Riches and Relationships, part 2 (4th Sunday in Lent)

As we continue our pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Holy Week, we have just left Jesus and his unsatisfying encounter with a young man who loved his riches more than the opportunity to follow Jesus.

If we are unfamiliar with this story, we would be surprised when we first read it. Turning away a rich person? What church or pastor would engage in such foolishness! We need such folks and their wealth to finance our operations, don’t we?

This week, we find a similar reaction from Jesus’ disciples:

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:24-31)

Bear with me as I make three Lenten observations from this text:

  1. First, there is a stream in evangelical Christianity that wants us to believe that faithful Christians should be materially blessed. Christians who live in poverty, we are told, do so because of a lack of faith. We call this the “prosperity gospel” (See this link for John Piper’s take on this teaching). This text is sometimes used in presenting the prosperity gospel. We are told that if we “leave everything” (give a large gift to a church or ministry) we will receive back “a hundred times as much.” This misses the figurative import of Jesus’ words and the historical reality of Peter’s life. Peter did not become rich. He died in Rome about 35 years later on a Roman cross, having lived a vagabond life of ministry for three decades. There is nothing in Peter’s letters to indicate riches as a reward for faithfulness.
  2. Second, Jesus reveals the “Great Reversal” here, that the “first will be last and the last will be first.” How can this be? Specifically, how will the poor become rich? Jesus deals with true riches here (see Luke 16:11), our relationship with God and others. Wealth does not cause or cure an impoverished soul. Only a relationship with the Lord can do this. Wealth is neither a sign of God’s blessing nor is poverty a sign of God’s curse.
  3. Third, there is no teaching here that rich people are excluded from “entering the kingdom of God.” To do so is difficult, like a camel entering the eye of a needle. From ancient times, the “eye of the needle” was understood to be a small, after-hours entry door into the wall or gate of a city. For a camel to enter this door meant that it had to be unloaded and get on its knees. If we understand Jesus’ words this way, a rich person must humble himself and detach himself from his love for wealth. This is not impossible, but possible for God who can change a person’s heart.

The drive to be wealthy is strong in our society today. As we live the Lenten season of sacrifice and devotion, let us take time to rethink our attitudes toward wealth. Let us be thankful for the blessings we receive. Let us be generous with the wealth we possess. Let us serve the Lord rather than riches. And let us love Jesus more than anything in this world.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily those of his employer.


Riches and Relationships (Third Sunday in Lent)

Rich people? How should we understand them?

As we continue our Lenten walk to Jerusalem with Jesus, we meet people from ancient Palestine who seem familiar to us.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

We feel like we have met him before. Maybe some of you who read this are him.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”  “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:17-22)

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

The last line of this is particularly striking. He went away sad? I thought money made us happy!

When it comes to religious behavior, this guy is without blame. He has not murdered, committed adultery, stolen, lied in court, or dishonored his parents (behaviors based on the 10 Commandments). He is also not guilty of fraud, meaning his business dealings have been honest.

Yet Jesus tells him he is still lacking something. Jesus prescribes a needed behavior, something in keeping with the Law of Moses, but going far beyond it. The rich man should shed his wealth and direct the proceeds to poor people. Then, Jesus says, he will find true wealth, riches in heaven. Then, he will be a suitable follower of Jesus.

This seems harsh, very harsh. But Jesus does not care about this man’s money and the good it could bring to poor people as much as he cares about the man himself. He loves him. What is amiss is that Jesus suspects the man loves his wealth more than God. His heart religion is not worship of the Lord but adoration of wealth. And, the reaction of the man (who had probably never faced this choice before) confirms Jesus’ suspicion. Choose this day whom you will serve? I’m a slave to my money.

The wrong application of this lesson is that we all need to liquidate our material possessions and write a final big check to a charity for the homeless before we join their ranks. Maybe this is what you need to do, personally, but that is not Jesus’ intent. The right application, a great Lenten lesson, is that we cannot love anything more than God and expect to have treasure in heaven. This is not referring to our final reward after death, but to our crucial relationship with the Lord God here and now.

One of the entailments of “giving up something for Lent” is the idea of donating the cost savings to a charity. I have my “giving up” idea in place. I can’t say it has been without challenge, but I am calculating the personal savings and intend to send a donation to the Open Door Mission. I don’t think this will cause me to walk away sad, but rather give me the joy of choosing service to God over self-pleasure. I encourage you to do the same.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

The contents of this blog are the opinions of the blogger, not necessarily his employer.

Blessing Children (2nd Sunday in Lent)

There are cultural efforts to counteract this, of course. Commercial forces have tried to make Easter about candy, stuffed animals, baskets, and candy (did I mention candy?); things that would be attractive to children.

I don’t think it has to be this way. I don’t think children need to be left out of our Lenten season.

The second stage of Mark’s record of Jesus’ final Journey to Jerusalem tells this story:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

This is a remarkable story for several reasons. First, there seems to be a desire from “people” (parents) to introduce their children to Jesus. They have heard him teach and heal, and they want him to lay hands on him as a blessing. Yet this is not an elderly, grandfatherly person. This is not like having your child sit on Santa’s lap in the mall. This is a Galilean man in his 30s with a big bushy beard, a bachelor with no children of his own. Mark wants us to know that Jesus was/is attractive to children. May we never make him unattractive to these little ones.

Second, the disciples block access to Jesus for these parents and children. I want to think this is well-intended, but I’m not sure. It comes across as an undervaluing and underestimating of a child’s capacity to love and appreciate Jesus. May we never doubt the sincerity of childlike faith and love for Jesus.

Third, Jesus is having none of it. He opens his arms and the “kingdom of God” to the little ones. Christian faith is not for adults alone. Those who advise waiting for children to grow to adulthood before making faith commitments are as guilty as the hindering disciples. May we be Jesus’ open arms to even the youngest child in our communities.

Fourth, and most remarkably of all, Jesus reverses the roles in his world to say that we should look to children for understanding. They are his example of the ideal kingdom members. In the church, we are often experts in making the simple complex. We want sophistication, not innocence. In this Lenten season, may we strive to strip away the tedious history we have allowed to encumber our faith. If we are asked, “What is your relationship with Jesus?” may our answer not be “it’s complicated.” Just say, “I love him with all my heart.”

The end of this story is that Jesus obliges by giving a blessing to the children. A “blessing” in this sense mean both approval and support rather than condemnation and criticism. So, as we come to the second Sunday in Lent, take this assignment: find a child in your sphere of influence and give her a blessing. You will make Jesus smile.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

The views in this blog are those of its author, not necessarily his employer.

Divorce (1st Sunday in Lent)

lent-2017Mark begins the Journey to Jerusalem like this:

Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.

The “that place” Jesus is leaving is the lakeside city of Capernaum, almost a second home for Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Mark records Jesus and his disciples taking the non-Samaria route to Jerusalem, crossing the Jordan River and heading south. This was a pleasant way to go, but led to Jericho and the long climb to Jerusalem, an elevation rise of 3,400 feet. Mark show us Jesus as the perpetual, eternal teacher, and this journey did not stop his teaching ministry.

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

jesus-and-the-phariseesSurprisingly, the first stop on the Journey to Jerusalem concerns the issue of divorce, a controversial topic in Jesus’ day. We get a dose of creation theology as a reminder that God has created us with a pattern in mind when it comes to marriage. Jesus recognizes, though, that divorce is a long-standing practice among his Jewish nation, going back to at least the time of Moses.

From the perspective of his determined trip to the cross, however, Jesus’ answer rings a different bell than the divorce controversy. God’s plans will not be thwarted. If God has planned it, we are foolish to try and stop him. Jesus has already told his disciples what awaits him in the city (and will tell them again). Now there is no turning back.

When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

To be sure, there is valuable teaching here about marriage, divorce, and adultery. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is something else here, though. Adultery was a common way for Israel’s prophets to describe the nation’s unfaithfulness to her God. Jesus himself referred to his peers as a “sinful and adulterous generation” (Mark 8:38).

We, too, play the adulterer when we act unfaithfully and shamefully in our relationship with God. As we begin the Lenten season and travel with our Lord, my we leave behind our “cheatin’ hearts” and trust in him.

Prayer: Lord God, strengthen our marriages and our commitment to marriage. May you also strengthen our wayward hearts and point them to Jesus, the pioneer of our souls. Amen.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The view in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of his employer.

Following Jesus to Jerusalem (Lenten Series)

lent-2017For several years I have blogged weekly during the Lenten season. I plan to do so again in 2017.

This year I would like us to imagine we are with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem for the last time. We are going to the Holy City for Passover and to fulfill prophecy concerning Jesus’ atoning death on a Roman cross.

Luke follows Mark’s basic outline for his Gospel, including this final Journey to Jerusalem. Luke announces the beginning of the trek this way:

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

What follows is a travel narrative, taking Jesus and his band about 10 chapters to arrive in the holy city.

In Mark, this is a single chapter, chapter 10. This is the one we will follow with a blog for each of the six Sundays in Lent and a seventh blog for Easter Sunday. I invite you to join me as we make the journey to Jerusalem with our Lord Jesus, a journey of destiny and fulfillment. It is the beginning of the final days of Jesus’ life on earth, days that changed human history forever.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Part 5: The Evangelical Church Is Amazingly Vibrant

evangelicalism-2017Where does the evangelical movement go from here?

In the previous blogs I have identified four trends that I see as troubling (even dangerous) for the future of evangelical Christianity:

  1. The increasing abandonment of biblical authority in terms of practice.
  2. The surrender of evangelicals to right-wing political agendas.
  3. The ongoing dominance of systematic theological constructs to define evangelicalism.
  4. The decline of both the effectiveness of and the demand for evangelical theological education.

This presents a pessimistic outlook for the future, and those who know me will attest that this is not my style. I am the eternal optimist, and I am optimistic about the prospects for evangelical Christianity. Why? Because I find the evangelical church to be amazingly vibrant.

I have had contact with many different evangelical church in the past few years. There is no single way to characterize them, but perhaps they can be divided into two categories: striving or thriving (certainly not buzzwords original to me).

Striving Churches. These are churches that are not growing. They are either plateaued (temporarily) or in decline. This can be for many reasons: declining community, loss of key members, bad reputation, poor facilities, etc. But the number one reason (in my experience) is the lack of effective and committed leadership. By this I mean the church lacks leaders who are:

  • Thinking strategically
  • Fiscally wise
  • Personally committed
  • Doctrinally sound

All of these are important, but the most important for the survival of the church is the first, strategic thinking. What I mean by this is the capacity to envision what a church should look like in the near future (2-3 years) and then to craft a reasonable strategy to get there. Many smaller churches are unable to do this, defaulting to plans that seek to restore the past glories of the congregation rather than adjust to the changing situation. Sometimes a church has declined to the point there is no realistic future for it.

When a “striving” church ceases to strive, it will die. This is not a doomsday scenario. Throughout the history of Christianity, churches have been planted, thrived, and died. Paul’s church in Ephesus, perhaps the most important church in early Christianity, no longer exists. Why? Because economic forces shut down the city of Ephesus. This can happen today and the Christian community will be relocated or transferred to other congregations rather than signal the end of the church in totality.

Thriving Churches. The evangelical landscape has many vibrant, dynamic churches. I would characterize a “thriving” church as one that has most or all of these characteristics:

  • Growing membership base
  • Fiscal health and stability
  • Talented, innovative staff
  • Dynamic worship services
  • Healthy mix of generations
  • Observable impact on the community

beacon-lighthouseHere is the good news: there are numerous evangelical churches like this all over America. When I visit a metro area, I often try to find out what the thriving churches are in that city. It is usually not too hard, because people who live there will know. Thriving churches are not candles under a bushel basket. They are cities on a hill, shining the light of Jesus brightly. They are beacons in their communities, guiding people to Jesus and his church.

What will the future hold? Part of the dynamic is that the role of the keepers of the evangelical flame has shifted from schools, societies, magazines, and denominational leaders to the vibrant churches of today. I think this shift is permanent. There are no national, universally accepted spokespersons for the evangelical movement. There are local leaders, some of whom have national reputations. And, for the most part, these are the leaders of the vibrant evangelical churches of our era.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Part 4: Theological Training for Pastors is Not Valued

evangelicalism-2017Where do evangelical churches find staff members?

Accurate statistics are difficult to find, but I would estimate that there are more paid staff positions in evangelical churches today than ever in the history of America. Where do these church leaders come from?

In the 19th century, American churches were using the European method of preparing pastors: college or university training. As some universities became increasingly secular, even hostile to the church, the pastor-training endeavor might be isolated to a “divinity house” or separate institution within the university. This pattern continued into the 20th century and is still used by mainline Protestant denominations.

At the same time, there were always pastors without a university background. They may have learned their trade under the tutelage of an older pastor or be largely self-taught. Such individuals were more likely to be found in rural situations where their lack of college education was similar to the members of their churches. But city churches demanded well-educated pastors.

Part of legacy of the Liberal/Fundamentalist controversies in the first half of the 20th century was the perception that the mainline seminaries were no longer to be trusted to train church leaders. The graduates of these seminaries were seen to be theologically liberal and to have lost confidence in the authority of the Bible. A reaction to this was the rise of the Bible college movement, the establishing of autonomous colleges whose curriculum centered around the Bible and whose focus was to produce pastors for conservative evangelical churches. In 1947, the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges was established to bring credibility and standards to these Bible colleges. In 2004, the name was changed to the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

In the post-war years, a stream of evangelicalism dissatisfied with the educational standards of Bible colleges and still distrustful of the mainline seminaries began to establish seminaries and graduate schools to bring a higher level of training for evangelical pastors. These included Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), Dallas Theological Seminary (founded 1924, expanding with the ascension of John Walvoord to the presidency of DTS in 1953), the merger of two schools to become Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (1969), and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (so named in 1963). These seminaries began to attract faculty with Ph.D. degrees from top-flight institutions, often British universities. These seminaries adopted a Master of Divinity curriculum as a graduate level method of training pastors for evangelical churches.

Many evangelical churches today have pastors who are graduates from an ABHE school or from an evangelical seminary. However, it is easy to see that a disconnect has developed between the evangelical institutions of higher education and the churches they were founded to serve.

Why is this? I offer three reasons.

  1. In some ways, the evangelical project in colleges, universities, and seminaries has been unsuccessful. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, many Bible colleges and seminaries focused on producing graduates who were theologically orthodox Bible scholars and not on producing pastors with ministry skills necessary for the church. There was an idea that if students were drilled in Bible and theology, that they would figure out how to do ministry once they got a job in a church. This has sometimes succeeded, but has had some spectacular failures. Bible knowledge and people skills are not the same thing.
    Second, the Bible colleges in particular became isolated from the churches they were founded to serve. This can be seen in a couple of ways. One was that the faculty members of some Bible colleges were academics, not pastors. While able to teach history or theology or Bible with great precision, they had little but theory to offer students in pastoral studies. They were not successful church leaders, but sometimes refugees from failed ministries.
    Another factor was that churches were increasingly reluctant to send their best young people to be trained as pastors. The reasons for this are complex, but Bible colleges were more and more tasked with rehabilitating church misfits rather than molding high-potential students.
    Simply put: too many of the wrong faculty and the wrong students to be successful and respected as a source for churches looking to hire staff members.
  2. Larger churches began to groom and hire staff members from within. The reason for this is articulated in many ways. Some churches believe paid staff members must be permeated with the church’s particular “DNA,” meaning its methodology that has proved to be successful. In other cases, this has been little more than the hiring of family members of the lead pastor or other influential church members. Often this is seen as less risky, assuming that a person will be observed in action as a volunteer for several years before an offer of employment is made.This has been successful, very successful for many large and growing churches. It seems to me, though, that we are living on borrowed time here. Large churches often have a core of older staff pastors with theological training from a college or seminary, but this store of training is being stretched thinner and thinner. It feels like a few professionals working with many skilled amateurs.
  3. Lastly, formal theological education is not valued by many churches. A pastor with a master’s degree or doctorate is not respected because of their education, only because of their performance. So, in many churches, the preaching, while it may be entertaining, is shallow, repetitive, and with little biblical content. Proof-texting reigns. Biblical literacy among evangelicals is at dismal levels. Theological contradictions, mild heresies, and non-Christian teachings are all too common. The popularity of “preaching without notes” has sometimes devolved into “preaching without preparation.” Commitment to Christ is sometimes superseded by commitment to the congregation.

I don’t think it has to be this way. Colleges need to do a better job of preparing students for ministry rather than for careers as Bible scholars. Bible college teachers should be practitioners who love the church. Churches need to value both theological education and ministry skills. And we desperately need to design delivery systems for theological education that will be used by the many church staff members who have had none.

We all need to do better in this.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of its author, not necessarily those of his employer.