Sunday, July 06, 2014

Big Changes for the Adams Family

We have some major changes going on in our lives. This morning I stood up at the end of our worship service and announced that I am resigning from my position at Old Hickory, where I have worked for the last 7 years. I have accepted an offer to become the new preaching minister for the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, located in Corpus Christi, Texas. Carolina and I will be finishing out our work at the Old Hickory Church of Christ on the last Sunday in August, and, Lord willing, plan to begin working with Kings Crossing on September 14th.

This has been a really emotional day. We've had lots of hugs and shed lots of tears. I had an especially hard time talking to my youth group, whom I love so much. They were crying and I was crying. Even if we didn't say much, at least we all processed our feelings a bit.

We have been so grateful for our time at Old Hickory. The elders have always taken good care of my family. We have been given a wide variety of ways in which we could serve and grow. They have allowed me to continue my education, and even paid for my Masters of Divinity. They have given me space to do some writing, which has led to me publishing four different curriculum books that I'm really proud of. We have had a great number of volunteers who have showed up and helped with every new idea I've come up with. We have never doubted that we are loved and appreciated at Old Hickory. We are not making this move because we are upset or bothered; it just seems like a great opportunity that we are really excited about starting.

At Kings Crossing, there is a lot we are excited about. The congregation relocated in 2006 to a new building in a rapidly growing part of town. They have some terrific people on staff that I can't wait to work with. The elders have a clear vision for the directions they want to see the congregation go, and I feel very humbled that they believe I can be part of this vision. We believe the congregation has terrific potential, and intend to work very hard to help them in whatever ways we can.

We really love Nashville, and will miss some of our favorite hangout spots; especially watching the Nashville Predators play hockey. At the same time, living 15 minutes from the beach has some strong appeal for us, too. Corpus Christi is a neat town, and we believe we are going to love living there.

In all of this, my family has been so overwhelmingly supportive. It is hard to know we will be so far away from all of them. But they raised me to follow God, wherever God seems to lead us, and I appreciate that they are standing behind us, urging us to do exactly this. They have been completely unselfish about this, and that has given me so much personal peace.

We are not moving away from anything negative. We are trying to move toward something we believe will be very positive. We believe it is God's timing.

I am so thankful for the confidence of the elders at Kings Crossing, and we hope to have many happy and productive years working with this good congregation. This is a major move for us, but we know that God will take care of us and bless us, just as we've always been cared for and blessed, everywhere we have been.

We are so thankful for all of you who have blessed us in our ministry. Please keep our family in your prayers during this time of transition.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tabitha's Hands

If you could go back to the first century, to Joppa, there on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, perhaps you could find a woman named Tabitha. You would be able to spot her because she would be busy caring for someone. All of her friends would have little gifts that she made for them. There would be tunics, shawls, scarves, or veils; whatever it was that women would make as little gifts in those days. You would probably see her encouraging younger women to be faithful to God and to their husbands. You might hear her saying the uncomfortable thing that needed to be said to the person that most needed to hear it. She would have cared too much not to tell them. But I wonder if you could have a look at her hands, what would you see?

Maybe you would see that her fingers are calloused and wrinkled. Maybe arthritis has set in, and her knuckles are protruding due to years of use. Maybe her hands tremble, and aren't quite as steady as they once were. If you didn't know whose hands you were looking at, you might even say they are ugly. 

A few years ago, I was talking with a fellow student about Dr. Jack Lewis, who has given his life to Christian higher education. We were talking about what a brilliant man he is, and how impressive his body of work has been. "But have you seen how thick his glasses are?" they said. "Years and years of reading thousands and thousands of books, preparing lessons and classes. His eyes are worn out, and he sure needs some thick glasses to read now." I guess some people would say that glasses that thick are unattractive. Sure he's smart, but look what it's done to his eyes. 

Some Christians go out in a blaze of glory, martyred for their confession and for their unwillingness to waiver. It happens in lots of places, even still today. But it doesn't happen to many people I know. Our martyrdom comes slower, and is more typically voluntary.

I wonder sometimes if when we speak of "living well," we have it all wrong. When we say we're "living well," we don't just mean we're avoiding evil or putting in a few volunteer hours. We tend to tie "living well" into our culture's philosophy, that your goal should be to make 50 the new 30, and 70 the new 50, and to remain as youthful as possible for as long as possible, because youth is beautiful and we want to be beautiful. When you can't tell that someone is as old as they are, they must be living well, we say. 

But you and I aren't going to live forever. At least, not until Christ raises this body and transforms it into something better. In the mean time, I think the thing that should concern us most is not so much living well, but dying well. Your body has been given to you as a gift, so that you can in turn give yourself to something that is worthwhile. I think about an old woman I knew whose back had become crooked and hunched over after she spent years caring for her ailing husband. Eventually, if you're working hard enough, you'll have the scars to prove it. Your body will bear the marks of what you've been doing with it for all this time. When I am placed in a casket, I can't help but wonder what scars, bumps, and callouses I'll be taking with me, and how they will have gotten there.

When one of God's children is laid to rest from this life, and God sees hands calloused from serving, eyes weak from studying, or a back warped from caring for others, I wonder if God thinks to himself, "I've never seen anything so beautiful."

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."
- Psalm 116:15

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Two Kinds of Pharisees



Jesus regularly dealt with Pharisees of two different schools of thought: Shammai and Hillel. These two opposing schools would argue about all sorts of matters, which is apparent from the kinds of questions they brought to Jesus. The school of Shammai was rigidly legalistic. They would bicker incessantly about the meanings of words, and would apply things so comprehensively that they would even tithe from their food condiments (Mt. 23:23). They read scripture as a rule book, and all righteousness hinged around being better rule-keepers than everyone else. The school of Hillel was generally loose in their approach to Scripture. They would allow a man to divorce his wife over something as small as burnt toast, and allowed a high degree of subjectivity in applying the law of Moses. One of the only things Hillelites were rigid about was that they wanted no association with the Shammaites.

Which side did Jesus pick? Neither. Jesus felt that whether someone was a conservative Pharisee or a liberal Pharisee, all Pharisees were fundamentally missing the point. Knowing God is not primarily about rule keeping or rule abolishing. Knowing God is primarily about trying to love what God loves. Loving God means caring about personal holiness, and keeping God's commandments (John 15:10). Loving God means desiring as much mercy and grace for others as we desire for ourselves (Colossians 3:13). Jesus said that none of the law is unimportant, but the weightier matters--the parts that concern God most--are justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt. 23:23). If our righteousness does not hinge around our passion for these three things, it might not be righteousness at all.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

One for you Lovers of Books and Theology

Last weekend I finished up a 2-week residency for my Doctor of Ministry program at Lipscomb University. As one who loves books, though the reading requirements are heavy, I also find them a bit energizing. As we discussed ideas in class, a number of new book recommendations came up in class that I hope to find time to start reading soon. For what it's worth, I thought I'd pass on a list of some books that I'm interested in exploring. If you've read any of these,
The 2012 and 2013 LU DMin Cohorts
tell me what you thought.

  • James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept
  • Lesslie Newbigin, Missionary Theologian: A Reader
  • Brian M. Howell, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience
  • Dwight Zscheile, Cultivating Sent Communities: Missional Spiritual Formation
  • John H. Walton, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority
  • G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry
  • Jerram Barrs, Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts
  • Emily P. Freeman, Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live
  • Michael Goheen & Craig Bartholomew, The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama
  • Shane Hipps, Selling Water By The River: A Book About The Life Jesus Promised And The Religion That Gets In The Way
  • Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love
  • Kyle Idleman, Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart
  • Joe Rigney, Live Like A Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis's Chronicles
  • Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Volume 1
  • Bryan P. Stone, Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness
  • Edwin Friedman, The Myth of Shiksa and Other Essays
  • Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue
  • Don Edward Beck, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change
  • Scot McKnight, Embracing Grace: A Gospel For All of Us
  • Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
  • Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words
Below are most of the books that I had to read for this residency. If you want my opinion on any of these, feel free to inquire. For the ones I have in physical, non-ebook format, I'd be glad to loan them out. I have put in bold the ones that I liked best.
  • Michael Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story
  • Carl Savage and William Presnell, Narrative Research in Ministry: A Postmodern Research Approach for Faith Communities
  • John Swinton and Harriet Mowat, Practical Theology and Qualitative Research
  • David Fitch, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier
  • Graham Hill, Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology
  • Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power
  • Leonard Sweet, I Am A Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus
  • Lawrence Golemon, Finding Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Change
  • Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work
  • Alan Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood
  • J.R. Woodward, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World
  • The Arbinger Institute, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out Of The Box
  • Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality
  • Charles Campbell, Preaching Jesus: The New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei's Postliberal Theology
  • Charles Campbell, The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching
  • Charles Campbell and Johan H. Cilliers, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly
  • Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly
  • Tian Dayton, The Magic of Forgiveness: Emotional Freedom and Transformation in Midlife
  • Charles Marsh and John Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God's Movement Toward Beloved Community
  • Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible
  • Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What
  • Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness
  • Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation
  • Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
I am very grateful to my church for giving me the freedom to participate in this program. I know it is hard having me unavailable for several weeks at a time. The program has been challenging and shaping me in meaningful ways. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

My Opinion on the Creation Debate

Last night, Bill Nye and Ken Ham debated each other on the subject of whether Creationism is a scientifically defensible point of view, worthy of being taught in our schools along with Evolution. The debate was held at the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, and in addition to a packed house with guests from several dozen states, there were over 1/2 million people who were streaming the debate online. Carolina and I watched it together over dinner. If you missed it, here is one person's discussion notes that are reasonably well done.
Strong points of the event:
Bill Nye
From a pure debating perspective, Nye was the clear winner of the night. He made some important points in ways that were very understandable. For example:
  • He showed a tree that we believe to be about 10,000 years old and asked, "How could the earth be only 6,000 years old?"
  • He demonstrated layers of ice which our data tells us take about 1 year to form each. He pointed to places where there are 690,000 layers of this kind of ice. Even if the earth wasn't 690,000 years old, it is not unreasonable to suggest that more than 6,000 years would be necessary for this to form.
  • He explained distances from the stars to the earth and explained how we measure these in light years, checking on distances based on the movement of the earth, looking to their relative positions from where we know the earth is currently. For many of them to be billions of light years away, it means that when we look at stars, it seems that we are looking at light they produced billions of years ago.
When a scientist points to these kinds of things and says, "It just looks like the earth is a lot older than 6,000 years," I think Nye shows that they are not necessarily pushing an agenda in saying so. Using methods they believe to be reliable, this is what they see, and this is therefore how they interpret it. Nye's presentation of clear data, coupled with Ham's failure substantively to counter much of it really strengthened his case for the age of the earth being much older than Ham claims. His case for evolution was not so strong, but he put great pressure on Ham to prove the earth is younger than it appears.

Ken Ham
I think Ham made some important observations as well.
  • Though scientists do not like to admit differences in observational sciences versus historical sciences, Ham made a good case that these differences do exist and should be accounted for. 
  • I think the best data that Ham presented for his own view as a creationist were the creation "orchard" charts, showing that many animals have common ancestry within their own type of animal, but that there really are not archaeological connections between types of animals, where one becomes another. This was probably the best example of how the evolutionist model requires much faith. The evolutionist idea of one common ancestor for all life has large gaps requiring faith, where the creationist model of kinds of animals being made requires no such gap. 
  • To counter Nye's point about layers of rock indicating a much older age, Ham gave an example of a supposedly young rock inexplicably encapsulated in a supposedly much older rock. This was his strongest evidence in countering some of the dating methods utilized by mainstream scientists for dating the earth.
  • He also had an excellent counter point about how no evolutionist has produced evidence of one kind of animal becoming another. When there is adaptation, it has always been something like an on-off switch, built into the genetics of the animal; not a new set of genetics.
  • Importantly, the questions are raised about how consciousness could come from non-consciousness, how information could come from randomness, and if the big bang was a result of molecules exploding, where did the molecules come from? I would have to say, however, that none of these questions, while excellent arguments for a Designer, makes any valid point necessitating a young earth.
  • Ham presented a number of scientists who have made great contributions in their fields who are also young earth creationists. I think he made a good case that one can be both a young earth creationist and a gifted scientist.
Weaknesses in the Debate:
Bill Nye
  • Nye tried to make several tired old arguments about how Christians like to be selectively literal in how they read the Bible, and how can we like parts of the Bible but not follow all the laws of Leviticus, etc. To someone with a strong Biblical background, he sounded woefully ignorant. But watching the twitter feed, it was obvious that many people who are also Biblically ignorant think he was making a good point. But this line of argument will fail miserably at winning over his opponents.
  • On several points about the advantage of a single common ancestor theory over the different kinds of animals theory, he raised no good points. On the other points about the origins of life, on the origins of intelligence, or of what would have caused a big bang to begin with, he really had no counters. "It's a great mystery!" He tried to put a positive spin on this by saying we should keep the enthusiasm for discovery alive by continuing to look for explanations of these things. 
  • Nye continued to assert that if we don't teach good evolutionary science in our schools, America will fail. Not that the sciences aren't important, but I don't think the biggest problems facing America are from our failure to study science enough. I'd place it much more on our moral shortcomings (greed, infidelity, etc.) that have led to the dissolving of families, and therefore the undermining of our youth's potential. A smart kid with a terrible home life has much fewer chances of making contributions to the world, no matter how much science you teach them.
Ken Ham
  • Ham's first biggest weakness was that instead of opting for good data, he generally opted for name dropping. "This really smart scientist agrees with me and says you don't have to think what Bill Nye is suggesting." That lends a bit of credibility, but rather than have scientists talk about their credentials, it would have been much better to have them present data as to why the mainstream theories about aging the earth are fallacious. Nye dealt primarily with data; Ham relied primarily on name dropping. 
  • Ham's other biggest weakness was that in response to Nye's accusation that his only reasoning for what he believed was because a 3,000 year old book made these claims, he responded by just quoting the Bible and quoting God's plan for saving mankind from sin. Several times, he had opportunities to respond to Nye with counter data, but instead said, "I believe this because the Bible tells me so." 
  • Ham spent most of his counter points trying to question Nye's dating methods. He did not provide a better dating method; he only suggested that many mainstream dating methods can be wrong. Even if this does weaken Nye's position, it does not necessarily strengthen his own. I wish Ham would have talked about alternate interpretations of the universal expansion theory, or the amount of water present on the earth, or about anomalies in the fossil record. When Nye kept begging that Ham show him an animal in the wrong layer of fossilized rock, Ham could have countered about the scientist's tendency to keep adjusting his theory to embrace the data, rather than abandoning his theory. (Finding a rabbit in the wrong layer would change a scientist's theory about when rabbits lived; not about how old the layer is.)
Overall, I'd have to say that Nye was the winner of the debate. Nye dealt primarily in data. The issue at hand for the evening was: Is Young Earth Creationism a Scientifically Defensible Position? Nye gave evidence for why he believes it isn't. Ham tried to question some of Nye's methodology, but did not really produce much counter evidence. When Nye expressed his fear that Creationism relies much more heavily on the Bible than it does on the evidence, Ham confirmed this by his responses. He only quoted Scripture, rather than citing scientific evidence favoring a younger earth. I'm a huge fan of Scripture, but that wasn't the subject for the debate. I saw one person state it well on twitter: "This evening was one guy who isn't a scientist debating another guy who isn't a theologian." Much of the evening they weren't really talking to each other, but Nye stayed on topic, and therefore won the debate.

It was an engaging way to spend the evening. My personal views are that I am a creationist, and I believe God acted in space and in time to shape the earth into what it is now, and to make all living things that exist on the earth. I have never seen any good evidence of one species producing a different species, nor do I find the naturalistic worldview capable of explaining the origins of life or the fine-tuning of the cosmos; much less providing a basis for moral thought. I believe that God revealed himself most fully in Jesus of Nazareth, whose missing body can best be accounted for by the claim that he raised from the dead, as confirmed by hundreds of eyewitnesses who would die rather than deny this claim. I am, however, thus far unconvinced that a fair reading of Genesis requires a view that creation was ex nihilo, or that the earth couldn't be much older than 6,000 years at the time at which the Genesis account of Creation begins. There may be evidence to the contrary, but Ham didn't present it. 

I hope that the overall outcome of the debate will be that it pushes people to continue to search for answers to these important questions. I feel a bit sorry for Ham, as he hosted the event, is selling the DVDs on his website, but did not win the debate, as I interpret it. Rather than Ham's approach, if you have an interest in Christian apologetics, two names I recommend strongly are Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig. Craig especially has a reputation for converting a lot of atheists through his impenetrable logic (His Kalam Cosmological Argument is rock solid). Both of these do a superb job of expressing the validity of the Christian faith, and exposing the weaknesses of a naturalistic worldview. One of my favorite activities while eating lunch is to watch presentations by either of these men on YouTube. 

I'd be glad to hear your impressions of the debate. This was the most highly publicized discussion on the subject since the Scopes-Monkey trial of 1925.
Hope you are having a great week,
Mark

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

What You Can Do

You have no control over what family you were born into. You can't choose whether you will have been raised by Christians or unbelievers. You don't decide whether your parents or grandparents have loved and encouraged you as they should have. It isn't for you to decide whether you would be born with a healthy beating heart, with a capable mind, or with a full set of limbs, capable of running, jumping, or climbing as you saw fit. It isn't up to you whether your boss will speak kindly to you and appreciate your work. You don't have the ability to make someone show compassion if they choose to be selfish. You can't make a quarrelsome person be peaceful. You don't control what other people do, nor do you control what you've been given to work with. 

But many things God has placed within your control. You do control whether you will live honorably, even if those around you do not. It is your decision whether you will use what talents you've been given to glorify God. You can decide that you'll grow through adversity with God's help, rather than crumble beneath it. You can be an exemplary employee, and a role model to your peers. You can see potential in other people, even if they have a hard time seeing it in themselves. You can be forgiving and merciful so that others have second chances and room to grow. You can be patient and kind, whether anyone else is or not. And in all these things, if you choose to lead, others may follow.

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law." Galatians 5:22-23

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hitler, Dante, and the Insufficiency of Tolerance

Lately I've been a bit consumed with eschatology (the study of last things). This has been in part because I've been teaching Revelation to the teens class on Wednesday nights for the last quarter, and have had to seriously examine a lot of passages that describe the return of Christ. A relevant issue to all of this is the issue of Hell. 

Hell's pretty unpopular these days. Nobody wants to believe anybody will go to Hell, except for a few choice people like Hitler or Hussein. Those guys could sizzle like bacon for a pretty good while before it would start to bother us.

So I've been thinking about Hitler, and in the spirit of Dante, I've been pondering what his punishment might be like. Dante's Inferno is a fascinating read, and a quite imaginative work. Dante holds strongly to the idea that punishments will somehow correspond to crimes. For example, in the second ring of Hell, Dante describes people being punished who are guilty of lust. Their punishment is to have strong unceasing winds that blow them violently about, taking away their ability to ever get rest or relief. This corresponds to their unwillingness in life to control the desires that they chased in a number of ungodly directions. 

I was wondering what sort of punishment would be fitting of a man like Hitler. He was hungry for notoriety and power. He dehumanized his enemies and treated them as trash. I thought about someone as infamous as Hitler, and wondered what sort of fitting spectacle would be his punishment. And then it occurred to me that perhaps nothing would be more fitting than to see him quietly enclosed in a lonely place and punished secretly, with no pomp or circumstance; to abandon him with no sign at all that suggested this man was in any way worth remembering or acknowledging. 

Up until around the end of chapter 20, I understand Revelation to be a book that is similar to the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the curtain is pulled back so that Dorothy can see what is going on that no one else can see. John is in exile, when suddenly the heavens open up, and he is invited to see what God and his allies are up to while Christians are dealing with oppressive and bestial world powers. We hear Angels shouting victory and singing new songs. We see martyrs and leaders reigning with Christ, and we smell the incense of their prayers. But one group is strikingly absent. 

The lost are kept outside of the New Jerusalem. They are sent to a "second death" in the Lake of Fire. But in all the discussion that goes on for pages and pages of the action and excitement that happens in the presence of God, the lost are completely absent. They aren't protesting, banding together, or knocking on the gates. They simply aren't part of the future that God is bringing into existence. If their souls continue to exist, it is only in that they are tolerated to exist, but no value is attached to them once they've been cast aside to be discarded.

All of this led me to think about the great clamor we all hear these days about the importance of tolerance. In every setting, people are pushing for the perceived virtue of tolerance. (Tolerance isn't always virtuous.) But when you listen to what people are really wanting, tolerance isn't it. Tolerance means I let something exist, despite finding it a total bother. Many of the people I hear shouting for "tolerance" are themselves quite tolerated. They are allowed to exist, so why keep asking for it? The deeper thing I believe people are begging for is to receive respect. Respect goes beyond tolerance. Respect dignifies and acknowledges where it can. 

I read an excellent book a few weeks ago called Leadership and Self-Deception. The book is all about one important principle in dealing with people: no matter what people do or how they have disappointed you, always continue to treat them as human beings. The place we so often fall short is that we allow people to become nuisances, obstacles, or burdens, and in doing so, we cease to acknowledge the value of their humanity. This is why we will chew out a co-worker, we will humiliate a clerk behind a counter, or we will have no patience or second chances for someone who has disappointed us in any way. We mentally categorize them as less than human so that we can treat them as such. They become something we tolerate instead of someone in whom we see value. This is a Hellish way to live.

I believe God will have painful judgments for many people who have lived far beneath what they were created to be. But he will wait until the end of their days to deliver his verdict. A challenge for me is not to be a merely tolerant person, but to be a loving person. It is ok to acknowledge when someone has annoyed or frustrated me, but I can express this in a way that simultaneously acknowledges that I believe they have intrinsic value, having been made in God's image. I can express disappointment for people or condemnation of their behavior in that they were created to do things much better than what they've chosen to do, and with God's help, I know this is possible for them.

I don't know what God will do with Hitler. I don't fully grasp how all things will unfold as the Kingdom of God continues to break through into the corrupted world we're living in. But I do know that for my part, it is my job to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the oppressed, freedom to those who are captive, and the year of the Lord's favor to all who are willing to accept the good news. To love people in the way that God loves them goes beyond tolerance, because in every person it sees their value and seeks their redemption. 

May you live today in a way that God would deem worth remembering,

Mark

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Planning and Fundraising for Short-Term Missions

So it's getting to be that time of year where those of us who go on Summer mission trips begin our signups and fundraising. If you're looking for a trip to get involved with, I'll be leading a trip through Torch Missions to the Buenos Aires Iglesia de Cristo in Costa Rica in 2014. We're looking for teammates if you're interested! Here are a few tips and ideas I've gained from making these sorts of efforts over the years.

PLANNING WELL

1. Listen Well Before You Plan. It is so important to communicate well in every aspect of short-term missions. You should begin by communicating well with the location where you'll travel, to be sure that they can genuinely use the help you are wanting to offer. Do not impose on them. Bring your ideas, but give veto power to the local people who will know what they are needing best. Don't make any plans until you first have the support and welcome of the place you want to visit.

Don't plan on any ideas unless you can confidently state how the church you are visiting feels about your ideas. Let them know what to expect from you so that they can accommodate you well.

A lack of communication will result in both of you being frustrated. We are not here to patronize smaller congregations in poorer places. We are here to love and support our brothers and sisters in Christ in ways that show respect for them and give dignity to their lives and ministry.

2. Communicate The Spiritual Aspects of What You're Doing. One of the most frequent criticisms of short-term mission is that they are often very expensive, and provide minimal bang for your buck in terms of what your team can produce short-term in the foreign location. It is indisputably cheaper to hire a team of local workers in Honduras to build a wall than to fly down 30 totally unskilled Americans, pay their lodging, and have them build a wall. Part of your trip planning should be to ensure you are strengthening local Christians wherever you are. Humanitarianism can be a great part of that. But the selling point for your trip can't be the importance of skilled labor needed in central America, Africa, or wherever.

Be sure in all of this to emphasize how good it is for the members of your team to have the experience of talking openly about their faith, being confronted with their own affluence, and donating their time to do hard work in the name of Jesus. We need to instill in our young people the hearts of missionaries. Short-term trips are expensive, but I would have a hard time numbering all the full-time missionaries I know who started off by going on a campaign to do short-term missions.

Likewise, if you are sensitive to the local church's needs where you are going, it is very possible that your short-term efforts can open up opportunities for them. Short-term trips may see some converts, but more often, by the connection they make through a team's visit, local people may come to experience Christ through the local congregation whom the mission team was serving.

It's true that these trips are expensive. It's also true that they can be life-changing, both for the ones who go and for the ones who receive them.

3. Use a Facebook Group to Coordinate. You need some central places where parents can go to find out about the trip, and where people can sort of meet each other, even if team members are from different locations. I have had good success using Facebook groups to
a. Remind people about what's going on
b. Get feedback about what interests people
c. Share files and links to useful information and ideas
d. Post pictures and information while we are on the mission sites so that parents know where to look for it

I make sure to add everyone and their whole families who are involved in the trip. Even those who have gone in past years like to see what's still happening after the fact. We've even been able to find and connect with some of the local people we've met in other countries whom we've found on Facebook and social media.

Because I don't like to deal with a lot of spammers or people who don't have any business with what's going on, I've opted to make our Facebook group a secret group by invitation only. Otherwise, if you have lots of Facebook friends you don't know well, some of whom could be sinister, you are publicizing the best possible dates to rob your house.

4. Remember to say "Thank You." We keep track of all donations that have names and addresses (checks) so that our participants know who helped them to go. Whenever we receive a donation, my secretaries respond with a letter, expressing appreciation for their donation for tax purposes. Most of my kids thank their contributors on their own. When we arrive back from the trip, I use a program called Comic Life on Mac to design a small picture that I send out as a keepsake and thank you to all our contributors. Here's the one I made for 2012. I print them off as 4x6s and include them in an envelope with a letter talking about the highlights of our trip.


IDEAS FOR FUNDRAISING

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the methods that have worked well in some places.

1. Mission Team works for tips at Church event. For us, the single best fundraiser has been at a congregational chili supper during the winter. We host a chili cook off and have the members all bring chili, toppings, desserts and drinks. Therefore there is no food cost for the event for our team. We show up in matching long-sleeve Ts and spend the whole event waiting tables, refilling drinks, and passing out flyers about what we'll do on our trip. On the side of the room, I have a looping slideshow with pictures of last year's trip. 

Near the front of the room is a big bucket labeled, "Tips for Costa Rica." As far as public announcements, people are never pressured to tip. Tips are appreciated, but not mandated or expected. My experience has been that members are glad to contribute without any pressure. The bucket itself I add eyes and a mouth to so it has personality. I also prime the pump and drop in my own contribution of several $20s and $50s. So when people are wondering how much they ought to give and they see what is already in the bucket, it sets a higher expectation than if it is empty, or only has $1s and $5s in it. 

This is the best approach I've found because it is great PR for the trip, people have given generously, and the team has zero cost to make the event happen since it's a congregational event where people bring all the food.

2. Silent Auctions. While we are overseas, I make sure to spend $100-$200 on souvenirs to donate for silent auctions upon our return. At a church event in the fall without any other trip connections, we will have a table set up on the side of the room with several items that people can bid on.

The most popular item for me has been coffee. Central American coffee is high quality, and when you play up its quality, and people know that whatever they pay for it is helping your trip, I've had some epic silent auction battles going on over bags of coffee. You don't want to spend too much on large items, and are better to get things for which you pay $10-$20, hoping that you will at least raise awareness and not loose any money on the items. I begin the auction with bidding $10 on all items myself. That also helps me not waste money, because I don't get any auction items that I wouldn't want to own myself.

People have a lot of fun with this, and it helps keep the trip on people's minds, even when it's the "off season" and the trip isn't coming up soon.

3. Envelopes for Cash. I have not used this approach, due to the success of these first two methods, but I've had this idea suggested and highly recommended to me. Because my congregation has such a tendency toward generosity, I've worried that this might actually reduce what some people would give. If you're at a congregation where people are less inclined to have extra, this is a neat way to provide people with giving goals.

Take 100 manila envelopes. The 6"x9" size works well. Get your team together and decorate them fancily with numbers from 1 to 100. Include little messages on them like "Ooohh...Pick Me!"

You put up a clothes line along one of your church's hall ways, and hang the 100 envelopes all the way down the hall. The goal is that people will take the envelopes, and return them to you with the amount stated on the outside of the envelope.

This is a great project for parents with young kids. "Aiden, you are going to raise $5 to help with the mission trip. Here are some chores you can do to earn $5." Let the child bring the envelope himself or herself, and they will be so proud to turn it in.

Here's the cool part: If you do the math for adding sequential numbers, using envelopes for 1 to 100, no one is giving more than $100. But if all of them come back with their respective amounts, you will receive a total of $5,050.

If you're ambitious and do envelopes from 1 to 125, your total would be $7,875. Pretty amazing!

4. Retail and Restaurant Helps. These are great supplemental fundraisers.

- Chick-Fil-A has been really good to work with. You have a night where for a designated range of time, they will give you a percentage of all receipts submitted. I understand Zaxby's will do something similar.
- Kroger Refillable Gift Cards can be a great method to raise funds all year long. You get a set of gift cards that are all connected to the same charity account. The way it works is that people who agree to do this will get a gift card. Before you pay for your groceries, you fill up the gift card with the budget you want to spend on groceries. You then use the gift card to pay. When it's empty, you do not throw it away, but instead you refill it and continue to use it.

Basically, every time your group collectively recharges a total of $5,000, Kroger gives you 4% of that amount. ($200) That is not a huge amount, but with a lot of people shopping, it adds up quickly. I know of one group that generates a full $1,000/month using these cards.

The real benefit of these efforts is that it doesn't require any additional spending from your contributors. They spend what they would spend anyway to eat out or to buy groceries, and part of it goes to you.

5. Fundraiser Dinner. This is especially good for raising funds from people who do not attend your church. The dinner itself is simple: I get parents of trip participants to help coordinate food and decorations. We decorate using colors and themes from the country we're traveling to.

I put up a screen with images and videos, and make a presentation during the meal about the trip and our plans.

But the fundraising comes from the invitations. We make up packets for all our participants where each of them can send out 20 invitations. These are specifically not for our own church members. We invite our congregation through announcements and the bulletin, and they sign up if they want to come and contribute.

But in the mail, each of our kids sends these invitations out, inviting them to the informational dinner about the trip. We include a self-addressed, stamped envelope where they can respond by:
A. I plan to attend the dinner.
B. I cannot attend the dinner, but will be praying for you.
C. I cannot attend the dinner, but in addition to my prayers, I would like to contribute financially to your trip.

We mention the date of the dinner, but also give a separate fundraising deadline so that even if they can't come to the dinner, they know when we need donations by. This way the team doesn't have too much pressure to write letters well, or to reach out only to local people. They can send invitations to whomever they chose, and the self-addressed envelopes make it easy for people to respond. The picture here is from 2012. For last year, I actually got fluorescent colored envelopes that made the invites stand out a lot more.

6. Golf Tournament. I have to give mention to the annual Golf Tournament that Torch does near Nashville. Some have had great success with these. There are two ways you make money if a local golf course allows you to host a tournament:
a. You collect money from the golfers who pay to play. You can charge fees for individuals and for groups who sign up.
b. You can sell advertising signs to local businesses that will be placed on all the holes for the entire day, providing them with good PR. If you can find a good sign shop that will make up the signs with their desired artwork, you charge the company based on the size of the signs. Generally, you can make an enormous among of funding off of the signs especially.

This sort of event is incredible, but is also a lot of coordination. If you want to learn more about how the Western Hills Church of Christ organizes their annual Torch Golf Tournament, you can look over these materials to give you an idea of how their event is arranged.


Monday, November 18, 2013

When ESPN Comes To Church

Yesterday, we had a pretty unusual experience at the Old Hickory Church of Christ during our Sunday morning service: ESPN showed up and filmed the whole thing. I'd love to tell you the reason why is because of our hard hitting Bible lessons and high-impact classes. But truthfully, it's because of a family at our congregation whose story they are making a special about.

There are several members of the Gaines family over the years who have been successful athletes, particularly in football. Brad Gaines will always have a special place in football history from his time at Vanderbilt when a bad hit led to Chucky Mullins' paralysis, and later death. It was Chucky who hit Brad, and ended up injured, but knowing what happened to Chucky as a result of the collision weighed heavily on Brad. Brad is a person of deep faith, and he has made regular visits for decades now, down to the site of Mullins' grave to honor his memory and show his respects. The story of Brad and Chucky is touching, and later next year, there will be a special on Brad as a 30 for 30 short film. That was the occasion for the filming. They are telling Brad's story, of which his faith is a central part. I appreciate their willingness to highlight this aspect about him. If you want to learn more about this story, you can see one of the previous specials here.

I'm sure I'll be talking about the 30 for 30 short film when it is released. But I wanted to talk about the experience of having ESPN film our worship service, because it was enlightening for me in some ways I hadn't anticipated. They were polite and appreciative, but there was a crew of about 6 people running around with boom microphones and large professional cameras. It was a very different experience. They would run up and get close ups of the people on the stage, and at one point, stood a couple of rows in front of me, panning the camera around at our faces as we were singing. It didn't prevent me from paying attention, but I never ceased being aware of the rolling cameras all around us. 

For me, this was a great wake up call to how many people have probably come in and out of our doors. Much like the big cameras, these people have also been watching. I think for most of us, we were determined more than ever to sing well, to pay attention, to sit up straight, to be friendly...all the things we know we ought to do. But the added reminder that people are watching...maybe even thousands of people...was a powerful motivator. When I am aware that people are watching me, I learned, I put a lot more effort into what I'm doing. 

So here's a reminder to you all: no matter where you are or what you're doing, someone is watching. Your actions tell a lot about what you think, what you feel, and what you care about. You should never do things for the sole purpose of appearances, but you should also remember that in general, perception is reality. Regardless of what is going on inside of you, if you don't make it perceptible, people will never know.

We feel so blessed that because of this good family, our congregation has an opportunity to represent our faith before a potential multitude. Realistically, I'm sure our time on screen will probably be seconds at most. But when you are aware that any second might be the second that millions of others could see, you live each second more deliberately.

Live like it matters, and do things you'd be proud of to see again later.

Something to think about.

Mark

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two Questions for Consistency

There are two questions I've been thinking about. They're two sides of the same coin, really. They are:
(1) Do you do things in private that you would never do in public?
(2) Do you do things in public that you would never do in private?

Both are questions of hypocrisy, "to wear a mask." Both have a common solution as well: consistency. Some people are all around jerks, all the time, of course. But for those of us striving to be better, the challenge is to be the same good person, no matter where we are, and no matter who our audience is. 

Some of my goals are:
  • To demonstrate an attitude of love, regardless of circumstances. Even if something has gone wrong, or someone has done me wrong, I want to always treat the other person as one created in the image of God, worthy of love and respect, even if I have sincere disagreement. I want to treat people as people, and I want to be a vessel through which people can experience grace and acceptance.
  • To be positive and hopeful, helping others around me to be the same. I want this for the people in whose lives I play a public role, but I want to be sure that I treat my family as well as I treat those to whom I minister. It is unacceptable to take out home problems on my friends, church members, or co-workers, just as it is unacceptable to take out church frustrations on my family. Both deserve my best, and both benefit from people who believe that a future with God can be a good future.
  • To be honest in all things, willing to speak truthfully. So many problems are created and perpetuated because people fear that their honesty will cause harm. After all, many things don't have to be said, and honesty stings for those who don't like to admit room for growth. But it's always better to speak truthfully before a situation becomes a problem than to flee from discomfort until a small problem becomes the elephant in the room that is now much harder to deal with. Honesty is also the best way to make up for a limited memory. Dishonesty requires a lot more record keeping and avoidances. Honest people have nothing to run from. 
  • To extend mercy to all people, including myself. After giving the "golden rule", Jesus explains that the reason we should treat others as we want to be treated is because God intends to use our own actions towards others as the basis for how he judges us. No one has ever wronged me as badly as I've wronged God, and there is no one for whom I can only reserve God's judgment if I personally wish to experience God's mercy. My personal struggle comes less from showing others mercy, though, because I have a much harder time accepting mercy for myself. All sins sound very forgivable to me except my own. Yet if God, whom I admire and imitate, tells me that I'm forgiven, who am I to tell him what he can't do? I want to be characterized by mercy, grace, and peace, because this is what God is like.
My walk as a Christian will be different than everyone else's walk. But I think for every Christian, a path to blessing is to (a) fix your eyes on Jesus and all that makes him who he is, and to (b) try to be this way at all times to all people.

I hope yours is a blessed week.
Mark