Christians, Generosity, Tithing, & Fancy Cars

I had a really interesting conversation with a Christian friend the other day who asked a question I’ve been really working through, and since I think best with my fingers on a keyboard, here are some of my thoughts.

The question was something like this: “If God has blessed me financially, is it ok for me to buy a nice car or do I need to give it away?”  Here we go…

First, I think this is a great question that I wish more people would ask and discuss.  It’s such an honest and down-to-earth question that makes the issue of tithing and Christian giving real and practical, I love this.  The question itself comes from a heart that’s doing one of two things: Looking to trap God/Christians into a “they’re only after my money” situation, or (as is the case with my friend) it’s an honest internal struggle to be a faithful steward of what God has entrusted to our care.  I hope that we can all agree that we are stewards, not owners, of the things we have – because we will all one day give account for what we were given and how we used it.

Second, We need to consider the 10% tithe.  I don’t feel the need to go into why a 10% tithe is biblical (if you want more on that, read what Tim Challies wrote HERE).  What I want to focus on is our recognition that we have received much grace from God, and when we realize how deep our need is, how much Christ has given for us and to us, then the Holy Spirit will form within us a generous heart.  If we aren’t generous towards others, it’s probably because we don’t realize how generous God has been towards us.  Christians should be marked by generosity.  Stinginess is distinctly anti-Gospel and unChristian.  I’m not really too stuck on the 10% number, and I’d focus more on the heart and the WHY behind the giving than the numer and the HOW MUCH.  God loves a cheerful giver more than he loves a generous giver, but cheerful givers are usually quite generous.

Third, I think we need to simply ask, “Are you tithing at least 10% of your income?”  If the answer’s no, then don’t buy the car.  If buying the car might cut into your “ability” (or willingness, really) to continue tithing at least 10% then don’t buy the car.  If there are people close to you who are in legitimate need and you’re in a position to help but you choose to buy a newer expensive car instead, then that’s probably a decision to reconsider.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s sinful, and I personally wouldn’t hold it against someone (as I explain below, I think a lot of this is a conscience issue – my counsel here is to help individuals work through the various questions that apply), but I do think you should prayerfully consider whether or not buying an expensive car will reduce your ability to give towards the needs of others.

Fourth, I think a lot of this could be a conscience issue.  We all have different idols we fight.  Some value appearances and spend significant money on their wardrobe, hair, etc. to look a certain way; others buy houses they can’t afford because they think it’ll buy them happiness and the ever-elusive American Dream; others buy more books than they have time to read (guess who that would be?!).  If buying this new car would become an idol, a source of temptation, a way to change how others look at you, an object to obsess over and value more than a car should be valued… then don’t buy the car.

Fifth, Will it bring you joy or will it be your joy?  God blesses us in order to be a blessing, but he also wants us to simply enjoy being blessed!  We should not turn God’s blessing into a curse because we’re afraid to take joy and delight in what He’s given us!  God isn’t trying to set you up for a fall by blessing you financially.  If you’ve been faithful with little and He chooses to give you more, continue handling your money the way you have in the past and enjoy the ride.

 As Christians, we should be a people who are marked by generosity: not because we are forced or feel an obligation to give, but because we know how much we have received from our generous God.  If you can buy a nice new car in good conscience and with the above-mentioned questions being answered appropriately, then by all means do so… and enjoy it.

The Gospel-Shaped Life: Reflections on the TGCNE ’12 Conference

The Gospel Coalition: New England held their inaugural conference this past weekend in Boston with Tim Keller, John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Stephen Um speaking at the plenary sessions. If I said that I was looking forward to this conference that would be a drastic understatement (it’s been on my calendar literally since the day it was announced). There were so many highlights its hard to narrow them down, but I’ll attempt to do so (I missed the closing plenary by Carson for sake of my family, so I missed that one and am looking forward to listening to it when it’s uploaded online).

The Gospel is news, not advice.
This was hammered on by every speaker throughout the weekend.  Keller emphasized that advice is counsel about what I want you to do while news is a report of what has been done.  He went on to explain there are two forms of “Christian advice giving”: Legalism (“You need to do these things and if you’re not then you can’t be a Christian.”) and the more subtle form that says “Church is a new community you join in order to renew the world. Now we need to be loving and seek justice and feed the poor.” (note: these aren’t quotes from Keller, but my attempt to capture what he said).  If we have received the Good News of the Gospel, we will be transformed.

We contextualize all the time, the question is whether or not we’re doing it well.
This is what I’ve been most challenged by.  As a youth pastor, I see lots of over-contextualization (teenagers do this, so we should too in order to reach them with the Gospel).  Keller’s emphasis is that we need a biblical/theological grid by which we interpret and understand our culture so we don’t find ourselves simply falling into cultural forms only to realize down the road that we’ve either changed our message or conformed so much to the world that we aren’t any different.

We need to think like missionaries.
This isn’t really a new thought, but a great point we all need to remember.  People used to seek out the church for life-stage events (weddings, funerals, sicknesses, etc.), and they used to have enough of a background to understand the message they would hear.  Now, however, we live in a post-Christian world where people do not have a biblical background enough to understand the Gospel when they hear it.  We cannot minister in a post-Christian world the same way, assuming we can start with the Gospel and people will understand it.  We need to think like missionaries, learn what their assumptions and desires are, and then listen carefully enough to lead them to an understanding of the Gospel.

 

The mind is meant to stoke the heart’s affection for God.
Piper’s message on Friday night was worth the entire weekend for me for very personal reasons.  I needed to hear it.  I needed to be reminded that the “Gospel-Shaped Mind” is supposed to serve the heart in order that we might grow “hotter” in our affection for God.  As a theologically-minded guy, it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in ideas and thoughts about God.  I tend to be more critical than I probably need to be.

While focusing on the all-sufficient goodness of God and our love for him, Piper said something along the lines of, “Our affection for God ought to be so great that there’s nothing more the world could give us, and nothing worse it could take away.”  Wow, I’ve been chewing on that for days… and hopefully will continue to.

Here are a few quotes from Piper on this topic:

  • “The mind is set free in order that it might continually throw kindling into the heart for love of God.”
  • “God created you with a mind and a heart.  The mind, when it’s rightly serving the heart, causes the heart to be aflame with Christ as its treasure.  Spare no effort to think rightly, especially by the Word.  You will be throwing fuel into the heart to grow a white hot affection for God.”
  • “Right thinking is the servant of right feeling for God.  Doctrine exists for delight.  Knowing truth is meant to be the basis for admiring truth.  For this to happen, the Gospel needs to shape both heart and mind.”
  • Why Piper kept talking about “white hot affection” for God… “Because it’s as from from lukewarm as I can get, and I don’t want you to get spit out!”

Gospel-Shaped church’s witness will be tied to being a Gospel-Shaped community
I don’t even know where to begin here, because this was such a huge issue that everyone addressed (and Stephen Um’s message was focused on it), but for sake of clarity, let me outline what Keller shared from Leslie Newbigin about Gospel-Shaped Community – The Church must be a:

  1. Contrast Community.  We should be different from the world.  If we’re no different from the world… well, we aren’t any different from the world!  If we’re the same, why should they listen?
  2. Servant Community.  They have to see us as not living just for ourselves.  If they think we’re only here to evangelize, then we’re just another power-broker trying to get bigger and stronger.  Being a servant is part of being a witness, but we should make sure to guard against becoming a service agency.
  3. Non-Divisive Unifying Community.  When our society was all Christianized the way we justified our existence was by saying “We’re not like them” (the Baptists, or the Catholics, or whoever else we “aren’t like.”).  Now we need to define ourselves by saying we’re not like the world and pull together over the things we are united over.  This will play itself out differently, and obviously there are some things we simply won’t be able to partner in, but we need to be committed to unity rather than division.
  4. Lay-Launching Community.  In the previous generations it was the lay people, the typical congregation member, who carried out the work of the ministry.  In our individualistic society, people cannot come to church as ministry-consumers, they need to come in order to be equipped and sent out.  Because of secularism, globalization and diversity, the average Christian today needs to be more theologically astute today than was necessary 50 years ago.
  5. Suffering Community.  In the non-Western church, the suffering of the church is one of the greatest gospel-witnesses in their community.  We need to learn to embrace suffering in such a way as to demonstrate faith in the all-sufficient goodness and power of God when others would expect us to be falling apart.
  6. Prophetic Community.  We need to be centered on the Word of God.  We need to understand the Word and our world in such a way that we are able and willing to prophetically speak in such a way that will point people to the treasure of the Gospel.

I’m really excited about what God seems to be doing in New England.  I’m truly thankful that God has seen fit to establish ministries like The Gospel Coalition where churches throughout our area of the country can be unified, built up, and encouraged to continue faithful proclamation of the Gospel.

 

Best iPad Apps for Ministry

I’ve been wanting an iPad for quite some time now, and I’ve now had my iPad for two weeks and have already fallen in love. There are obviously things that I still need my laptop for, but I’ve transitioned into mostly using my iPad as the primary tool I use to organize and lead in ministry. Here are a few apps I’ve come across already that I’d recommend.

Before I get into the app, I’d like to recommend three things:

  1. Get a good case with a quality BlueTooth Keyboard.  Get a case that doesn’t scream out “I HAVE AN IPAD, LOOK AT MY IPAD, EVERYONE SEE HOW TRENDY AND COOL I AM WITH MY IPAD!”  That’s just obnoxious and will make everyone think you’re trying too hard (probably because you are).  Get a case that doesn’t draw attention to itself, especially if you’ll be preaching or teaching from your iPad.  I got this case from Brookstone and really love it (it’s a little pricy, but it’s really solid, gives great protection, has a magnetic closure, and most importantly the keyboard is reliable and responsive).
  2. Buy a stylus.  I know it’s not as trendy or cool as always using your finger, but it’ll be a buy you won’t regret – and get one that also doubles as a pen too (why need to carry a pen and a stylus, just keep your stylus in your case and you’re good to go)?
  3. Don’t download games.  I know I know I know, it’s tempting, but if you actually want to get anything done, just don’t download any games.  Do I really need to give any explanation why?

The Must-Haves: These are the apps I simply think everyone in ministry with an iPad should have and use.

Pages ($9.99). This is pretty obvious, but you need a good, powerful, reliable program to write in. Whether it’s a sermon, a Pastor’s Report for a board meting, or notes for Staff meetings, I use Pages for my writing.  If you have an iPad, you simply need Pages.

DropBox. DropBox is simply the best tool to make your documents accessible between multiple devices. With DropBox I can view my stuff on my laptop, iPad, and iPhone. Along with DropBox, make sure you get a DropDAV.com account so you can export your documents written in Pages into DropBox (there’s a minimal monthly fee, but it’s absolutely worth it. If you have an email address with “.edu” you can get access for only $20/year!).

YouVersion’s Bible. I love this app and use it for my devotional time each morning when I’m on the go. I still prefer paper Bibles (aka, “real” Bibles), but this app gets the nod when I’m on the go or don’t have immediate access to a Bible. I also use one of their free devotional plans, so that’s a HUGE plus.

Keynote ($9.99). Since I have a MacBook, I’ve been using Keynote for quite a while (although I still use Word instead of Pages on the laptop), and I absolutely love Keynote more than Powerpoint. As a Youth Pastor I use Keynote on a fairly regular basis, although I’m trying to get away from relying on it so much that it can sometimes be a crutch in my teaching instead of an aide.

Evernote. Another program I’ve been using for a long time on the laptop that has great integration into iOS. I primarily use Evernote to clip articles, blog posts, news stories, etc. into a “Sermon Illustrations” notebook I created and then tag them with certain keywords so I find all the notes I’ve saved on that topic that could be helpful. I’m also a student and have used this to keep track of studies, articles, etc. that would be helpful for big papers I’m working on too.

Kindle. I’m not a big Kindle fan. My wife has one and likes it, I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas that I used for about a month until it was mostly coopted by my kids (don’t worry, they also got sick of most of the apps and mostly use it to watch Dora since we have Amazon Prime but don’t get Nickelodeon). Although I am a proud bibliophile and will never tire of the feel and smell of a real book (the older the book, the better!), I could actually see myself reading an entire book on the iPad so long as it’s a book I would only plan on reading once.

WordPress. I think this is so obvious I almost forgot to include it, especially since I’m writing this post using this very app, but the WordPress app is a must-have if you blog or maintain your website through WordPress. I have a few gripes about it not being as powerful as the actual website through my laptop, but hey… it’s an iOS app, so you can’t expect it to have quite the same functionality.

Feedler Pro ($4.99) I read a lot of blogs, this is the best RSS Reader I’ve used. The biggest reason I bought the Pro version was that you can send a post directly to Evernote, which I use to collect all my sermon illustration and other helpful articles I might want to refer to in a sermon, lesson, or paper.

The Honorable Mentions: These are the apps I use on a regular or fairly-regular basis, but I’m not sure they’re for everyone.

Numbers ($9.99).  This is also an obvious app that you should have, but I since I don’t use it often I’m putting it as an Honorable Mention (although I’ll give it the prestige of being the first!).  Numbers is basically Excel for people who aren’t power-users.  When I use this, it’s usually to keep track of my budget or contact info for an event.  It’s easy to navigate and, honestly, I find it much more user-friendly than Excel, but I’ve heard from friends who are “Math people” that Numbers doesn’t cut muster for equations and other more technical projects.  For us in ministry, however, I’d be surprised if Numbers doesn’t meet and exceed all your needs (and yes, everything can be saved/sent to be compatible with Excel, so that’s no reason to stay away).

GoodNotes ($4.99). This is a very powerful app that isn’t as slick as others, but I love it. This app lets you import PDF’s, take a picture with your iPad’s camera, and then you can mark them up. I use this for sermon notes by taking a picture of the sermon notes insert, importing it into the “Sermon Notes” notebook I created, and then simply taking my notes directly on the iPad. I tried a few other apps but so far I’ve settled on GoodNotes. Penultimate is better for straightforward note-taking with a stylus, but you can’t import PDF’s and I thought some of the other features of GoodNotes gives GN the slight edge over Penultimate.

iAttendance ($0.99). As the Youth Pastor at a medium-sized church (although for New England, we’re a fairly large church), I want to make sure that students aren’t slipping through the cracks. I’ve wanted to have a reliable and simple way to track attendance for a long time but haven’t really found a system that is quick and simple enough that I’d actually maintain it for more than three weeks. I simply created a Junior High group and a High School group, added all the students to the appropriate groups, made an event for each group’s meeting and then set up the iPad on the table where students enter the youth room and they were all psyched to be able to check themselves in using an iPad. I didn’t have to do anything other than enter a visitor’s name into the program if they wanted to be included, otherwise I asked them to just click “Visitor 1” or “Visitor 2” etc. My only complaint is there’s no simple attendance spreadsheet to compare events, so I need to send the event reports and then manually input who was present/absent into a spreadsheet, but maybe you’ll be able to find a volunteer to do that for you?

Accordance. This one is only useful if you’re already an Accordance user, and if you are then I probably don’t need to sell you on why you should be using this app. If you’re in ministry or have a strong theological bent, you have a Mac, and you aren’t using Accordance… what’s wrong with you?! Seriously, drop whatever Bible software you’re currently using and start using accordance, it’s pretty much amazing. Even after using it for four years, I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of what I could be doing with it.

WunderList. Yet another app I’ve been using for about two years that comes in handy on the iPad. I love the simplicity of their lists and task management layout, but I’ve found myself putting my to-do’s into the calendar and setting reminders to buzz as the deadline approaches instead of using this, which is why I’m demoting WunderList into the Honorable Mentions (If I wrote this post two weeks ago, it would’ve been absolutely essential).

ePrint ($2.99). My biggest complaint about the iPad so far is its limited ability to print. Yes, you can buy an AirPrint printer for starting at $100 (I know, because that’s what I had to do!), but it would be great to simply be able to print to any printer connected to your wireless network. That’s why ePrint does for you! Most printers will be recognized, however my office’s Xerox cancels the print jobs I try sending it through the iPad even though the print job gets sent to the machine (my understanding is it has something to do with our Xerox contract not allowing wireless printing, so I’m pretty sure the fault isn’t from ePrint but the printer itself). This app is easily worth the few bucks it’ll cost you.

Square. To be honest, I haven’t actually used this app yet, but I know a lot of people who have used it and I’m excited to test it out. Square lets you turn your iPhone or iPad into a mobile register by plugging their card-reader into your device and then swiping a credit card. You need to created a free Square account and include your checking account information, and they’ll transfer the total amount collected into your account at the end of the day, minus their 2.75% fee (which I think is pretty reasonable). If you use Square on your iPad, you’ll also want to download Square Register, where you can create different events and manage your “sales” and transactions.  I’d love to hear from anyone who’s used Square how it’s worked out for them!

Prayer Notebook ($1.99). I’m adding this last because it’s not really an iPad app, it’s an iPhone app that can run on your iPad. It’s a simple and helpful way to organize and track prayer requests, set up recurring things to be praying for, etc. It’s pretty simple and straightforward, nothing too fancy, but it’s not clunky like a lot of other prayer apps I’ve tried out.

Facebook.  I’m listing this last because everyone reading this probably already has this and doesn’t need a recommendation to download it.  This is especially important for those of us in youth ministry, but be careful here – it can be a total time killer and a cop-out for actually initiating real personal contact with students.

So this is what I’m using and I’ve got to say the iPad is everything it’s cracked up to be (so far).  With the right selection of apps I’ve found myself more productive and less distracted.  I’m still new to the iPad and discovering tricks along the way, so if you have an app to recommend, let me know in a comment below and I’ll try to test them out and include updates within this post as the recommendations come flowing in.

Update 10/25/12: 

MindMeister.  I just found this app today, but I’ve had my eye on a few “Mind Mapping” apps for a while that looked great but cost more than I wanted to pay (MindMeister is free, just download it, register for a free account, and you’re good to go).  I’m a big outliner, it’s just the way I think and work through things.  When I preach or teach, if I don’t have a solid outline in my head then the sermon/lesson is simply going to be muddy and fuzzy.  This program took a whopping two minutes to figure out, and I’ve already got my next sermon outlined and a few other brainstorms in the work.  I think I’ll be using this app a lot!

Update 2/19/13:

CloudOn.  This is a great app I found a few weeks ago that lets you edit documents from cloud storage (DropBox, Box, etc.) from within the app and saves it directly within that cloud-based folder.  I love the iOS versions of Pages and Keynote for creating a new document or presentation, but if I just need to make a small edit then it’s annoying to transfer the file from Dropbox into Pages or Keynote, make the change, then export it back into Dropbox and keep track of which version of the document is the edited.  I don’t like it for creating a new document, but Cloudon allows me to make a quick edit and save it without any third party.

I’ve also switched to a new iPad case since I’ve found that I don’t do too much heavy-typing very often.  I still use the leather-keyboard case from Brookstone (see above) when I know I’ll be writing on the go, but I’ve falled into using my MacBook in the office and my iPad at home and while I’m out and about so I’m not doing a ton of writing on it but I have been reading a lot with it.  This case from Targus gives you three reading angles and can turn it from landscape to portrait.  I lost my stylus and got a new one that cost a few more dollars but it writes better and I’d recommend it.

The Bible is _________

Finish this sentence: The Bible is _________

As I see it, most answers fall somewhere along this spectrum:

  • “Full of lies.”  The Bible is deceptive and harmful and just plain stupid.  You should not read the Bible.
  • “Made up fairy tales.”  There are some good stories in the Bible, and we can even learn some general truths from them, but they definitely aren’t true.  The Bible is like Aesop’s Fables or Greek Mythology – interesting, and maybe even insightful, but not true.
  • “A book of wisdom.”  Sure, not everything in the Bible is true, but there’s a lot of good insight and advice in there!  Just don’t have to believe everything you read.
  • “An instruction manual for life.”  The Bible is God’s rule-book.  He made us and knows how we should work, and the Bible is where God teaches us what we should do.
  • “God’s Word and Truth.”  The Bible is so much more than advice and rules, it’s God’s way of showing Himself to us so that we would know Him, know ourselves, and understand our role in this crazy world.

How do you view the Bible?  Is it just a rule book or instruction manual to you?  If it is, what happens when you break the rules?  Is the Bible simply a collection of stories and myths that silly people believe?

2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  Here are a few questions to help you work through how you think about the Bible through the grid of this passage:

  1. All Scripture is God-breathed.  Just like God breathing life into Adam (Gen. 2:7).  Not just some of it or the parts of the Bible you like.  The boring parts are important too… they might not be the most quotable or memorable, but they’re important and there for a reason.  You can’t just get rid of verses because you don’t like them.  When you read something and disagree with Scripture, how do you react – do you doubt yourself or the Bible (“The times have changed, it can’t really mean that anymore!”)?
  2. And is useful for teaching.   Do you ever talk about the Bible with others?  Do you think that it’s your responsibility to “figure out” how to talk about Jesus to people, as if the Bible itself wouldn’t be helpful to you?  Do you actually look for opportunities to teach God’s Word (and take them when they come) – this can be something casual like a conversation with a friend or something more intentional like helping with VBS or speaking up in Sunday School.  Who are you teaching? And remember… you can’t teach what you don’t know, so read your Bible!
  3. And is useful for… rebuking.  To rebuke means you’re correcting someone’s behavior because they’re doing something stupid or harmful.  When Christians see other Christians living in sin, it’s faithful and right for us to rebuke our brother/sister (with tons of humility, because they might need to rebuke us next week!).  When you see other Christians doing something that is clearly and obviously sinful, how do you respond to that person?
  4. And is useful for… correcting.  To correct means you’re helping someone to recognize something they have said or thought was wrong.  While rebuking is over behavior (something they did), correcting is more connected to words and thoughts.  When you hear someone say something that clearly doesn’t line up with what the Bible teaches, do you say something or do you keep quiet?
  5. And is useful for… training in righteousness.  Do you want to grow in godliness?  Do you want to be wise?  Do you want to be the person God made you to be?  Then read your Bible, study it, memorize portions of it, and obey it.  If you look at your heart and what you set your mind on throughout the day, what would you be in training for?
  6. So that the man of God might be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  God wants to equip you for the life of faith.  No one would send someone into war with a squirt gun, God doesn’t want to see you walking around unequipped for what He’s called you to do.  Do you see the Bible as God’s Word and Truth, where you draw your life and strength from in order that you could grow more like Jesus every day?

So what about you?  If you were to look at your heart and look at your life, how would you really answer the question, “The Bible is ________.”