Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Trees, Adam, Eve and Jesus

Why decorate Christmas trees? Frankly, it’s fun. That’s reason enough for most of us. But the tradition likely came from an ancient Christian celebration we that we no longer observe (well, some Eastern Orthodox Christians still do). 

On Christmas Eve throughout the medieval era it was the common practice to decorate an evergreen tree with bright red apples. This was the celebration of Adam and Eve Day. Christians would commemorate both the amazing gift of creation and life represented by our primal parents. And they would remember the fall of Adam and Eve into sin which locked humanity and the world under a curse.

The curse (Gen 6:14-19) cast our existence into disharmony and disconnection with humanity being cast from paradise and deep union with our creator, children associated with pain, women ruled by men, an unrelenting struggle between humanity and nature and even death itself.

The original “Christmas Tree” was not for “Christmas” but to remind believers of the Garden of Eden (the evergreen tree) and the temptation to sin (the apple). To celebrate the birth of Jesus on the following day, however, was the perfect way to experience and relive the most amazing truth of “Emmanuel – God with Us.” That truth is that Jesus was born, the “Second Adam” (one of John Wesley’s favorite terms for Jesus) to reconcile breached relationships between humanity and the Divine, between men and women, between different people groups and even between humanity and the world God created. 

Jesus came to reverse the curse. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1Cor.15.22). The cursed believe “might makes right,” some men are more “equal” than others, the planet and its inhabitants are resources to exploit, and death is inevitable. 

The liberated in Christ know eternal life carries with it a joy that outweighs our light and momentary suffering. Sometimes, this suffering flows as the liberated struggle to set a crooked world straight, to set captives free, to advocate for equality for all, and seek to care well for the gift of a planet untrusted to us. As you decorate your trees, remember Adam and Eve . . . and celebrate the Second Adam who set us free.

Connecting to Fulfill the Great Commission

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1.7

Every church in the NCC is a missional outpost – seeking to be on mission with Jesus as “fishers of people.”  Missional people routinely look beyond their personal or local situation in order to grasp bigger picture realities, experience fresh insights of how God it work everywhere and to discover news ways to bless and refresh beyond their borders. With joy Free Methodist churches recognize that we are a connectional movement who envision “bringing wholeness to the world through healthy biblical communities of holy people multiplying disciples, leaders, groups, and churches.”

We are multiplying churches globally faster than we can count. God is at work through your connectional Great Commission prayers, service and giving. This is the time of year when your churches are making commitments to global Free Methodist missions. We commit as a connection of churches to supporting Free Methodist missionaries as first priority in global commitments, and to support other missional work as God prospers and so leads.

This would be a bitter pill to swallow and viewed as limiting if our global works were ineffective or merely supporting an institutional structure that has outlived its usefulness.  BUT THAT IS NOT THE CASE! Our global missions strategy continues to be solidly embedded in identifying, training and equipping local leaders who multiply disciples and churches at rates the United States has never seen. Hands down, your missions dollars provide the best “return on investment” -- in terms of souls saved, communities transformed, literal prisoners and slaves set free – toward which you contribute.   

Learn more about the missionaries our conference supports. Pray for them, encourage them, invest in them.  Visit the web site for ongoing information.  Our missionaries are Mike Reynen (Africa), Alan Mellinger (Eastern Europe) and creative access missions (dangerous locales in Asia and the Middle-East). Make your commitments before January to keep our missionaries on the field. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Appreciate Pastors

"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." Heb 13:7-8

Most people who work, work hard. Nurses, house-cleaning staff, college executives, doctors, school teachers, mechanics, ranchers, counselors – you know . . . everyone. It is right and good as Christ followers to encourage and appreciate the incredible daily efforts, expertise, acts of service (paid and unpaid) that make up the necessary fabric of our daily lives. We need each other, and it’s always good to say, “thanks!”

Pastors work hard, too. Pastors merit our kind “thanks” as well.  October is America’s “Clergy Appreciation Month” (the 2nd Sunday being “Clergy Appreciation Day”).  Jesus did not institute this special observance. It was first birthed in 1992 by layman Jerry Frear, Jr. in an effort to show support to his church’s clergy team. Hallmark caught on by 2002 offering the first card selections dedicated to the observance. Focus on the Family has done some of the best work in promoting practical ways to show appreciation to your pastor – check out

Superintendent Mark is tweeting out specific ways you can support your pastor during Pastor Appreciation Month – follow along @supncc.

We believe the best way, ultimately, to bring a smile to your pastor’s face, and in particular to Christ, the Great Shepherd, would be to put Hebrews 13:7 into practice. “Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”  Stun the clergy with daily Bible reading and prayer, leading to Christ-infused actions like compassion and action on behalf of the poor and hurting, extending patient love to your spouse and children, showing remarkable integrity at work. A congregation of eager disciples of Jesus Christ, actively participating in acts of service to one another and the world beyond is every pastor’s deepest desire.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Not whiz bang events. Not the latest game-boy. Not pizza and soda.  Nope. Reaching the next generation with the good news of Jesus cannot be done with gizmos and games.

   The clear and overriding message from each of the leaders at Annual Conference 2014 – addressing the NextGEN theme – has been that developing relationships with children, teens and young adults is the most important aspect of sharing the gospel.  It doesn't hurt to arrange for fun activities, no one aims for boredom!  But those activities must be designed by and engaged with adults and young adults who care, really care, about the people with whom they playfully interact for Christ’s sake.
   Currently, several life-giving, life-changing, community-building Christian camps are being offered by NCC Camps (Sky Lodge and Heartland).  One highly-relational way to invest in the nextGEN is volunteer to be a camp counselor, to drive kids to camp, to help at the camps in any way.
   Many churches offer VBS, Back-Yard-Bible-Clubs, Kid’s Days, Family Fairs and other summer time activities geared to blessing children and their families. These only work as well as the volunteers who come along side such efforts and invest in the lives of children and youth.
   Sunday School, Children’s Church, CYC, Awana, MOPS and nursery programs are the bread-and-butter of developing the character and spirit of young hearts in our connection.  These only work as well as the volunteers who take time to invest in the lives of children and youth.
   Joining or creating after-school tutoring programs, assisting in sports and recreations movements, being a “Big-brother” or “Big-sister” invests in the lives of youth and children.
   How are you investing your life in youth and children? It is hard. It takes time, effort and sometimes money. Sometimes, if we are old we are tired and feel our time is up.  But the kids needs you or there will be no kids – and no church before long.  Sometimes, if we are young, we feel we don’t enough knowledge or skill to offer.  But the kids don’t need knowledge or skill – they don’t even know it when you make a mistake and are the most forgiving crowd in the universe. But they will thrive on your attention and care.
   Let’s get involved with the nextGEN AT SOME LEVEL now. Or it will be too late.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Proposed Biblical Principles and Guidelines for Borrowing and Lending in the North Central Conference

by Mark Adams and Gideon N’Gobi

The NCC Board of Administration, at the request of Superintendent Mark Adams, requested a review of biblical and ethical principles and guidelines that may inform the practices of the Board of Administration and Loan Fund.  Mark Adams (Superintendent) and Gideon N’Gobi (member of Board of Stewardship and Finance) have invested some time and effort to fulfill this task.  What follows is a preliminary effort to provide guidelines and context for borrowing and lending in the NCC.

Are there biblical and theological principles which the North Central Conference should apply in relation to institutional borrowing and lending?

 Throughout history there have been abundant practical, theological and ethical discussions regarding economic development, and the practices of money-lending and borrowing.  For most of the history of the church, the practice of lending money with an expectation of repayment with interest, also known as usury, has been either forbidden or strongly regulated.  As local, civic, business, national, and corporate interests have evolved over time, the application of theological principles have often evolved along with them.

 The early and emerging Roman Catholic thinking tended to ban lending with any interest at all.  The protestant reformation ushered in looser views of the practice of charging interest.  Significant changes in modern finance and business began to rapidly emerge in the 18th century and blossomed into a complete reinvention of financial institutions, tools, borrowing and lending in the 20th century which has largely blurred or removed theological discussion of borrowing and lending in much of the western world.  Economic expansion since the industrial revolution and beyond has contributed to creating a material standard of living for many in the world unparalleled in history, and has simultaneously led to the threat of national and even global economic collapses and a rapidly expanding gulf between the rich and poor within and between nations.

The focus of this paper is to offer guidance to the NCC Board of Administration and Loan Fund relating to borrowing and lending.   Deep and penetrating analysis of each scripture and theological principle, a thorough history of thought relating to economic development, and an analysis of different particular financial instruments is far beyond the scope of this document.  The simple goal is to reveal biblical principles that can be applied today so that our lending and borrowing honors God and one another.

The Bible and Borrowing and Lending

What does the Bible say about borrowing and lending?  How have good biblical principles been applied through time?  What are principles we can look to today to guide our thinking in particular as it relates to the North Central Conference?

Defining terms. What does it mean to borrow?  One may borrow many things, but we are limiting our discussion to borrowing money.  The person or organization that “borrows” receives money from another person or organization with an agreement to repay the money.  A loan, borrowed money, is not a gift or grant, but money that belongs to the lender, temporarily placed in the possession of the borrower, who agrees to repay the sum borrowed under the terms agreed upon with the lender.

What does it mean to lend?  One may lend money to a borrower with the expectation that the money will be repaid.  To lend is not to give, but to enter into a financial agreement for repayment.

When the North Central Conference Loan Fund (or Conference Board of Administration) lends money, an individual is not making an agreement.  Rather, a group tasked with the stewardship of funds entrusted to the organization by the collection of churches called the North Central Conference, is making the loan.  When congregation borrows money, it is not borrowing money from an individual lender, but making a good faith agreement with its sister congregations to responsibly repay the funds borrowed.  Nor, under most circumstances, is the borrower an individual, but rather a church which, under the direction of a pastor (usually) and local board of administration, agrees on behalf of that institution to borrow funds.

The Bible and borrowing. Many Scripture passages address borrowing, and demonstrate that it was a common practice among communities in both the Old and New Testament eras.
For example, in 2 Kings Elijah assists a widow providing a way to repay her debts (2Kings4.1-7).  The high responsibility associated with a good steward of borrowed resources is revealed in 2Kings6.1-7.  When borrowed resources are lost, restitution must be made to the owner by the borrower even when the resource is lost, for example, a borrowed ox that becomes injured (Ex.22.14-15).  Biblically, it is a wicked thing to borrow and not repay the debt (Ps.37.21).  Christians are urged in Romans to “give everyone what you owe him… let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” (Rom.13.7-8).
There seem to be significant problems described in the Bible when a lender took undue advantage of a borrower, particularly a poor or destitute borrower.

Economics and justice with particular concern for the poor are closely tied in the Bible. Much Old Testament law is written in light of the Exodus, and the experience of Israel as an oppressed, enslaved people.  The God of the Bible is deeply concerned about justice, equality, treating one another with a sense of fairness and equity, and avoiding those practices which create economic bondage or slavery of any kind among the people of Yahweh.  For example, “Do not pervert justice, do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev.19.15).  “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow” (Deut.27.19). “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne, love and faithfulness go before you” (Ps.89.14).   “’Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, or the strong man boast of his strength, or the rich man boast of his riches. But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord (Jerm9.23-24).”

Usury, or charging interest in the Bible is usually associated with injustice. Consequently, lending practices in the Old Testament tightly regulated or prohibited “usury” or the charging of interest because of the potential this has to lead to societal inequity and unjust treatment, particularly of the poor.  For example, requiring collateral from the poor that would leave them exposed to harm was strictly forbidden, as in Deut.24.17-18, “Do not deprive the alien or fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow in pledge, remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.”

Nehemiah chastised the rich Israelites for charging interest on the poor Israelites as they were rebuilding the protective wall around Jerusalem.  Nehemiah says (9.5-11), “What you are doing is not right! Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop!”  The matter of lending and charging interest in Nehemiah’s day was quite excessive as the complaints that led to his plea were that the poor were being forced into slavery, required to give up their land, their homes and their crops to their lenders (Neh.5.1-12).

In his response to the rich Israelites taking advantage of the poor by charging interest, Nehemiah was reflecting on Levitical law.  Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy all have passages prohibiting the charging of interest or making a profit by lending (Ex.22.25, Lev.25.37, Deut.23.19), which would later be reinforced by the prophet Ezekiel (18:3-17).

It is noteworthy, however, that the charging of interest was not prohibited in general. That is, the prohibition in the Law of God does not have a universal application, because it is limited specifically to the internal affairs of Israel (Deut.23.20).  In later centuries, as the Roman Catholic Church began to grow in influence, usury and charging interest was in fact interpreted more universally.  Christians who sought to conform to the teachings of the church were not permitted, based upon Levitical law, to profit from lending.  However, they often needed to borrow.  Since Jews were not prohibited from lending to gentiles, a significant occupation (leading to many modern stereotypes) of Jews in the medieval era became money-lending.

“Usury” and “interest” are virtually interchangeable in the Bible. Some have argued that, Biblically speaking, there is a difference between “interest” and “usury”, the former being a percentage charge on what is borrowed for the privilege of borrowing it, the latter charging an unfair or excessive percentage on what is borrowed.  The Hebrew words generally translated as interest are tarbit and marbit which connote ‘increase’ and nasa which is to exact, closely related to nasak or to bite.  Ezekiel (chapter 18) makes a distinction between charging interest and excessive interest, but neither are commended.  Neither ‘to increase’ nor ‘exact’ in these Old Testament passages, are to be practiced by Israelites among Israelites.

However, ample evidence indicates that the amounts of interest, the “bite” taken from what was borrowed, was indeed most obscene by any modern standard.  Ancient civilizations demonstrate that requiring interest between 30% and 100% of what was borrowed was not uncommon. Further, draconian measures which would essentially place entire generations into indentured servitude to the rich as a result of a family’s impossible debt repayment were quite common.  Charging moderately small interest rates would have been quite the exception, not the norm.  A problem faced by ancient societies, and modern alike, is the application of tactics that intentionally impoverish people to such a degree that the lender “owns” them. Such practices continued into the Christian era among many people (including unscrupulous Christians).

The New Testament and Usury.  Jesus, consistent with the Word Christians believe He inspired, regularly advocates justice and generosity.  It is interesting, however, that he does not seem to have a negative view of lending or charging interest.  “Give to the one who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” says Jesus (Matthew 5:42).  In Luke (6:35) he encouragers disciples to “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend without expecting anything back.”  Jesus, it would seem, desires his followers to be generous, and even to lend with an attitude of forgiveness if the one borrowing cannot repay.

 Neither of these passages equate lending with giving – a loan is still meant to be repaid – and a Christian who borrows should expect to assume the moral obligation of repayment.
Neither Jesus quote mentions usury. Yet, Jesus tells parables that assume usury and the exacting of interest on loans as apparently a normal matter of doing business.  The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) portrays servants who were given stewardship of resources and expected to make profit from these resources.  The minimal profit would have been gained by placing money on deposit with moneylenders and to receive it with interest (25:27). For not doing at least this, a servant is severely judged by his master.  A similar story is recounted in Luke 19.  It is highly unlikely that Jesus would have used placing money in an interest bearing account to please the “king” (presumably meant to imply God in these parables) as an analogy for our Christian fruitfulness if it were, in His day and in His estimation, an evil practice to charge interest.

Some general biblical principles on borrowing and lending

What emerges as the Old and New Testament teachings on the practices of borrowing and lending, and charging interest, is that there are changes over time.  Still, some things never change.

What never changes are some lasting principles that may guide the NCC in general. The people of God ought to treat one another, and even their enemies, equitably.  We ought to take measures to avoid practices that lead to the oppression of the poor.  We should practice generosity wherever possible. We should take obligations into which we enter seriously with every intent to repay what we borrow.  We should avoid entering into debt whenever this is possible.  A lender should not lend to a borrower who cannot repay (though a generous person may offer a gift).  A lender should not lend, if interest will be involved or collateral required, in such a way that may lead to the ruin of the borrower.

Some things have changed even with the Scriptures themselves.  What seems to have changed even as one flips through the Pentateuch and makes way toward the gospels and epistles, is that a view on the use of charging interest does change.  From a forbidden practice, to one that is forbidden among fellow countrymen but permitted among outsiders, to ensuring that no money-lending leads to the enslavement or financial ruin of the borrower, to not charging ‘excessive’ interest, to seeing the charging of interest as a normal practice in day to day affairs.  This seems to be the progression of “usury” as it is described in Scripture.

Concepts on borrowing and lending that have emerged over time

There are a few interesting concepts that Christians in particular have dealt over the ages and in different cultural and economic environment. First, while extremely high interest rates were quite common prior to the Christian era, regulated interest rates and usury caps instituted by the church, by nations, and even by most states in the United States, have generally ranged between 4 and 15 percent.  This has been true for 1,500 years.  The reason or logic behind this is unclear, but that it has been generally viewed through most of our common era as an acceptable range of interest is interesting.

The basic moral and ethical logic behind charging reasonable rates of interest revolve around two basic concepts, good stewardship of a resource and managing risk. The owner (or steward) of the money is renting out his/her resource as a matter of making profit in much the same way as the owner of a home may rent a home, or the owner of an office complex may rent that complex.  As money tends to be devalued over time, the worth of what has been lent decreases over time, making the charging of interest or fees minimally necessary simply so as not to take a loss in what was lent.  Additionally, there is risk involved in lending money.  Primarily this is the risk of the borrower’s default, which must be factored into the process of identifying the potential fees, interest or collateral which will be required to make a loan reasonable.  John Calvin, for example, argued that no one should not profit from the poor, but in dealing with people of means, making business transactions, “usury is freely permitted… and ought to be paid to the creditor in addition to the principal, to compensate for loss… Reason does not suffer us to admit that all usury is to be condemned without exception” (Calvin, Commentary on Exodus).

Corporations aren’t always people, too. When an individual makes a loan, or borrows money, there is potentially a fairly high degree of flexibility in terms of risk assessment, and the degree to which a loan or debt may be forgiven.  Christians are called upon to err on the side of generosity by Lord Jesus.  That is, a borrower may freely choose to gift the lender in excess of what was borrowed out of a heart of thanksgiving, or a lender may choose freely to forgive a debt that is owed.  These matters of individual conscience are the prerogative of any individual.  It is not fair or Christian to expect, as a borrower, that your lender must forgive a debt.

The requirements and level of risk assessment and stewardship are different and higher when an organization or institution lends or borrows to an individual or another organization.  It would not be ethical for a banker responsible to steward funds on deposit from investors (Christians or not) to freely forgive debts on behalf of others.  Nor would it be ethical for corporate bodies (like churches) to choose not to repay debts that the corporate body, perhaps in ages past and under different circumstances, assumed.  In community, our responsibilities are higher, and our obligations must be entered into with much more care.  

Modest historical context impacting debt problems

During the “Age of Enlightenment,” it became quite clear that people were borrowing consumptively and falling into debt that could not be repaid. Consumptive borrowing meant either borrowing to pay for day to day expenses or to live beyond ones immediate means in order or appear to be of a different class (and hence have a potential business or cultural edge in opportunity).  In other words, Europe experienced a sharp increase in the ever increasing and indebted poor and an emerging heavily indebted consumer-oriented middle-class.  Prison awaited both.  Usury laws prohibited charging interest, but did not prohibit charging fees, or levying very heavy fines if loans were not repaid.  Debtors’ prison became the new home of far too many people caught in the inescapable trap of debt – even in a time and place when usury was formally not allowed.  One simple solution advocated and increasingly implemented as a just and protective measure was to make it very difficult to offer funds to people who had very little likelihood of repayment.  Don’t lend to people who can’t pay back the debt.

Throughout the history of lending, until the 1970s and 1980s, requirements to secure loans were fairly consistently high.  Loans were only written, for example, to purchase homes when a buyer produced a 10-20% down payments, terms were written for 15 years or less, and clear evidence of income to repay the debt was required.  Corporate land purchases required 20% or more for down payments, and generally higher interest rates were charged.  After the 1980s, deregulated markets, the deconstruction of many state usury laws, and bundling loans into securities that the loan originators were no longer responsible to maintain allowed for an explosion of high risk loans, consumer credit at unscrupulously usurious (by even ancient standards) rates. These (and other) factors led to unprecedented bankruptcies, property losses, and deep personal and corporate financial ruin.  Rather than protecting the consumer by limiting credit to only those who are creditworthy, at least in the United States, purchases on credit have become a virtual norm.

The Loan Fund is wise is not lending to churches that cannot likely repay a loan.  A loan cannot be predatory or harmful if it is not made, and it cannot become a loss to those investing.

Theologians prefer simple over compound interest.  There are a few historic rules of thumb employed by Christian thinkers throughout the history of the church.  While compound interest is not a new innovation, it has been viewed as excessive interest, and the implicit definition of “usury” for most of church history.  Simple interest is (I=Prt or Interest = principle * rate of interest * time period of loan) has been viewed as morally superior to compound interest. Compound interest has the potential to create rich rewards for the lender but also to create a cycle of debt repayment difficult for a borrower to escape.  Compound interest is (M=P(1+i)n or Final aMount = Principle amount * annual interest rate * to the power of the number of years invested.  The difference in outcome for the lender, for example, between the two, for a common loan written by the NCC might be:

Borrowing $20,000 to repair a roof, with a 7 year term at 6% simple interest provides this result:  $20000 * .06 * 7 yields a total payment over 7 years of $28,400.  The interest paid, assuming regular payments, is $8400.  Borrowing the same amount using compound interest yields this result:  $20000 * (1.06)7 = $30,072.  The interest paid (assuming regular payments) is $10,072.

However, the amount required to repay a debt are considerably higher if no or partial principle payments are made, and much higher still if interest accumulates and is charged again on that accumulating interest.
Should we ever cap a loan amount or the interest due?  Another common ethical principle applied to writing a just or fair loan has been that no borrower should ever be required to pay more than the amount borrowed.   Perhaps a more generous rule of thumb might be capping a loan at 50% of the principle amount borrowed, or not writing a loan that would be extended so far as to require an interest rate that exceeds 50% of the principle to be paid.  In the example of simple verses compound interest above, a twelve year note at 6% would require the borrower to pay more in interest than the original amount borrowed, and is likely an unethical loan (either to have been secured by the borrower or agreed to by the lender).

Is it unethical to charge compound interest?  Certainly most investors prefer to receive compound interest, which according to Albert Einstein, is the “eighth wonder of the world, he who understands it earns it, he who doesn’t – pays it.”  Most modern thinkers would suggest that is it not unethical as long as both the borrower and lender fully understand and mutually agree upon the terms.  However, it is our experience in the North Central Conference that most churches seeking to borrow funds are doing so out of necessity of repair, or to accommodate growth in their congregation, and may have no other lender to which they may turn (nor which has a moral obligation to provide mutual support in the connection called the NCC), and will assume that the conference is providing a fair and ethical loan.

If the NCC were to adopt a simple rather than compound interest model in writing loans, it may provide more relief and be a fairer practice for the borrower while still providing reasonable stewardship and providing for risk factors on the part of the lender.  However, there would be a diminished return on the investment for those who have placed their funds in the NCC Loan Fund, including the church planting and revitalization endeavors of the conference which are currently largely paid for through interest earned on the Church Planting Endowment Fund, an NCC investment on deposit with the Loan Fund.

How should interest rates be established?  This requires more research.  Until 1981 most states had caps on interest that could be charged, often a percentage (usually around 5%) above the rate set by the Federal Reserve on the day a loan is made.  Many still do, Kentucky being among the highest (19%) but most hover around 10%.  Consumer credit and predatory lending institutions routinely disregard these limits, but that there are limits on interest rates is quite an American practice.  The rates under 10% are not viewed as predatory or excessive in most cases.  If the NCC uses the common 5% above the Federal Reserve rate, then we would be charging just slightly under 6% currently.  The NCC currently charges 6%.

How should NCC investors be compensated when loans are made using their money? It is quite common and a practice even among Christians during eras when all usury had been banned, to charge a “fee” for use of money, and pay a percentage of that “fee” to investors in order to fund a moneylending enterprise.  Simply to conduct business, capital and/or access to credit is required, and this is not free.

While the investors who have funds on deposit with the NCC reasonably expect a return on their investment, it is also clear that investors expect or desire more than merely a fiscal return.  True to biblical ideals no investor would desire to be profiting from their Christian brothers and sisters in a way that was unfair or oppressive.  Likewise, understanding that the combined resources of our investors are being used to plant, revitalize, repair and expand our churches provides a very positive incentive to be generous in terms to the borrower, while expecting that this generosity will be reciprocated with responsible repayment.  A modest return on the investment of 2 percentage points below the current interest being charged a loan seems a fair return, is competitive with current market standards, and is a solid mark for Christian financial partnership rather than a predatory practice.  

What happens if a congregation cannot repay the loan?  It is not uncommon for a church in deep decline to have significant repair needs and seek funds from the conference to make those repairs.  Generally, when this happens, guidance is offered regarding church growth and health in the sincere hope that a church will grow healthy, not merely in order to repay a financial debt, but of course to be a vital, active, disciplemaking congregation.  However, there are times when a church will close after having grown too weak to sustain a budget or a building.  It is the common practice, if a loan had been written for such a church to recoup the funds upon sale of the building, or to keep a note against the sale or repurposing of the building.  In essence, church property is the collateral, and sometimes that property becomes the responsibility of the conference and a financial asset to the conference, invested into the loan fund for the sake of helping other churches, when it closes.  However, under no circumstances has a church been seized or closed in order to take property to cover a debt.  As a matter of principle, the NCC would not desire to fall under the judgment of one does the equivalent of the reprehensible taking of a widow’s cloak in pledge (Deut.24.17-18).

Should a debt ever be forgiven? Is there a point at which the NCC could justify the forgiveness of a debt, and still be true to the task of stewarding well the resources entrusted to it by fellow churches investing in the loan fund?

The Bible speaks of a year of jubilee, and the year of the Lord’s favor, or a Sabbatic year every seven years.  For example, Deuteronomy 15:1-6 declares: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.”

Similarly, Leviticus 25:8-13 states the same principle, but ties it to an event that is to occur every 49 (or possibly 50) years – seven sevens – in which debts are cancelled, slaves set free, and as it is tied to the “day of atonement,” sins are forgiven.   It is in Leviticus that the phrase year of Jubilee arise.

Scholars are divided over how often, or even whether at all, this Sabbatic year was actually practiced.  Nonetheless, there is clearly a biblical admonition designed to systematize or institutionalize a practice of regularly equalizing Israel.  In this way, the generational accumulation of wealth could not create a long-term and much-dreaded separation between the very wealthy and deeply impoverished.   Neither the Sabbatic year nor Year of Jubilee has been observed for a very long time, as the law requires that all twelve tribes of Israel are in fact living in Israel for the event to take place.  This was made impossible after the 6th century BC invasion and dispersal of Israel by Assyrian invaders.

Canceling debts was not unique to Israel.  Archeologists and historians have discovered with certainty no less than 30 national debt cancellations throughout ancient Mesopotamia between 2400-1400 BC.  Debt cancellation is written into the code of Hammurabi, as is a capping interest at 33%.   If there is a unique Hebrew addition to the concept of leveling the economic playing field among the ancients, it is in providing a clear schedule upon which this would happen.  Such a schedule allowed for planning on the part of both lender and borrower.

A year of Jubilee or Sabbatic year principle, regardless of how often it may have been actually applied, demonstrates a biblical heart to ensure equity and avoid generational poverty or wealth.   While it would be quite clearly useful in our modern western world as a means of leveling the economic playing field, it is very unlikely to actually occur and it does not particularly apply to the types of loans arranged within the North Central Conference.  There are no overlords earning unjust gain at the expense of increasingly impoverished churches.

However, there may be cases in which a year of jubilee, or the forgiveness of debt, may be warranted as just, merciful and healthy for the conference in the long run.  For example, if a church or organization (a camp for instance), discovers that for various reasons it is no longer able to make payments on large capital expenditures, neither the conference as a whole, nor the organization in specific benefit from continually capitalizing unpayable and increasing debt installments.  The Loan Fund, or the NCC Board of Administration, may consider freezing such a loan (no longer capitalizing unpaid balances), and simply leaving a lien against property or assets in the event of the failure or dissolution of that organization.  It would seem that such a decision would need to be made with a majority (or perhaps totality) of consent among those who are investors in the fund, as such an act of forgiveness may be moral only when those who have invested the money are able to provide that forgiveness.  Nor would this necessarily be a true forgiveness, as the funds may be repaid at some point in the future when assets are liquidated.  Or perhaps the investors in the fund may actually agree to entirely forgive an amount.

This is not a recommendation on how the NCC ought to conduct its business, but a thought or principle to consider that is consistent with the year of jubilee concept in our current time.  It would allow an opportunity to investors to act as benefactors rather than business partners (there is nothing wrong being business partners which in fact do benefit one another).  To simply forgive debt on behalf of someone else, however, while romantically Robin-Hoodesque, may indeed be equivalent to stealing from one to give to another, which is not defensible in either the Old or New Testament.

Other matters that may be useful to address outside the scope of this paper are 1) principles for making personal loans which the NCC Board of Administration has done on rare occasion, but which the Loan Fund is prohibited from doing, 2) compliance with federal and state rules and regulations for lending institutions – and we do comply with our current legal charters, 3) improving the communication of terms, billing, benefits, disbursements, etc., 4) guidance in selecting those who administer the loan fund and financial matters of the North Central Conference, 5) clearer guidelines for applying for and approval of loans, 6) and no doubt much more.

“Every church does business,” said a member of the church board, “most just do it badly.”  It is the hope that North Central Conference will do business well.  Doing business well requires that we carry out business in a manner which respects biblical principles, and honors God, as well as respecting the laws of the land and employing best practice in the application of the financial tools offered to our churches.

We hope that this document furthers the conversation in each of these areas.

Mark Adams
Gideon N’gobi

Calvin, John. Commentary on Exodus. Amazon Digital Services (Kindle Book). 2013.
Constitution of the Illinois Wisconsin Conference Loan Fund.  North Central Conference, 1989.
Cooper, Benjamin. The Ethics of Usury. Latimer Trust. 2012.
Elliot, Calvin. Usury: A scriptural, ethical and economic view (1902). Kessinger Publisher. 2009.
Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial history of the world. Penguin Books. 2009.
Geist, Charles. Beggar Thy Neighbor, A History of Usury and Debt, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
Richards, Jay. Money, Greed and God: Why capitalism is the solution, not the problem. Harper One. 2010.
Tenny, Merrill and Silva Moises. Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Revised. Zondervan, 2009.
Toussaint, Eric. The tradition of debt cancellation in Mesopotamia and Egypt from 3000 to 1000 BC.  Committee for Abolition of Third World Debt. September 2012.
Zarlenga, Stephen. A brief history of interest. American Monetary Institute Research and Articles. December 18, 2010. (

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Locus Swarms and NextGEN

It’s easier to get along with people just like me. But the future won’t let that happen. And I’m pretty sure that’s part of God’s big plan.
   The happiest places on earth are filled with people who are very much like each other. Multiple international studies over the past ten years have demonstrated that, all things being equal (political and economic extremes avoided), most people are happiest when they are surrounded by others who share their same language, skin color, cultural references and overall world view. Per the United Nations World Happiness Report 2013, the happiest nations on earth are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden. The USA is in upper 2/3rds of the 89 nations studied. Togo is the unhappiest place on earth. 
   Many things contribute to a global happiness (economics, food resourcing, education, political stability, ecological environment, etc.). Remarkably, homogeneity contributes significantly. 
   Humankind’s ultimate future is revealed in Revelation (7:9): “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…” 
   As Christians, as Free Methodists, we strive toward a world-view and culture in which Colossians 3 is not mere lip service. “Take off your old self with its practices, put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
   Still, it is difficult, and if human history tells us anything, perhaps impossible to allow the glue of culture, nationalism, tribalism (like-me-ism) to be dissolved…. Without the renewed nature which flows from grace received through faith…. Without continually coming to the cross to die to self, seeking to see and hear the “other” through the perceptive, forgiving and grace-filled perspective of our mutual Creator. 
   As Annual Conference 2014 approaches, we will address how to approach NextGEN – the next generation. Each generation has its distinct challenges, and passing on the faith from one generation to the next is always our great joy, though never an easy task. 
   I believe however, that cultural shifts in our American scene have the appearance of the locust swarm which the prophet Joel bemoaned. All seems destroyed. Crops, hope for the future, eroded in the face of a horde that seemed overnight to bring despair. 
   Joel writes (1:2-3) “Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your forefathers? Tell it to your children and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”
   Just a few of the locust-like cultural shifts that we are not well prepared to face… Slow-pace to Nano-pace. Small town to Urban. Homogeneous Communities to Divergent Mosaics. Industry to Service. Respect for Authority to Mistrust of Institutions. Logic and Word to Emotion and Image. Our Faith Tradition to My Spiritual Journey.
   It is disheartening to see a rapid depopulation of churches around the country. It is disorienting to experience multiple “truths” being “balanced” and navigating shifts in relationships between power structures, racial groups, gender issues and increasingly widening generation gaps.
   On the one hand, there are no easy answers to passing eternal truths from one generation to the next. On the other hand, since real truth is indeed eternal, God’s word and Spirit continue to move hearts even in the midst massive social and cultural upheaval.
   As we gather for AC2014, we have much work to accomplish. I pray that among the work to be done, we will also walk away with a better understanding of the NextGEN and healthy ways to “Tell it to your children and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”

   Many young leaders are emerging in our midst –full of the Spirit, grounded in the Word, alive with Christ’s truth. They are eager to build upon the ancient foundations new “temples” with different architecture suited for a more a diverse, digital, urban, complex world than their parents and grandparents inhabit. We are full of hope, not despair, full of confidence that the eternal Creator is still making all things new.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Reviewing a Year - 2013 - in the words of the NCC Pastors

2013 was incredible.  A new pope brought verve to the Roman Catholic Church by doing “Jesus” stuff.  The Middle East experienced an “Arab Spring” that is dangerous, hopeful, and unprecedented.  China put a rover on the moon. The Philippines were hit with unprecedented typhoon damage. Human stem cells were successfully cones. Terrorists struck Boston.  Meteorites injured hundreds of Russians and did mega-damage. Nelson Mandela died.  And we learned, sadly, what “twerk” means.

A lot has happened more locally, too.  I asked NCC churches to report what they saw as major highlights of 2013.  A few responded:

“One of the highlights of this year here in Livingston has been to see a great group of people from the church (and several from the community as well) come together to feed hungry families two Wednesday nights a month.  We are averaging 45 people each meal night and expect it to grow over time.  We are also planning a once per week lunch in the park during the summer to help families who depend on the schools for feeding their children lunch.”  -- Greg Marsh, Livingston WI

“One highlight for sure was the resurrection of our VBS after 5 years and having 65 kids.” – Mark Phillips, LaFarge WI

“We had a number of highlights in 2013 including our Holiday Help programs in which we served 3012 families with Thanksgiving baskets, 1200+ hot meals for Thanksgiving, 500+ families with Toys For Tots and sponsored 150 families through our Adopt-A-Family program.  In addition, we have seen more volunteer participation from our community which produces wonderful opportunities for witnessing our faith.  Finally, we have incorporated testimonials during our Sunday morning services during the month of December.  It was such a joy to hear the God-sized stories of His amazing work in lives and how the Cedarcrest Church family was key in creating a safe environment for people to grow in grace.” – Shawn Morrison, Bloomington/Minneapolis MN

“I am happy to be here at the beginning of 2014 to share about God’s grace and mercy during 2013. Betty and I believe God touched our son Tim through the hands of many doctors and nurses as he was treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with chemo therapy and a bone marrow transplant. We are deeply grateful for the many prayers of God’s people for Tim.  We are also thankful for His provision since the change in my work hours and His protective hand upon me during my cycling mishaps.  We know God was with us in 2013 and we know that 2014 will be another year of experiencing His abundant grace. NO DOUBTS!!”  Randy Waller, Woodstock, IL.

“A man were helping (living with us) was incarcerated, which has given us access to the prison and I have been able to minister to many of the convicts, and even lead a Bible study each week with the prisoners.  Our relationship with the Safe Home –a residence for chronic, homeless alcoholics – has led to monthly breakfast ministry with the men. Relationships are being built. More and more are open to members of our community praying with them and sharing with them. 2014 will be a good year as we continue to grow these relationships.”  Pat and Marge McClanahan, Sioux Falls SD. 

“Probably the highlight of this past year was our baptism service last August.  My 9 year old daughter was baptized and that was highlight #1. She has grown tremendously in Christ over the last year.  Because she was being baptized my family came to support, which brought my father, who had not been baptized.  On the spot after our 3 planned baptisms I asked if any others would like to be baptized.  My dad stepped forward!!!  I got to baptize my Dad and daughter on the same day!  But wait there's more… My childhood friend who had been attending our church for a couple months was at this service and gave his life to Christ that day, and when I gave the invitation to be baptized, he came forward as well! I continue to meet with and disciple Ray and we are excited to hole our next baptism service Feb. 16th. Stay tuned to see what God might do!”  Kevin DeVries, Monee IL

“As I look back on a most blessed year in the Lord I see His grace, truth and love in abundance. Twelve months ago we were content to be ministering in Clearwater, Florida. Vunita and I were comfortable walking on the beach in January, focusing on making a difference as a Chaplain and associate pastors of our loving church (Lake Palms Community Church) in Largo, Florida. . .  [And now we are back in our home town of Clarinda, IA] God has such a great sense of humor that He will work things around to where it is our desire to go back to the cold and the closest thing to a strip mall is a grocery store, a mom and pop restaurant and a Dollar General.  We are renewing old friendships and making sure we are in the center of HIS good and pleasing and perfect will.  We are most assuredly overwhelmed by God's grace and truth and love. Blessed most abundantly to be a blessing to those we come into contact with. Hang on 2014 the Iskes are here and we want to help restore, rebuild and expand God's kingdom work here in Clarinda and the North Central Conference.”  Richard and Vunita Iske, Clarinda, IA

“World Missions has been one of the highlights in ministry for the Fillmore (MN) Church in 2013. In January, a team of 6 individuals traveled to the Christian Orphanage in Honduras to construct a house as well as minister to needy families. Then $1,800 was raised to help eight Free Methodist churches in the Philippines to replace or repair their roofs following a December typhoon. Over $1,000 was later contributed to help two pastors in Haiti receive Bible training through the FM ministry through helping purchase a motorcycle for ministry and for transportation to the training. Two persons from the Fillmore Church provided medical care to individuals along the Amazon River in Bolivia, South America. In November, 59 shoe boxes were collected to be sent to children around the world through Operation Christmas Child. Each month our church supports ministry in Jordan and Asia. Finally, $1,616 was raised for typhoon relief in the Philippines. During 2013, this rural Minnesota church has had the opportunity to support ministry in Honduras, the Philippines, Haiti, Bolivia, Jordan, and Asia in 2013.”  Mike and Janet Hopper, Fillmore MN

Several churches were started in 2013: Loyal Community Church, Pastor Zeke Kunkle, Loyal WI; Just Church, Pastors Howie and Nicole Snyder, Aurora, IL, Revolution, Pastor David Condry, Cedar Rapids/Vinton IA, Rey de Gloria, Pastor Uriel Duran, Salem Church, Darryl Martin, Lafayette IA, The Connection, Elgin, IL.   We also saw the formation of new churches from church plants: Iglesia Bethel, Glencoe (Fellowship from Affiliate), Resolution Church, Oswego IL (Society from church plant), Common Ground Worship Center (Fellowship from church plant). 

Some churches closed.  The Faith, Hope and Love Fellowship in Pekin IL (5 people), disbanded.  The First FMC of Elgin IL disbanded and reformed to plant a new church, noted above as “The Connection” leaving the building to be used by Nuestro Redentor FMC.  The Loop, a missional church plant launched by Pam Braman, disbanded after introducing many college students in particular to faith in Jesus. 

Three churches targeted for “Revitalization” in 2013 by the NCC, Richland Center FMC (WI), LaFarge FMC (WI) and Lighthouse FMC (Waterloo, IA) have all experienced significant, sustained conversion growth.  

Easter Changes Everything

Easter changes everything. More precisely, resurrection changes everything.

Samuel Johnson wrote, “Man is born crying, lives complaining, and dies disappointed.” As April 15 approaches, the dreaded tax day for Americans, we hear the inevitable facts of life oft recited as simply, “death and taxes.”

But writing to a struggling group of Christ followers in the metropolis of first century Corinth, Paul writes, “'Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The victory is resurrection.

The good news Christians proclaims, the simple gospel, the key point that drives all we hope upon against a world that sees only death and taxes is articulated by Paul (1Cor.15:2ff): “By this gospel you are saved . . . Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. . . and then to more than 500 . . . and last of all to me.“

The purest nugget of Christianity is Easter. Jesus died for our sins, and rose again from the dead. There were witnesses. The resurrection, for Christians, is not the witness of a spiritual entity or mass hallucination or early conspiracy or simply wishful thinking. Our faith is predicated upon a man who claimed to be the Son of God, acting on God’s behalf to pay the steep penalty for our sin – death itself – and able to conquer the greatest enemy – death itself – through a physical and real resurrection.

Through faith we are united with this power that changes everything. Even me. Even you. We do indeed die. We do indeed pay taxes. We may indeed by disappointed from time to time. But we walk in the joyous knowledge and true experience of receiving and offering love, kindness, hope, truth and an absolute certainty that death does not have the final say. 

Resurrection changes everything.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Connectional Compassion 

February is compassion month in the North Central Conference. You may only express compassion during February – JUST KIDDING!  Passion, which today may connote a strong feeling, originally meant suffering, as in the “Passion of Christ.” The Latin “com” meant “together” or “attached to.” To have compassion in its classic sense meant to suffer with, to experience the pain or sorrow of another, and to suffer with them.  Do we have this kind of compassion today?

During “Compassion Month” in the North Central Conference, we are encouraged to consider the weak and suffering in our midst, and reflect upon how we may express the love of Jesus. In expressing such love, true compassion will not merely allow awareness to break through our daily routines, but will lead to sacrificial action and alignment of our purposes with those of our Lord. Our love will extend beyond just self and family and friends and toward even our “enemies” (Matthew 5:44, Romans 12:21).

Most NCC churches (over 65%) are actively engaged in true compassion, sacrificing time and resources to bring counsel to the confused, food to the hungry, medicine to the sick, binding the wounds of the brokenhearted. Keep up to speed by tracking the NCC Facebook page (fb/nccfmc). See what others are doing, and find ways to engage.

Explore the work, support through prayer, finance and volunteer action with two significant NCC social service agencies.  The Olive Branch Mission is Chicago’s largest private provider of ministry to the homeless, used as a vessel of the Holy Spirit to set the addicted free and restore broken lives, feeding thousands each month. Hearthstone Communities in Northern Illinois is McHenry’s County’s only provider of continuous care for the elderly. On the cutting edge of memory care, and providing low cost, enriching day care for children, Hearthstone is a leader in the industry, yet continues to take financial losses each year by supporting “charity” cases.

Consider how you might express compassionate care for the needy around you. Consider looking up Olive Branch Mission ( and Hearthstone ( and discovering how you can pray for, volunteer and give to demonstrate Christ’s compassion among the weak and suffering.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Extending Influence Beyond

If you want to extend influence in the next generation, don’t go “old school.” Go waaaaay old school. 
Look around. How many kids and young adults are in church? American averages are around 20% of the twenty-something population. Currently, while about 80% of teens are involved in church in some way, about 40% (research figures vary widely) will not return after adulthood, even when they have children of their own, and only 20% will return as regular, involved church-going Christians. 
Youth are generally smarter and more knowledge savvy (this doesn’t mean wise or mature) than their parents and church leaders. Teens are reading more than ever, albeit it on digital screens. They are more culturally aware than most of their parents. Toddlers can use laptops while their grandparents can’t use a T.V. remote. Teens access vast arrays of information today that would not have been available even to the President of the USA in the 1980s, and they check up on the validity of parental or pastoral advice. Our youth are too smart to accept pat answers, and in fact, have trouble believing there are any right or wrong answers outside of mathematics (and some would argue the latter).
“Old school” church will not likely connect with many of our young Christ followers, and almost certainly not with their unchurched friends.  Sing a few songs, sit and listen to a three or four point propositional statement of facts about the Bible, after reading a series of propositional statements about life in which every answer to every questions is either Jesus, the Bible or God, followed by a midweek experience of more of the same with a game of tag and some cookies thrown in, maybe a trip to an amusement park, and an assumption that mom and dad are going to teach them all they need to know. Old school. Okay – not the best of old school or any “school” in any era – but pretty common. It’s not working.
“Waaay old school” – Jesus stuff, I think might be better. Jesus told stories (“hey, have you heard the one about a lost pearl”) and referenced real life situations (“hey, check out that widow with a mite”). There isn’t a propositional sermon on file for the Master Communicator. He was “in your face” and fairly blunt about hard topics while for the most part sharing good news about God’s healing and forgiveness with invitations to follow.
The carpenter’s son invited people to live with him, walk with him, watch him, share his story with him and help people along side of him – pretty much right away (Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, etc.). Jesus saw needs and met them first (the blind, the leper, the hungry, the bleeding, the brokenhearted, etc.), allowing this to lead to conversation and then to the increasingly faithful obedience of a transformed life.
Start with good news, meet kid’s needs (and those of their parents, and young parents with kids). As often as possible, communicate with images, stories and metaphors. Focus on the truly hard, but only effective means of disciple-making – develop a few deep relationships that fully engage life which leads to a thirst for searching out the answers to questions this kind of approach naturally will raise. Then teach how others can develop these life-giving relationships. And be open to hearing some of the answers to leading and shaping the future of the church these really smart, Spirit-filled emerging leaders will come up with.
If we want to have influence beyond the generation of current church leaders among our children and youth, don’t go old school. Go waaay old school. Go Jesus style.