Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Master Plan of Evangelism

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

People have wanted to change the world since the beginning of time. Few have actually done it. Countless political ideologies and social movements have had a moment in the sun only to fade with time. Drop a rock in the water and it will make a splash. Only the biggest will avoid being carried away in the current. A charismatic leader can inspire people to flock to their banner, but a cult of personality won’t outlast the person at the center of it. The initial excitement wanes, the thankless work of movement building doesn’t get easier, and the concerns of everyday life crowd out people’s attention. Even the truly committed have trouble passing that dedication on to their kids.

In the aftermath of Jesus Christ’s death, that same process should have destroyed Christianity. After all, that was what had happened many times before:
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin [the Jewish Senate] and ordered that [the Christians] be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”

- Acts 5:34-37 
Jesus did not die at the head of an army that would push his legacy forward, like Moses or Mohammed. He wasn’t the son of a king, like Buddha. He didn’t even have a core following of thousands who rioted at his death, like Joseph Smith. So how did a penniless carpenter from a conquered tribe in a distant corner of the Roman Empire become the most influential person who ever lived? How did his followers, a tiny group of marginal figures led by an uneducated fisherman (the apostle Peter), sustain a movement that would one day take over the Empire? In The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman outlines the secret to their success: they did it one person at a time.

The story sounds too good to be true. People who don’t believe that Jesus was a real person often point to his absence from the historical record. If there was a guy raising people from the dead, turning water into wine, and feeding thousands with a few pieces of bread, surely it would have attracted more attention from contemporary sources. Everything we know about Jesus comes from the gospels, which were written by his disciples and some of their close associates. Jews believe that Moses himself wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, while Muslims claim that the Qur’an is the direct revelation of God to Muhammad. Christians get all their information about Jesus secondhand. The New Testament is not an autobiography. Jesus didn’t write anything down. He let his followers speak for him - that was precisely the point.

The most counter-intuitive aspect of his public ministry is how often he avoided big crowds. The Jews expected the coming Messiah to create a theocratic empire modeled after Rome. He was supposed to be the new Caesar, not render unto the old one. Jesus had his own plan. He hung out with people on the fringes of society, spoke in riddles, and pushed away half-hearted followers. He wasn’t aiming his message at the masses, or the movers and shakers who played the game of thrones. He discipled a small group of followers who would be able to spread his message long after his death. In the gospels, he spends three times as much time explaining the parable of the sower to his disciples in private than he does telling it to the crowd in the first place.

Jesus cared about the crowd; he just didn’t have the time to care for them individually. The only way he could trust his 12 disciples to lead his church was to to get to know them, building the type of deep personal relationships that would allow him to teach, guide, and correct them. He was a spiritual father to his disciples, and a father has to spend time with his family to raise them. Jesus didn't tell people what to do to live a good life; he showed them how to do it. He was a big believer in small class sizes -- his disciples were always at his side.

He spent his time on Earth showing his disciples how to have disciples of their own. Christianity is all about paying it forward. Exponential growth doesn’t require a lot of people in the beginning. If two people each teach two people who teach two more, the numbers add up quickly. It’s the wheat on a chessboard problem in action. Two to the power of four is 16. Two to the power of 16 is 32,768. Two to the power of 32 is well over 4 billion. With the faith of a mustard seed you can move a mountain. The people writing histories in Rome might not have known about Jesus at the time of his death, but their descendants knew who Peter and Paul were, and soon enough, it became impossible to write a history of the Roman Empire without Christianity. Jesus was Obi-Wan Kenobi: strike him down and he became more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

The gospel’s rate of transmission wasn’t going to be perfect, or anything close to it. Even the best disciples will make mistakes when they disciple others. Most will give up before they even try. Pouring yourself into others is a recipe for disappointment. Jesus, after all, was betrayed and sent to his death by one of the 12. People aren’t government bonds - there’s no guarantee of a return on investment. Over a long enough period of time, though, none of that mattered. Only a few needed to be faithful:
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.  
 - Matthew 13:3-8 
Jesus could see beyond the span of his own life. When he told Peter to cast aside his nets and become a fisher of men 2,000 years ago, he started a chain reaction that is still bearing fruit today. No man is an island. Every Christian has other Christians in their life who hold them accountable and help them grow. If they don’t, they don’t stay Christians for very long. Giving speeches might do wonders for the ego, but speeches don’t change the lives of the people who hear them, at least not in the way that spending time and getting to know them will. The only way to change the world is to change the lives of the people around you. That’s what loving your neighbor is all about.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Every Good Endeavor

Americans define ourselves by what we do. Your job determines your place in society. It’s not just about how much money you make. We expect our careers to fulfill us. Our identities are wrapped up in our jobs, which is why losing them is so painful. Many professional athletes struggle with retirement because they don’t know who they are outside of their sport. Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, died less than a year after he stopped coaching. Joe Paterno didn’t even make it that long. Their jobs were keeping them alive. People who lose their jobs are more likely to kill themselves. On a societal level, mass unemployment can have even uglier consequences. Hitler doesn’t come to power without the Great Depression. The rise of artificial intelligence has many thinking a “world without work” is coming. That should terrify us.

The modern-day Luddites may end up being wrong. People have been blaming machines for killing jobs since the Industrial Revolution, and new ones have always sprung up in their place. “Creative destruction” is an essential part of capitalism. The problem are the people who slip through the cracks, and that number may grow in the years ahead. What happens to truck drivers when driverless cars are everywhere? We need to figure out a new way to relate to work, and how we can value people outside of their contribution to GDP. In Every Good Endeavor, Timothy Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf provide an answer, one which isn’t new at all. Keller, one of the most popular modern Christian writers, has a gift for showing how the first principles of the gospel can impact our thinking in ways that are not immediately obvious.

Christianity sees our obsession with work as an idol, something which we have convinced ourselves will bring us contentment. We generally think of idols as figurines and statues, but they can be intangible as well. An idol is anything that gives your life meaning and makes you feel important. Even good things, like work and family, become idols when we build our identity on them. Anything you feel like you can’t live without has control over your life. That’s why Buddhism teaches the importance of detaching yourself from the world and living without desire. For Christians, it’s not just about detachment. It’s about attaching yourself to something else - Jesus. There is a deep yearning in the human soul for significance because we are made for a relationship with the creator of the universe. We will always search for things to fill that void, but nothing else will do. That’s why our secular culture treats work as a sacrament. Productivity has become our attempt at redemption. 

The Christian view is that Jesus paid for our redemption at the cross, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. We cannot save ourselves. All our striving is for nothing because it is all going away one day. We are all going to die, and the sun will eventually go supernova, erasing the Earth as if it never existed. Even if we leave the solar system, we will not outrun entropy. Nihilism is at the center of any materialistic understanding of the universe, because nothing we do matters if this life is all that there is. We are all Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill. However, if there is something more, some true reality underlying our own, than everything we do matters. Not because of what it will accomplish in this life, but because of what it means for eternity.

Christians see work as a reflection of God’s plan for the universe. Genesis tells us God created the world in six days (although what constitutes a day before the sun is left up to our imagination), and that He created us to be stewards of His creation. Work is necessary because the world needs to be cultivated to flourish. We aren’t park rangers who preserve without interfering, or construction workers who pave nature over. We are gardeners, meant to work hand-in-hand with the natural world so that it can mature into God’s design for it. Adam and Eve partnered with God in the Garden of Eden. They weren’t just sitting around all day; they had stuff they had to do.

The problem with work began when humans rebelled from God, and decided they would do what they thought was best.
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and dust you shall return.” 
- Genesis 3:16-19 
You don’t need to be a Christian to believe the world is a broken place full of evil. All you have to do is look around. Every belief system has to resolve why there is evil in the world, and what can be done about it. There are three parts to any diagnosis: 1) what life should be 2) what happened to make it bad and 3) how to fix it. Modern ideologies that stem from the Enlightenment believe man is fundamentally good, and that human flourishing is only a matter of tweaking some aspect of society. Communists believe the problem is capitalism, and utopia will come when we change our economic superstructure. Libertarians think government is the problem. Feminists point to misogyny and racism. Christianity believe that man is fundamentally bad, and that the solution to our problems cannot come from anything in this world. It’s simultaneously a pessimistic view of humanity and an optimistic view of our situation. Work cannot save us, but we can still do good through it.

When work becomes a way God uses us to serve others, instead of a way to justify our own existence, what we are doing becomes less important. Our self-image isn’t built on what we do but on what was done for us. And since salvation doesn’t come from our work, no one’s work is more important than anyone else’s. A preacher doesn’t have a higher calling than a salesman. A stockbroker isn’t more valuable than a janitor. Mother Teresa wasn’t a better person than you or me. The second you put her on a pedestal and think that she was, you miss the entire point of what she did. If human beings are all made in God’s image, we are all equally important. If we are nothing more than the endpoints of the evolutionary process locked in a Darwinian competition to pass on our genes, we aren’t. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness because they were endowed to us by our Creator. You can’t have one without the other.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Celebration Of Discipline

Americans don’t celebrate discipline. We order take-out instead of cook. Drive instead of walk. Text instead of call. We are always busy, but never get anything done. A nation that once went to the moon can’t even keep our highways from blowing up. Social media and smartphones have made us more connected than ever, yet people have never felt more alone. It’s the paradox of modernity: everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Our society gives us one answer to our problems. Consume more. Climb the ladder. Advance further. Those looking for a different kind of answer will find one in Raymond Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline.

When people hear the word discipline, they think of their own will and the power of hard work. That’s not what Foster is talking about. The book is about spiritual discipline. He divides the disciplines into three groups: inner (how we relate to ourselves), outer (how we relate to others) and corporate (how the church body relates to itself). Each group builds on the one that precedes it. The inner disciplines — meditation, prayer, fasting and study — are the foundation. Prayer is how we partner with God, while meditation, fasting and study are how we quiet ourselves to hear Him. The fruits of those disciplines allow us to lead lives of simplicity, submission, service and occasionally, solitude. When we do those things, we can form healthy communities where we confess our struggles to each other, guide each other and worship and celebrate together. It sounds like a lot, and even thinking about how to integrate 12 different spiritual disciplines into life can be intimidating.

You don’t have to be religious to see the benefits of doing it. Even those who don’t believe in prayer are helped by taking time out of their day to unplug. Fasting has health benefits that have nothing to do with its spiritual dimensions. And who doesn’t want to live a simpler life? The ten steps Foster took to minimize his consumption will resonate with anyone who has ever taken on too much debt, or found themselves getting rid of stuff they don’t need or simply been overwhelmed with all the demands on their time. The problem is the gap between knowing what we should do and the discipline to actually do it. As the apostle Paul said, I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. I find myself thinking this every time I go through a drive-thru.

People prefer to rely on themselves. If that doesn’t work, they look to those around them. God is the last resort in our secular age. It’s no wonder life feels so difficult. We are trying to carry the weight of our lives, dreams and expectations on our shoulders with one hand tied behind our back. Foster uses the analogy of the farmer to explain:
A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. 
Inner disciplines like meditation and fasting only create the conditions necessary for spiritual growth. They are a means to an end, not an end to themselves. Without God at the center, they become empty, simulating the appearance of holiness without the substance. In Foster’s telling, we perform the rituals without understanding the heart behind them. We have become a nation of cargo cultists.

The original cargo cultists were tribesman in remote Pacific Islands in the late 19th and early 20th century. They saw the air strips built on their islands by modern militaries, but not the global infrastructure that supplied them. When the supplies stopped coming, they began building their own air strips, thinking the gods would bless them with cargo of their own. We don’t think of ourselves as being a less advanced culture, but progress doesn’t just go in one direction. The vast majority of people who ever lived would find our materialistic view of the universe insane. Maybe they were wrong. But maybe they weren’t.

It’s hard to learn anything without humility. Americans think we already know everything. Every four years, our politicians tell us we are the greatest country in the history of mankind. The United States were founded as “a city on the hill”; American exceptionalism is one of the bedrock ideas of our foreign policy. Humbling ourselves to study things written thousands of years ago, and learning from people who didn’t have running water, much less wi-fi, seems ridiculous on its face. In the American mind, we stand at the pinnacle of societal evolution. Now that the US is on top of the world, history is over. A country only a few hundred years old has a hard time grasping the sheer scale of human history. Western Civilization is a few thousand years old, which is less time than the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. In ten thousands years, the US will be a footnote in the history books, if it’s there at all.

We think our society will last forever because we can’t imagine a world without ourselves. Social media has created a world where everyone is at the center of their own lives. The race to get ahead is constant, and even those at the top feel like they have to run as fast as they can just to stay in place. Living for yourself never feels like enough. Robin Williams was one of the most successful actors of the last generation and he ended his own life. Wilt Chamberlain slept with 10,000 women and died alone. Psychologists coined the term the “hedonic treadmill” to describe the tendency of humans to quickly return to their previous levels of happiness after major life changes. God has put eternity in our hearts, and nothing in this world can satisfy our longing for it. The only lasting mark we can make on the world is when we commune with the eternal.

Practicing the spiritual disciplines are how we grow closer to God. However, if we are not careful, they become nothing more than a long list of rules to follow. The Pharisees rigidly followed every religious law in the Old Testament, but they missed the heart behind them. They were more concerned with appearing righteous than living righteous lives. The reality is that living righteously is beyond our power. It’s only when we trust our salvation to someone else that we are freed from the burden of doing everything ourselves. That’s what Jesus meant when he said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. We don’t have the strength to be disciplined on our own, but we have access to the one who does.