Friday, June 24, 2011

The Prosperous Gospel: Thoughts on More Biblical Aspirations

I was fired, and I was desperate to get a new job. But this wasn’t the right place.

It was one of the most depressing summers I had gone through. I was a college student at a respected university, home for the summer, but I had ended the school year with a low (and I mean low) GPA in a school where there’s sometimes pressure to “excel for God.” A good colleague had just died from a cliff-hiking accident. I had gotten fired from my first summer job, and I was having a lot of heated arguments with my parents, who continually encouraged me to get a job, continually reading the classifieds and looking to take almost any job.

Including this one. I sat in a motel’s conference room with a very mixed group from all sorts of qualifications and income levels as we listened to a suave and witty man in a suit attempted to give motivational speeches about how your life could change if you join the team that sells air filters. Whenever someone from the class ever admitted any self-doubt to the task, the aforementioned sales trainer would then tell an inspirational “little-engine-that-could” story. The topper of these stories was about how a blind man used his salesmanship and diligence to climb the ladder of so-called success, best described by the opulence of his new house, which apparently featured motion-sensor water fountains along the front sidewalk. It was a flamboyant, almost kitsch-like, example of a textbook “rags-to-riches” story.

The first day and 8 hours of training left me with a jittering headache and a little bit of nausea as I drove my little brother to junior high youth group that night. I resigned from the job training the next day.

I’m not meaning to put salesman down (I worked as a telemarketer for 2 years), and I don’t want to discourage anyone’s perseverance in their career. It’s just that I can’t help notice the tendency of inspirational stories to lean toward financial blessing as the goal, and it’s spilled into churches‘ stories.

From the southeast coast to the northern California, I’ve heard some pretty cool stories about how churches grow from a a fistful of families in a Bible study into a resourced megachurch. Willow Creek, for example, is named after the movie theater its founders first rented to hold their church services in 1975. Now they are a multi-campus church (their home facility has about 24,000 weekly attendants) and an association with worldwide influence and resource. Harvest Bible Chapel went from 18 people meeting in a high school to nationwide church planting.

I’m not putting down these ministries. I have friends in the leadership of both of them and my wife and I have regularly attended their worship services in the past. My main question is to ask, when one reads a story like that, how do you define the “success”? Is it the financial stability or even overflow? Is it the attendance numbers? The recognition?

It shouldn’t be.

The pre-Constantine church in Rome had its members (not merely idle “attendants”) grow like wildfire. They didn’t have the money or political stake for a larger facility, so they delegated more leadership and found more houses volunteered to hold their gatherings. To the outside world, there were countless misconceptions floating around, as biblical teaching was being confused with Jewish sects, Gnosticism and even cannibalism. But to those who knew the church’s people, it was a community of loving, sharing and joy, a voice for the oppressed women, the unwanted unborn, the sick and the poor, and individuals willing to die for the Truth they proclaim. They had no opportunity to rely on political stake, an overflow of wealth or a respectable reputation. Nonetheless, lives where changed, and the family grew.

So, it wasn’t so much rags to riches, but to flourishing.

As a church in the West, we’re challenged to look beyond our culture’s views of success as defined by reputation, popularity and wealth to a different kind of prosperity. God loves small beginnings (Job 8:7, Zechariah 4:10) but looks for a different type of ending. In the Christian’s mind, King David should not be remembered for his wealth (Solomon was richer, but considered it meaningless) or his military aggression (Saul was arguably more violent, but he disregarded God), but instead for his heart: a heart that sincerely followed after God and His will.

As we daily review our checkbooks, let’s continue to keep’s God’s will at heart, and see what He can make flourish.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Where I Stand: If Minnesota Doesn’t Want the Vikings, They Shouldn’t Have Them.

Yes, I am a Minnesota Vikings fan, generational and nomadic, with no roots in the state of Minnesota. And yes, it’s been a rough year. More than my rival team fans can actually imagine.

I moved my family to eastern Wisconsin, home of the Vikings’ embittered rival Packers, during the debacle that was the 2010 season. The season that started off with Super Bowl aspirations, but ended with ten humiliating defeats, a scandalized quarterback, a fired coach and a collapsed stadium. Oh, and the Packers won the Super Bowl. Their fans, whom I live around, still have happy circle dances around me. My life is daily and lonely martyrdom.

On top of that, there’s still the chance that the Vikings won’t make any headway through Minnesota’s government to build a new stadium in the metropolitan area, potentially leaving their 30-year-old shack for the shiny new stadium . . . in Los Angeles.

So yeah, it’s been a rough year.

What’s happening with the stadium?  It’s complicated and embarrassing. The Vikings, as their vice president would confirm, have done everything the state has asked for approval, and things have largely been looking good for a new stadium to be built in the nearby suburb of Arden Hills. However, opposition has risen, both from Viking haters and fans alike. Haters don’t realize the cost of losing a profitable NFL team. Some Viking fans don’t want to pay the cost (a small tax increase?) of keeping them. This opposition (even though some of it wants the Vikings in Minnesota) could certainly hinder the stadium bill.

My thoughts? If Minnesota doesn’t want the Vikings, then they shouldn’t have them.

My late father found the Vikings during his grade school years in Duluth. He carried his fan-hood to eastern Tennessee, to Chicago, and then to Dallas before he passed it to me. I, then, carried it back to Chicago, then to Iowa, Philadelphia and now, Wisconsin. Only on occasion have I been able to visit the Vikings’ home state and attend their games. Though I’m a proud part-Scandinavian, I’ve always liked Minnesota because of the Vikings, not the other way around. This does set me apart from Viking fans who, upon the team’s departure from the state, would sell their memorabilia on eBay.

So, if the Vikings are no longer in Minnesota, where does that put me? It’s a good question.

I have many Packer friends who are hermit-Wisconsinites, and they, trying to convert me (as they have succeeded with other newcomers), have asked what it would take for me to become a Packer fan. I replied, “If the Vikings and the Chicago Bears ceased to exist, then maybe I’ll consider.” (Some close friend Bear fans rather suggested I become a Detroit Lions fan first). I do also have friends from the east coast who are Indianapolis Colts fans, following the Colts since they left Baltimore, surprisingly not cheering for the Ravens. And I don't even want to scratch the surface of loyalty issues in Ohio.

So, which route should I take? If the Vikings become Los Angeles’s team and keep their name (how much Scandinavian heritage is in southern California?), should I follow? Should I wait for the state of Minnesota to realize their error and build another football team in a few decades (like they did with other teams)? Or should I consider the Vikings and my generational fan-hood a retired cause and honor the rest of my Chicago roots, becoming a full-blooded Bear fan?

Time will tell, but I’d rather not consider any of those options.