Cheerful Givers

Tim Dalrymple discusses recent surveys on giving in American churches in an article in the November 5 issue of World. According to Empty Tomb, Inc. tithing to mainline churches has reached its lowest point in 41 years, and of the amount that churches are receiving, a smaller percentage is going to serve the needy outside of the congregation as churches must retain a higher percentage to cover the cost of maintenance and paying staff salaries. Empty Tomb is an Illinois-based agency that provides “financial discipleship strategy and information about church giving patterns on a national level” ( According to their study, data on evangelical and Roman Catholic churches’ giving patterns was not available, but the authors suggest that the trends among the mainline denominations included in the survey should be indicative of those American churches not included.

According to the Empty Tomb report, Christians in the denominations included in the study (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others) tithed 2.38 percent of their income in 2009, down .05 percent from 2008, and those churches then spent less than one-sixth of their budget on ministries that fell outside of the congregation itself.

Dalrymple notes that Empty Tomb could be accused of taking an alarmist approach to its research, but I would agree with him when he notes that, “the statistics are alarming enough if they are even remotely close.” I would like to think that if the churches not included in the study were to be surveyed we would see a higher percentage being tithed to the local congregation, but it is unlikely that it would be overwhelmingly higher, and even if it were double, that would mean only 4.76 percent…hardly anything to get excited about.

There is also the possibility that individuals are including organizations and ministries other than their local church in their tithing, giving directly to missionaries and other para-church ministries rather than having that support funneled through the local church. My wife and I have done that in the past. When we were members of a wonderful, Bible-believing, Bible-teaching church that had an approach to missions that we did not completely agree with we gave part of our tithe to our church, and part of it went directly to fund missionaries we know and support around the world. As much as I would like to think this is the case, though, I have to be honest and say that it is unlikely that the “missing” 7.62 percent of the tithe (assuming one holds to the idea of tithing equaling 10 percent, and the responsibility of the Christian being to tithe) is being contributed in such ways.

Dalrymple correctly points out that the obvious culprit for the decline in giving would seem to be the current state of the U.S. economy. However, according to Empty Tomb, church giving has not always declined when the economy has been, shall we say, sluggish. So there may be other reasons to consider, as well. What concerns me more, however, is the larger picture. Regardless of the reason for the .05 percent decline from 2008 to ’09, lets look at something more troubling. Empty Tomb reports that the .05 decline was the largest year-to-year decline in giving in the past 40 years. So while that is cause for concern, it reveals to me that giving has remained relatively stable…and, therefore, relatively scant.

Dig around on the Empty Tomb web site and you will find lots of interesting facts about the giving trends in the U.S. Of note, Protestants were giving 2.9 percent of their income to churches in 1916. In the midst of the Great Depression in 1933 they were giving 3.2 percent. In 1955, it was still 3.2 percent. By 2007, it was 2.5 percent. What happened to income over that same period? Compared to 1933, even taking taxes and inflation into consideration, Americans in 2007 were 582% richer. Yet giving had gone down. Per member giving in 2007 averaged a pathetically low $863.80.

So, what difference could this make? Well, according to the study, if American churches had given the same percentage of their budgets to benevolence ministries in 2009 as they did in 1968, an additional $3.1 billion would have gone to those in need. What’s more, if American Christians had tithed a full ten percent on their income in 2008 the resulting increase for the church would have been $172 billion. In both cases that’s billion…with a “b.” And I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of money. So much money, in fact, that according to the authors of the study that would have been more than enough to “send missionaries to every unreached people group and all but eliminate the deaths of small children because of starvation and disease.” Notice that that says and, not or. In other words, if each member tithed ten percent–which comes out to an increase of slightly more than $200 per month based on 2007 per capita income–there would be enough resources available to eliminate childhood starvation and reach every known people group in the world. That is not to say that would happen, of course. Churches may choose to utilize that money in other ways if it were given. But think of whatever is most important to you or whatever you would love to see your church be able to do more of, and imagine what a full tithe could translate into. No child would be prevented from attending Christian school for financial reasons. No crisis pregnancy center would be unable to provide ultrasounds to mothers considering abortion. No orphaned child would be left with inadequate care. No elderly person would be deprived of respectful, honorable care. None of the more than nine percent of unemployed U.S. workers would be unable to pay their bills or feed their family. No one would be unable to access quality health care. Fill in the blank with your own vision….

So, back to an earlier question, why is the percentage of income that American Christians tithe to their churches so low? It’s not the economy. It is a failure to acknowledge that their income is not their income. It is God’s money that He has entrusted to them. Unfortunately, many are failing to be good stewards of that money, either because they do not know how, or because they do not care. They would rather spend the money on things they want, and give God what’s leftover. Remember, too, that when we look at averages of anything we must keep in mind that to get that average figure, some give much more while some give much less. I cannot think of much that would be more depressing than to think that there are many professing Christians who tithe much less than 2.38 percent of their income.

I am reminded of the biblical account of the three individuals who were entrusted with some of their master’s money when he left on a long trip. Two of the three doubled their master’s money in his absence, while one, afraid of a failure to measure up to the master’s expectations, simply buried the money and then gave it back to him upon his return. We find in that account that when the master received his money back from this third individual he called him “wicked and slothful” (Matthew 25:26, ESV). That individual was then cast into outer darkness. It gives me pause–and I think it should you, too–to imagine how much more upset the master in that story would have been had that third individual returned to the master only one-fourth of what he had been given and explained that he had used the remainder to pay bills, go out to eat with his family, buy some designer sandals, and take a vacation to the coast. I cannot help but picture this fool smilingly presenting this meager return to his master thinking it would surely be enough since the master had, after all, given it to him. Couldn’t he do with it what he wanted?

In his excellent and convicting book Whose Money Is It Anyway? John MacArthur writes this: “By God’s grace we can always find a way to give, because even the worst circumstances should never hinder our devotion to Jesus Christ and our desire to obey His commands on giving. … [G]iving is not righteous unless it’s accompanied by sincere, heartfelt joy. That’s because joy will supersede any motivation that causes you to give merely out of duty, pressure, fear of punishment if you don’t, or simply for the sake of a reward.” Towards the end of his chapter entitled “The Characteristics of Biblical Giving,” MacArthur writes, “You can give without loving (that’s merely legalistic, required giving), but you can’t love without giving (true affection leads to generosity).”

I’m not going to tell you that you have to tithe ten percent. I don’t think that’s my place, and I am not even convinced that the ten percent tithe is New Testament requirement. But tithing is a requirement, and I would ask you to prayerfully reflect on your priorities, as I reflect on mine. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” If you’re cheerfully giving God your 2.38 percent, that’s between you and Him. But I do wonder if your joy might abound even more…if you decide to give Him more.

Veterans Day

Today the United States celebrates Veterans Day, an annual holiday honoring veterans of the U.S. armed services. November 11th was first celebrated as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. Major hostilities of World War I were formally halted on the 11th hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918…adding even more special significance to the fact that today’s date is 11.11.11. The holiday was changed to Veterans Day in 1954.

If you surf the Internet a little bit you can find all manner of interesting trivia about Veterans Day, such as the official spelling. Veteran’s Day and Veterans’ Day are both often used, but the U.S. government has declared that the attributive (no apostrophe) rather than the possessive case is the official spelling. Also, there are some who celebrate Veterans Day with a meal of ravioli, since President Woodrow Wilson helped White House cooks prepare and serve ravioli to two thousand soldiers at the end of World War I. Why ravioli? Apparently it had just become a common dish in U.S. kitchens thanks to advances in commercial canning.

Ultimately, of course, the purpose of Veterans Day is to remember those who have served in the military, as well as those who are serving. According to Wikipedia there are nearly 25 million veterans in the U.S. My father served in the Navy, and my grandfather served in the army. I have a step-nephew in the Marines, about to deploy for his second tour in Afghanistan. I suspect there are very few U.S. citizens who do not have a veteran in the family (past and/or present) or know a veteran or active duty member of the military.

I was blessed to grow up in a time marked mostly by peace. The Vietnam War was over by the time I was born, and the U.S. was not actively involved in any major conflicts until Desert Storm, when I was in high school. That was such a short-lived and decisive action for the U.S. that even that did not result in a vastly increased demand for men and women in the military. It was not until 9.11 and the resulting (and continuing) war on terror that the U.S. has been once again involved in lasting military operations. I consider myself blessed not to have been subject to a military draft, but I also would like to think that I would willingly serve in the military had my services ever been needed. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for the men and women who voluntarily serve in our armed forces. The sacrifices that they make–the grueling training, the time away from family, the deployment to areas of danger and the responsibilities that go with such deployment, the often-thankless jobs that are part of serving, and so on–are incredible. The most incredible thing about an all-volunteer military is that those men and women do not have to serve. They willingly enlist, and they do so to defend our country, our freedom, and the idea of representative democracy. Many of them do it because they love this nation, and because they are willing to potentially make the ultimate sacrifice because of that love. America is a great nation and a free nation thanks in no small part to the veterans of the U.S. military.

There is, of course, another freedom that I enjoy as a born again Christian, and that is freedom in Christ and freedom through Christ. Through Christ I have freedom from sin and freedom from an eternity separated from God. In Christ I have freedom from the law…there is no list of requirements I have to try to keep. (Thankfully, since no one could ever keep them!) And this freedom is the result of a voluntary sacrifice, too. God did not have to send His Son, and Jesus did not have to die on that cross on Calvary. His sacrifice was voluntary, and made on my behalf–and yours–motivated by His love. Jesus “took the hill,” and sacrificed His life to pay the penalty for my sin. When He arose three days later He had defeated death. The war was over. There are still battles–daily ones, in fact. And I must remember that I wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers of darkness and evil. But I do not fight alone, because the Holy Spirit is with me and empowers me to stand and fight. And the best news of all, to quote an old song, is that “I’ve read the back of the book, and we win!”

Biblical Worldview

The phrase “worldview” has become a bit of a buzzword of late, particularly in Christian circles. And while I think this is a good thing, I am not completely convinced that everyone who talks about it defines the term in the same way. So just what is a worldview, and a biblical worldview specifically?

A worldview is the filter through which an individual views the world around him or her, the events, thoughts, ideas and beliefs of the world, and through which that individual forms his or her reaction and response to those same events, thoughts, ideas and beliefs. An individual’s worldview shapes and influences everything that he or she thinks. In the case of a biblical worldview then, the Bible becomes that filter—everything is viewed through the teachings of the Bible, and the teachings of the Bible influence the individual’s actions and reactions.

Specifically, a biblical worldview means recognizing the truth of the Scriptures and everything in them. This includes the biblical account of creation (and thus the rejection of Darwinism and evolution), the biblical instruction about marriage (and thus the rejection of homosexual relationships, no-fault divorce, premarital and extramarital sex), and so on. The Bible has much to say, either directly or in principle, about virtually every issue that an individual may be confronted with—from the “hot button” issues like abortion, cloning, homosexuality, the death penalty—to less contentious but equally important issues like the use of one’s money, respect for authority, parenting, treatment of other people, etc.

Of course a biblical worldview also necessarily includes embracing the key commandments of the Scripture—to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself—and the recognition that for the Christian, this world which we currently inhabit is only temporary, that our permanent residence is in heaven with our Creator, and that what we invest for eternity is far more important that what we could ever invest here on earth.

A biblical worldview is one which has as its filter the belief that there is one God, in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), that God, through His grace, allows men to receive faith to believe His Word, to accept Jesus Christ, and to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit. It includes the belief that God created all things and is sovereign over all things. Nothing ever has happened or ever will happen apart from God, in His sovereignty, either causing or allowing it to happen. God calls people to Himself; they are saved, by grace, through faith, not by any works of man; sanctification is an ongoing process that will culminate only in glory; and all human beings will be resurrected to an eternal existence—an eternal life for the redeemed and an eternal death (separation from God) in hell for the unredeemed.

An important part of the biblical worldview is that believers are to reflect God in everything that they do. Not every believer will be called into full time ministry in the sense that they are pastors, missionaries or Christian school teachers, but every believer is called to full time ministry in the sense that every experience of life, every occupation, every human interaction is an opportunity to demonstrate Christ, through one’s words and deeds. Believers are to do everything unto the Lord, whatever it is that they are doing.

Everyone has a worldview. The important question is, is yours biblical?

Open Mic

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was all over the news yesterday, and for reasons I suspect he would have preferred to avoid. At the G20 Summit last week President Sarkozy called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a liar in a conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama. What Sarkozy and Obama did not know was that the conversation was being overheard by several journalists in another room. Sarkozy and Obama were already wearing their microphones and a few journalists had already put on the headphones of their translating device–even though they had been told to wait until the news conference started to do so.

This is certainly not the first time something like this has happened. During the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, George W. Bush identified a reporter from the New York Times and in no uncertain terms told Dick Cheney what he thought of the man. This exchange was picked up by the open mic on the stage.

What these instances bring to my mind, though, is the need to guard our tongues. Presidents and other world leaders are in positions where their comments can have very real and potentially very serious consequences around the world. I am not in a position to impact international diplomacy with a carelessly expressed opinion, but that does not mean that my words are any less powerful or that I need to be any less careful. The book of James makes it unmistakably clear that the tongue is in an incredibly potent force. Like a spark igniting a forest fire or a rudder steering a ship, the tongue is small in size but almost unequaled in power and influence.

In looking at the situation with President Sarkozy it is tempting to sit back and think, “How stupid! You’re wearing a microphone, about to go into a news conference. Wouldn’t you be a little more careful in choosing your words?” I have to resist that temptation, though, because I am well aware that I, too, make foolish word choices at times. I suspect that Mr. Sarkozy was expressing an opinion he genuinely holds, and was expecting it to be a private exchange between himself and Mr. Obama. But should that matter? When I am having a confidential discussion with someone I feel I can trust, should I feel free to say things I would not be willing to say elsewhere? Should I say things I would be ashamed or embarrassed to have announced to the world or broadcast on the Internet?

Several years ago, I heard a fantastic illustration about words from my friend and former pastor, Dr. Joey Anthony. He was talking about words, and how careful we need to be with how we use them. He asked a volunteer to empty a tube of toothpaste onto a paper plate. After the individual had squeezed out all he could, Joey said, “Now, put it back in the tube.” Of course the individual looked at the toothpaste, looked at him, and then said, “I can’t.” I suppose it would be possible with lots of time and effort to get some of the toothpaste back in, but the point was well made: once our words leave out mouths, we cannot “put them back in.” We can never get them back. We may try to explain them away, apologize for them, even retract them, but we can never really get them back. Every word we utter is like the bullet of a gun; once we pull the trigger, it’s too late.

One of the greatest lies ever perpetrated on mankind is the old children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” On the contrary, the damage inflicted by sticks and stones will heal with time and proper care. And while the damage done by words can heal, it may never completely go away. I suspect you, like I, can remember some specific words someone said to you at some point in your past that hurt you. You may have “gotten over it,” and you may have forgiven the individual who uttered the words, but the pain that you experienced is likely easy to recall when prompted.

In his book Controlling the Tongue, R.T. Kendall says that the scariest verse in the Bible in his opinion is Matthew 12:36, which reads, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” That is a sobering thought, isn’t it? We are each equipped with a tongue, a powerful tool that we can use to build others up, or tear others down. We can encourage others, or discourage them. We can point others to Christ, or drive them away. With such a potent tool at our disposal, I’d like to suggest that we exercise much discernment in choosing our words. Maybe we should think about it this way…what if everything we said was picked up by an open mic?

Hand in Hand

As a general rule, I intend to avoid getting into overtly political discussions on this blog. Not because I do not have views or thoughts on the political scene, believe me. I just think there are more appropriate times and places for those discussions than this forum. That said, I am going to stray a little bit into politics in this post as part of making a larger point.

A few weeks ago I found myself in a (mild) debate on Facebook with some folks I do not know. It stemmed from comments they and I made on a link shared by a mutual friend. This friend is a minor celebrity in the world of Southern Gospel music, so he has lots of “friends” and very few of them do I know. (In case you are wondering, though, I do actually know the individual who posted the link. He went to high school with my brother and his parents attended the same church we did for a while). He had posted a link to an ad on YouTube for Newt Gingrich, with the commentary that Mr. Gingrich’s understanding of our government is impressive and his message is one the American people need to hear.

The ensuing debate stemmed from my comment, in response to a number of other comments posted before mine touting Mr. Gingrich’s vast experience, education and knowledge, pointing out the Mr. Gingrich is indeed brilliant, but that there is no way I could support him for President of the United States. Why? Because in the 1990’s, Speaker Gingrich was an outspoken leader in the move to impeach President Clinton for his behavior with Monica Lewinksy, though at the very same time Mr. Gingrich was involved in an affair with one of his congressional staffers. Mr. Gingrich is now married to said staffer, who is the third Mrs. Gingrich.

Shortly thereafter the debate began. Another “friend” commented that, in her opinion, Mr. Gingrich would do a wonderful job running the country. She then said, “We are now talking about the personal lives of politicians! Most of them have had, [are] having or will have affairs!! It is very wrong of them, but most of the people on FB are divorced, some on their second or third marriages, we cannot hold that against them!! Most politicians personnal lives stink!! I will vote for the man qualified to help us not have another 911, and help us get jobs back and will do everything possible to keep America safe!” She then thanked me for my comment.

As someone who relishes a good debate and someone with very definite opinions on almost every political issue, I could not resist responding. But the truth is, I felt compelled to respond because the position shared by this individual is one so overwhelmingly common in the U.S. today. When it comes to the personal lives of politicians, I must say I think they DO matter, particularly when their personal lives are evidence of hypocrisy in the extreme (such as Gingrich having an affair with a staffer while suggesting Clinton should be impeached for the same thing). I would have to say I cannot accept the assertion that “most” politicians have had, are having or will have an affair, either. (And even if I did agree with that, I would resist the implication that we should accept that as the new norm). To the best of my knowledge, by the way, Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul are all still married to their first spouse. Should that be the exclusively deciding factor in who to vote for? Probably not. Am I saying I would never vote for someone who has been divorced or even someone who has had an affair? No. But I do think it is relevant.

After I shared these thoughts, the fellow friend replied that she thinks divorce is wrong, and that we could find something about each candidate that we do not like. But then she ended with this thought: “I wonder what is more important, The corruption and indecency of our elected officials or the state of our Nation?”

Well, there is the rub. The truth, I believe, is that the two go hand in hand. If we have corrupt or indecent elected officials should we be surprised that we have a morally bankrupt nation that holds firmly to relativism and denies absolutes? If we have elected officials, or individuals running to become elected officials, who have no problem violating a sacred oath made to a spouse, should we trust them to keep their promises to the nation? Scripture makes it clear that human government has been instituted by God, and believers have a responsibility to submit to those in authority. But believers also have a responsibility to be wise and discerning, to examine all aspects of a candidate’s record, and to vote their conviction in accordance with their understanding of biblical principles and the candidate’s words and deeds. I don’t want to tell you who to vote for; the beauty of a representative democracy is that we each have the right to vote for the candidate that we think will best carry out the duties of the office. But please, in thinking through your decision, do not fool yourself into thinking that there is no connection between corrupt, indecent or immoral elected officials and the state of our nation.

The Cheapest Gifts

In his book How Should I Live in This World? R.C. Sproul addresses why Christians often tend to legalism and fall prey to the tendency to major on the minors. Christians, Dr. Sproul writes, want to be recognized for their growth in sanctification and righteousness, so they like to develop or insist upon “rules,” because the keeping of these rules make easy measuring rods for our growth.

The Pharisees are perhaps most well known for this behavior, but they are by no means the only ones guilty. Have you ever used a record, literal or figurative, positive or negative, of your behavior–I do not go to the movies, I do not drink alcohol, I do not work on Sundays; or I tithe ten percent of every dollar I receive, I read one Proverb and one OT and one NT chapter every day, and I attend church every Sunday without fail–as a means of justifying your spiritual development? Do you ever use such measuring rods to compare yourself to others? I have to admit that I am guilty.

Dr. Sproul makes the point that we tend toward this kind of behavior because it is easier and, in many ways cheaper, to abstain from certain behaviors or to practice certain habits than it is to invest our lives in the pursuit of justice and mercy, to develop the fruits of the Spirit, to conquer pride in our lives, or covetousness, or anger, or gossip or greed…. “We tend to give God the cheapest gifts,” he writes.

You may never have thought of it that way. I do not think that I did. None of us would ever intentionally be so presumptuous or arrogant as to offer God the cheapest rather than the best, would we? Yet we may do exactly that when we satisfy ourselves with keeping the rules rather than humbly and consistently pressing forward, acknowledging our sins and seeking the face of God.

Prayer in Public

A few days ago Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today wrote about Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and how his practice of “taking a knee in silent devotion” before a football game has both attracted national attention and revived the “prayer-in-public debate.” Grossman does a nice job of pointing out that Tebow is far from the only professional athlete to “bend his neck to a Higher Power.” She goes on to quote, Tom Krattenmaker, author of Onward Christian Athletes, as saying “that big-time sports is ‘one of the most outwardly religious sectors of American culture.'”

I had not necessarily thought about it being one of the more outwardly religious sectors of our culture, but I certainly have seen many professional athletes (1) make a public gesture toward heaven, (2) assume the posture of prayer, (3) cross themselves before or after a key moment in the athletic contest, (4) give audible thanks to God and/or Jesus Christ during an interview or speech, or (5) all of the above. I think Grossman is also to be commended for including the observation from a spokesman from Fellowship of Christian Athletes who said that it is not necessarily that there is more prayer among professional athletes so much as more attention to their prayers because of the publicity they receive.

One thought comes to mind for me as I consider this issue. Does the attention given to public prayer (or other demonstrations of faith) by professional athletes (or other celebrities, for that matter, though it seems less prevalent among actors and musical artists) tend to help or hinder the cause of Christ? And honestly, I don’t know. On the one hand, I find it hard to think that it could hinder, because every public profession or demonstration has the potential to bring someone to an inquiry about faith and possibly through that bring them to the Lord. On the other hand, given that many of these public prayers or professions are offered up by individuals who do not seem to consistently demonstrate their faith in other areas or at other times, I have to question if there is not a similarity between these prayers and those of the Pharisee on the corner loudly praying for the attention of others but then living the rest of their lives in a manner that completely misses the point. And, as I said, I just don’t know.

I cannot know the heart of others, and I certainly am guilty of living or acting in ways that are not always consistent with my faith in Christ. Does that mean I should not pray publicly or testify of my faith? No, I don’t think so. I think what is important to keep in mind is what Christ said about those public prayers; in Matthew 6 He said that those who “love to stand and pray…that they may be seen by others” have received their reward already. Their reward is the attention of men. Jesus goes on to encourage private, non-attention-seeking prayer, noting that God will see it and reward the pray-er accordingly. So I guess it comes down to this: is the motive of the professional athlete or other celebrity who prayers or otherwise demonstrates his or her faith in such a public way doing so to attract the attention of others to him/herself, or to point others to Christ? I have no way of knowing…but God knows.

Admissions Criteria

A while ago now I read in a news magazine that a study of the admission patterns of fifty of the top colleges and universities in the U.S. reveals that it is very difficult to get admitted to one of these schools if a student is both poor and white. Why? The study, done by two Princeton professors, shows that “most private colleges don’t want to waste limited scholarship money on students who don’t enhance the racial diversity of a campus: ‘Poor whites are apparently given little weight as enhancers of campus diversity, while poor non-whites count twice in the diversity tally, once as racial minorities and a second time as socio-economically deprived.'”

The article went on to point out a further conclusion of the study: “Participation in Future Farmers of America, ROTC, and 4-H Clubs, especially at the leadership level, is the kiss of death for kids with Ivy-colored dreams.” It is no secret that these activities are more prevalent in so-called red states and that the participants in such activities often are raised with a greater level of patriotism exhibited in their homes and communities and are more likely to live in communities where church attendance is high. It is a sad reality that most top schools in our country are concerned with only a certain kind of diversity, much like the politicians and politically active civil rights organizations in our country tend to promote only a certain kind of tolerance. This diversity and tolerance is increasingly used to limit exactly what it supposedly exists to promote.

Political concerns and discussions aside (I do not have the time or space to go into all of that right now) this article reminded me of the admissions criteria for a far more important and “prestigious” group than America’s top colleges and universities. Aren’t you glad that the family of God does not have such ridiculous screening procedures? If God admitted us into His family based only on what we could bring to the table or what our ancestry, race, socioeconomic status, etc. could do for His “image” I would be in serious trouble–and so would you. Because when it comes to the family of God we do not have anything that He needs. We cannot possibly, at our best moment on our best day, offer anything that would come close to meriting His attention or His acceptance. Thankfully He has only one criteria for admission, admission is open to anyone willing to meet that criteria, there is no limit on the grace and mercy He has available, and there is no cap on the size of His family. Aren’t you glad?

Shining as Lights, part 5

Today I will wrap up the discussion of what it means to train students to shine as lights in our world.

The last area of this discussion is the one that most people undoubtedly think of first when thinking about why a school exists…the academic instruction of students. Like any other school, the effective Christian school exists to provide academic instruction of the highest quality. In fact, it has always been my conviction that a Christian school that fails to accomplish this has failed the students and parents of students in its school, even if it manages to succeed in providing quality spiritual instruction. The Christian school has a serious two-fold responsibility, and it is a both-and responsibility, not an either-or. The effective Christian school does not decide between providing either top notch academic instruction or in-depth spiritual instruction and discipleship; rather, it recognizes that one cannot truly be provided without the other, and strives to accomplish both at the highest possible level.

Let me elaborate. A Christian school cannot provide spiritual instruction at the expense of academic instruction because the spiritual instruction would lack all relevant meaning and application. A student who memorizes Bible verses, learns Bible stories, and even understands the essential doctrines of the Bible, but has no idea how to apply those things in his or her life or how the teaching of Scripture can be lived out in every day interactions with others will not be able to effectively shine as a light in the world because he or she will have no idea how to do so. This student will either fail to realize that he/she has a light, or will hide said light out of fear of interacting with the world. This student will have acquired significant knowledge, but will be lacking wisdom–the ability to utilize the knowledge that has been acquired. What this means, bottom line, is that the student has been given a powerful weapon but has no idea how to use it. There is really only one word for this–useless.

At the same time, a Christian school which treats spiritual development as an aside and is too timid to treat Bible as an actual class deserving of a grade and requiring actual work from the students will have committed an equally egregious offense against its students. While the relationship between a believer and the Lord is a personal matter, it is also a corporate issue. Believers have a responsibility to encourage, edify, and exhort one another in spiritual growth, and this cannot be accomplished in a mamby-pamby manner which refuses to provide genuine accountability.

Likewise, a Christian school which teaches its academic content in a spiritual vacuum, refusing to integrate biblical principles or apply biblical instruction to the study of science, math, history, English, etc. will have succeeded in training its students to believe that “religion” is to be kept separate from all other spheres of life…which is far from what Scripture teaches.

The successful Christian school, the one that trains its students to shine as lights in this world, teaches academic content at the highest possible level, demanding excellence from its students in every area, while simultaneously weaving biblical instruction and application into every subject at every grade level. Students learn the who, what, where, when, why and how of the academic subjects (acquiring the necessary academic knowledge) and then also learn how to take what they have learned and use it as a springboard for future learning, digging deeper into certain areas and developing applications for both the academic and spiritual knowledge they have acquired in a practical way.

What might this look like specifically? In the sciences, it means understanding the scientific explanations for (insert specific content here), including the secular arguments (read “Darwinism,” for example) while also learning the pertinent biblical content. Then, when given the opportunity, these students can recognize the secular approach, can discuss it intelligently and cogently, and can respond with a well-developed and articulate apology for the biblical position. Science is but one example; the principle holds true for any topic or issue.

Students who have not been equipped to recognize and engage in this manner have been handicapped. If they fail to recognize or understand the secular arguments they are likely to be sucked in by them at worst, or to have no idea how to respond to them, which is only marginally better. This is like equipping the student with a brilliant light, but hiding it inside of a black box or forgetting to show them how to turn the light on. On the other hand, equipping the student with the knowledge necessary to recognize the secular arguments and to respond, but failing to teach him how to do so in an articulate or winsome manner is akin to giving him the same brilliant light and forgetting to tell him not to shine it directly in someone’s eyes. Let us not forget that living in total darkness is much like blindness, but sudden and direct exposure to brilliant light can also cause blindness. What I mean is that boldly and, yes, obnoxiously shining the brilliance of biblical truth into the eyes of one who has to that point only known darkness can have the opposite effect of what we may intend. It can be offensive–even painful–and can drive someone deeper into darkness. The well-trained and properly equipped student has the light and he knows who to use it (including the discernment to know how much light is appropriate at any given time, and when is the right time to increase the light). Only then can this student effectively shine as a light in our world.

Shining as Lights, part 4

Thus far we have examined how shining as lights begins with our behavior–simply acting in a way that is contrary to the world and sin nature, and as a result serves to shine as a light in the darkness of the world. We also discussed the importance of teachers and staff members who live out what they are teaching, since actions speak oh-so-much louder than words. We examined the importance of learning and knowing the Word of God so that we can “hold fast” to it as Paul instructed. Peter addresses this issue as well, in 1 Peter 3:15, instructing believers to be always prepared to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” (ESV). Part of holding fast to God’s Word is knowing it thoroughly enough that we can explain what it means and how it impacts our lives when we are asked by others to do so. Students who are effectively taught from a biblical worldview and thoroughly grounded in biblical truth will be always ready; they will not need to request a “time out” to put together an answer and they will not stutter and flub their way through some garbled explanation that makes no sense to anyone (including the speaker!).

I am not suggesting that every student will become an eloquent speaker or a world class apologist for a relationship with Christ. I am, however, suggesting that students who are trained to shine as lights in our world will know, to borrow titles from Paul Little, both what they believe and why they believe it. Does that mean they will never need to look up an answer or say “I don’t know” in response to a theological question? Of course not. But it does mean that they are equipped with answers and they are ready to give them.

Immediately after the exhortation to be always ready with an answer Peter adds that said answer is to be offered in “gentleness and respect.” This is another part of training students to shine as lights in our world–teaching them how to be lights in the world in an appropriate manner. We are not to be gentle to the extreme of being cowardly; in other words, we are not to shy away from opportunities to speak out for our Lord or His teachings. Peter himself boldly proclaimed the gospel message even in defiance of the instructions of the Sanhedrin, stating that when the two are in contradiction it is far more important to obey God rather than man. But the answers that we offer, and the life that we lead, must not be offered in a way that is offensive. The message will be offensive, whether it is a spoken word or a lived-out message, because the cross and the teachings of Jesus are an offense to the world in and of themselves. We cannot hide the offensiveness of the message to the lost, nor should we ever try. We must never “hide our lamps under a bush.” But we must take care to ensure that it is only the message that is offensive and not the way in which we deliver it.

Several things are important to keep in mind here. First, we cannot convince anyone of the truth of Scripture or the need to accept Christ by our own persuasion or rhetorical eloquence; the Holy Spirit will convict hearts and draw unbelievers to the Lord in accordance with the will of God. Our responsibility is to faithfully plant seeds and shine our lights. Second, as believers we are not better than unbelievers, and we must never carry ourselves or present our messages in a manner which might suggest otherwise. We were born in sin, too, and until God, through His mercy, drew us to Him allowing us to accept the gift of Christ’s death and resurrection we were headed to hell, too. We are no better now than we were then–in and of ourselves. We are now members of the family of God, but “not by works of righteousness which [we] have done.” We did not do anything to earn or warrant salvation, nor could we have. So the only difference between the believer and the unbeliever is that the believer has already accepted the free gift of God. Accordingly, we must never come across as arrogant, superior, or more deserving.

It is not by mistake that in my discussion of what it means to train students to shine as lights in our world that I have not yet even touched on academic instruction. As important as that is, and as large a part as that plays in the training of the students, it will be for naught if the proper understanding of the spiritual side of this relationship does not come first and foremost. An individual can have all of the academic honors man can offer, but if he does not know Christ and understand the biblical instructions for believers to shine as lights in this world his book learning will benefit him not at all. That is why I have spent so much time trying to clearly articulate what this really looks like. The academic portion of the equation is important, however, and Lord willing I will address that part tomorrow.