Archives For Social Justice

The Jerusalem Collection

Preston Sprinkle —  February 7, 2013 — 1 Comment

A few blogs ago, I made a statement that may have been a bit provocative. I said: “The apostle Paul spent more time in his letters talking about the redistribution of wealth within the global body than he did on justification by faith.” I thought it would be good to put some ground under this claim by showing from the NT why it’s true.

It all starts in Acts 11:27-30, where a prophet named “Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world” (Acts 11:28). In res220px-Saint_Paul_Ananias_Sight_Restoredponse to the famine, “the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers and sisters living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29-30). The “relief” was a financial gift collected from various churches in Greece and Asia Minor and sent to the impoverished churches in Jerusalem. This gift has been called “the Jerusalem Collection.” About this collection, Paul has much to say. Sometime between Acts 12 and 15, Paul met with the Peter, James, and John (leaders of the Jerusalem church) to talk about Paul’s future ministry to the Gentiles. At the end of the day, the one thing these leaders told Paul was: “remember the poor” in Jerusalem, which Paul was “very…eager to do” (Gal 2:10). And by “remember” Paul didn’t mean cognitive recollection. Rather, Paul set out on a mission to bring financial relief to the poor saints in Jerusalem. So in late Autumn of AD 49, Paul embarked on his second “missionary” journey (Acts 15:36-21:16), which was largely aimed at collecting money from the wealthier Gentile churches in Asia Minor and Greece to give to the poor believers in Jerusalem.

This was Paul’s “Jerusalem Collection.” And he talks about it quite often in many of his letters. For instance, while Paul was hanging out in Corinth, he sent a letter to the house churches in Rome and spoke about the collection with much excitement, boasting that “Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Rom 15:26). The gift was more than just financial relief, but a symbol for racial unity. “For they (Gentiles) were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings” (Rom 15:27). The church at Corinth too was eager to participate (1 Cor. 16:1-4), as were the churches through Galatia (1 Cor 16:1), Philippi (2 Cor. 8-9), and probably Cenchrea, Berea, Derbe, and Thessalonica. The latter three churches even sent delegates to present the gift along with Paul, Timothy, Barnabas, and Luke. So important was this gift that Paul spent an entire two chapters talking about it in his second letter to the house churches in Corinth—2 Corinthians 8-9. Some scholars think that this section of 2 Corinthians was originally a separate letter, which was later pasted into “2 Corinthians.” If so, Paul devoted an entire letter just to talk about the Jerusalem Collection.

According to New Testament scholar Moyer Hubbard:

It is true that Paul’s primary mission was to spread the message of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. It is equally true, however, that along with being a missionary and a theologian, Paul was a relief worker trying to make a difference in one corner of a poverty-stricken world, Jerusalem (Christianity in the Greco-Roman World, 157).

So what do we do with this? For starters, you know that famous line that “God loves a cheerful giver?” Well, Paul said that about the Macedonian churches sending money to poor believers overseas. Next time you’re passing the plates and hear the pastor say “God loves a cheerful giver,” it would be more true to the text to keep passing those plates right out the back door, into the church van, all the way to the nearest Fed Ex to send them to poorer churches in Nepal—or wherever.

Hardly any statement that Paul makes about giving money has to do with Giving money to your own local church. The ones that do, talk about giving money to people with needs. But most of the time, when Paul talks about giving, he’s referring to the redistribution of wealth across the global church.

In a previous blog, I made a plea that wealthier American churches should be more concerned with helping to financially empower poorer believers across the globe. The biblical ground for this assertion is the Jerusalem collection. Now, when I talk about the redistribution of wealth, I’m not making some sort of Obamic plea. I’m trying to align myself with Paul. Paul doesn’t say that rich believers should financially help poor believers because, well, there needs to be equality in our country. Rather, Paul grounds such giving in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

The Jerusalem collection occupied more space in Paul’s letters than his explicit teaching on justification by faith. I’m not trying to be provocative, nor am I downplaying justification. Lord knows I cherish this doctrine. I don’t want to diminish justification, but elevate financial generosity toward believers—especially those with (perhaps) greater needs outside our congregations. Paul talks about Justification by faith in Rom 3:21-26, 4:1-6, 5:8-11, Gal 2:16-21, 3:6-12, 22-26, and Phil 3:6-9 (implicitly). He mentions justification by faith in 3 of his 13 letters. Paul talks about the Jerusalem collection in Rom 15:25-33, 1 Cor 16:1-4, 2 Cor 8:1-9:15, Gal 2:10, not counting the vari16gospel_600ous places where Paul talks about various churches/people supporting his missionary endeavors (Rom. 16:2; Phil. 4:14-20), passages in Acts that talks about the financial need in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30 and others), and that annoying verse in Ephesians 4:28 that tells us to work—watch this—so that we can give to others in need. In nearly ½ of his letters, Paul talks about the redistribution of wealth across the global church.

My dream would be that churches in America would be more aligned with Paul in how they use their money.

Reflections on Nepal

Preston Sprinkle —  January 16, 2013 — 5 Comments

I hope you’ve enjoyed the updates and personal reflections in my last few blogs about my trip to Nepal. If you’re just now jumping in, it would be best to go back and read through my previous posts to get some context for what I’m going to say here.

jumping

Me acting like an idiot

Naturally, I’m filled with many different thoughts and emotions as I reflect on my trip. I really don’t want to be that obnoxious American who just came back from a short-term missions trip and now wants to bark at all his American friends who just don’t get it. Nor do I want to come home and forget about the amazing work that God is doing here in Nepal. Mark put it best when he compared reentry to tuning a guitar string. Pull it too tight, and it’s way out of key (the obnoxious short-termer). Don’t pull it tight enough, and it sounds flat (the unchanged short-termer). So don’t hide your $5 Latte’s when you see me around town. I’m not going to judge you. I’m sure I’ll fall back into my own Latte-slamming routine before long. But I don’t want to forget about the many needs in the church of Nepal. I simply can’t forget. They’re now a part of me.

So here are two thoughts that have percolated in my mind this week. First, the priority of indigenous ministry. As I’ve thought and written about missions over the past few years, I keep coming back to this idea. And my trip to Nepal confirmed much of what I’ve thought. In short, local pastors and leaders are much more effective in the “on the ground” ministry than foreigners. We don’t know the language. We don’t know the culture. We can hardly breathe the air! And even when we do spend a few years and become as “Nepalese” as we can, we will always be Westerners. Beki and I had a lot of good discussions about this. “Some missionaries,” Beki said, “come in and take over our churches. After they minister in a church for a while, they say it belongs to them.” Friends: these things cannot be.

Now, please hear me out. I’m not saying that being a missionary to Nepal is worthless. I’m not even saying that taking a short-term trip to Nepal doesn’t do anything. But what I am saying is that whether you come full-time or part-time, you must come underneath and alongside the indigenous leaders—the Beki’s and Babu’s of Nepal. They know the work. They know the people. They know the needs. Let’s join them in their ministry and let them tell us what to do.

The second thought that keeps gnawing at me is money. Nearly every ministry I experienced here in Nepal was to some extent hindered by money. And yet never did any of the leaders or believers here ask for money, nor did they advertise their needs. I’m well aware that in many countries, becoming a Christian is the first step out of poverty, and becoming a pastor is the gateway to western wealth and power. So my eyes were peeled; I was on the lookout for such unhealthy attraction to the west. But there was none of that here. Or at least, I didn’t encounter it with the leaders I met. I practically had to drag their financial needs out of them, and even then they didn’t flash their Puss-n-Boots puppy dog eyes so I would dig into my wallet. But when I did get them to put their needs in concrete terms, I was shocked at how little they need and how far it would go. (I’m well aware, too, of the long-term danger of creating a never-ending system of dependency, where the Nepalese church is always dependent upon the west to survive. If western churches get excited about giving, then this discussion will need to happen.)

I’ve already mentioned some of these needs in the previous blogs, so I can just summarize them here.

  • We saw at least 2 churches the size of a mid-sized American bedroom that were packed with dozens of recent converts (there are many more we didn’t see). Both of these congregations pooled enough money together to lay the foundation for a church building, but don’t have enough to complete it. The cost to finish? $3,000-$5,000, depending on whether they put build a tin or concrete roof.
  • Babu helps support 14 different pastors at $50-60/month. They need about $100/month each to be freed up to pastor their congregations.
  • Babu’s orphanage can only afford to care for 50 orphans, even though he could physically take on 100. He’s turning away kids almost daily for lack of funds.
  • Beki oversees 10 different fellowships and many of them need pastors. Local pastors are being trained. They have the manpower. But lack of money prevents these pastors from going into full-time ministry. (BTW, being an unpaid lay-pastor is not a real option for most leaders here. Ministry is way too time-consuming, sometimes requiring pastors to drive 2-3 hours a day to meet with believers in the church. They couldn’t do this and hold down a full-time job.)

Again, I don’t want to be that abrasive short-term-reentry-guy who glorifies third world churches and looks down upon the American church. Believers have issues wherever they are, and there are no perfect Christians—not even in Nepal. But let me vent just a little. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the American church generally speaking spends many thousands of dollars a year (a conservative estimate) just to pull off a polished service every Sunday. It’s hard to tell if all the money invested into services and programs is actually fueling the Great Commission, or whether it is merely luring sheep from the other church down the street. Either way, we can trim. We can do with less. We don’t need all the costly bells and expensive whistles we think we do. And again, I wonder if all the costly clutter actually prevents us from valuing Jesus. I don’t mean to be snarky, but please convince me that I’m wrong. I love it that at one point Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley resisted the mega-church dream and gave away 50% of its yearly revenue to outside ministries. I love it that Anthem church in Ventura county (where I attend) every year gives away a huge sum of money on “generosity Sunday.” (I think we gave away more than $30k dollars last time.)

Let’s keep going! Let’s push harder! Let’s hold off on updating that 5 year-old sound system so that 50 kids can find God at Babu’s orphanage, rather than becoming sex-slaves. Let’s keep striving for simplicity in our churches so that pastors in Kathmandu can be freed up for ministry, and so that the much needed (not just wanted) church buildings can be built. Every church should be striving to be ridiculously generous toward other more needy ministries in impoverished areas. The apostle Paul spent more time in his letters talking about the redistribution of wealth within the global body than he did on justification by faith.

Someone once visited Mother Teresa and asked her, “What can I do?” She answered, “Find your Calcutta.” I think we might have found our Calcutta just north of the Indian border. Pray, and look for yours.

Behind Enemy Lines

Preston Sprinkle —  January 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

We saw two worlds collide in our last couple days in Kathmandu.

on moterbike

Me and Beki, ready to fly!

On Thursday, we visited a small village up in the mountains between Kathmandu and Mt. Everest. The road wasn’t as deathly as our trip to Hetauda, but I was able to offset my safety by riding on the back of a motorcycle. The others guys piled in a clown car; I’m not sure who was more risky. The ride was exhilarating, though I choked down enough exhaust to take 5 years off my life. I now know why Beki’s pastor-mentor died a couple years ago of lung cancer, even though he didn’t smoke. After a 3-hour ride, we arrived in the village and Beki began to tell us about how the gospel had reached the city a year and a half ago.

Long story short, an old lady had a serious stomach problem, and after six months of unsuccessful medical treatment, she met a Christian who healed her and the word spread throughout the entire village. Shortly after, her daughter and son-in-law came to Christ, and they are now helping lead the church. Currently, there are about 40-50 converts in this small village: old people, young people, upper caste and lower caste. The gospel has scaled these remote mountains and reclaimed them for Christ. The scene reminded me of what Jesus told Paul in Acts 17: “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking…for I have many in this city who are my people.” God’s people were tucked away in those mountains, and the gospel found them.

I left the village with a bit of that “frustrated joy” I had when I left the jungle church. These zealous believers are living out their faith publicly for all the villagers to see. But they are without a pastor. The first converts help lead the people, but they need more oversight, someone who can nourish the people with wisdom, teaching, and encouragement. Beki hops on his motorbike to visit the village twice a month, but it’s a 6-hour journey round trip. Plus, Beki oversees 9 other such fellowships in and around Kathmandu. There’s a lot of work to be done, and the local pastors are doing it. But they are spread quite thin with financial resources.

old lady in village

A recent convert in the mountain village

To put it in perspective, there are over 50 pastors in training at Himalaya School of Theology—a master’s level theology program overseen by Beki in Kathmandu. Once these aspiring pastors graduate, they’ll be ready to go out into mountain fellowships like the one we visited. The problem is that many of the believers in these churches can’t afford to support a pastor, and finding work is already tough. Beki told us that some people in the village were selling their organs to buy food. Others are able to keep both kidneys, but still live far below the poverty line by any standard. So there remains a thick wedge between zealous pastors and needy young converts. Frustrated joy—I don’t know how else to put it.

The gospel was victorious in the mountain village. But this world collided with the one we saw the next day.

On Friday, we visited two significant religious sites: the main temple to Shiva (one of the three primary gods of Hinduism), and the Boudhanath (think: temple)—one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Kathmandu. Shiva’s temple was the most sobering. I don’t know if it was the smog, the cloud of incense, or the burning of dead bodies over the holy river, but there was a spiritual thickness in the air. Smoke from flesh mingled with incense filled the air. Shrines with phallic images filled the hills. Steady drumbeats filled my ears. Sadness and fear filled my heart. The trendy, hippie, coffee-shop Hinduism that Californians toy with doesn’t exist in Nepal. Satan still has a frightening foothold on this country.

Buddha Temple

On the balcony of a Buddhist monastery in a stare down with the Buddha.

The Boudhanath was a bit more serene. Bubbling with tourists and Buddhist monks, this beautiful temple has a seductive lure to it. The all-seeing eyes of the Buddha stare at you wherever you go, and the idols that fill the monastery radiate a placid glow. The hope that gleams from the believers in the village is absent here, however. Tourists and worshipers frantically spin prayer wheels, burn incense, and give money to local monks to pacify their guilt, grope for unattainable perfection, or just scratch a spiritual itch that never goes away. The façade of peace doesn’t produce many smiles in this temple. Only anxiety.

It’s now Saturday morning as I write this blog and we will be boarding the plane in just a few hours. Mark, Adam, and Dathan will head home to California, while I’m heading on to Zambia with a stop in Delhi to visit some friends. My heart is filled with so many thoughts. After I get my head above the smog I’ll write another blog summarizing my reflections. For now, pray for Beki, pray for Babu, pray for the local pastors who are joyfully furthering the kingdom of God here in Nepal—behind enemy lines.

Frustrated Joy

Preston Sprinkle —  January 14, 2013 — 6 Comments

On Monday morning, we left Kathmandu for a two-day stay in Hetauda—a decent sized city in southern Nepal. Though only 60 miles away, it took us 4 hours to get there on the “death road” as we called it. The scene was comically frightening. Four Americans packed into a small backseat that uncomfortably fits 3. A one-lane road for two lanes of traffic spiraling up and down the hazy mountains of Nepal. Every 10 seconds another oncoming truck whips around the corner, forcing our clown car to the edge of a 2,000-foot drop. I’m continually impressed at the skill of Nepalese drivers. And I’m thankful that I upped my life-insurance before I left.

But we made it safe and sound to the orphanage in Hetauda, our residence for the next two days. After lunch, Babu—the Indian missionary who runs the orphanage—took us to a small village-church in Simara, a city about an hour away. Much like the “basement church” in kids at orphanageKathmandu, the church was filled to the brim with worshipers belting out praises to their King. And once again, I’m struck at how the church in Nepal is bursting at the seams. Such growth is creating a real problem, however. The cold winters and monsoon summers make buildings a necessity for their cherished gatherings, especially in the south. What’s sad is that it only costs about $3,000-$5,000 to build a church that would meet the needs of this growing church. But that’s a ton of money for a church where the pastor makes less than $100 a month.

After hanging out at the orphanage the next morning, we headed to a church that met in the middle of the jungle. What we saw there blew our minds. We bumped along through the jungle road dodging monkeys and sugarcane farmers. Finally, we reached our destination: a medieval looking village situated between somewhere and nowhere—an hour away from the nearest real town. I felt like I was back in time. And I’m pretty sure this gloomy hamlet had never seen a white person before. As I looked around for the church, I was directed to what looked like a 300 year old barn built for hobbits. The $20 a month it costs to rent the building is all the Christians can afford. And once again, the place was packed. Sugarcane churchNot a single square inch was empty as 40-50 believers gathered for worship. I could literally touch the worship leader and the bongo player from where I sat without getting up. And the sound we heard was sweet—some of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard. Former Hindu men and women crying out to the One who snatched them from Satan’s kingdom, in the middle of the jungle where no westerner has been. Amazing. Quite simply—amazing!

Once again, they have a great need for a building. They have been able to lay the foundation but are in need of $5,000 to finish the work. They told me that their current building can’t fit any more people, even though Hindus keep coming to Christ. In the summer months, cobras curl up under the floor of the second story sanctuary (think: “loft”) making worship quite dangerous. They could use some cement walls to keep them out. And the floor of the sanctuary is so rotted that even Babu joked that he ups his life-insurance when he preaches there.

Yet this jungle church continues to grow. And its walls continue to bend at the sweet sound of blistering praise.

As I debriefed with Babu the next day, he told me that he not only runs an orphanage—the only one in Hetauda—but he also runs a Bible institute and oversees 14 different pastors/congregations. Knowing the size and poverty of these churches, I asked “How do these pastors survive?” “We support them,” Babu said. “You support them? How do you

Babu with his daughter Sweetie

Babu with his daughter Sweetie

support them?” Babu quietly answered, “We use some of our support to support the pastors.” As I glanced over at Babu’s own house that lies unfinished, I quickly saw where the money comes from. Babu gives from his own empty pocket to financially enable Nepalese leaders to shepherd believers packed in tiny churches. “If I can ask, how much do you give them?” Babu responded: “Some get, maybe, $50 a month, others $60. It all depends on their need. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to put petrol in their motor bike to visit the people.”

Babu is one of the most zealous yet humble believers I’ve ever met. He used to run the orphanage in the city of Berganj, which Lonely Planets calls one of the worst cities on earth; avoid at all cost. The city lives under a thick blanket of smog, and sex trafficking is one of its major trades. What made Babu move, however, was when the radical Hindus set off a bomb under the orphanage’s bus. Thank God only 1 kid got hurt. Babu and his wife were also thrown in prison for their faith, and by prison think: one steamy cellar packed with 30 thugs who don’t like you, and no toilet. So Babu thought it best to move the orphanage north to a city where the kids would be safer. Unfortunately, as with the local pastors, the orphanage is under supported. They have 50 kids, but Babu could physically take on at least 100. Almost daily, Babu said, they turn away kids. “We just don’t have the money to take in any more children.”

I don’t know what tRoad to Sugarcane Churcho think of my time with Babu. “Frustrated Joy” is the best phrase that came to mind. I’m exceedingly joyful at God’s surprising power that’s penetrated Nepal. To see Nepalese men and women, recently converted to Christ sing out with such authenticity and passion was worth the price of my flight. But I’m leaving a bit frustrated. Frustrated at how easy it would be for the western church to come alongside these indigenous pastors with financial support. Yet I know that until you come and eat the curry, sit at the feet of Babu, and the smell the rotting wood that holds the sanctuary together, it’s tough to muster up the desire to hold off on buying that 2nd flat screen so you could support a pastor for 2 months.

But I have tasted the curry. And I’m not leaving unchanged.

World Upside Down

Preston Sprinkle —  January 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

When Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica, it aroused quite an uproar. “These men who have turned the world upside down,” shouted the mob, “have come here also” (Acts 17:6). This scene drips with irony. Paul and his companions go into a large city and teach in one of the synagogues for 3 Sabbaths. And some of Jews and a good portion of the “devout Greeks” (i.e. proselytes) and women come to Christ. But Thessalonica had a population of about 200,000 people. I don’t care how many people from the synagogue came to Christ, Paul’s preaching didn’t put a huge dent in the otherwise pagan population. “World upside down?” Really?

The outcry of the mob reflects not the number of converts, nor the immediate societal effects, but the beginning of the Kingdom of God overpowering the Kingdom of Satan. God is turning the world upside down through an upside down Kingdom. And it begins with a mustard seed—like the one planted in Thessalonica 2,000 years ago. I witnessed a similar seed in Kathmandu last Sunday.

Only 2.5% of the 800,000 people in Kathmandu are Christians, and every one of these

Pastor Beki

Pastor Beki

converts is an in-your-face-miracle. Most people in Nepal are Hindu. A few are Buddhist. This means that almost every single Christian is a genuine “convert.” In other words, they didn’t raise their hand during Sunday school class or at summer camp to accept Jesus. Rather, they were yanked from one religion to another in the midst of persecution from family, friends, and society at large. There is no human explanation why the church continues to grow in Nepal. But it continues to grow.

On Sunday, I saw many mustard seeds turning the world upside down in Kathmandu. Our first visit was to a colony of lepers living outside the city. Beki, the Nepalese pastor touring us around, visits them every week with food, fellowship, and love. Today, we got to follow Beki’s heart around the colony while passing out food. As we handed out rice and vitamin-rich biscuits, we were greeted with warm smiles and much gratitude. It felt a little different, however, than other homeless excursions I’ve been on in the States. Then I asked Beki, “Who else comes here to care for these lepers?” And with his characteristic life-giving smile he said, “Nobody comes to help. Only the Christians.” And by “Christians” Beki humbly meant himself. Hindus believe that these lepers have been cursed by God, so to help them would go against God’s will for them. I suddenly realized I wasn’t another walking handout filling space until the next handout arrives that evening. The rice we delivered was their food for the week.

I asked Beki, “How many of these lepers are believers?” He answered with deep seated satisfaction: “When we started the ministry, there were one or two. Now, there are about 14-16 believers.” As I did the math I realized that while 2-3% of Kathmandu are believers, about 30-40% of its lepers are believers—citizens of God’s unstoppable kingdom.

Without fingers and feet, these lepers are turning the world upside down.

Our next stop was at a church that meets in a small room in a rundown apartment building. I hesitate saying “small,” because small for Americans means there’s not much room between the chairs and the stage. But this church was genuinely small—a 12ft x 12ft room packed with 25 people. A fire-hazard, I know, but we’re not going to worry about that in Kathmandu. Come to find out, we were 2 hours late to the gathering. But they were all there, with warms smiles that cut through the chilly basement air. We gathered, we sang, and Mark shared a word mark teaching from Matthew 2. We sang some more, shared testimonies, and drank some deliciously sweet tea.

I was shocked once again at the power of the gospel. How in the world did these people come to Christ? How is it possible that these former Hindus gather in a basement to worship Jesus in the face of persecution? They don’t even have a pastor to drag them to church every Sunday. Yet they gather. They sing. They worship their King. I imagine that Satan is shocked at this gathering as well. After all, his kingdom has had a firm grip on this country for thousands of years. A country that birthed the Buddha; a country flooded with Hindu temples; a country awash with idols; a country where cows are more valuable than people with leprosy. “Not in my backyard!” Satan cries. Yet God continues to rip people out of Satan’s empire and crown them with honor and glory in God’s kingdom. Even lepers, and children gathered in a murky basement.

Without a building, without a stage, without a pastor—this overcrowded gathering is turning the world upside down. I’ve witness the power of God in Kathmandu last Sunday. But nothing compares to the confusing joy I experienced in the jungles of southern Nepal on Tuesday. Stay tuned!