform in the area of our talents, we feel cheated, grow frustrated and court burnout.

Finally, McNeal gives some practical advice on how to learn from our failures.

4. The discipline of mission is the propensity of great leaders to give themselves to great causes. They order their lives missionally, and don't allow themselves to be hijacked by others' expectations and agendas, or dissapated by distractions that rob them of energy.

. . . leaders speak in terms of contribution, of significance, or changing the world. They don't work for an organization; the organization works for them. Their job, their role, their current assignment is the venue or platform from which they pursue their life mission. No matter what job they take or role they fill, they redefine the position to fit their mission, not the other way around. .. . the venue provides a platform for the leader to pursue a life mission. The venue is negotiable; the mission is non-negotiable.

This chapter reminded me of something Gary Edmonds once said to me. Leaders have a PASSION, they need a PLATFORM and then they need to figure out how to PAY for it all. I think Gary and Reggie are correct.

The focus of this chapter is about your central life purpose and how to cultivate it. Overall, an excellent chapter.

5. The discipline of decision-making is the ability of great leaders to know how to make decisions, when to make decisions, and what decisions need to be made. In this chapter McNeal focuses on the ability to ask the right questions, to listen to the right people, to collect the right information, and to use this to make the right decisions.

6. The discipline of belonging characterizes great leaders to nurture relationships and to live in community with others, including family, followers, mentors, and friends.

McNeal gives good practical advice on belonging to your family (family of origin, spouse, children), belonging to your co-workers (and your responsibilities to them), the importance of authenticity and relationships and mentoring (both being a mentor and learning from others)

7. The discipline of aloneness is the leaders' capacity to endure the loneliness of leadership but to intentionally practice solitude with God.

Overall I found this book to be very helpful. It may be because of where I am at in my life and ministry, the things I have been thinking about over the past several months, and what I have been feeling and sensing from God. I know that as I prayerfully read this book, God has challenged me to take some concrete actions. Some I have already taken. Others will follow in the next few weeks. I have been encouraged that some of the things I have been doing are on the right track. Other things I have to incorporate into my life in new and more intentional ways.

Read the book -- it will do your soul good!

For Those of You Contemplating Purchasing a Compaq/HP Notebook Computer

If you are thinking about purchasing a Compaq/HP notebook computer, allow me to give you our family history with these notebooks.

1. In 2003 we purchased a Centrino based Compaq notebook for our son. It worked like a charm for 18 months. Then, things began to go wrong. Short story is that after 4 trips to Best Buy for repairs, resulting in 7+ weeks of no notebook computer, Best Buy declared it a lemon. Fortunately we had purchased the extended warranty, and we were able to get it replaced for no cost. If you purchase a computer warranty from Best Buy, be aware of the fact that you are able to replace it for a computer costing an equivalent amount -- not with one with an equivalent configuration. Some Best Buy staff will try to get you do the latter, when the former is what the warranty allows for -- and is a much better deal. So, with his new replacement Compaq/HP notebook computer, my son purchased the Best Buy extended warranty.

2. Now that my son's new Compaq/HP notebook computer is about 11 months old, he has been experiencing problems for about 3 months. When he first noticed the problem he returned it to Best Buy and after a week they returned the computer. They had cleaned the fan -- because the computer appeared to be overheating and then would turn itself off. That seemed to solve the problem. However, in the last 2 months the problem has gotten worse and worse. Now the computer regularly shuts itself off whenever it feels like it -- which makes it very difficult for him to work or do anything of substance with it. So, when he gets back from Korea, it's back to Best Buy.

3. The IT Department where I work purchases only Compaq/HP computers. I have had my most recent HP notebook for about 16 months. Now the keyboard is beginning to act up. First the "a" key didn't want to work -- then a week later the "e" key doesn't work, and today the "shift" key is misbehaving. So, when I get back from my sabbatical/holidays, I will need to get it fixed.


4. My son returned from Korea with his HP notebook not working at all. It went back to Best Buy and 2 weeks later it was returned -- with a new motherboard! The notebook is now working well. BUT, remember, buy the extended warranty. We think that in another year, he'll get a new notebook courtesy of that warranty, because this one will have needed at least 2 more repairs.

My advice is simple:
  • Don't buy a Compaq/HP Notebook Computer.
  • IF you do decide to purchase one, be sure you have a 3 year warranty that covers everything -- because everything will go wrong.
  • Seriously consider purchasing a Dell notebook. My experiences with Dell notebooks have been very positive. And, now that Apple has come to it's senses and is using Intel processors, it may be worth looking at Mac Notebooks (though I know 3 people who have had serious hard disk problems with their Macs). Macs may be the way to go, especially once they have got the running Windows thing down pat.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Communities First -- Jay Van Groningen

Communities First is an excellent introduction to Christian-based community development -- locally and globally. The book is not just a theological treatise -- though it deals with some theology -- but mostly a very practical, hands-on guide to getting started in seeing your community transformed by the grace of God.

One of the key issues the author raises is this. Does your church want to do ministry to your community, or do you want to do ministry with your community? Ministry to your community will result in primarily relief ministries -- and little individual or community transformation. Ministry with your community will focus on community transformation. The former is much easier than the latter.

Doing community transformation with a community, at a minimum requires:
  • Developing and sharing vision WITH the people in your community -- even the ones who don't go to or like your church.
  • Becoming PART of the community. Your church members need to live intentionally in the community you want to reach. Your church needs to function as a genuine part of the neighborhood -- not just as the owner of land and buildings that happen to be located in the neighborhood. The people in the community need to have a sense that you are part of them -- they need to have a sense of "community" with your church.
  • Sharing ownership with the neighborhood of the projects and ministries you are involved in. If there is no ownership -- there will be no permanent change.
The implications of just these 3 points for the average local church are huge and revolutionary. It seems to me that the great majority of churches minister TO communities, not WITH. We know what the community needs better than the people who live there -- or at least that is how we often act. We really don't like sharing power -- especially if we are a large, successful church.

Perhaps this is why even though hundreds of churches are planted across the USA every year, we really see little genuine community transformation. Most churches have a vision for individual transformation, not community transformation -- and those churches that do want to see their communities transformed are ministering TO -- not WITH.

If you have influence in your church, and you have a heart for community transformation, I HIGHLY recommend this book.

Thoughts from the Beaches of the Big Island of Hawaii -- Part 4

In the July 2006 issue of Christianity Today, Philip Yancey wrote a brief article entitled The Lure of Thoecracy. Here are some of his thoughts.

Yancey tells of a Muslim man who made the following statement to him.

I find no guidance in the Qu'ran on how Muslims should live as a minority in society and no guidance in the New Testament on how Christians should live in the majority.

This man put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. Christianity, tends to thrive cross-culturally and counter-culturally, often coexisting with hostile governments. Islam, geographically anchored in Mecca, was founded simultaneously as a religion and a state.

In many ways Muslims see the state and their faith as one. Islam is not a private religion -- it is very public. It is a way of life. In many ways, Islam is theocratic.

What Yancey and I find interesting is that some of the very things many Christians resist in Islam, are the very things many Christians find tempting. Christians seek political power and a legal code that reflects Biblical morality (hence the focus on amendments to the constitution on marriage, homosexuality, banning abortion, etc.). Christians are rightly concerned about raising their children in a climate or moral decadence. Christians, like Muslims see others as a stereotyped community, rather than as individuals.

I have heard from many Christians the idea that we need to change laws to reflect Biblical values in order to preserve our Christian heritage. This has got me wondering -- maybe Christians and Muslims are not that far apart. Both of us are tempted to impose our worldview on the nation we live in. The Qu'ran encourages Muslims to do this. The Bible however, seems to be silent on this issue -- prefering to see individuals and communities transformed from within by the grace and power of God.

I wonder what we should be spending our time on. Signing petitions and attempting to exert political pressure -- or simply doing the Kingdom of God -- living justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?

Thoughts from the Beaches of the Big Island of Hawaii -- Part 3

I read an article in Christianity Today on the Didache. One of the quotes sparked my interest. Apparently the writes of the Didache in addressing issues related to the church, said that if a visiting speaker comes, and wants money, that is a sure way to tell that he/she is not from God.

How do you think this would go over in today's evangelical/charistmatic circles? Public speaking in churches, at conferences, etc. is quite lucrative (our church pays a visiting speaker at least US$2,000 for 3 services -- and I know we are on the low end). Having dealt with evangelical/charistmatic speakers over the years, I know that many of them ask for honorariums and benefits (golf trips, certain kind of hotel rooms, etc.) that the average person in a church would never be able to afford. Our Christian celebrities have come to expect certain luxuries. I was told by the senior pastor of a mega-church (who often benefits from these luxuries) that this is simply the price we have to pay for for getting speakers who will draw a large crowd. Well known speakers expect to be catered to, and we need to do the catering!

Wonder what the early church fathers would say about that? Wonder what Jesus would say about that?

Thoughts from the Beaches of the Big Island of Hawaii -- Part 2

As a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (School of InterCultural Studies) I get the Fuller publication entitled Theology News and Notes. The Winter 2006 edition contained an article regarding the relationship of pyschology and religion -- Christianity in particular. Reading it reminded me of some of the things I had read in Generous Orthodoxy and a couple of other books I have recently read. Here is a summary of the 3 major concerns the author of this article expresses.

1. Christianity as a Utilitarian Concern in Psychology Christianity may be useful in helping people. In other words, prayer, meditation, church attendance, etc can all be therapeutic. So, just as Prozac or other drugs alter our moods and help us feel better, engaging in acts of personal piety can do the same. To value Christianity for it's usefullness is really a form of idolatry.

Is my Christianity utilitarian? Is the Gospel we proclaim a utilitarian one? Is this our approach to people -- both believers and not-yet-followers of Jesus?

2. Christianity in the formula for health may well be consumerist. Since capitalist cultures tend to take on the character of an exchange of merchandise, religion becomes simply a commodity one can select and purchase. If Christian interventions work, then religion is a cost-effective way of addressing rising health costs. In consumerism, religion and health are commodities, medical and psychological practitioners are purveyors, and health insurers are brokers. But is not health a gift rather than the result of a contract in which a Prozac god is bound to fulfill an obligation to reward devotion with health? We need to ask not "what God can do for us", but rather, what can we do for God. The answer my friend, is not blown in the wind, but found in Micah 6:8 -- to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God.

3. Christianity associated with health is private. In our culture religion is private -- we each believe or worship what we want to, and as long as we don't push our beliefs/religion on each other, we are all okay. This idea reflects the individualism of Western cultures -- the self as autonomous, self-interested and unencumbered by responsibilites for others. Healing is not assumed to occur in the context of a community, and hence an individualistic culture constructs a Christianity that helps me achieve my mental and physical health.

All of this gets me thinking not only about the state of the church in the USA, the church I am part of, and particularily of my faith. Is my relationship with God primarily characterized by consumerism? Is my faith utilitarian? How does our proclamation of the Gospel (in word and deed) need to change? How do I need to change?

Thoughts from the Beaches of the Big Island of Hawaii -- Part 1

For the past week I have been on the Big Island of Hawaii. My wife and I are here for two weeks celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. We love the Big Island. It wouldn't be hard to live here. I spent 5+ months here in 1977. Returned in 1986. Introduced my wife and son to the BI in 2002. My son spent 2 months here in 2004 volunteering time with the University of the Nations -- and here we are again in 2006. It is the perfect ending to my sabbatical time (though technically right now I am not on sabbatical, I am on holidays).

My wife and I have done some tourist things, but mostly we have spent time at various beaches, snorkling and reading. I've been reading various books and articles and thought I would share some of the thoughts I've had -- especially from some of the articles I've read.

A New Kind of Urban Christian -- Timothy J. Keller -- Christianity Today (May 2006)

Keller believes that cities are the key to reaching nations. Nothing new here. Let me summarize his key points.

1. More Christians should live long-term in cities. If we don't live in the cities of our nation and the world in at least the percentage of the general population, we will lose our influence on the culture. Christians who live in large cities, and who counter-culturally LIVE their faith can influence the arts, business, academia, publishing, the helping professions and the media in ways that will have an impact on their entire nation. Instead of fleeing to the suburbs or rural areas, or forming Christian ghettos (in actuality or in mindset) Christians should be engaging their culture by working in those areas that have the most power to influence.

2. Christians should be a dynamic counter-culture. Christians are called to be an alternative city within-the-city showing a Kingdom of God culture in how sex (abstinence before marriage and fidelity within), money (radical generosity, helping the poor, treating employees with fairness, justice and generosity) and power (power-sharing and relationship-building between races, social and economic classes and those alienated from society and the Body of Christ) can be used in non-destructive ways.

3. Christians should be a community radically commited to the good of the city as a whole. We must move out to sacrificially serve the good of the whole human community -- especially the poor. Revelation 21-22 make it clear that the ultimate purpose of redemption is not to escape the present material world, but to renew it (all creation groans). God's purpose is not only saving individuals but the world (see A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren) and inaugurating a new world order based on justice, peace and love -- not power, strife and violence and selfishness. Christians should not go to the city in order to get political, economic and social power so they can impose their agenda. Rather, Christians should go to the city to serve the city -- not just our own tribe. We must lose our power to find true power -- what Greg Boyd calls "power-under" in his book The Myth of a Christian Nation. Christianity will not be attractive enough to win influence except through sacrificial service ("power-under" -- doing the Kingdom) to all people regardless of their beliefs. As we do this, we will be misunderstood and sometimes attacked -- but we will gain the respect of those around us -- AS LONG AS we exercise "power-under" rather than "power-over".

4. Christians should be a people who integrate their faith with their work". If we don't integrate our faith, our Biblical worldview and our values into EVERYTHING we do, then we will not influence our culture.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Myth of a Christian Nation -- Gregory Boyd -- Part 2

Please read my previous post before reading this one.

After stating his central thesis, Boyd goes on to say the following:

For some evangelicals, the kingdom of God is largely about, if not centered on, "taking America back for God," voting for the Christian candidate, outlawing abortion, outlawing gay marriage, winning the culture war, defending political freedom at home and abroad, keep the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, fighting for prayer in the public schools and at public events, and fighting to display the Ten Commandments in the government buildings.

. . . this perspective is misguided, . . . fusing together the kingdom of God with this or any other version of the kingdom of the world is idolatrous and this fusion is having serious negative consequences for Christ's church and for the advancement of God's kingdom.

. . . What gives the connection between Christian and politics such a strong emotional force in the USA . . . is the longstanding myth that America is a Christian nation. . . . this foundational myth is a alive and well in the evangelical community . . . and is being embraced more intensely and widely now than in the past . . . because evangelicals sense it is being threatened. . . .

this nationalistic myth blinds us to the way in which our most basic and most cherished cultural assumptions are diametrically opposed to the kingdom way of life taught by Jesus and his disciples. Instead of living out the radically countercultural mandate of the kingdom of God, . . . this myth links the kingdom of God with certain political stances . . . and it has greatly compromised the holy beauty of the kingdom of God to non-Christians. This myth harms the church's primary mission.

Pretty strong words, wouldn't you say? What do you think? Are the majority of evangelicals in America idolatrous because they mix these two kingdoms? Is this sycretism? Is Christianity, America's tribal religion? Is this nationalistic myth blinding us, manipulating us, making us ineffective as God's people? Is it stopping us from truely being counter-cultural?

One of the things I remember vividly is being in a church service on the July 4th weekend in 2001. There were probably 1200 people in the service. We sang some worship songs -- and some people had raised their hands and were "getting into" the worship. The worship time was closed by a couple of patriotic songs including the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "God Bless America". As I watched the reaction of the people to these songs I was shocked. During these songs people REALLY worshiped. 3-4x as many people had their hands raised. People were swaying to the music, their eyes closed in what appeared to be "worship".

I remember standing there, looking around and thinking -- who are these people worshiping -- God or America? Maybe Boyd is right and we are an idolatrous people. Maybe we are more committed to America than to God, and that is why the church in this country is largely ineffective and shrinking in size. Perhaps, if we were more committed to God than to our country, evangelicals really would agents of spiritual, social and cultural transformation.

What do you think?

The Myth of a Christian Nation -- Gregory Boyd -- Part 1

About two weeks ago I finished Boyd's book The Myth of a Christian Nation. I have intended to review it, but have chosen not to until now. I have needed some time to think about what Boyd has written. At the same time I have been reading a book entitled God is not ... religious nice "one of us" an american a capitalist edited by D. Brent Laytham. Both of these books have been quite thought provoking. I've made some comments in previous posts about both books. What I intend to do in the next couple of days is write a series of short posts interacting with both books. Hopefully short posts will be more readable than long ones.

One of the things I find interesting is that Boyd thought that a sermon series that shrunk his church by 1,000 people was worth a book. Most senior ministers write books when attendance increases by 1,000 people as a result of a sermon series. But then Boyd has always thought a little differently.

Boyd begins his book by laying out his central thesis which is as follows:

I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. . . . evangelicals fuse the kingdom of God with a preferred version of the kingdom of the world (whether it's our national interests, a particular form of government, a particular political program, ...) I believe many of us American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the kingdom of God to be polluted with political ideals, agendas, and issues.

A strong statement -- but one that I have by and large, discovered to be true among evangelicals across America. As a legal immigrant to the USA (I actually became a citizen last year) one of the first things that has become increasingly obvious to me is that the Kingdom of God and America appear to be one in the minds of the great majority of evangelicals -- and that by furthering America's agenda (political, economic or military) somehow we are also furthering God's agenda (after all, God is on our side). Disagreeing with the mixing of God and America makes one barely a Christian.

My reaction to the mixing of God and America and the reactions of the minority of evangelicals that don't necessarily believe that the Kingdom of God and America are the same has often been wrong as well. In our reaction to the religious right we have often become interested in forming a "Christian left" -- distancing ourselves from the self-righteous right. By doing that, we have become self-righteous ourselves, and fallen into the same trap as the Kingdom of God = America folks. We have become caught up in the kingdom of the world. We have stopped asking ourselves -- not in a trite way -- but seriously "what would Jesus do?".

If our task as Christians and the church is to represent Jesus, then we have to ask what that means in all areas of life. We need to ask, not what would Jesus do about illegel immigration -- but how wouyld He minister to illegal immigrants? The wrong question to ask about gay marriage is -- are you for or against gay marriage?-- but how are you ministering to people who are homosexual? What are you doing to help people in heterosexual marriages stay married -- in the church (where the divorce rate is 50%) and in the community? Our economic questions should not be about how can we make more money -- but how do we do business? Are we honest? Do we have integrity? Do we treat our employees with respect? Do we pay them what they are worth (not market value)? Are we using the finances God entrust us with to bless those in need, or are we building up treasures on earth?

These, and similar questions are much harder to answer and do something about, than the questions we normally ask -- because they require us to DO the kingdom -- to FOLLOW Jesus. These are not questions that are easier to answer for the right or the left.

So, I have determined, that when the polarizing questions arise -- I am going to try -- as hard as I can -- to avoid answering politically. Instead I am determined to respond by asking questions about what Jesus would do. How would He respond to the political issues of the day? And, by the grace of God, I will allow him to form my character so that I become less self-righteous, and more like Him.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

2006 -- A Bad Year in Sports -- At Least for Me

What a bad year in sports for me.

1. Canada doesn't even get a medal in men's hockey -- a national disgrace.
2. Edmonton loses the Stanley Cup -- and Canada's Holy Grail is in the Carolinas.
3. Germany loses in the semi-finals of the World Cup. So sad.
3. Phoenix Coyotes don't make the NHL playoffs.
4. Phoenix Suns lose in the Western Conference Championships in the NBA.
5. Toronto Blue Jays are a good baseball team, but will probably not make the American League Playoffs.

Same-Old, Same-Old

1. The Arizona Diamondbacks are bad -- and will probably continue to be bad for a few years. Hard to believe they won the World Series in 2001.

Bright Spot?

1. Steve Nash -- a Canadian -- wins the NBA MVP twice in a row. Not bad for a 6'3" point guard whose first love was soccer.


1. Arizona will still not have a professional football team this year. Ya, we have the Cardinals, but they will continue to be quite miserable. Sure, they will probably win a couple more games than last year -- but I will be shocked and awed if they make the playoffs. I suspect they will go something like 7-9 or at best 8-8.
2. The New York Yankees will continue to be the biggest overpaid losers in the MLB.

Hope for the Future?

1. Phoenix Coyotes should get nothing but better -- lots of good young players and they have already made some good trades to improve in the 2006/2007 season. They have a good shot at making the playoffs.
2. Phoenix Suns should be better with Amare Stoudamire returning -- as long as Steve Nash can pull out another MVP year. If Nash and Stoudamire return to their form of a couple of years ago, there is a shot at an NBA championship.
3. Maybe a Canadian team will bring home the Stanley Cup.

Overall, all this stuff has no real meaning -- but I do enjoy the diversion from everyday life.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Is God A Capitalist?

Well, in the past few weeks I have read a couple of books that have turned out to be quite different than I anticipated. Not only have they been interesting but they have challenged me personally.

This afternoon I read an essay entitled God is Not A Capitalist (Michael L. Budde) from the book called God is not ... religious nice "one of us" an american a capitalist edited by D. Brent Laytham.

The essay I read today made me go "hmmmm" -- as in, these are things to think about. I work in a mega-church, and I am on the board of several Christian organizations, and perhaps some of what Budde talks about in this essay is applicable to my ministry situation.

Budde begins the essay by stating that "whatever we conclude God is or is not should have an important influence on what we think the church should or should not be". No argument from me on that.

He then goes on to talk about the fact that in North America and Europe there has been an increasing mixing of the
for-profit world with the ministry world. Not only have churches and ministries begun to look at business models for how to run their ministries, but in some Christian circles for-profit companies have even begun to sponsor Christian events, concerts and conferences. Sometimes churches or denominations have lent their name or celebrities to for-profit organizations (see the phone card below I saw in Germany), while at other times Christian events have had corporate sponsors.

T-Mobile Phone Card Availabe in Germany Endorsed by the Pope

Some denominations, churches, and Christian organizations and movements have employed marketing companies to help them develop a more positive image. Discussions on "branding" have become more popular on the boards and leadership teams of churches and Christian non-profits.

Are there problems with these approaches, or is it simply a matter of Christians catching up with the rest of the world? Budde makes two comments in response to this question.
  • Using the tools of the for-profit industries (televsion, advertising, movies, marketing, etc.) also requires the ideological assumptions of those industries, including "don't get people depressed", "we need to keep the message positive", etc.
  • Once one moves from congregants to customers, the logic is relentless and its effects on the church are not easily contained.
But the melding of God/Jesus and the corporate nature of the Western world goes further. Over the past 15-20 years there have been an increasing number of books published about leadership and management insights from the life and teaching of Jesus. There have been numerous books published about how Jesus wants us rich and how to run a Christian company and make money. Perhaps the best known of these books was written by Laurie Beth Jones in 1995 called Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership. Michael Novak even compared the multinational corporation to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

In addition, countless books have been written that have taken the practices of leadership and management from the corporate world and introduced them to the church. For example, I can't remember how many times I have recommended Good to Great by Jim Collins to church and ministry leaders -- and how many times it has been recommended to me (it is a great book, by the way) or quoted in meetings I have been.

All of this (and I suspect there is much more) makes it seem that as Christians we believe that God, in some shape or form is a capitalist. After all, we don't seem to have problems with mixing the philosophy of capitalism with our Christianity.

But is God a capitalist? Budde suggests, that if He is, He is not a very good one.
  • In Matthew 20:1-6 Jesus pays people who work for Him for an hour, the same as He pays those who work for Him all day. Overpaying for work does not a good capitalist make (underpaying people makes for a much better capitalist).
  • In Matthew 18:12-14 Jesus leaves the 99 sheep to find the 1. Jesus obviously doesn't understand that getting so personally invested in individual sheep is a bad idea. Just as an employer can't get too close to employees he may one day need to fire or lay off, it is simply bad business to get hung up about a single sheep.
  • God's personnel policy isn't exactly capitalistic either. On more than one occasion He seems determined to call the lame, the poor and the marginalized. In fact He rarely seems to have good things to say about the rich, the compentent or the qualified. Not a great way to build a successful company.
  • God's benefit package isn't the greatest either. Jesus tells His followers that "as they do to me, they will do to you". Now Christ was persecuted and martyred. He obviously didn't get His corporate message right.
  • Jesus also kept saying things about " the last shall be first and the first shall be last". Wouldn't this be a sure way to scare away would-be investors, lose market share and push the most ambitious people out of the firm?
  • God also isn't real good on getting a maximum return on His investment. He sends Jesus to the backwaters of Galilee. Wouldn't Rome have been a better place to announce the Incarnation?
I could go on -- but it appears that God makes a pretty bad capitalist. Successful companies cannot continue by giving people more than what they deserve or produce, by privileging the weak and inefficient over the strong and powerful, by ignoring those with resources to give in favour of those who have nothing and appear to amount to nothing. Jesus passed up countless money-making opportunities -- He didn't charge or take offerings for healings, He gave away thousands of people bread and fish for free (without even an offering basket) and he alienated a rich young man who could have bankrolled His ministry.

So what does this all mean? I'm not 100% sure, but my suspicion is that we need to begin to think about economics differently. Perhaps we need to think about the role of the church and the corporate world differently. Perhaps we need to think about our economics in terms of what the church is called to be as a foretaste and forerunner of the Kingdom of God.

Now that there seems to be a resurgence of beginning to understand the church in missional terms -- as a community of people who are called by God to continue Jesus' kingdom work, perhaps we need to also think about the church as having its own economy, its own exemplary and real-world practices, ideas and theologies of provision, property and prosperity.

Perhaps we need to look at the Sermon on the Mount and see what it may have to say to us about economics, and how we live our lives. How do we live out Matthew 5:42, or the Lords' prayer (ask God for daily bread, not our bread for the next 10 years), or living like "the lilies of the field" (Matthew 6:25-33)? I don't know, and I'm not sure. I wonder if I truely have the faith to live like that. Perhaps I have become more of a capitalist than God, because I can think of LOTS of reasons why this is all impractical and it wouldn't work. After all this is 2006 and things are much more complicated, and, and, and ....

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Some Thoughts on the Fourth of July Holiday Weekend

I remember the first time I was in an American church that had a Christian flag and an American flag on the platform. I was 19, and I was visiting the USA for the first time in my life. Though I had grown up in an evangelical church I did not even know that there was a "Christian flag". And, upon seeing the Christian flag and the flag of the USA on stage -- equal in size and prominence -- something just seemed to be wrong. Somehow it seemed to me, in my young, naive Canadian mind, that my Christian faith and my national pride should not mix. And, it seemed so inappropriate that while worshiping God in church I should have the symbol of a nation in view all the time. It somehow seemed wrong to me that a church would want to identify itself with a nation -- especially since I had read some world history and had learned that when Christians identified themselves too closely with a national government bad things always seem to happen.

I returned to Canada, but in 1981 I married a lovely young woman from Missouri and all kinds of things changed. One of which was that since 1996 I have lived in the USA (and last year, on July 4, I became a dual citizen -- both Canadian and American. These past 10 years have been a real "eye-opener" for me. I discovered several things, that perhaps for Christians who have grown up in the USA seem natural.
  • I discovered that America is a "Christian" nation. This came as a big surprise to me considering it's history of dealing with Native Americans, slavery, etc. I knew America was religious but it had never struck me as being particularly Christian.
  • I discovered that to be a "real" Christian I needed to belong to a particular political party and hold particular views on abortion, gun control, homosexuality, gay marriage, military involvement in various parts of the world, etc.
  • That as an American Christian I needed to be committed to "take America back for God." This surprised me because I always thought that God had called us to bring people into relationship with Him and see communities transformed by His grace. Somehow "taking America back for God" and the Great Commission didn't mesh in my head.
  • I discovered that instead of "doing the Kingdom of God" I was expected to spend time "doing" the kingdom of the world -- investing time in trying to make America a more Christian place through signing petitions, boycotting products sold by particular companies, protesting the correct issues, phoning or writing politicians, and of course voting for the correct political party. This also seemed strange to me, because as I read through the New Testament and looked at the ministry of Jesus or Paul or the early church it seemed that attempting to change the greater political or moral climate was not on their priority list. I saw Jesus and the early church "doing" the kingdom of God.
All of these things have never "sat well" with me. However, I must admit that I have gotten caught up in political debates, and other actions that have not contributed to the Kingdom of God. I have used my being Canadian in an ungodly way to make myself appear better than my American brothers and sisters. I was caught up in the kingdom of the world in the same way that those I disagreed with had. I was no different -- I just had different opinions. For that I am truely sorry.

So, this year, on the 4th of July weekend, I want to commit myself to "taking America back for God" by doing the Kingdom of God. I realize that it will cost me much more to "do" the Kingdom of God than to attempt to change the kingdom of this world. I want my walk with Jesus to be divorced from allegiance to a particular political perspective (right or left), a particular civil religion, or a particular nationality or ethnicity. I realize that if I am going to follow Jesus, I need to truely be a "foreigner". As Larry Norman sang many years ago "this world is not my home, I'm just passing through".

This means that I will focus my life on "working out (cultivating) my salvation with fear and trembling". I want to become someone who is characterized -- not as a German, or a Canadian, or an American (though I am all those things) -- but as someone who loves Jesus, lives like Jesus, and leaves behind those things that Jesus leaves behind.

I'm not sure how this is going to happen. But I am sure that God wants to work in my life in new ways. It does mean I need, in the words of Bob Dylan "to change my way of thinking". God will, as He has promised "renew my heart and mind" and "transform" it. It will be a process -- so please be patient with me. As Brian McLaren says, I am an "unfinished Christian".