I am going to talk about “Re-thinking Your Gospel.” This notion covers a a range of topics in which Christians in America in 2012 try to regain an understanding of the Good News we have in Jesus Christ. I will not, in this talk, attempt to define “rethink your Gospel.” Rather, I will demonstrate a model which promotes a renewed and deeper understanding of rethinking and reconnecting with the Gospel. This model, at is core, is about doing ministry with children who are materially poor but exceedingly rich in Spirit and discovering in that ministry that all participants are poor and when it is done right, all get fed.
I begin by recommending to you the book The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. Lyons was invited to the office of a movie producer who wanted to tap into the Christian market. She asked him to make sense of the 21st century American Christian (p.29). Haley, the producer was not herself a Christian, but she was very interested in Christians as consumers – in this case as movie-ticket buyers.
Lyons explained that his research on the book he co-authored with Greg Kinnaman, UnChristian, led him to several groupings. There is not just one prototype Christian, but a variety of types.
He begins with a group he calls the Separatist Christians. First among these are the “insiders.” They listen to Christian radio, drink coffee from Christian mugs, send their kids to Christian schools, and watch Christian films. They don’t smoke, cuss, drink or chew, and they don’t go with boys or girls who do.
Lyons’ second group among the separatists he refers to as Culture Warriors. They want the 10 Commandments displayed on the courthouse walls, abortion to be illegal, and marriage to be between a man and a woman and no other arrangements are acceptable as far as marriage goes. These Christians are determined that America will be a Christian nation. And they’re willing to fight for that.
I should say as an aside, I agree with the position taken by culture warriors on many topics. I am pro-life. And, like the insiders, I wear witness wear clothing and I drink Jesus-coffee from Spiritually inspired mugs. In each of the categories Lyons presents, I see some good things. But their emphasis and their methods are sometimes different than mine, sometimes very different.
A third category of separatist Christian according to Lyons is the evangelizer. These folks want to win souls for Christ no matter the cost. To illustrate, Lyons tells of a zealous evangelizer who moves into a new neighborhood not knowing that neighborhood’s strong sense of unity and fellowship at Halloween. Without learning that community’s value system, he hands out gospel tracts to trick-or-treaters. His intention is to share Jesus with his neighbors. But those neighbors were completely turned off. In his zeal, he alienated those he wanted to see saved. It was because of his method.
Insiders, Culture Warriors, and Evangelizers are all what Lyons describes as separatist Christians. A second category Lyons has observed are cultural Christians. The first category in this group is made up of what he calls blenders. As their name indicates, they want to follow Jesus, but they want to do it in a way that will allow them to be the same as everyone else. Lyons writes, “Complete with a Starbucks style coffee shop, Disney-like children’s programming, and a worship experience that rivals a Coldplay concert,” they want to do church in this culture’s language.
Besides blenders, in this second category, the Cultural Christians, Lyons lists philanthropists. Their main concern is to make the world a better place by doing good things and giving money to worthwhile causes. They tend to say very little about the salvation we have in Christ, the importance of the cross and resurrection. They kind of live in the Sermon on the Mount. Their favorite verse might “when you do unto the least of these, you do for me.” It is in these parts of the gospel that the philanthropists find their drive.
Again, let me reiterate, I agree with much of what the blenders and philanthropists say. We should translate the gospel so that it is intelligible in our culture. We must give to good causes. And, we must also remember these five categories come from Gabe Lyons. I happen to like his writing a lot, but he’s a guy like us. He’s reading the Bible and the world around him and trying to make sense of it. We can be inspired by his ideas and we can challenge at the same time.
The reason I begin with his observations is I do think he does a good job of showing where these approaches to following Jesus are flawed. His sixth category, obviously the one he is promoting, is the Restorer. He says,
“Restorers exhibit the mindset, humility, and commitment that seem destined to rejuvenate the momentum of the faith. … Telling others about Jesus is important to them, but conversion isn’t their only motive. Their mission is to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love. … Restorers seek to mend the earth’s brokenness. They recognize that the world will not be completely healed until Christ’s return, but they believe that the process begins now as we partner with God.
This idea that restorers are, as the book is titled, The Next Christians, or more specifically, the Christians who will do the most good for the faith in the world in this new century is an idea that appeals to teens and 20 and 30-somethings. Can we find holes in Lyons’ book? Probably. But whether or not what he says is completely right, I think a lot of young people either in the faith or open to Christ think the way Lyons thinks. They won’t be argued into the faith by a talented apologist. They won’t be attracted by a tearful emotional appeal. They won’t be follow Jesus just because their parents were church goers. But they do want to be part of something meaningful. I think what I share this morning is one example of the type of meaningful activity that will (1) attract talented, energetic people to Jesus and His work, and (2) will by the grace of God and leadership of the Spirit accomplish much for the Kingdom.
Keeping the view of restoration in mind, I turn to another book, this one written around 65 AD. I am talking about the Gospel of Mark.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
The man who ran and kneeled before Jesus asked a basic question that most people asked. How can I live forever? We might frame it differently, coming from a worldview so shaped by medieval thought. How do I go to Heaven when I die? However it is asked, the basic notion is the afterlife. Is this life all there is? Is there more? Is that “more” whatever it might be, better than this? If it is better, how can I be sure I’ll get it?
Jesus’ interlocutor felt pretty confident. “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
“No sweat, Jesus. I have got it covered.” He’s thinking his own righteousness is secure. His eternal life is a slam-dunk. The Jesus delivers the pop he didn’t see coming. The man is feeling pretty good, but Jesus says, not so fast, my friend. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At this point Mark says, the man went away grieving. Why? He had many possessions. He was a rich man. He wanted eternal life but not at the expense of his possessions.
Please note, the primary lesson here is not that we should give all our possessions to the poor and follow Jesus. Anyone who would qualify as middle class in the United States qualifies as wealthy in most countries in the world. This is not a talk damning the wealthy. In this passage from Mark, Jesus does not damn the wealthy. In fact, he loves the man and he sees that it is the man’s wealth that is preventing him from having the riches God offers all of us. Giving his possessions to the poor would have been a freeing act. Once that wealth was out of the way, the man would be freed to follow Jesus.
What Jesus calls each of us to do is to remove the stuff in our lives that blocks the path between us and him. For a lot of Americans, that stuff is our material stuff – our money and our possessions. All of it should be used for God’s glory and for expanding the kingdom. If my possession don’t have the potential to be used by God and if they, and I include money in this, occupy God’s place in my life, then it all has to go.
What did Jesus say the man was to do after he gave all his stuff away? He was to come and follow Jesus. He ran up all desperate to know the secret to getting into Heaven or the key to eternal life; Jesus said forget that. Follow me. That is the essence of Christianity and the only hope for any kind of life. We must follow Jesus. And we must get rid of anything and everything that prevent us from following Jesus.
To review – we have Gabe Lyons telling us that 21st century Christians, especially those who are under 35 (rough estimate), are going to be restorers who try to partner with God and mend the earth’s brokenness. We have Jesus telling us in Mark’s gospel we need to follow him and remove anything that impedes our efforts to follow him; and I suggest for a lot of Americans the materialism that defines a middle class life is a major impediment. Where are we then? How do we get rid of the stuff that blocks our path to discipleship and once that’s removed, how do we partner with Jesus to mend the earth?
That question is key when we imagine what it is, “it” meaning the Gospel. We cannot understand “Gospel” until all the junk that impeded our path to following Jesus is cleared away.
The model I will propose can play a major role in clearing away the junk that clogs the way to discipleship. It is a model that I know you can repeat in your church.
Before I get to that, though, I have to talk about mission trips. I have always liked the idea of going on a mission trip. When I was in college, I heard about people in youth ministries and campus ministries going all kinds of places – places I had not been. And somehow I got it in my mind that my Christianity was not robust enough and radical enough unless I went on mission trips. To be a really super Christian I needed to go on several. I was born in Germany moved from there when I was just 6 months old. My dad was in the U.S. army and was stationed there and that’s why Frankfurt is my birth city.
My family’s from Michigan. I lived there from 6 months to 12 years old, with one year in Texas, again because of the army. At 12, we moved to Roanoke, Virginia where my parents still live. So, when I was in college and heard about all kinds of wild mission trips, I was a novice traveler. I had been to exotic places like Ohio and West Virginia. I even went to Atlanta once. Wow!
I had to go on some trips, man! I did that. With the Virginia Baptists and with my seminary, I traveled. I spent a week preaching in Mexico City. I spent a month shadowing a missionary in Bolivia. During this time and the decade that followed, I learned to think critically. I read a lot about Christian missions. And I came to a conclusion I am sure many of you have heard and realized. The amount of money it takes to send an American overseas for one week could go a lot farther if it were sent directly to Christians in Mexico or China or wherever.
Additionally, what good can someone do if they know nothing of a culture? When I went to Mexico, I had never been outside an English-speaking country. I had no experience preaching. The Virginia Baptists sent me down there to preach 6 revival sermons. I can only assume the pastor they had for the trip had to cancel last minute and they had to send someone and I was willing. Years later, as these questions rolled around in my mind, I had to wonder if short-term mission trips have any value at all?
Then I read one of the most important books I have ever read besides the Bible. It is called When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert. First off, this book confirmed my worst fears. Many short term Christian mission trips do more harm than good, and I had been on trips like that. With the best of intentions and desire to die to self and follow Jesus, I have in my life participated in trips that at least from a structural perspective did not do much good. In the same way that God speaks even through lousy sermons, I suspect God accomplished something on those trips, but in spite of me. So were my days of missions trips over?
A second benefit from When Helping Hurts is the definition of poverty. The authors write, “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” By this definition, the rich man in Mark 10 is poor – suffering from poverty of relationship and poverty of values. You and I are poor when we objectify our neighbor who is Libyan. He must be an Islamic extremist who longs for the death of Americans. We are poor when we generalize about Chinese Communists. They all desire to dominate the world economically and they’re all Hell-bound atheists. We are poor when we demonize those who support one political candidate: he’s trying to make America a socialist nation. Or the other: he’s an elitist who doesn’t care about the poor.
When we understand that poverty is defined by broken relationships and all are hurt, our approach changes. I am not a wealthy American trying to give my money to help a starving African so he can have money and have wealthy American life. I am a broken sinner and I am seeking God’s healing and I know I’ll understand it as I love my African brother. Part of my salvation story comes in me loving him. Part of his salvation story comes in him loving me. That relationship-building: that’s where God is at work.
“Salvation story,” sounds odd, doesn’t it? Don’t American evangelicals think of salvation as a moment? If “salvation” refers to the moment I realize Jesus died for my sins and in that realization I put my faith in him and thus assure myself of a Heavenly eternity, then, yes, salvation might thought of as a moment. But Jesus sent his disciples out to help other people become disciples. We are not on a mission to get people into Heaven. We’re on a disciple-making mission. Following Jesus does not happen in a moment. It is a lifetime, a story. I am proposing that a major part of that story demands that Christ followers leave their comfort zones and familiar environs and head out into the world to meet Jesus in places that had previously visited.
But this demands more than just heading out into the world. There has to be purpose and direction. Once Corbett and Fikkert establish that poverty is about broken relationships and is a result of sin, they identify three forms of poverty alleviation: relief, rehabilitation, and development. One of the biggest reasons so many mission efforts fail is they provide relief when development is needed. Those they are helping never grow independent or even have the chance. The system of help renders the poor dependent and they don’t develop. So, they stay poor. Offering relief when what is needed is development leads to helping that hurts those who are helped.
The good news from this book, for me, is I knew what to look for: ministries of development. I didn’t know if this would ever mean overseas trips for me, but I started down a path that has landed me in place where I go to Ethiopia every year. And I firmly believe what we are doing truly helps and has long-term potential.
This path began when I got married to an extremely mission-minded woman. From the start I was impressed by my wife Candy’s dogged determination to help poor children. I was also grateful for her amazing attention to detail. We were in our 30’s when we married and when a child did not come that first year, we decided adoption was the way to go. In 2005, we adopted Igor from Russia using the America World Adoption Agency. Through same organization, we adopted Henry from Ethiopia in 2009 and Merone from Ethiopia in 2011.
International adoption is a great thing, but it is another talk for another day. It helps – that one kid. It does not change the community or the broken systems that landed that child in an orphanage. However, international adoption did lead me to learn about Children’s Hope Chest.
This group is a smaller version of World Vision and Compassion International. Hope Chest provides child sponsorship. A financially able person contributes $34/a month. That money goes to provide a child with a school uniform and supplies and also a meal each day. For many kids in the program it is their only meal of the day. When you’re a sponsor, the very minimum participation is your monthly contribution of $34. You want to do more than the minimum. So, you write letters and people in Russia and Ethiopia and Uganda and wherever translate those letters into the native language so they can be read to the child you sponsor. As that child advances in school, he learns to read your letters himself. As he advances more, he learns English and eventually, he writes to you in his own hand, without aid of translator.
Your participation is letter-writing. You send your money. You send care packages with simple gifts. You pray. Oh, you pray for your child. And the benefit of this not just for your child but also for his community and country is he stays there. He is in school, because of money you send, he gets educated, and after 12 years, he’s ready for college. He is equipped to stay right there and be an agent of positive change in his little Asian of African town or village.
What I wondered is this. How could our participation go deeper than just the financial contribution, the prayer, and the letter-writing? In 2009, my wife went with a group on a Hope Chest trip. They visited a dozen care points in Ethiopia. When she came home we prayed about our church “adopting one of those carepoints.” In early 2010, someone who was from one of those care points, someone who converted to Christianity there and was disciples by a man who had come out of Isalm to be a Christ-follower was in the United States and we had him speak in our church.
That day that he spoke, 50 people in our church signed up to sponsors. All the sponsors were connected to children in the same care point – one Candy had visited. I had the vision. We would go beyond the contributions, the letters, the prayer. We would travel to Ethiopia and spend a week with these children. We would spend a week laughing with them, loving them, and providing support and encouragement for the adults who cared for them. Those Ethiopians were all evangelical Christians. The care point is called Grace Baptist Church. We could connect with them and we could come back and visit every year.
Would it work? When Candy and I adopted Merone in 2011, we visited the site. We asked the pastor of Grace Baptist and the leadership team who cares for the kids – “Do you want us to come?” This is a crucial question. We Americans should not assume our presence makes things better. I tried to ask this question of Pastor Tefera in as clear terms as possible. He emphatically said, “Yes, come, spend a week with us and these kids.” OK, so, we’ll come, but what will we do for a week? I came up with a simple plan of a Bible school. We’d have games, crafts, and a Bible lesson. We would buy some sheep and slaughter them and give the kids a feast. Pastor Tefera, “Is this plan OK?” He is the leader. When we all get on the metal bird and fly back to America, he’s the one who is with those 160 hungry kids every day. He has to be the leader through and through. We come to serve, love, and support him as he serves, loves, and supports these kids. “Pastor, is this plan OK?” Yes, it is OK. Come.
We have now done it once, April of 2012. The trip was amazing. And for me the confirmation that we’re on the right track came when I met our sponsor child Zeyiba. My wife Candy handles most of the letter writing. She sends Zeyiba letters and photos. Immediately, Zeyiba showed me a picture Candy had sent, pointed to Candy, and said her name. I have done sponsorship for years through Compassion International. I have at times wondered, does this make any difference at all? Does my money really go to help this kid in Rwanda or Kenya or wherever? When I stood there in Kombolcha, Ethiopia with Zeyiba, and she held a picture my wife had sent and she knew Candy’s name, I knew we were on the right track.
My dream is to go back every year and stay with it and stay with Zeyiba until she graduates from college. Over the course of that time, she and I will help each other recover from our poverty of relationships. Together, we will learn what it means to follow Jesus. She will help remove some of the stuff that blocks my discipleship path. I will make sure she stays in school.
My dream is to take a group from my church back to same spot to be with same kids every year. When I addressed the children during our week there, I asked them, “Am I looking at the future president of Ethiopia somewhere in this crowd?”
I firmly believe this model of a group of people in one church sponsoring a group of kids in the same care point and visiting those kids each year for a 10-15 year period is a repeatable model. It is a model that can be copied by churches large and small. It is a model that participates in evangelism. Many in our care point are from Muslim families, and they come to Christ. It is a model with the potential for long-term good in that it provides not only evangelization but also education. It is a model that puts the power where it belongs; in God’s hands working through indigenous leaders with American visitors in a servant’s role. It is a model that if you participate in it will expand your view of who Jesus is. He is a lot bigger than what we can see looking through our small North Carolina window. Our window is not a bad view of Him, not bad at all. But, I want to see more of Jesus. And sometimes doing that means spending significant time with people very different from me.
I recommend this model wholeheartedly. In it or a mission like it, we meet God in new places. We follow Jesus where he leads instead of fitting him into our lives. And we learn the Gospel in dramatic new ways.