The Gideon Venture
Education for Exultation: Debt-Free
Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him, rose early and camped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp of Midian was on the north side of them by the hill of Moreh in the valley. 2 The LORD said to Gideon, "The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, 'My own power has delivered me.' 3 "Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, 'Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.'" So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained. 4 Then the LORD said to Gideon, "The people are still too many; bring them down to the water and I will test them for you there. Therefore it shall be that he of whom I say to you, 'This one shall go with you,' he shall go with you; but everyone of whom I say to you, 'This one shall not go with you,' he shall not go." 5 So he brought the people down to the water. And the LORD said to Gideon, "You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink." 6 Now the number of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was 300 men; but all the rest of the people kneeled to drink water. 7 The LORD said to Gideon, "I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home." 8 So the 300 men took the people's provisions and their trumpets into their hands. And Gideon sent all the other men of Israel, each to his tent, but retained the 300 men; and the camp of Midian was below him in the valley. 9 Now the same night it came about that the LORD said to him, "Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hands. 10 "But if you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp, 11 and you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened that you may go down against the camp." So he went with Purah his servant down to the outposts of the army that was in the camp. 12 Now the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the sons of the east were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. 13 When Gideon came, behold, a man was relating a dream to his friend. And he said, "Behold, I had a dream; a loaf of barley bread was tumbling into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the tent lay flat." 14 His friend replied, "This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand." 15 When Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. He returned to the camp of Israel and said, "Arise, for the LORD has given the camp of Midian into your hands." 16 He divided the 300 men into three companies, and he put trumpets and empty pitchers into the hands of all of them, with torches inside the pitchers. 17 He said to them, "Look at me and do likewise. And behold, when I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. 18 "When I and all who are with me blow the trumpet, then you also blow the trumpets all around the camp and say, 'For the LORD and for Gideon.'" 19 So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just posted the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the pitchers that were in their hands. 20 When the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the pitchers, they held the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in their right hands for blowing, and cried, "A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!" 21 Each stood in his place around the camp; and all the army ran, crying out as they fled. 22 When they blew 300 trumpets, the LORD set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the edge of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath.
Building Without Debt?
On June 1, 1998, I laid before the elders a paper entitled, "The Gideon Venture: Should We Build Without Debt?" The pastoral staff had been thinking and praying about these things and I had their input and support. What I want to do this morning is take you into that vision called the "Gideon Venture" and show you in part how the Lord brought the elders to this point (which you voted on last Wednesday) of commending to you that we pursue the funding of Education for Exultation debt-free. The vision is rooted in Scripture and I will try to show you how we used Scripture without claiming that the Bible condemns all debt or that the story of Gideon demands that we build debt-free.
We began by simply observing that almost all references in the Bible to debt between people were in the form of warnings not to get into it. For example, texts like Proverbs 22:7, "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender's slave." And Romans 13:8, "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another." The Bible moves us toward the freedom of no financial debt.
But since there are some references in the Bible to apparently legitimate lending (for example, Matthew 25:27), the elders did not conclude that building debt-free was a commandment from the Lord. We simply felt a significant push in this direction, reinforced by two other things: 1) the fact that God has so powerfully and mercifully brought us totally out of debt at the end of 1996, and 2) the fact that God had led the Master Planning Committee to write in our Vision Statement that being debt-free was one of our corporate values ("Values Relating to Bethlehem's Spiritual Atmosphere" #22).
Then we noticed also that, in the Old Testament, gathering money for building was pursued before building, not after, thus avoiding debt. For example, in Exodus 35:5 when funds were needed to build the tabernacle, Moses spoke to the people, "Take from among you a contribution to the LORD; whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it as the LORD'S contribution." Another example was the raising of money to build the first Temple in Jerusalem. David said in 1 Chronicles 29:5, "Who then will offer willingly, consecrating himself today to the Lord?" And so they gathered the money first, then built.
In both these cases, the money was all gathered up front before the building began so that no debt was incurred. The point of these stories is not that Christians have to do it this way. That is not the lesson that the Bible draws out of the stories. The point of the stories is that God put amazing generosity and willingness in the hearts of the people (see 1 Chronicles 29:16, 18). But the stories do give us a Biblical model and pattern that fits with debt-free building and beckons us to consider seriously something different and perhaps very out-of-step with the ordinary American way of building.
God's Unusual Ways
At this point we began to meditate on God's unusual ways of doing things in the Bible. We saw his strange ways everywhere. God loves to do things in a way that seems foolish to men, but displays his glory more clearly. Build an ark in the desert. Escape through, not around, the Red Sea. Speak to a rock when you need water. March around a walled city and blow trumpets when you want to defeat a city. Send a boy with a slingshot when there is a giant in the land. Pour water on the wood at Mount Carmel before you ask for fire to fall from heaven. Tell twelve men to feed five thousand with five loaves and two fish.
We asked ourselves: Are these stories in the Bible to encourage us to do things the way the world does them or to encourage us to venture on God in ways that may look foolish?
We are quite aware that you can abuse this kind of thinking. People have drowned from trying to walk on water. People have died from drinking poison or being bitten by snakes. Children have been refused medicine because God supposedly would get more glory if the healing happened without it. We are aware of these things. That is why our presentation does not have the flavor of triumphalism about it. We are not saying God commanded this approach. We are not condemning you or any other church if you pursue funding in different ways. We are not saying God is bound to bless us because of this -or that it will infallibly come to pass.
We are very calmly saying: We see a pattern in the Bible and, as a Council of Elders, wrestling in prayer and sometimes fasting and studying, we sense that God would be pleased at this time in the life of our church if we would venture something very unusual - the pursuit of a vision of Education for Exultation, including a $9 million building expansion without debt in the next two years from a church with about 1300 members.
Bethlehem, Send People Away!
One of the key moments in pursuit of God's leading in this was when we pondered Judges 7:1-22 and Gideon's victory over the Midianites. What makes this story so stunning for us now is that in June of 1998, when we first pondered this story as a Council of Elders, there was not a hint of Grace Church Richfield on the horizon. In other words, what looks like the main application of this story today (with people leaving us to go to Grace Church Richfield, just when we might seem to need all the givers we can get), was not even in our head when the story became the rallying cry for our debt-free approach.
Let me show you what we saw in those days and then add what God seems to have been planning for us now. Get the situation into your mind: Joshua is the leader of Israel after Moses has now died and the people are without a great leader and there is no king. This is the period marked by the people doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25). Repeatedly they sin and God gives them into the hands of their oppressors (Judges 2:11-14). But again and again God mercifully heard their cry and raised up judges to deliver them out of their troubles (Judges 2:16).
Gideon was one of those judges. The people sinned, according to Judges 6:1, and God gave them into the hands of Midian. Then the Lord came to rescue them from the very people whom he had appointed to judge them. He approaches Gideon in Judges 6:14 and says, "Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian." But Gideon says in verse 15, "O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father's house." But then the LORD said to him (in verse 16), "Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man." So already God is planning to save Israel in an unusual way that highlights his power, not Gideon's ability.
So now we come to Judges 7. According to verse 3, Israel had about 32,000 troops. But according to verse 12, the Midianites and Amalekites "were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore." In other words, the odds against Israel succeeding against the Midianites were already small. They were outnumbered.
What does God do now? Here are the six observations that we saw as a Council of Elders in June of 1998.
God's Gideon Plan
1. Verse 2: "The LORD said to Gideon, 'The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, "My own power has delivered me."'" From this we inferred: The Lord may get more glory if we fund our building in a way that is harder for man and depends on the Lord for more of what we cannot see. This would be the Gideon Venture.
2. So the Lord pared down the 32,000 troops to 10,000 by sending all who were fainthearted home (verse 3). And he pared down the 10,000 by choosing only those who lapped water by putting their hands to their mouths without kneeling. That left three hundred men. So in verse 7, "The LORD said to Gideon, 'I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home.'"
From this the elders inferred that the Lord seems to be interested in a kind of person, not just a quantity of persons. Could it be, we asked, that God is looking to build our building with the kind of person who would catch this vision and believe God for it? Is God telling us to build a kind of people, not just a quantity of persons, as the channel for God's extraordinary work?
3. The third thing we saw was this: The Lord is merciful to work with a less-than-ideal people - people who need extra signs or encouragement and do not have the courage to attack immediately. Look at verses 9-11: "Now the same night it came about that the LORD said to him, 'Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hands. But if you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp, and you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened that you may go down against the camp.'"
Well, Gideon took option two. And God was merciful to him. In his mercy, God is not an all-or-nothing God. So the elders took heart that our fears and misgivings would not disqualify us from God's great work among us.
4. In his mercy and patience, God was willing to give a remarkable dream and a remarkable timing of dream-telling in order to encourage Gideon that God was in this. Look at verses 13-14: "When Gideon came, behold, a man was relating a dream to his friend [not a coincidence, but a divine appointment]. And he said, 'Behold, I had a dream; a loaf of barley bread was tumbling into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the tent lay flat.' His friend replied, 'This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand. '"
What an amazing timing and an even more amazing interpretation for Gideon to hear. I asked the elders at that meeting in 1998, "What was God saying to us last December (1997) when no one but a few could even dream that we would reach our budget, let alone pay for the Masterworks renovation without debt (another $90,000 or so over budget)? But God did that for us. Was he saying: Stretch, brothers, stretch beyond your dreams? Try me. Put me to the test."
5. Gideon was not without a strategy even though the victory was going to be God's (verse 9: "I have given it into your hand."). What was the strategy? He took his three hundred men and divided them into three companies and gave them trumpets and torches and pitchers. Verse 20: "When the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the pitchers, they held the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in their right hands for blowing, and cried, 'A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!'"
I said to the elders: "We used a strange strategy to be debt-free in 1996 called "Freeing the Future" [We didn't call for the payment of any pledges until all the pledges equaled the total cost of the project. God was merciful to us and blessed it.] Does God have another strange and wonderful funding strategy for us in project?"
6. Finally, we saw that God got the victory, not Gideon. Verse 22: "When they blew 300 trumpets, the LORD set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled." This was the whole point of the story: to make sure that we and everyone saw that God got the victory, not Gideon. Gideon's strategy was the occasion for God's victory, not the decisive cause.
So here we are before you today with a $9 million battle to be won and a funding plan that, from a merely human standpoint, is out of reach.
Are we on the right track? Is this of God? We think so, and one amazing added pointer is the fact that between June of 1998, when we first pondered the Gideon Venture, and now, God thrust into our lives the vision of sending people with Rick Gamache and Randy Westlund away from Bethlehem to Grace Church Richfield - beginning next Sunday. So here we are needing (from a human standpoint) every giver possible to win the $9 million battle, and the Lord says, send as many to Grace Richfield as will go.
We think this is God's way of saying: You had the right vision from the beginning, but you didn't realize how right it was - how radical it was -and I am not done paring down the numbers yet.
The Pledge Cards
So let me show you the plan by explaining to you the cards you have received.
Children, you should talk yours over with your parents at home in the next two weeks and have their approval for whatever you pledge.
We will begin building when two goals are met:
1) when all the pledges total 100% of the cost of the project; 2) and when half the cost of the project has been given and is in the bank.
These two goals correspond to two pledges and two lines on your card. The payment of the first pledge, Lord willing, would come due October 15 of this year - that's for half the cost of the project.
The payment of the second pledge, Lord willing, would not be due until March 3, 2002. That is for the other half of the project. And that is our target date for moving into the new building debt-free two years from now.
We will call for the payment of the pledges only when the total of all the pledges equal the cost of the whole project and half that cost is pledged to be paid before construction begins.
We will call for the cards to be collected two weeks from now, on Sunday morning, April 9.
Finally, pray alone. If you are married, pray and talk seriously as a couple and with your children, if you have children. And join us Sunday mornings from 6:00 to 8:00 AM for the next two weeks.