Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wedding Bells?

Inevitably, it happens every summer - it is the joyful celebration of couples joining together in marriage. I will confess to something that many pastors may not readily admit:  most pastors find it easier to do funerals than weddings. I know that sounds strange to many of you reading this, but as a rule we know that when we do a funeral we have no words to give comfort only the truth of the gospel and our hope in Christ is all we offer. But, for much of my ministry I have had a sense of dread when it came to weddings because you know that in most cases, you have parents dropping big bucks on a single day and they want everything special and perfect for their daughter:  the battle to make it perfect with so many people involved can sometimes be unpleasant!  However, over the last few years I discovered that much of the problem I had with weddings was because of my poor instruction.   I had bought into the American idea that the wedding was this one day that this sweet girl had always dreamed of, and I would spend time at end of several premarital counseling sessions really trying to find out what the bride wanted me to do in order to make this her special day. Now, certainly a wedding is a celebration, and we should want that day to be special; but, the desire for the bride to be happy has created shows like Bridezilla! We have taught and bought into the unbiblical idea that the wedding is all about the bride, and then in 3, 5, 9 or 12 years we are shocked that the couple comes in for counseling because the reality has hit them that the world, nor the marriage revolves around them.

The couples that I have dealt with at Trinity in the last year or so who have been planning their wedding have been the most enjoyable couples I have ever worked with before.  The main reason for this is because I am determined to change this mindset as a pastor.  I have purposefully taught from the pulpit –every time I speak of marriage - that the chief purpose of marriage is not about the couple, but it is solely about Christ. I have heard and said many times that “marriage was God’s idea” but too often after that is uttered in a wedding ceremony, we then put our focus on the earthly bride and groom. The purpose of marriage is to honor God; the reason for children is for a godly offspring. Neither the ceremony nor the marriage is about you, nor is it about me. It IS about God, and when we participate in a wedding ceremony it should drip with the beauty of the love and dedication Christ has to His people and that we should have to Him. Marriage is a wonderful idea that only God could have authored, and while it can bring wonderful joy, we would do well to teach our children, ourselves and our engaged couples that your happiness is not the chief purpose of marriage, God’s glory is. The more clearly I have taught this from the pulpit it has been amazing that during premarital counseling the focus has shifted from how can we make “Cinderella feel more like a princess” to the bride and groom asking for ways and ideas that they could better display the truth of the gospel and love that Christ has for His bride in their wedding.  Now, I must also say that the couples I have been counseling with in this area have been so focused on their walk with Christ coming into the relationship, that it has been a blessing watching as they develop a minset for marriage that is in covenant with Christ. 

All that to say, it has been so refreshing and joyful for me as a pastor, to watch so many of our newly married and soon to be married couples, walk in to my office using their creative energy not to focus on “self” but to glorify Christ on their special day! What a blessing!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why Student Ministry at All?

As we continue to look student ministry, I believe there is a danger with throwing out “the baby with the bath water.” One of the greatest opponents of Student Ministry today is Voddie Baucham, whom I love and respect. We have hosted him at Trinity, and I thank God for a man who has actually had a great hand in turning many churches away from a traditional “student ministry” segregated model. However, the first couple of times I ever heard Dr. Baucham speak, it was at a student conference. He was clear and bold in his explanation of the gospel and biblical instruction as he always seems to be. But God used him in my life at a segregated student event! Ironic? I think so. I just believe it is necessary to look at things biblically and think things through. I hope the blogs posted from http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/04/30/why-we-need-youth-ministry/ has helped. Here is another one and in the next few weeks I will summarize my thoughts regarding these posts.

Why We Need Youth Ministry
So much of today's thinking in youth ministry is different than it was 20 years ago. Eating goldfish, iPod incentives, fog machines, and even chubby bunny are being reconsidered as the profession of youth ministry grows up. While it's easy to find a local youth group that still practices some of these bygone techniques, more and more ministries are changing. The important question coming out of this new era of thought is a simple one: Why does youth ministry exist?
Two thousand years ago, Jewish children had a clear path to adulthood that included youth ministry. The local synagogue would hire a rabbi whose primary role was educating children. Starting at age 4 or 5 (Beth Sefer) children would learn, read, write, and memorize the Torah. At age 10, having memorized the Torah, children would either spend more time at home learning the family trade or move towards the path of the rabbi. Either path led to an eventual acknowledgment of adulthood at age 30 for men. Culture considered the time in between the period in preparation for adulthood, and the synagogue was invested in that stage of life.
It's doubtful that ancient rabbis ate live fish to encourage their students. It's possible, though unlikely, that they stuffed as many honey-coated wafers in their mouths as possible to prove their rabbinic mastery. What seems clear is that youth ministry existed long before Young Life. Understanding this paradigm adds a bit of depth to the popular thinking that parents should be the only (not primary) spiritual directors for children.
Into the Present
Present-day youth ministry hardly resembles its ancient roots. Much of the discipleship we see modeled by Jesus in the Bible has been forsaken in the modern church. Consumeristic, attractional models of the church have flourished in Western culture. Youth ministry is also at least partly responsible for the most biblically illiterate, unchurched generation of Americans. Fewer and fewer young adults return to the church after they leave home. Caught in that paradigm, very few of us would belabor the end of youth ministry.
Just as it was in Jesus' day, young adults (and their parents) need help. The church would be suicidal to abandon a generation based on the failing, outdated model of youth ministry.  I see several necessities for the church today.
1. Youth ministry exists because it is needed.
The needs of adolescents are not contested by many of the best minds in the church and psychology. Robert Epstein in Teen 2.0 makes a strong case for cultivating this generation. "Young people should be extended full adult rights and responsibilities in each of a number of different areas as soon as they can demonstrate appropriate competence in each area." The church, if it wants spiritual depth, must reach out to teenagers and help them mature in their faith.
2. What worked in the past can work today.
Jesus modeled one of the best practices for the church. His discipleship did not depend on the latest book, the newest game, or the best icebreaker. Instead, his model relied on the spiritual health of the leader, and his willingness to spend time investing himself, his love, and his truth in them.
3. Resistance is futile.
The church in its current iteration resists change. Youth pastors trying to make changes for too many years usually have met resistance from church leaders. Still, newer practices in youth ministry are driving efforts to foster spiritual maturity, helping church leaders see the benefit of youth ministry that makes disciples.
Where Does This Leave the Church?
Youth ministry is a cultural phenomenon, but that does not negate its usefulness. Youth ministry will continue to evolve, but it will be needed as long as young people and their families struggle with bringing them fully into adulthood.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Teaching Transforming Truth

This is our fourth post regarding student ministry. I believe this is a needed discussion in our churches today. As believers we must allow Scripture to be our guide and NOT our own preferences. I am taking a few weeks to post some discussions on student ministry and then at the end of them I hope to give a clear summation of how we at Trinity should view this subject matter. The blog (that you can find here http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/04/16/youth-ministrys-tendency-toward-legalism/ ) posted below gives us food for thought regarding the tendency to focus on morality and legalism more than the gospel. I hope you read this and it serves us well. 

Youth Ministry's Tendency Toward Legalism
I have walked for ten years with Allen, who was my closest Christian friend in high school. During our senior year we were "on fire" for God and set out to walk with Christ throughout college. After our freshman year, I watched my poor friend weep often about why he did not experience Christ in a real way. His youth ministry had sold him a message that faithful obedience before God would yield an experiential intimacy and spiritual euphoria, which he failed to encounter. In spite of tireless religious striving, Allen felt as if his pursuits resulted in a tumbling spiral into a deep, dark void.
Not surprisingly, Allen became disenchanted with Christianity and the church. Only after ten years of courageous waiting and honest reflection has he been able to re-engage church without resentment and wounding. He synopsizes his youth ministry's message with a story, which his youth pastor used to tell kids. The story basically involved a sad man, sitting in a corner, disappointed and hurt by his children, who he wished would come pay attention to him. The youth pastor explained that the man in the corner was Jesus, who remained displeased with his children when they failed to spend time with him or when we disobeyed his commands. In sum, we are a disappointment to God unless we perform spiritually.

Based on my experience in youth ministry, if I had to identify the greatest theological problem in the field, it would be the absence of the gospel in teaching on sanctification. Most youth ministries faithfully preach justification by faith in Christ alone. In fact, I may even credit youth ministers with being more faithful than senior pastors in helping their flock understand Christianity as saving relationship rather than cultural religion. However, in the space of sanctification, youth ministry often focuses on emotional exhortation and moral performance. A legalistic tone frequently characterizes the theology of sanctification in youth ministry.
So why does youth ministry tend to be legalistic?
1. We want to see results.
Mark Upton, a former youth worker and current pastor at Hope Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, offered these wise words to me when I started youth ministry: "If anyone asks you about your ministry, tell them you will let them know in ten years." Like any ministry profession, youth pastors want to see changed lives. At the same time, youth pastors need to view themselves as sowers, planting gospel seeds for harvest down the road. (I know this personally as in times of despair I just want to see the kids "do something" to affirm that my ministry has worth.) Wanting validation for their tireless labor, youth ministers occasionally focus on behavior modification as a means of providing tangible proof of the efficacy of their ministry. A kid carrying his or her Bible to school, signing a chastity pledge, or sporting a WWJD bracelet may appear like signs of spiritual progress---the fruit of ministry labor for a youth pastor---but if these actions come out of a student misunderstanding Christianity as a code of behavior rather than heart transformation through the Holy Spirit, then they do not necessarily reflect lasting life change.
2. Kids are as destructive as nuclear warheads.
All kidding aside, kids have skewed filters for risk management and make destructive decisions. Very few youth pastors go through a year without the death of a teenager in the community where they serve. Many youth pastors preach moralism over the gospel in order to protect students from self-destruction. Unfortunately, law-driven ministry often yields the opposite of its intention; law and pressure often inflame rebellion.
3. Parents want moral children.
A gospel-centered youth pastor in South Carolina once told me that parents were his biggest opponents to him fully preaching the gospel. After several years of teaching the radical grace of the gospel, parents complained about a lack of concentration on drinking, sexual abstinence, obedience to parents, and "being nice." They viewed the message of grace as antinomian and as a license for kids to pursue hedonism. Parents rightly want moral children, as do youth pastors. Sometimes, families view the church exclusively as a vehicle for moral education, rather than spiritually forming them in Christ, and put pressure on youth and senior pastors to moralize their children. Many parents view the law alone as the catalyst for holy living, rather than law and grace, and want the youth ministry to embrace this same theology.
4. Many pastors are young in their faith and theology.
When I first started leading Bible studies as a volunteer, my messages usually included a reminder that we needed Jesus for salvation and then a list of moral directives. Over time, as I started to grow in scriptural and theological knowledge, I started to see the gospel of grace and the Holy Spirit as the drivers of sanctification. Tremendous mentoring from all of the pastors at my church and their encouraging and funding my seminary classes played the most influential role in this maturation.
Many youth ministers are young, both in age and in their faith. Given all of the other responsibilities that adult pastors must juggle, nurturing the theological and spiritual development of the youth pastor can be overlooked. Furthermore, churches often view the youth department as entertainment and relationships but not a serious teaching ministry. If churches fail to take seriously the theological development of their youth pastor and to view youth ministry as a teaching and discipleship ministry above all things, then the message likely will lack biblical or doctrinal depth and contain a law-driven message.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is the Gospel Clearly Presented to ALL Our People?

Isn’t it a shame that this has to be asked?  It is a joy that I can say at Trinity Baptist, “Yes, the gospel is clearly presented to each group, in public worship and in small groups.” But, we have spent the last few weeks looking and thinking about modern student ministry and even answering some questions as to why we at Trinity are moving more towards a family equipping model.   The blog below (or here http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/04/09/mtd-not-just-a-problem-with-youth-ministry/)explains the way many ministries, churches and Pastors have replaced the true gospel with something else. I hope this continues to cause us to think through the way we teach and minister to/with our students.

MTD: Not Just a Problem with Youth Ministry
That a youth ministry "teaches the Bible" does not necessarily mean it teaches the gospel. Many mistake the gospel with moralism---being a good person, reading your Bible, or opening the door for the elderly in order to earn God's favor. But the gospel is altogether different.
This is a problem across the youth ministry landscape. It's not because teenagers and youth leaders have misunderstood the church's teaching of historical-confessional, gospel-infused Christianity. It's a problem in youth ministry wherever the American church has not preached Christ crucified and has catered to a pragmatic, entertainment-driven, and numbers-oriented model of church growth.
According to sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, most American teenagers believe in something dubbed "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD). [1] Within this MTD "religion," God is a cosmic therapist and divine butler, ready to help out when needed. He exists but really isn't a part of our lives. We are supposed to be "good people," but each person must find what's right for him or her. Good people will go to heaven, and we shouldn't be stifled by organized religion where somebody tells us what we should do or what we should believe. [2]
MTD isn't a religion like Islam or Buddhism, but rather a melting-pot belief among American teenagers. Historic distinctions between denominations like Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists are not as important to teens because they see their Christian faith as just one aspect of their lives like anything else---be it sports, friends, school, or family. Its preacher is American entitlement and its sermon is a me-centered message about a distant, therapeutic god who wants teens to be good and happy.
Alternative to Entertainment
I sat in a Waffle House one early morning, talking with a dad who had caught his son looking at pornography. His family had just transferred from a nearby church that spent through the roof creating the most spectacular show in church---complete with fog machines, strobe lights, and professional musicians writing Christian lyrics to Lady Gaga songs. In between the dueling DJs, this family was starved for the Bread of Life. But despite their burnout over endless entertainment, they didn't know an alternative.
"I just think you need more games," the dad told me across a very syrupy waffle. "If you had more games and funny skits, then my son would have been at church, not looking at porn." I was shocked! Here was a man who had left a church over too much entertainment and now wanted it back. I realized that MTD wasn't just a problem in the culture of American teenagers, but in the culture of the American church. The larger influence of a success-over-faithfulness model of American Christianity is having devastating effects on youth ministry.
Kenda Creasy Dean, in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, argues that American teenagers have bought into MTD, not because they have misunderstood what the church has taught them, but precisely because it is what the church has taught them. She writes,
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm's length. [3]
When this self-help theology is combined with a sola-boot-strapia sermon from TBN, we start having teens singing, "God Is Watching Us from a Distance" while---at the same time---wondering why Jesus isn't fixing their parents' marriage or their problems with cutting.
MTD isn't just the problem of youth ministry; it's the problem of the church. And American Christianity has become a "generous host" to this low-commitment, entertainment-driven model of youth ministry.
Counter to the Gospel
Think about those three words, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. They run counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ in every way. We are not saved by earning our way up the good-works ladder, nor is God the divine genie dispensing wishes at command. He's not a distant "clock-maker," sitting back to watch it all play out, but the personal Immanuel who became man to seek and save his bride. The gospel says that Jesus has accomplished for you---through his life, death, and resurrection---everything that God has required of you; thereby, securing eternal life for all God's people, and received by faith alone.
This is where the importance of method comes to the forefront, which (unfortunately) is often disassociated with theology. While our theology of the gospel should inform our method, the American church---to a large extent---has practiced just the reverse. The question on many youth leaders' minds is, "How do we get bored teenagers into the church?" The question should be, "How are we to faithfully plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ for his glory and our joy in him?"
Many youth ministries have engaged in direct competition with the world to woo and attract students by all sorts of gimmicks and giveaways. In fact, a large church in the Atlanta area recently gave away iPods to the first 100 youth at a lock-in! But is that the method God has given us to draw young people into a deeper, richer, more meaningful relationship with Christ?
There Is Hope
There is hope, however, because Jesus will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. There is hope because God is in the business of saving and sanctifying teenagers through the ministry of Word, prayer, and sacrament. God has given us means of grace---not just to reap the benefits of their content and application---but as the way in which we plant and water the gospel, looking to God to provide the growth. These means of grace should inform how young men and women are drawn into the church---youth who are disillusioned by the gimmicks and fog of an entertainment-driven world of empty pleasure.
Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has said, "The loneliest moment in life is when you have just experienced the ultimate, and it has let you down." Like a political pendulum, the experienced "high" from self-centered experience and rampant consumerism fails to provide rest for the restless soul. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can call the prodigal out of the trough and satisfy his longing heart.
MTD remains a problem in youth ministry because it remains a problem in the American church. It channels the method of ministry from gospel to gimmick. But the later English Puritan John Flavel points to God's far better plan: "The intent of the Redeemer's undertaking was not to purchase for his people riches, ease, and pleasures on earth; but to mortify their lusts, heal their natures, and spiritualize their affections; and thereby to fit them for the eternal fruition of God." [4]