4 Half-Baked Theologies of God’s Sovereignty (and how I meet pastors who believe them)

rock-push 28 Oct 2014 — I wrote this article for Acts 29 on behalf of Great Commission Ministries.

I often get to pray over church plant team members who are about to begin raising funds. They have concluded a rigorous week of training with a cohort of other support-raising missionaries; they have refined their calling and reincorporated theology and rehearsed the vision; and now on an indistinct Monday afternoon we sit on some couches in a side office and they realize that it is about to get very real.

It is real because they have quit the safety of their salaried jobs. It is real because tomorrow morning they will be one foot off a cliff into the risk of mission. They will step into homes and offices and churches and ask others if they will give to a new church planter. Many will say yes and many will say no. The uncertainty is certain.

After we’ve reviewed strategy, questions, final pointers... we pray. I lean over, place hands on shoulders, and ask King Jesus Christ to pour out blessing on them, to go with them.

As they take only a cloak.

As they trust that His voice is authentic and efficacious.

As they step out in faith in a way that frightens many. (Maybe frightens us!)

And I will end my prayer with the same request every time. I will pray for focused work and sustained vision and rapid response from other Christians. Yet then, clear and straightforward, I will ask simply: God, raise their support. Amen!

Who Raises Their Support?

Remember this one?

"Pray as if it all depends on God. Work as if it all depends on you."

Some love this quote and some love to hate it. Even after some research, I don’t know where it originated. Of course it’s not a quote from scripture. Augustine may have said something similar, Ignatius of Loyola has some credit. The closest we may get is Spurgeon, who repeats it in his sermons.

The quote is a Jeopardy answer to this question: What is the relationship between God’s action and my action in the world? We can dive deep into the theological formulations on God’s sovereignty here, but for the church planter who leaves a job and steps into asking for funds, the theory becomes very real very fast. When I wake up on this first morning of asking for funds, what work does God do? What work do I do? Does it matter if I know my city demographics or what amount I ask for? Will it matter what I do with my day? Who I call?

Put A Number On It

We don’t have to be support-raising missionaries to face these questions. The questions about our daily effort apply for all of us, in office parks and parenting, road trips and seminary classes (hint: yes, you need to study). They are real for any leader in ministry.

But in this particular case, there’s this number. It’s the “percentage funded” number—the number that support-raisers are fixated on. How much of our financial goal is committed? 25%? 55%? 89%? Each “yes” to give bumps this number up… each “no” lets it languish. Sometimes this number shoots up quickly, often it moves in fits and starts, and sometimes it stalls. Or never gets there.

And we are tempted to ask: who’s moving that number? God or me? The number glares, flat and unarguable. It’s as if a digital thermometer had been plugged in to the effective call of God. Did that go up because of me? God’s grace? Faith? It is a measure of my effort or God’s success?

What We Do Matters

We see the tension. We walk in the door and believe rightly that God is the ordained sovereign of the world. That his providence “upholds… directs, regulates, governs” as Westminster intones.

Yet then we sit down and plan our small group strategy. Set target metrics for church goals. We mark our numbers.

What we find? Pushing that needle takes work. Good shepherding takes time. Strategic systems take planning. Effort and faithfulness and skill… absent these, we don’t succeed. This is our action in the world. And what we do matters.

Even Pastors Can Have Half-Baked Theology

Sometimes I get the chance to talk on the phone to a church planter who has been raising support for a time. Unfortunately, with my role as senior support coach, if I’m on the call, it’s not always good news. Rick (can i call him Rick?) down South told me there had been hard disappointments. “No”s to funding from churches or friends they were sure were “in.” Their number wasn’t moving.

Rick could likely preach a solid, Bible-packed sermon on God’s sovereignty, but today he was swinging between anger at God and depression with himself, a sure sign that what he really believed about his action and God’s action in the world was half-baked. It was one of these partial-truths I hear a lot. Recognize these?

God’s help kicks in when I run out of the energy/ability/strength to finish it myself. You hear this in prayers. “God, help us if we get tired, or sick, or can’t do it….” This is a gap theory of sorts... like we run a race on our power until mile 20, and then God carries us the last 6.2. The good? We see the truth that God is present in our weakness. Bad? Wasn’t God there from the start?

When I fail, I didn’t put in the effort/work/faith. When i succeed, it was all God. This is the most pious option and I hear it the most, especially from Christian leaders. It feels unassailably right. But it’s not complete, is it? It recognizes God’s hand in success. But our own effort becomes only what keep us from drowning, never what makes us swim. We remain slaves, not friends. (Plus it may miss God as the one who sometimes gives failure—and resurrection!—as a gift.)

When I succeed, it was my effort/work/faith. When I fail, it was God. What? Nobody thinks this is true. Except we do. No respectable preacher stands up and preaches it, but I’ve met more than a few, who in a quiet moment, really believe it. Let’s be honest. I’m one of them. When I succeed, i’m more likely to think that my strategy or hard work made it happen. I feel great. When I fail, I talk about “God just not wanting this at this time, and doors closing.”

It’s all God. It’s mouth-stoppingly simple, and as true as this is, when Ii hear this from support-raisers, this often has a harmony of anxiety. For good reason. It’s a partial theological truth that denies the reality of a world where rocks move when I push them. And it’s usually from someone who is struggling that that Number, which means the darker sides of the above options are brewing: “I’m a failure / I can’t do this” or “God hates me / doesn’t want me to succeed.”

The truth for Rick and me and maybe you: when these half-truths become our story, they lead to anger or despair. We swing to extremes: “why do anything?” Or “I have to do everything.” Blame searches for a target, and we find them in ourselves or God or both. I know those who have gone from strong Christian leadership to dropping out of the faith because of these.

Trust and Action

Theologians have done impressive metaphysical gymnastics on agency and God’s will. Augustine’s account of agency is that people who are separated from God are slaves, and to be free our own agency must be wrapped into the divine agency (follow that?). But this too easily sits in our head, and not in our heart. Words of theology and philosophy, true as they might be, sometimes feel weak when speaking to a failed small group or another low support number.

The maturing truth may also be the simplest and most enduring image—the garden. Maybe, to fence my numbers and strategies, my heart needs the metaphors of Jesus and Paul on how we grow the land. So instead of half truths that my effort doesn’t matter, my effort is source the failure, or my effort is the source of success, I can say with scripture that “I planted, watered… but God gave the growth.” (1 Cor 3). I can pursue the kingdom working faithfully day in and day out—and yet “know not how” the seed sprouts and grows. The mystery of God’s action in plain view. (Mark 4:26)

It’s this pairing of action and trust—this faithful expectation that God will cause growth even as I work the land—this is the image I have in my mind as I lay hands on our support-raisers. Earth tilled but sun welcomed. My effort essential, God’s effort undeniable.

God, grow this field. As they work hard. As they check that number. As they give it their all. God, raise their support.