Sunday, October 2, 2016

How Has Financial Giving Affected My Spiritual Life?

Even during stewardship season, we often look for ways to follow Jesus that don’t involve increasing our financial stewardship.  Nevertheless, the inescapable, troubling, and joyful fact remains that our financial giving is intimately connected to our spiritual lives.  We can’t hope to grow in our faith and discipleship if we don’t give of our money.

My own experience of financial giving is a journey that began in fear and has led to increasing freedom and trust in God.  Giving, specifically tithing, has allowed me to stop giving my leftovers to God after I tried to take care of myself.  Instead, I can begin by tithing my firstfruits to God, taking a step out in faith, and trust in God to provide for what I need.  And God has provided what I need – maybe not what I thought I wanted, and rarely in the ways I expected, but God has always provided.  Financial giving has opened my eyes how God is always at work around me and is faithful even in the most practical stuff of life.

The most important spiritual growth has resulted from beginning to tithe my firstfruits.  In the Old Testament, farmers would bring the first fruits of their crops to God, trusting that if they gave God what he asked at the beginning of the harvest, God would give them what they needed out of the rest.  Most of us aren’t farmers today, but the idea is the same.  We give God the first 10% whenever we receive any money, and we trust that God will provide for us out of the other 90%.

My wife and I began tithing our firstfruits at a time when we had almost nothing.  I was in seminary and she had a part-time job.  We started giving out of her small income, and within a year we went from feeling like we couldn’t make ends meet to making a donation to help provide for other students in financial straits.  After graduation, we continued to tithe and have accumulated many stories of ways that God has unexpectedly shown up to provide for our needs.  Whether it was finding a used van on someone’s front lawn, the right job at the right time, or a surprise check to deal with an unexpected expense, God has consistently come through as we have obediently trusted in him.  We have never gone without anything we needed because we tithed our income.   

One of the most important effects of making a commitment to tithing has been on our marriage. As is the case with almost any two people, my wife and I have had our share of disagreements. When money was tight, our differing financial priorities and approaches caused significant friction.  Once we made the decision to tithe, however, the tenor of our disagreements around money changed.  We had committed to give God our first fruits, so we had to figure out how to live in ways that allowed us to tithe.  When I had to make sacrifices, I wasn’t just making them so that my wife could spend money on what she wanted.  I was making sacrifices and she was making sacrifices so we could be obedient to God.  Then we could rely on God together to have the strength to get through whatever sacrifices we needed to make.  Everything wasn’t easy, but everything became possible.  This giving also drove us to pray together for what we needed.  We had to ask, together, so that we could receive, together.  We came to realize just how much we were united “for richer or for poorer”, and the blessing that could be, even when things felt a bit more on the “for poorer” side.  Tithing the firstfruits of our finances together meant that we were obedient to God together, and it drove us to prayer together which has significantly deepened our spiritual life together.

During this season of stewardship campaigns, I urge you to make a decision to tithe your firstfruits to your church.  If you are already a tither, I urge you to share your story with at least one other person.  Take a leap of faith to God, and get ready for the ways he will bless you.           

Blog Force Participant

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Book Review: "The Discipleship Difference" by Robert E. Logan and Charles R. Ridley

The Discipleship Difference begins with a pastor "carrying on a one-sided conversation in his head as he cleaned up the classroom:
I'm getting people through these classes, but nothing really comes of it.  They are more knowledgeable, maybe, but...[i]t's not changing their lives.  This is supposed to be discipleship.  I might be seeing more educated disciples, but I'm not seeing better disciples.  And I'm certainly not seeing more disciples.  Where's the transformation?"
Robert Logan and Charles Ridley spend the rest of the book describing discipleship programs that produce transformed lives and more disciples.

By way of disclaimer, I would note that I received a review copy of The Discipleship Difference and have worked with Bob Logan for about ten years.

The strength of The Discipleship Difference is in the big picture overview of a complete discipling program.  Aimed primarily at pastors and other church leaders, the book engages with foundational questions and issues that are necessary to address before any concrete steps can be taken.  Chapter 2, What Does a Disciple Look Like?, for example, lifts up the issue of what, exactly, it means to be a disciple.  The chapter provides one comprehensive model for describing discipleship while also giving advise on how a church could develop its own.  Chapter 3 lays out one of the book's major emphases, that discipleship starts in the harvest.  We grow disciples not in the safety of the church classroom but out in the world, and we can begin the discipling process with people before their conversion.  Other chapters look at topics such as the kinds of groups that support discipleship growth, how to help individuals grow as disciples based on their own gifts and personality, and how discipleship programs feed into the work of the congregation.  Chapter 9 contains a variety of specific tools used in discipling others, and how they can be best applied.

Throughout the book, the chapters are tied together by the story of Pastor Rob as he struggles to implement the principles presented.  While scriptural citations are woven throughout the text, more information about the social scientific basis of the work is described in occasional boxes titled, "If You Care About the Research -- A Note From Chuck."  Outside resources are noted in a couple of places, and the book ends with a series of discussion questions for each chapter.

While the book does a good job of providing enough guidance in a variety of areas for a church to develop the necessary discipling structures for the people it is serving, the real value of The Discipleship Difference comes in the challenge it offers struggling churches and pastors.  Logan and Ridley provide a clear vision of a way that meaningful, transformational discipleship can be achieved within a congregation.  This vision is a shot of hope for declining churches.  Yet that hope comes with the troubling awareness of all the ways that most of our congregations are not set up to do this discipling work.  As Pastor Rob struggles, so many of us can imagine the struggles of building new models of discipleship into our current church context.

I would highly recommend The Discipleship Difference to pastors, church leaders, and others who want to think about how we begin to do the basic work Jesus called us to do.  This book would be an especially good resource to study in clergy groups, where church leaders can discuss the ideas presented and support one another on implementing them.

Robert Logan is a church planter, coach, and author.  He earned a DMin from Fuller Theological Seminary and writes an excellent blog, Logan Leadership, on church leadership, church growth, evangelism, and church planting.  Charles Ridley developed the Church Planter Profile and is a licensed psychologist and professor at Texas A & M University with a PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Minnesota.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Being Clear About What We Are Doing

In recent years, more and more churches have been overcoming their fears and re-discovering evangelism.  This reengagement with the Great Commission has led to a deeper understanding of all the ways that evangelism happens.  Rather than knocking on doors or passing out tracts on the street corner, Christians are inviting neighbors to church, sharing the good news at critical times in friends' lives, and praying for people to come to a deeper relationship with Jesus.  

At the same time, everything good (or even everything Christian) is not evangelism.  A popular quote going around that St. Francis may or may not have had something to do with, says, "Preach the gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words."  Certainly our actions do speak louder than our words, and preachers who talk the talk but don't walk the walk are a stock literary figure.  Yet being a faithful Christian is not the same as being an evangelist, with or without words.

I would propose that we think about four different areas of Christian response to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission that are necessary for individual Christians and for church communities.

1. Love God through relationship: includes public worship, private prayer, and other activities that deepen the intimate relationship between a believer and God.

2. Love God through discipleship: includes all the works of (sacrificial) obedience we undertake in our daily life, such as tithing, following the ten commandments, offering our spiritual gifts for building up the body of Christ, and working with other believers on deepening their discipleship.

3. Love neighbor through charity: includes all the ways that we reach out in love toward others, such as almsgiving, caring for the sick, offering support to those who are struggling, and working for good causes.  

4. Love neighbor through evangelism: includes all the things we do as part of an intentional process to bring people into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, such as praying for unbelievers, building relationships with unbelievers, meeting the physical, emotional and financial needs of unbelievers, and telling unbelievers about Jesus.  

Certainly there are many actions that could fall into more than one category, depending on the circumstances and the intentions.  Clarity around those circumstances and intentions matters, however.  Without clarity around what we are trying to do, we have a hard time setting goals, planning, and evaluating.  

To give an example, we might decide that we want to have an evangelism event to build relationships with the unchurched in our community.  For the event, almost the whole church shows up, has a great time of fellowship, takes up a collection for a parishioner who just lost a job, puts together a group to repaint the church hall, and closes with a short worship service of lively singing and powerful praying.  All in all, one of the best parish events of the year, and probably one that was needed.  The evening was a great success in loving God through relationship, loving God through discipleship, and loving neighbor through charity.  It was a total failure of evangelism, however, since not a single relationships was deepened with a non-believer and no one new heard the good news of Jesus.  When that church reflects on that evening, they can be thankful for what did happen while also recognizing that their evangelism programming needs to go back to the drawing board.

We need inspiring worship.  We need dynamic discipleship.  We need compassionate charity.  But we also need effective evangelism.  Unless we are clear about what we are doing when we are doing it, we will have a hard time improving any aspect of our life in Christ.