November 1, 2009

The Hole in Our Gospel

Part 3: A Hole in the Church

 

Opening:

          Have you tried the new coffee?  Beginning today, we are partnering with Dominion Trading Company and serving coffee from Ethiopia.  I explained last week the incredible work that Mike Stemm and his company are doing in Ethiopia, lifting people out of poverty and planting churches.  Every time you buy a coffee drink, you’re helping plant churches and end poverty!  When you order your coffee drink, be sure to drop in a generous donation!

          Today is part 3 of our series, The Hole in Our Gospel.  Today, we’re talking about a hole in our church—it’s section 4 in the book.  Have you been having some lively discussions in your Life Groups!  Wait until this week’s group—today’s talk should stir up some discussion!  Let’s get started!

 

Baptisms, announcements, and book offering:

          As we’ve been working our way through The Hole in Our Gospel, a lot of people are asking, “Ok, what do we do?”  Starting today, and for the next three weeks, we’re going to be talking about ways you can get involved and help, offering your time, your talent, and your treasure. 

          We don’t all have the same amount of money, or the same talents, but we all have the same amount of time: 24 hours a day.  Take a look at this:  Minutes Video.

          What are you doing with your minutes? 

One of the things we hope will come from this series is that we as a church will be more engaged with the needy in our own community.  We’d like to invest a minimum of one year’s time—524,160 minutes—in our local community.  To help that happen, we’re having a “Minutes Pledge Drive”.  We’d like you to fill out this “minute’s pledge pog” in your program today.  Write your contact info, and the number of minutes you’d be willing to donate, and your preferred month (sometime in the next several months).  Then tear that part off, and at the end of the service we’ll collect them.  Where will you donate your time?  Please go to our website—www.lifecenter.net—and click on the minutes link on the home page.  You’ll find a list of organizations in our community with whom we are partnering.  Each of these will give you significant opportunities to make a difference with your minutes.  The list will be regularly updated and grow as we add more partners.

We’re going to do two things at once right now.  First, lots of you have asked if you can help us pay for these books—we’re going to give you the opportunity to do that right now.  Have you enjoyed reading The Hole in Our Gospel?  Has it been challenging for you?  Can you see why I wanted everyone to read it?  We have purchased 6000 copies (we just got the last 1000 in this week) and given them away because we wanted everyone to be able to read the book; we didn’t want anyone left out because they couldn’t afford it.  World Vision gave us a great deal on the books: $7 each.  You can do the math—we’ve laid out $42,000 so everyone can have this book.  I told you several weeks ago that we’d give you a chance to help out with that.  So here’s the deal.  We’re going to pass the hat.  If you can kick in $7 for your book, great.  If you want to kick in extra and help others who can’t afford it, really great!  Please, this is not a bait and switch deal, where we give you a free book and then ding you for it.  We’re asking you to help if you can.  Thanks for helping.  Our regular offering will be at the end of the service, so if you brought your tithe or regular offering, please wait for that—this is just to help pay for the books.  (Book offering here)

 

Introduction: The local church is the hope of the world.

          “Give me your eyes so I can see Lord.”  That’s a good prayer.  “God, help us see the world as you see it.  Let our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God.  Give me your eyes, your heart, your arms.”

          This is part three of “The Hole in Our Gospel”.  If you’re following the reading plan, you have finished Part 4 in the book, “A Hole in the Church”.  Rich begins this section with a warning: he’s going to say some things that are critical of the church universal, and of individual local congregations.  It’s never fun to be criticized, is it?  Do you like to be criticized?  I tend to get defensive.  But if we want to get better, we need to listen to our critics, and Rich has some valuable things to say to the church universal, and to us here at Life Center.  

          Rich begins this section with “A Tale of Two Churches”, contrasting two imaginary churches, The Church Of God’s Blessings here in America, a church very much like ours, which has everything; and The Church of the Suffering Servant in Africa, which has almost nothing.  Both churches love and follow Jesus.  So how can this disparity exist?  How can we have one church that has everything, and another that has nothing?  Two reasons.

The first is simple lack of awareness.  Neither church is aware of the other.  We don’t know that this church exists halfway around the world, or anyone who goes to it.  It’s not on our radar, so we don’t even think about it.  “Give me your eyes, Lord, so I can see.”

The other reason is self-absorption.  We are so preoccupied with our own lives that, even if we are aware, we tend to overlook the challenges faced by churches in other lands.  This is human nature.  My first concern is always for me.  I have to constantly fight the tug of my human nature to think only about myself.  Putting others before myself does not come naturally to me.

          This disparity between a rich and poor church is not new; it’s addressed in the Bible.  2 Corinthians 8-9 are two entire chapters devoted to giving to the poor.  The church in Jerusalem had fallen on hard times, and so Paul was collecting an offering from the Gentile churches to give to their suffering fellow-believers in Jerusalem.  He starts by trying to inspire the Christians in Corinth with the example of the Macedonian churches.

2 Corinthians 8:1-5 And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5 And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.

Notice that the Macedonian churches weren’t exactly flush!  They gave out of their poverty to help others! And they did it joyfully, generously, and willingly.  Paul also wanted to inspire the Corinthians with the example of Jesus.

2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Look at all Jesus gave for you, he says.  Then Paul says:

2 Corinthians 8:13-15 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15 as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”

Notice the emphasis on equality.  God cared that one had plenty while another was in need.  Do you think God still cares that there is such disparity in wealth; that one church is rich and another is poor?  Do you think God may want us, like these early Christians, to do something to level the playing field—“that there might be equality”? 

What if we could find a way to actually connect with this poor church in Africa?  It turns out we can!

          At the Leadership Summit in August, they announced a pilot program called “Church to Church”, co-sponsored by Willow Creek and Compassion International.  Willow Creek Church in Chicago has been successfully partnering with poor churches in the developing world for the last decade, and wants to encourage and help other churches do the same.  So they teamed up with Compassion International, which does all their relief and development work through local churches in the developing world.  In this pilot program, they will link 30 churches in the US, with 30 churches in Ethiopia, El Salvador, and India, and then train and coach these churches on how to develop a working partnership, church to church.  I tossed our name in the hat, and I’m pleased to say that we were one of the 30 churches chosen.  We’ll be partnered with a church in Ethiopia.  In a few weeks, we’re sending some folks back to Willow Creek for the orientation, and in February, we’ll send some people to Ethiopia to meet our new partner church and begin the relationship. 

          The local church is the hope of the world.  I believe that.  I believe that we have the best news in the world—the good news of God’s love, of Jesus coming to bring us back to God and to bring the Kingdom of God to us.  I believe that we are God’s hands and feet in the world, doing what He wants done.  The church at her best is the hope of the world.  The problem is that we haven’t always been at our best; there’s been a hole in our church.

 

1. What we’ve done: our checkered past.

          In the book, Rich calls the American church to task for our history.  We have often been on the wrong side of social issues, and Rich attributes this to a cultural blindness—an inability to separate ourselves from the dominant culture and see it through God’s eyes.  “Give me your eyes, so I can see, Lord.”  Rich gives several examples of our checkered past.

  • Native Americans: When our European forefathers came to this land, they helped themselves to the lands of the people living here.  The story of our treatment of Native Americans is appalling: they were robbed of their lands, forced onto reservations, mistreated and often killed.  For the most part, Christians either participated in this, or at least turned a blind eye.
  • Slavery: Slavery is one of the darkest blots on the reputation of our nation and the church.  Many Christians owned slaves, and many churches supported the system, using the Bible to provide theological arguments supporting slavery.  Other Christians disliked slavery, but did little or nothing to stop it.
  • Civil rights: Our segregated society was created and sustained with the complicity of churches and Christians, in both the North and the South.  And when the civil rights movement began, many white churches were slow to join, or even resisted.

That’s the dark side of our history.  Of course, it would be unfair to say that all Christians and all churches were on the wrong side of these issues.  There are numerous heroic examples of believers who saw these sins for what they were, and fought against them.  Think of William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King Jr.  These Christians, and many others, bucked the cultural tides of their day and were considered extremists by the cultural mainstream.  And they often paid a high price for their convictions, up to and including death.  Christians were often in the forefront of these culture wars.  But they were usually the exception, rather than the rule.  This is why I say we have a checkered history.  It’s good and bad.  While most Christians and churches either participated in or supported these things, other Christians led the fight to change them. 

          This cultural blindness is nothing new, nor is it exclusive to American Christianity.  It is true of all people of all faiths of all time.  Jesus addressed it in His day, speaking of his Jewish contemporaries.

Matthew 13:14-15 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

He could say the same of us.  Our hearts can become callused; our ears deaf and our eyes blind.  Everyone has a tendency to be blinded by their culture, to accept as normal the values and practices of the culture in which they’re raised.  But the lessons of our history should cause us to ask where our blind spots are today.  (There’s a great question for Life Group discussion!)

          Here’s one: HIV/AIDS.  Rich points out that the evangelical community has been apathetic at best about this issue, and often downright hostile about it.  Back in the 1980’s, when we first heard of AIDS, it was thought to be a gay disease, and the prevailing view was that if you had AIDS, you deserved it.  When we learned that AIDS was primarily a heterosexually transmitted disease, we still thought that if you had AIDS, you deserved it.  Many Christians believed that it was God’s judgment on sexual promiscuity, gay or straight.  But what about the women who were infected by their husbands?  Or the children who were orphaned through no fault of their own? 

ILL: Several years ago, World Vision commissioned a survey on the willingness of Christians to help people affected by AIDS.  When evangelical Christians were asked whether they would be willing to donate money to help children orphaned by AIDS (innocent victims), only 3% said they would definitely help, and 52% said they probably or definitely would not help. 

We have a hole in our church!  I have to admit that I haven’t wanted to be involved in this issue; that I’ve tended to look disapprovingly at people who have AIDS due to sexual promiscuity; that I’m more inclined to help with other issues.  But there are 15 million AIDS orphans—and growing.  What are we going to do about that?  Do we turn a blind eye, and pass by on the other side of the road…because someone somewhere sinned sexually?  Is that what Jesus would do?

          If we’re going to avoid the mistakes of our past, the mistake of being on the wrong side of these issues, we’re going to have to honestly ask, “What are our blind spots?  Where is injustice being done?  What makes God’s heart break?”

          There’s a hole in our church that’s seen in our checkered past.  But let’s talk about now.

 

2. What we’ve become: the richest church in history.

          We, the American church, are the richest church in history.  That is not a criticism or an indictment—I’m not saying this is a bad thing.  It’s a simple statement of fact.  We are the richest church in history, and depending on what we do with it, it could be a great thing!  Or it could be a bad thing…depending on what we do with it.

          But first, the facts.  If you make $12,000 a year, you are in the top 13% of the world.  If you make $25,000 a year, you are in the top 10% of the world.  If you make $50,000 a year, you’re in the top 1%.  We are rich.  (By the way, to be in the bottom half of the world, you have to make less than $850 a year—that’s $70 a month or roughly $2 a day.)  I know what you’re thinking: “I’m not rich.”  I don’t think of myself as rich.  Here’s why: We look at those who make more than us and that’s how we define rich.  But the rest of the world looks at us, and we are how they define rich.  Did you know that 93% of the world doesn’t even own a car?  It makes your old clunker looks pretty good!  We are rich.  If we don’t think we’re rich, we don’t see it as our responsibility to help the poor.  We are rich.

          Together, we are very rich!  The American church is the wealthiest community of Christians in history.  The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion.  We comprise about 5% of the global Christian church, but control almost half of the global Christian wealth.  We are rich…very rich.  Now, as I said, that can be good or bad, depending on what we do with it.  Paul had this advice for us:

1 Timothy 6:17-19 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

What is Paul’s advice to rich Christians?  Two things.

          First, put your hope in God, not your money.  (Scripture)    He describes wealth as “uncertain”—the current recession has reminded us of that!  Someone said, “Money talks.  Mine is always saying, ‘bye, bye’.”  Wealth is uncertain.  Paul reminds us that it is God who provides us with everything we have.  Everything we have comes from God.  If you are gifted, talented, bright, eloquent or clever, you can thank God for that.  If you have enjoyed the advantages of a good family and a great country, you can thank God for that.  If you have a knack for making money, you can thank God for that.  It all comes from God.  And it all belongs to God.  We are not owners but managers.  We have been entrusted by God with all we have, and one day we will answer to Him for what we did with it.  This is the meaning of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25.  It all belongs to God; we manage it for Him. 

          Second, do good, be rich in good deeds, be generous and willing to share. (Scripture)  In other words, use what you have to do God’s work and help others.  Don’t spend it all on yourself.  God expects us to use what we have for His purposes, which includes helping those who need it. 

This is Paul’s advice to us, to rich Christians.  If we trust God and not our money, if we remember that it’s all His, and use it as He wants, if we do good and share with others, that’s good.  So how are we, the richest church in history, doing? 

          The average giving of American church members in 2005 was 2.58% of their income.  If we look at where that money goes after it is given to their churches, only 2% of it goes to overseas missions of any kind, whether evangelistic or to assist the poorest of the poor.  We’re the richest church in history, and we give 2% of 2% to help our poorest neighbors around the world.  That is 5/10,000 or our income, or about 6 cents per person per day…from the richest church in history.  (I said this wouldn’t be easy…) 

In Luke 16, Jesus told a story about a rich man.  It starts like this.

Luke 16:19-21 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The rich man lives in luxury, yet right outside is gate is Lazarus, sick and starving.  The rich man had to walk by him every day as he came and went from his opulent home—and he did nothing. 

          We know the eternal fates of both men.  Lazarus went to heaven, and the rich man went to hell.

His sin wasn’t one of commission: he didn’t abuse Lazarus; he didn’t mistreat him or beat him or curse him—he just ignored him.  Like the priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, he too just passed by this man in need.  His sin was one of omission.  He did nothing. 

          This parable is so important for us.  We are rich.  We are the rich man, living in luxury.  Don’t we also have a beggar lying at our gate?  Outside of our comfortable homes and beautiful churches lie the poorest of the poor in our world, sick and suffering.  But we have a chance to rewrite the story!  We could be the rich man that gets it right, that helps the starving beggar at our gate.

 

3. What we could be and do: a vision of our potential.

          The richest church in history could change the world!  If we put our talents, our intelligence, our gifts, and our money to work, we could change the world.  Let me use our money as an example.

          One of the great principles of Scripture regarding our money is the tithe.  The first 10% of our income is to be given to God.

Leviticus 27:30 A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.

The same was true of their flocks and herds.  Whatever increase or gain they received, the first 10% belonged to God.  The tithe was not considered a gift to God; it already belonged to God.

ILL: If you loan me your lawnmower and return it to you, I don’t wrap it up with a bow and give it back as a gift.  It’s already yours; I’m simply giving it back.

It’s the same with the tithe.  It belongs to the Lord.  People gave over and above the tithe—a freewill offering—that was a gift.  But the tithe belonged to God and was the bare minimum a person offered God.

          The purpose of the tithe was two-fold.  First, it provided for God’s work at the temple, and also was used to care for the poor, the aliens, orphans and widows.  In New Testament terms, the tithe funds the work of the church and provides for the poor and vulnerable. 

Second, the tithe is to teach and remind us of our complete dependence on God.  Imagine living in a subsistence economy, where life and death depended on your next crop or your animals surviving.  Think of the faith it would take to give God your “first fruits” rather than your last fruits!  God knows that the chief competitor to our dependence on him is our money.  When we have enough money, we can become self-reliant.  Money is power, and power competes with God for supremacy in our lives.  “You can’t serve both God and Money,” Jesus said.  The most effective way to free yourself from the control of money is to give it away.  So God gave us the tithe to free us from money’s control and help us depend on Him.

Malachi 3:8-12 “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’

“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the Lord Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

The tithe belongs to God; when we keep it, we are robbing God!  When we give it, there is “food in God’s house”—that is, there is plenty to fund the work of the church and care for the poor.  When we give it, we’ll be blessed.  God will “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it!” 

          Ever since I became a Christian at 13, I have given God the tithe and an offering.  And I have been blessed!  It’s true.  And if you don’t believe it, God says, “Test me in this.”  Give it a try and see what God does!

          So why am I talking about giving God the tithe and offering?  Because most Christians don’t do it.  Of evangelical Christians—those who claim that their faith has the greatest influence on their life and conduct—only 24% tithe.  The average giving of American church members in 2005 was 2.58% of their income.  Here’s the big question: what if?

          What if every Christian in America tithed?  The American church would have an extra $168 billion to spend on God’s work worldwide.  In the book, Rich talked about spending all of that overseas; in reality, not all of it would be spent overseas.  Many American churches are under-resourced, and would spend some of the money on themselves—just catching up and funding their local ministries.  If everyone tithed, we would have to be very careful that we didn’t spend the whole $168 billion extra dollars on ourselves—that would be a sin!  But even if our churches spent one third of the increase locally ($56 billion, effectively doubling the income of every church to spend on its local mission), we’d still have $112 billion to spend internationally on the poorest of the poor.  To put that into perspective, remember that $65 billion would lift one billion people out of extreme poverty.  Universal primary education for children would cost just $6 billion.  We could bring clean water to everyone who lacks it for $9-10 billion.  We could provide basic health and nutrition for everyone in the world for $13 billion.  We still have $18 billion to spend…and this is just the first year!  $112 billion is more than all the developed nations of the world together spend on aid in the developing the world.  The American church could out-give the world!

          If every American Christian tithed, we could literally change the world!  Rich writes:

Can you begin to catch a vision of not only what this would mean to the world’s poor but what it would do for the image of the world’s Christians?  Imagine how stunning it would be to the watching world for American Christians to give so generously that it:

  • Brought an end to world hunger;
  • Solved the clean water crisis;
  • Provided universal access to drugs and medical care for the millions suffering from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis;
  • Virtually eliminated the more than 26,000 daily child deaths; guaranteed education for all the world’s children;
  • And provided a safety net for the world’s tens of millions of orphans.

Think about the statement it would make if American Christians stepped up and gave more than all of the governments of the world combined because they took Jesus seriously when He said to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Think about it!  And we could do it if every Christian tithed!  I know people will say, “It will never happen.  You’ll never get every Christian in every church to tithe.  You’ll never get every church to give at least half of it away to the poor around the world.”  What if one church did it?  What if we did it?  We could do it, and like the Macedonian churches, set the example for others, inspire others to follow.  It’s got to start somewhere—why not here?  Why not with us? 

          And that’s just the money.  Of course, it will take more than just money.  It will take courage, and all the smarts we can muster, and millions and millions of minutes—lots of hard work.  But we could do it…if we’re willing.

 

Are you willing?  (Mark 1:40-41)

God give us your eyes.  Help us catch the vision of what could happen if we, the richest church in history, step up and do what you asked.