Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Moving the Blog

Dear Friends...I just want to let all of my followers know that I am moving the blog. The new format offers some features that are not available here and will make it easier for people to navigate the list of posts and find relevant content. Here is the new blog address. All of the old posts have been imported. You will notice the addition of categories as opposed to only having post tags. Thank you for your loyalty to this blog.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Being a Christian-Living With a Target on your Back

Okay, I'll be up front about this. I don't always like to be the guy who turns everything he sees into a spiritual metaphor. Or the guy to get the one-up on my buddies by "Jesus Juking" them (turning a mundane statement into a surface level religious dig). Maybe the snap, crackle, pop of my Rice Krispies reminds me of the voice of God? Maybe passing out candy in a parade reminds me of how I should treat those who have needs? And yes, I'll even be the guy who loves sports and has run the Christian sports metaphors into the ground. Life has a lot to teach us and sometimes the wide world of sports is great for allowing us to learn from the decisions of others. And that has happened again...and as a Christian and a blogger, I am inclined to share these insights with you!

This basketball season, everyone was caught up in the drama of the super team that would be the Miami Heat when they signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to give Dwayne Wade the supporting cast he'd been needing for a long time. They opened their season against the East's top team, the Boston Celtics. I don't know that any season opener in recent memory had as much anticipation and hype as this one. The Heat lost that game by 8 points and though they won a few games after that, it took them a while to get rolling. They were hardly the automatic super team everyone assumed they would be. Why was that? These were three perennial all-stars. They were an easy lock for the most talented team in the country. So why would they have trouble winning? While there are a number of possibilities (team chemistry, no really dominant center, etc.), I think the main factor was that they set themselves up to be the team to beat. Essentially they began the season with a target on their backs.

When LeBron made his dramatic exit from Cleveland and did his national "reveal" as a primetime show on ESPN, he left a wake of angry Cleveland fans. Not only that, but casual fans who were maybe on the fence about King James now found themselves despising him rather than paying him homage. The Miami front office shamelessly attempted to buy a championship in a way that would make the New York Yankees proud. The consequence of this blatant stab at the integrity of the game (whatever that is at the professional level anyway), was that now they have become the arch-nemesis of every team in the league. Everybody wants to bring their A-game when the Heat comes to town.

Somewhere the other day, though, I was watching something on ESPN...maybe it was on my favorite sports talk show Mike and Mike...and it hit me. The debacle that the Heat created by becoming more of a circus and less of a sports team is not entirely different from the life-change that occurs when one becomes a follower of Christ. You see, in every person, I believe, there is a cynic. And there is a certain deviant joy that comes when we find something to be different from the way it was marketed. Whether it was an expensive dinner entree topped with a Kraft single instead of real cheese, a sports team that was bought instead of built, or a person who told the world he was a follower of Christ only to fall flat on his face; human nature revels in watching things implode. There is an indignation associated with seeing people stumble. And for the believer, the clock is ticking.

What's so cool about all of this, though, is that nothing gets past Jesus. In John 17:13-19 he is praying in his final hours before his arrest. He tells God how the world has hated his disciples because of their relationship to Him. And he asks the Father, not to take them (us) out of the world, but to protect his followers (us) from the Evil One.

So have you ever felt like a marked person? Like a Christian with a target on your back surrounded by skeptics who are standing in line to see you take a dive? Maybe someone's waiting to see you lose your temper. Maybe they want to see you say something bad about someone. Maybe they are waiting for something much more drastic. The fact is, if the people around you know you are a follower of Christ, some of them are in the boat with you, while others are standing on the shore waiting for the boat to capsize. But we can take heart knowing our Savior was aware of this in his final hours on earth. He was preparing to be arrested and crucified and what was he praying about? He was praying that we would have strength to stand against all those who "hate us". I think that's pretty cool. What do you think?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Helping the Needy vs. Helping the Greedy

Last week was our annual Christmas Parade of Lights in downtown Palestine. Each year, our church has a float featuring our church's children. It is a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. Several years ago, as a safety concern, the parade officials changed the rules on distribution of candy. Candy can no longer be "thrown" from parade floats. Since the parade is at night, they don't want people being struck by flying jawbreakers and such. Also, due to low visibility, they feared children would run out into the street in pursuit of fallen candy and could be struck by one of the parade vehicles. This was a good move on the part of the parade officials, but it creates an interesting opportunity for us.

Since the new rules were instated, the only way for the candy to be dispersed is for people walking alongside the parade float to pass the candy out by hand. So guess what my role has been during the parade the last two years? Yep. And let me tell you, sometimes the parade moves faster than a brisk walk. There are times when I literally had to quit passing out candy so I could run and catch up with the float (if I didn't stay with the float, I wouldn't have a ride back to the church!). So passing out candy allows me to be one of the few persons who has direct contact with the parade audience.

I noticed something this year, though. There were basically two schools of thought on receiving candy. Some kids were very thankful and appreciative and would respond with a "thank you" or "Merry Christmas" and were often prompted by their parents who responded in like fashion. Then there were others who seemed like they were almost trained to go after whatever free things were available. They were not content with one candy cane, and had no qualms about asking for more. My little sack of candy had to last the majority of the parade, so I could only give one piece to each kid, but parents were jumping in insisting that I give to them as well. And of course, there was no "thank you" to be heard.

This forced an age-old issue to the surface of my mind. It applies for those of us in church work and in service-oriented ministries. And that is this: should we try to make distinctions between needy people and greedy people? When I was in a former church in a small Central Texas town, churches often shied away from helping people because they just assumed they were working the system. My current church has a ministry that helps with utility bills. And while we only can help each family once a year (so we can help the largest number of people) and can usually only pay $40 or $50 on each bill, there are people who will be upset with us because we can't or won't do more. So is there a way to distinguish between the two groups? If there is a way to distinguish between them, is it our place to do so? I think the latter question is really at the heart of the matter.

In Luke 17, Jesus comes across ten men with leprosy. These were social outcasts who really had no existence because they had been ostracized by society. They were forbidden from being in contact with the general population because they suffered from a very severe and very contagious disease. Upon being near other "clean" people, they would be forced to yell out, "Unclean, unclean!" to warn people of their presence. And this time they met Jesus. They cried out for him to "have pity on (them)". Jesus replies that they should go and show themselves to the priest. This was a necessary procedure for them to be re-admitted into the general population. And as they went, they were cleansed. But wouldn't you know that after being healed, only one person came back to thank Jesus. And to this one, Jesus says "Your faith has made you well." But the others were well for crying out to Jesus, weren’t they? Most scholars believe Jesus is speaking of spiritual healing. His faith had saved him.

So did Jesus not know the hearts of the other nine? He asks some seemingly rhetorical questions to the grateful one saying, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? (the grateful leper was a Samaritan)" I don't think much gets past Jesus. I'm pretty sure he knew the hearts of the other nine. Yet he healed them anyway. But the faith of the one, as demonstrated in his gratitude, gave him so much more than a normal earthly existence. It gave him eternal life.

So maybe there is something to Jesus' model. For those of us with limited resources in service ministries, we might be able to learn something from this. Maybe God wants us to minister to all who have need. And maybe only one in ten (to use the numbers from this story) will truly have gratitude and or faith that will lead to their salvation. I think where we get it wrong is we expect everyone we help to have that gratitude...that "saving faith", if you will. But Jesus knew better than that. And I think we are kidding ourselves to think that every person we help through our church or service organization is going to receive help with a grateful heart. Should we guard ourselves against those who do not legitimately need help and are just be working the system? God has called us to be good stewards of our resources and we should be wise and discreet in how we go about helping people. But either way, we should try to meet the needs that are there and leave the results to God. We may never know the eternal results of our service on this side of heaven. But that's where faith comes in, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Pushing Christ Out of Christmas May Not Be Such a Bad Thing

It's Christmas Time. We are right smack in the middle of the dog days of retail consumerism at its finest. This is the time of year when "paper or plastic" isn't about the sacks (perhaps you call them bags) used after the purchase, but rather the method of payment during the purchase. In America, the average person spends $750 on Christmas. When you think about all of the children who have no income and all the poor who may be baking or making gifts rather than purchasing, that leaves a much smaller segment of the population that actually does the purchasing. For this group, $750 is well on the low side.

This is also the time of year when we Christians get up in arms about how we are not keeping Christ in Christmas. Some of us send emails pointing out all the stores that are saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and how we should not shop at those diabolic
al places. We demonize Santa calling him things like "Satan Claus" because he steals the true meaning of Christmas and hogs all of the yuletide cheer (even though his story is based on a real person who was a very selfless, giving individual). We get upset because courthouses don't have nativity scenes any more or that the ACLU has declared another biblical diorama to be an infringement of someone's constitutional rights.

So before I move forward, let me be clear. I am all for keeping Christ in Christmas. However, the fact that our Lord and Savior is being "kicked to the curb" by our culture, may not be such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things. Here's why I think this is true.

Throughout history, the church has blossomed in the face of persecution. It was the persecution of the Jewish religious leaders that caused the church to spread like wildfire from its infancy. And despite the efforts of Nero and several of his successors for the next couple hundred years, it continued to grow in light of an increasing toll of untimely Christian deaths. In modern times, the church in China is really growing despite persecution from opponents both inside and outside the government.

I do not intend to make the leap to say that our subversive lull into saying "Happy Holidays" is in any manner similar to, reminiscent, or comparable to any persecution that has happened to any Christian individual or group throughout history. In the grand scheme of things, modern American Christians have got it pretty good. However, time and time again throughout history, when people intentionally (or even unintentionally) direct themselves away from the worship of God through Jesus Christ, there will be a pocket of believers who will be diligent in their faith and will be adamant about keeping their traditions alive. But in order for that to happen, several things must be true.

1. Christians must be motivated by love of others rather than hatred of government, non-religious propaganda, and all things that don't specifically mention Jesus. A picket line may be a great way to get higher wages, but it's probably not going to lead anyone to putting their faith in Christ.
2. Christians need to embrace all of the good in the Christmas season. Despite the "credit cards gone wild", this is a very benevolent time of year. We must remember that God is often glorified even when things don't have his name on them.
3. Christians must not throw the baby out with the bath water. In our quest to be counter-cultural, let's do so in a way that holds on to the good traditions we have at this time of year.

So what does the future hold? If I'm still alive in 50 years at the Christmas of 2060 (at the ripe old age of 84), what will Christmas in America be like? Will I be riding up to a family gathering in a traditional car only to park next to someone else's flying car (remember when we all thought we'd have those by now)? Will there still be Christmas decorations on the houses? Will people still put nativity scenes in their yards? I don't know, but I hope so. But as long as our culture continues to move away from the worship of Christ at Christmas, we have an opportunity to do something different. I hope we make the most of it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Holy Communion: Prayer, Posture, and Provision

Yesterday was Holy Communion at my church. Being the closest thing our church has to an associate pastor, I assist our pastor during the service by passing out bread. And while I can say that this is a time of prayer and reverence, my mind does wander off sometimes to things like the difficulty of getting car and tractor grease off your hands the day before the Communion service. But I digress.

I don't know how you do Communion (aka. the Lord's Supper, Euchyrist). In the United Methodist Church (ours anyway), parishioners make their way to the aisles and come down front to kneel. As each person kneels, they hold their hands out, empty and waiting to be filled with God's grace. The pastor or assistant hands them a small piece of a very sweet Hawaiian bread. The juice is Welch's and is served in small glasses that are sitting in holders at the kneeling rail. The sweet bread, I assume (I could not find any reason for it's use), is to remind us of the sweetness of God's grace. After each person has received their bread, they spend a few moments in prayer, then partake of the elements. We also take up a special Communion offering for a different cause each month. Instead of being gathered in a collection plate, that money is brought to the Communion rail.

In the churches where I grew up, we did it differently. We sat in pews and the elements were passed. We used unleavened bread to remind us of the humility we were to have before God. Also, the bread used in the Passover Seder (the disciples were observing this when Jesus led them in what we know as the Last Supper) was unleavened. So unleavened bread is probably more biblical. A small tray with relatively bitter, tasteless, unleavened wafers would come by and you'd have to grab one and wait until everyone in the auditorium had one. Then the pastor would say a prayer, and everyone would eat it. So you had this chalky, pasty, tasteless cracker floating around in your mouth. You would swallow...and swallow again...then try to work up some more spit to get the last of it down. After all, it was probably going to be at least 5 minutes before the tray of juice would come by. Then the pastor would read about Jesus passing the cup and the juice would come by on another small tray that's reminiscent of a Chinese Checker-board with little juice cups in the holes. You would nervously grab your little sip of juice (you wouldn't want to be the person who spilled the whole tray, would you?), and then have to sit there and hold it until everyone had their juice. When all the juice had been passed out, the pastor would say a prayer and everyone would drink, in unison.

There are pros and cons to both ways. And while I think the way I grew up doing it is a little more quirky, I don't think the current way is all the way there, either. After all, my daughter often wants to buy "Communion bread" and grape juice at the grocery store. Isn't Communion supposed to remind us of Christ's suffering? But I do want to say some things I do like about the way we do communion.

1. Prayer-In our services, once the pastor reads the Communion liturgy, the rest of the time is spent in silence. The only thing you will hear is the pastor or assistant saying essentially "This is the body of Christ broken for you and this is the blood of Christ shed for you." The time is not interrupted by your neighbor passing a tray or separate prayers from the pastor for the bread and the cup.

2. Posture-There is something very humbling about getting up from your seat, walking down front, and kneeling at an altar with your empty hands held out. It reminds us that without God we are nothing. We come to the altar waiting to be "filled up" with God's grace. John Wesley called Holy Communion a "means of grace" meaning that we receive God's grace through partaking of the symbolic elements of the "meal". I have often interpreted that to mean it's an almost "magical" experience, with which I disagreed. But if one's heart is in the right place, it is a means of experiencing God's grace. Without the proper heart, though, it's just a sweet snack at the end of the service. We can just as easily "go through the motions" by coming down front as we can sitting in our pew waiting for the bread and juice. But there is something about getting out of your seat and coming down front that demands a response.

3. Provision-We didn't do The Lord's Supper very often in my churches growing up. Sometimes we even did it in the evening service rather than in the morning. I'm not really sure why. But I remember it was always done to remind us of Christ's suffering and death. Now in the United Methodist Church, we do it once a month. It is done as a "means of grace". In other words, this isn't an afterthought reminder of something, but this is an integral part of our worship of God through Jesus Christ. It does remind us of Christ's death, but it also reminds us that God's grace is continually reaching out to us. I like that part. I also like that we begin with an actual loaf of bread that is broken. Not only does this represent Christ's suffering, but it also reminds us that we are one body, the church. I mentioned earlier, that I think the sweet bread may not be a proper reminder of Christ's suffering, but it is a great reminder of God's grace.

So how does your church practice Holy Communion, Euchyrist, or the Lord's Supper? What do you like about it? What do you wish was different?

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Other Kind of Twitter snob

A few weeks ago, I blogged about what I call Twitter snobs. These are people who aren't really famous, but are using Twitter to create a brand for themselves. If you follow one of these people you will get a mention or a DM that essentially says "Thank you for following. Here is how following me benefits you." I wasn't saying everyone with thousands of followers is that way, I was just saying some Twitter users are more interested in monologue than dialogue. But today, I discovered another type of Twitter snob. I got a tweet from someone I follow that said:

"Facebook is to the web what Microsoft is to the desktop: mindbogglingly gargantuan, relentlessly mediocre & almost inescapable."

This gives credence to another post I wrote a few weeks ago about Apple snobs (and now that I am 6 days away from being an iPhone user I will have to be really careful not to fall into this technological abyss). But this tweet also tipped me off to a second variety of Twitter snob. That is those who feel that Twitter is superior to Facebook and that Facebook users are somehow the Morlocks of the tech world.

I am on Facebook and Twitter. I do not think either is superior, nor can I even compare the two. To me comparing Twitter and Facebook is like comparing a car hood to a hot sidewalk. Both items will cook an egg. But outside of that, the similarities really stop. So why do I think it's erroneous to compare the two?

  • Facebook is a familiar, user-friendly interface that allows people who usually know each other in real life to connect in ways that are usually confined to geography and time. Twitter, in my opinion, is more suited to interactions between people who have never met in person or maybe strictly know each other on a professional level. Have you ever seen someone who has their Twitter account connected to Facebook? When their posts show up on Facebook, nobody comments on them because many times they don't know how to decipher the code lingo or they don't know they are supposed to click the miniature URL.
  • Facebook is an online version of real world interaction. People who know each other can correspond about their shared experiences or ones they wish they had shared. Twitter is the online version of a business/professional conference. People share experiences to people they don't really know very well and everything is done with a premise that certain people are following me because I am either in a certain line of work, into a certain hobby, I have a certain religious view, or something else about me that makes me unique.
  • Facebook is about stating what's on your mind whereas Twitter is more about being clever. Very few people on Facebook thrive on being profound (or even care about it). However, on Twitter, everyone is either a guru or a re-tweeter of a guru.
  • More people use Facebook. Last month, nearly 25% of all internet hits were on Facebook. This is not to say that it's automatically better, but it is to say that it is where people are. Few people would agree that PCs are superior to Macs, but until more people start buying Macs instead of PCs they can get for less than $200, they will always have their place in the market. And while many PC users might learn to love the sleek, smooth, touch-screeny transition to all things with fruit pictures on them, many social media users could care less about the 140 character mini-thoughts filled with too many abbreviations, @user names, and tiny links. They just want to know what their friends are up to and how life is in certain places they can't be right now. And honestly, I don't think Twitter is not the best social media for that. My 80-year old father-in-law is one of my friends on Facebook. Sometimes I post links and he doesn't even realize it is a link to be clicked. But he's on there and we interact. He would never figure out Twitter, but because he somewhat understands Facebook, I think that makes it really appealing.
I did not intend this post to be written in defense of Facebook. But I think it is the nature of all things technological that we feel somehow superior to other people because we use/have certain tech devices, we are able to use our technology certain ways, or that we can speak a language people don't understand. All of this feeds our egos. The bible says in several places that God will exalt the humble. I like this one from Psalm 149.

So do you like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other social network? Do you feel this form of media is superior to the others? That is great. But please don't look down on other people because they prefer something else. What are your thoughts? Twitter? Facebook? Both?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Transitioning to a Smart Phone

I have about ten days left on my cellular contract. The display on my Motorola W510 (a dinosaur of a flip phone) is all but gone. If you leave the phone open it works okay, but if you close it, it will either hang up on the call when you open it, or the display will not work when you open it and you have to power off and back on. The funny thing is my wife's identical phone started doing the same thing a couple of weeks before mine did. Anyway, despite incentives from our smaller market wireless provider, we are going to ride it out. My cousins recently gave me an iPhone 3GS and we've recently freed up some money in our budget to go with smart phones. So that is our plan. But as I am getting excited about the endless connectivity of a smart phone, I also have a few reservations. So, here are the things that I don't want to happen with my smart phone.

I don't want to become a phone addict. I don't want to be that guy who can't go to sleep at night because I'm still checking my Twitter or Facebook. I hope I am able to establish healthy limits on my "phone use" since I'm getting so much more than just a phone.

I don't want to use my phone at the expense of others. I don't want to be sitting at dinner with my wife or with some friends or acquaintences and have my face projected down at my tech toy. I also don't want to be sitting at home with my family totally ignoring them because I can now get on the internet from my recliner.

I don't want to get carried away with my apps and downloads. With all of the apps available to make my phone more functional, I want to make my phone functional, but I don't want to break the bank trying to get every app or ringtone I think I need to make my phone cool or useful.

I don't want to become a tech snob. I posted a blog a few weeks ago about the phenomenon of the Apple snob...and here I am getting an iPhone. But regardless of the brand name on our tech devices, they are not a lot different from cool cars or houses in that we often view them as status symbols. I think tech people often enjoy making people feel dumb by rattling off a bunch of sophisticated lingo that is littered with acronyms. "What, you mean you can't check your email on YOUR phone?" How do you survive?

I don't want to send my work emails to my phone. The iPhone allows me to set up more than one email account. I can also use my email address to streamline different email accounts to go to one address. I will be choosing not to do this for one reason. When I am at home, I want to be at home. I don't want to be checking office emails when I should be visiting with my family. If someone from the church wants to get in touch with me, they can call or text me. If it's an important matter, they shouldn't email, but rather call.

Rhett Smith wrote a great post a couple of days ago on establishing boundaries with Facebook. Most of the same stuff applies here. He suggests having a box or a basket at the house where we turn our tech gadgets off and place them there for a designated period of time. So what boundaries have you had to establish with technology?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Token Thanksgiving Post

This is a post I wrote for a conglomerate blog called "The J-listers" where I write every Tuesday about a different mutually-agreed upon topic.

This is Thanksgiving week, so we have decided to write about the things for which we are thankful. This year, I’ve been doing some extra study on the history of Thanksgiving that has given me a renewed appreciation for the hardships of America’s earliest pioneers. After spending several months cramped on a relatively small vessel, the survivors arrived in the New World with their lives. Having consumed most of their supplies on the ship, they did have some wheat which they intended to plant, but found it did not grow well in the rocky New England soil. So had it not been for the relationship with friendly Native Americans, one of whom happened to speak English (another blessing from above), they literally would have died. There were a number of obstacles that they faced and much of it was met with the sweat of their brows, but after a year, ultimately, God truly had met their needs.

This year, I’m thankful for much the same things as the Pilgrims-life, health, family, sustenance. Sure, sustenance has changed over the last 400 years, but does still mean that God has given us the means to provide for ourselves. So while I’m not necessarily thankful for a successful corn crop, I am thankful for my job and the paycheck I receive from my church that allows me to provide for my family. And family has taken on a new meaning this year, at least in a way.

Almost three years ago, I married my wife, and became the step-dad to a wonderful 6-year old girl. On November 15, after a 6-month ordeal of court processing and legal fees, the District Judge granted me her adoption. So while not much has changed around our house (she is 9 now), this is the first holiday season where I am officially a child’s father. Every time I went to the courthouse, or the Sheriff’s office, or the newspaper, to complete another step in the process, I was reminded of my own adoption-not by my earthly parents, but by my heavenly Father. You see, the way I read the Bible, it tells me that while I was lost in my own sin, God demonstrated his own love for me that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. So while I am thankful for the adoption of my daughter, I’m also thankful for my adoption into God’s kingdom.

So this week, when my extended family gathers around the table, my daughter will be in the presence of real aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. While it doesn’t change the nature of the relationship, this is no small thing. Likewise, we are the children of God-not pseudo children, or step-children, but children. He has placed the family ringon our finger, put his best robe on us, and killed the fatted calf in celebration because we have come home! This thanksgiving, be mindful of the things God has given you, but do not forget his greatest gift…adoption!

Monday, November 22, 2010

New Blog Project

First of all, I want to thank all of you who are followers of this blog and those of you who occasionally hop in off of Twitter. But this post will be one of a different sort. About three weeks ago, I was asked to be a part of a new blog project. The basic premise of the new project is six total strangers, all followers of Christ, and all who follow each other on Twitter, who each take a crack at a weekly topic. Our first topic was our story of how we came to put our faith in Christ (or however each person articulates that particular idea). The second week was just after the recent election, so we took on voting and politics. Week Three is Thanksgiving week, so all of our posts will be related to that.

Please hop over to The J-Listers website and check it out. I have been blessed, stretched, challenged, and affirmed in my faith. I'm also starting to realize just how big my God is. If he can save someone like me, I know there's hope for all of us! Add the J-Listers to your blog roll. You will be inspired!

I will be continuing to keep this blog up, so if you enjoy reading it, no worries! If you don't enjoy reading it, then please pray for the poor innocent victims as my web-presence increases.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Youth Event Nobody Has Ever Seen

I got the idea for this post from Tim Schmoyer's "63 Youth Ministry Issues I Hope You Cover". This weekend, we are doing an event that is probably the most unique event that I've done since I've been in youth ministry over ten years.

We have an annual campout retreat that we do every fall that has evolved into a family event. We encourage our youth to bring their parents. This is a great opportunity for us to have a youth event without cutting into the much-needed family time that many families desperately need. It also gives families an opportunity to study the Bible together as a family. Now, that's not where this event is unique.

This year, we will be doing something a bit different at our family campout. You see, in our area, there was famous Comanche Indian raid that occurred in 1836 during the Texas Revolution (Texas was fighting for its independence from Mexico). The raid occurred just about 2 miles from the state park where we will be camping. There is also a cemetery that is walking distance from our campground where some of the people who were involved in that incident are buried. In the incident, a 9-year old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker was captured and eventually married a Comanche chief. Her son Quanah Parker was the last great Comanche chief and was influential in teaching the Comanche to adopt the white way of life and also became a wealthy statesman, friend of several US Presidents, and even a minister of the gospel (of sorts-see link above).

So, Friday night, of the campout, we are going to go on a hike through the woods (by lantern) and arrive at the cemetery. One of our parents will be in period costume dressed as James Parker whose neice was captured in the Indian raid and who organized many searches for a number of years until she was recovered more than 20 years later. This "ghost story" will introduce the kids to a piece of our local history. Then we will examine the story from different angles and look at the biblical themes in it. The biblical aspects of the story and the biblical stories that parallel this one will be discussion fodder for our Bible studies.

I know most of us would rather teach the Bible than anything, which is good. But I think we often sell our students short by not teaching them the history of their communities. While the Bible has a lot of great role models and examples of character, often times there are people in their communities whom God has used in similar ways.

So what are the youth events you've done that you could call unique?

Do you think an event of this nature is selling the kids short on good biblical teaching?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Top 10 Ways to Kill a Weekend Youth Retreat

We just finished up our annual fall campout/retreat. This has become an annual event for us. While very little went quite as planned, it was still an amazing weekend. I started to evaluate what made this weekend a success and came up with ten things we didn't do to make this trip successful. So, here are ten things youth workers do to ruin a weekend retreat.

1. Micro-plan every second. Part of what makes a retreat work is there is downtime. The idea of the word retreat is that we are retreating from our normal lives. If our retreat weekend is busier than our normal life, we will create more stress and fatigue rather than giving an escape from them. Have a schedule, but make it loose and allow room for flexibility.

2. Allow/encourage technology. I butted heads with several of my students this weekend who were texting back and forth as well as playing video games. One student even insisted that her parents would be upset if she made herself "inaccessible" and turned her phone off. But what is the point of getting away if we stay connected to the real world? I'm not saying everything in the world is bad, but we limit our availability to the Holy Spirit by keeping one foot back home.

3. Make it all about fun. Any retreat experience has to have a recreational aspect to it. We go camping for ours. However, if fun is the only aspect, students aren't challenged and probably won't learn anything. Make sure fun has a point.

4. Don't offer any new experiences. We have one place we have gone the last 4 years for our fall retreat. However, each year has had a different theme and different activities. Also, there has been a different focus each year. This year we looked at the history of the area we were in and a famous Indian raid that happened in 1836. We tied the story of the pioneers to our own spiritual journey of being strangers in a foreign land.

5. Go to a big city with lots of attractions/distractions. This probably goes without saying, but I wanted to throw it in. I don't know if people in small towns ever go to big cities for retreats, but it just seems counterproductive. Even in a town of 18,000 people, there are a ton of distractions. And the majority of our students live in the country in homes surrounded by woods. Yet they spend the majority of their time playing video games and talking on Facebook. Giving them more distractions from an urban environment squelches the purpose of the retreat.

6. Provide luxury accomodations. Part of a retreat is helping students realize how good they have it. Doing your retreat in a 4-star hotel isn't doing them any favors. The gospel is something that grows out of simplicity and hardship rather than the plush and lavish things of life.

7. Try to lead the whole thing yourself. I've been with great youth workers and I've been with terrible ones. The latter were probably more because I failed to train them or they insisted it was my job to do everything. i.e. What do you get paid to do? But I've found that on youth events where I tried to do everything myself, I was stressed out the whole time and couldn't really enjoy the experience. Have someone to plan your meals. Have someone plan some recreational time. Have someone plan your Bible study times. Don't use your free time preparing for your next session. Use that time to bond with your kids and your youth workers.

8. Do it in a familiar setting. We have a fantastic camp/retreat center less than 10 miles from our church. Our kids go to our district summer camp there for one week every year. I've tried to schedule other events out there and they are always poorly attended. Many of our students literally live closer to the camp center than they do to our church. There is no mystique about going out there for a 2-day retreat. Try to plan your retreats in a place that isn't "old hat".

9. Don't give an opportunity for a spiritual response. One thing I try to do when planning every youth event is ask myself "What do I want to accomplish with this event?" So try to focus the activities and studies towards some sort of spiritual response. This year's response was to live with more of a kingdom purpose. Without a spiritual response, it would have been just a campout in the woods.

10. Expect a certain kind of spiritual result. Remember, I'm saying these things will kill your retreat. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that we shouldn't design the events, activities, and Bible studies toward a certain spiritual focus (#9). But when we expect a certain result, we put God in a box by insisting that what we want to accomplish and what he wants to accomplish are one and the same. Maybe you're hoping that one guy will quit making such poor choices or that one girl will finally have the strength to break up with her boyfriend. Maybe there's another student you hope will finally put his faith in Christ? When we expect these things to happen and they don't it kills all the great things that DID happen during the weekend. A weekend is not necessarily a miserable failure because we were hoping for a particular breakthrough in a particular situation and didn't get it..

What have been the things that have destroyed some of the retreats you have been on? What things really make them better?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Seven Reasons Twitter Is Better than Church

The last few weeks I've been enjoying some conversations with fellow sojourners on this faith path of following Christ through everybody's favorite 140-character social platform, Twitter. I've really enjoyed these discussions because in many cases I have blatantly disagreed with someone else, or they have had opinions staunchly different from my own, but yet we continue to banter in a civil way which I think leaves both of us challenged, and stretched rather than feeling like one of us "won" an argument.

And that's the miracle of Twitter. Conversations that could and would never work in a live-person setting are very much the norm on Twitter. Unfortunately, these live-person settings are often our churches. I think our churches and the Church Universal has a lot to learn from social media. So here are some reasons why, in some aspects, I think Twitter is even better than Church.

1. Twitter users have no problem communicating with total strangers. Ever thought about talking to a total stranger or maybe felt like the Holy Spirit was "leading" you to but you chickened out? Maybe they looked funny, smelled funny, or there were just too many questions? Not on Twitter. Hardly any of my tweeps are people I have met in person, and I think that's normal for most Twitter users.

2. Twitter users, for the most part, are civil. Most Twitter discussions, while there may be disagreements, tend to keep a tone of "we are both here to learn from each other" rather than an "I am right, you are wrong" tenor. If only our churches could function this way, what would the church universal look like?

3. Twitter users are eager to share insights and knowledge. How many times have you read a tweet and thought "Man, that's good" and you click Retweet or you type RT, paste the message into your stream and add a quick comment? Why is the opposite true of some of our churches? Why do some believers feel that their way is the best way or the only way, to the point that they should isolate themselves from other "Christians" because of doctrinal or denominational differences?

4. Twitter users like to seek the "counsel of many". On the contrary, this often creates division in churches over silly things like picking the color of the new carpet. This scripture from Proverbs has gotten me out of more than one tight spot in my life. However, it seems that some churches that allow the whole congregation to make decisions (as opposed to boards or committees) tend to have more strife than others. And of course nothing is ever done by secret ballot. People see those opposed hands in the air and are automatically taking sides. But Twitter users usually have no problem "agreeing to disagree" and getting on with their lives.

5. Twitter users practice etiquette and give credit to those who create and/or pass on information. I was talking to a youth pastor friend of mine one time who was frustrated because he found another church online whose sermons were posted. His pastor had been preaching the exact same sermons word for word while his congregation assumed they were his own words and convictions. How do we build effective congregations if we are deceiftul in doing it?

6. Twitter users often like to teach as much as they like to be taught. What if our churches had this kind of balance? Have you ever met that know-it-all saint who is only interested in teaching rather than learning? Or have you met his arch nemesis who has a wealth of knowledge and has even demonstrated the gift of teaching in the church, but for one reason or another refuses to teach. While I know there are some pretty arrogant Twitter users who are more interested in establishing themselves as a brand name than learning from others, just about every Twitter account has at least a handful of people they follow. These are people who either have a personal connection to the user or is a person of perceived authority and is worthy of "following".

7. Twitter users seem to be real. While not every person on Twitter is authentic, many of them are. I know on my account I might share a thought about God or ministry, then a tweet about my favorite sports team, or a joke, then pass on an article I enjoyed that could be related to just about anything. Maybe some would say I'm not focused enough with my Tweets, but I would rather be myself than have an agenda. To me, a Twitter account is a peephole into someone's life that only shows what they want to be seen. But church is often not that way. We do things differently on Sunday than we do the rest of the week. We have a church persona and a non-church persona.

Let me wrap up by saying this. I love the church. And while the church isn't perfect, it is what God gave us to be his hands and feet in a fallen world. Do I really think Twitter is superior to church? Absolutely not. But do I think there are some great things about Twitter that could make the church a whole lot more effective in the world? Absolutely.

What would you add to this list? How do we make the church more civil, warm, and focused on unity?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Is Technology an Ego Thing?

The other day I was listening to a technology talk show on the radio...actually, I stumbled on it, but anyway, it was there. The topic of discussion was tech devices and how it is the nature of the technology industry for a company to release a product and to be working on that device's successor during or even prior to the release of the current device. This is where we get the concept that computers and tech devices are "obsolete" as soon as they leave the store shelf.

During the course of the show, a caller called in and was asking about the need to upgrade his current device because he was concerned that it wouldn't handle all of the tasks he required of it.

The host responded that most devices are suitable for most applications, so you will be fine with what you have unless it's an ego thing for you to have the latest device. He elaborated and said that there are some people who just have to have the latest device as a boost to their ego. It's a status symbol the way some people drive new luxury cars.

Now, I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I'm hardly the poster child for the latest tech device. I am still running Windows XP on my laptop and I just recently got it back from having it tuned up and having the RAM increased because my 512MB wasn't enough for the programs I was running. I was also recently given an iPhone by a relative who has more cash flow than I do, but it will be another month before I can set it up with phone and data service.

But there are things sometimes that we feel we have to have because of our ego. Maybe it is a particular tech toy. Maybe it's a new car. Maybe it's a motorcycle or an ATV, or in my part of the country it could even be a deer lease. For my family, we are really trying to simplify our lives. We are also putting almost all of our extra income toward paying off debt. But that doesn't mean we don't have a bunch of stuff we don't need. We live in a pretty small house and a lot of my musical equipment (sound system, drumset, etc.) lives at the church where it is used regularly. I have some guns that were given to me by my father that stay in a safe. I also have lots of clothes that don't fit in my closet.

Matthew 6:19-21 says that we should not lay up treasures for ourselves where moth and rust destroy, or where thieves break in and steal. But rather we should store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.

What are the things we feel we need to have to satisfy our ego? Is it an iPad? A car? A house in a particular neighborhood? How can we trust God to meet our needs when we don't get the things we think we need?

New Blog Venture-The J-Listers

There are some of you who follow this blog and others who just follow my Twitter account. This blog at times can be somewhat random. I write when the inspiration hits me. It may be something I thought about in my free time, or it may be something someone said or did that challenged my way of thinking and through this blog I share that process with readers. While I try to post at least once a week, it doesn't always happen that way.

But recently, I was invited to be a part of a different kind of blog. It is a blog where every day of the week will be written by one of six people-we take Sundays off. All of us are followers of Christ, but we all come from different faith traditions and backgrounds. We also do not know each other personally, but we follow each other on Twitter. So I'm excited about seeing what comes from such a unique dynamic.

The blog is called "The J-Listers" (as in A-list, but with a J for Jesus). It is also known as the #Superblog in Twitter hashtags, which was the name for the original concept before we had a name. The plan is that each week will present a different theme or Christian idea and the posts for that week will be our individual thoughts and comments on that particular issue.

I will still be writing posts for this blog, but I'm excited about each week having a theme and purpose over on the J-listers blog. Please check it out and add it to your blog roll.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ok, God...What Have You Done for Me Lately?

The strangest emotional roller coaster ride in Texas this fall has been the success of the Texas Rangers. This is a team that had only won one playoff game in it's 50+ year franchise history. But this year, despite a number of injuries, some mediocre teams in their division, and being at least 20 games back in the race for the best record in the American League, they easily made the playoffs, but weren't expected to do much. Then, they beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series and the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series to make the World Series for the first time in history.

All of the dormant Ranger fans who had given up on the team after years of watching average baseball suddenly awakened from their slumbers and the Rangers bandwagon was full of enthusiastic supporters. Some even waited until it looked like a win over the Yankees was highly probable to show their excitement, but eventually, everyone came around.

Then the World Series came. The Rangers lost Game 1. Then they lost Game 2. And immediately, we began to hear moans and groans like "What are we going to do about the Rangers?" as if to say their losses in the World Series were typical of their regular season losing streaks in years gone by. Now, many fans are carrying the weight of disappointment, despite the fact that they had a phenomenal season and the future looks bright for a really great ball club with a solid core of great players.

As I thought about the prime example of human nature displayed by our support of a baseball team, I was reminded of how we often treat God. When everything is going well and life is full of blessings, we can hold our head high and worship and serve our Creator wholeheartedly. However, it's in the times when things aren't going right-when the bills exceed the income, when the loved one passes away, when the company is downsizing-that it's hard to remember what God HAS done for us.

As we have passed through Halloween and rounded the corner headed into Thanksgiving, let us be thankful for the things God has done. Psalm 100:4 says we should enter his gates with thanksgiving in our hearts. No matter how bad things get, we have much for which to be thankful because God has blessed us tremendously-if with nothing else, he has given us the means for eternal life through the gift of his son.

So whether your problems are great or maybe you're just mourning your favorite team's latest defeat, remember that God has blessed you and there are a lot of things for which to be thankful. What are you thankful for? What times in your life was it hard to be thankful?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thanks for Following-Here's More About Me (The Arrogance of Twitter)

I don't remember how long ago it was that I opened up a Twitter account. As with most technological crazes, I was slow to come around. As a regular user of Facebook, I couldn't figure out how this thing called Twitter with all its "Tweeps" tweeting about their life in less than 140 characters was going to benefit me.

But after I was introduced to some people who preferred Twitter over Facebook, I bit the bullet and opened up my Twitter account. And wouldn't you know, people I had never heard of started following me. And as I started following other people, they started following me back. And the coolest thing was when I had a tweet that provoked thought, people responded and would retweet so that their followers could respond.

But lately, I've been getting more and more one-way communication on Twitter. I recently followed someone who is apparently pretty well-known in certain circles. I guess this person would be called an expert. After following them, I got a direct message saying, "Thanks for following me! I hope you find it helpful. Here is more about what I do (link)." And it seems as of late there is increasingly more of that. I really thought the whole point of social media was that we can interact and learn from each other. And I realize that someone with thousands of followers is not going to be able to legitimately follow all of them in return. But that doesn't mean that those people don't have things to offer that are of value. I think any time we have people coming to us (following) in hopes of getting good information that we should be in a position to feel like we can learn from them as well.

The other day I was watching The Nines. It was an online, webstreamed, Christian leadership conference where lots of leaders were video taped and streamed in consecutive segments. To make discussion relevant, the speakers were asked a series of questions. One speaker was asked, "Besides the Bible, what books have impacted you most." And seriously, the guy pitched out two books that he had written himself! Am I alone in thinking (in the words of the 2008 National Youth Workers Convention) that is "seriously ridiculous"?

I'm afraid Twitter and other social media outlets have made us arrogant. I get images of a bunch of us sitting around with long beards, togas, and laptops trying to come up with a profound statement that we can blog or tweet about. And all the while we're philosophizing about all things Christian, there's work to be done. I'll be up front and honest that I do get a little ego-stroke when someone re-tweets a post or responds to a thought-provoking question I've asked. But in our quest to learn and grow we have made the quest about being profound rather than about the practical application of our wisdom? Profundity is not bad as long as we are willing to put it into practice. Proverbs 9:9 says "Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning." That tells me that none of us have arrived and we should always be learning and growing and that we have lots to learn from each other.

I hope I/we don't reach the point where we feel like we have arrived. Part of the Christian experience is that none of us have made it yet and until we meet in glory, we should keep learning from each other. Do you feel like social media has made some people arrogant?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why I Follow Sports

We live in a messed up world. With all the poverty, hunger, war, unemployment, and general darkness on this crazy planet, I'll be the first to admit there are way more important things than how far someone can hit a baseball or how fast they can run a football. And as a Christian culture we've become very focused on the social and cultural issues (which is good). However, some of us have started to look down on sports fans because we spend a lot of time and energy paying attention to things that in the grand scheme of things are so trivial.

So for some unknown reason I've begun feeling the need to articulate the reasons why I follow sports. So here they are.

1. The stories in sports are tangible dramas of greater life stories. What I mean is whether it's a washed-up has-been like a Brett Favre who comes from the brink of retirement to have one of the best seasons of his career, or a Josh Hamilton who, through the grace and strength of God overcomes his struggle with drugs, alcohol and injuries to be a clear-cut MVP favorite, these stories are better than any fictional soap opera and are played out right before our eyes. How about Drew Brees leading the New Orleans Saints to bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to a city that had been devastated by one of the worst natural disasters in American history? Then there is this-due to his struggles with substance abuse and out of love and respect for him, Hamilton's teammates gave him Ginger Ale showers in lieu of champagne upon winning both the ALDS and the ALCS. Trust me, you can't make this stuff up!

2. Sports give Christian celebrities a platform to share their faith in Christ. I've heard many nay-sayers ask if a certain athlete is such a great Christian why is he/she making millions of dollars playing a game instead of trying to solve the great problems of the world. While there may be some truth to that, there is also something to be said for being able to share one's faith with millions of people because you have them as an audience. Athletes gain credibility by what they do on the field. What they do with that credibility is the reason I believe God allows them to accomplish great things. Former Colts Super Bowl Champion head coach, Tony Dungy, has written Bible study curriculum for use in men's ministries. Had he not been so successful on the football field, would we really care as much about what he thought?

3. Sports provide people with Christian role-models. Unfortunately, pop culture. offers little in the way of positive role models outside of the arenas of sports. Sure, there are Christian singers and actors (Christian singers are role models for Christian kids, but aren't as likely to be admired by a non-believing audience), but in the Hollywood scene their voices are drowned out by the Brangelinas and the Lady Gagas of the world. Well, okay...there's Kirk Cameron and .... uhhhh.... Seriously, though, to the Christian young man who is learning what it means to be a good person, to work hard, and put God first, there are people like Heisman Trophy winner and two time National Champion, Tim Tebow or Super Bowl Champion, Kurt Warner.

4. Sports salaries provide capitol for players and coaches to create opportunities for others. This year while watching the Texas Rangers, a commentator shared that Rangers DH Vlad Guerrero and his brothers have opened several businesses in the Dominican Republic which provide jobs for the local people. Among these are a block and tile factory, a supermarket, a livestock/vegetable farm, and a clothing store. During his playing days and afterwards, Packers and Eagles Defensive End, Reggie White (aka The Minister of Defense) used a lot of his playing salary to operate inner-city ministry opportunities in the Philadelphia area.

5. Cinderella. No, not the fairy tale. But where else can we visibly watch David defeat Goliath. Where can we see a third string quarterback like Tony Romo come out of nowhere as an undrafted free agent to become one of the best passers in the game? Where else can we see a team like the 2010 Texas Rangers defeat the New York Yankees who has more money tied up in between 2nd and 3rd base (Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez) than the entire Rangers player payroll.

6. Morale. Sports simply give people something to cheer about. Maybe it's crazy, but I've been in a better mood this week since the Rangers are now in the World Series. Whether they win or not, I know this was the greatest season in team history and I watched as many of the 160 regular season games as I could. How many other Ranger fans are feeling good this week because of what they've been able to accomplish?

Sure there are a lot of other things going on in the world. But for as long as I can remember I've been pretty well glued to the performance of some of my favorite players and teams. It has just been woven into the fabric of my life that I'm going to sit down and watch my teams play, regardless of what else is on TV. And while sports have become billion dollar industries, I still try to keep things in perspective about what more important stuff is going on in the rest of the world. What about you? Why do you follow sports? Do you think Christian athletes are wrong for making the money they do? If you were a Christian athlete, how would you spend your paycheck?

Why Does it Have to be Black or White?

Last weekend, I went hiking with a couple of great friends in Big Bend National Park. During the time away from TV, internet, office work, family life, and even cell phones, conversations tend to open up. Tommy and I have been friends for over 16 years and our conversations rarely turn to politics, but on the 8-hour car ride home, we went there.

During the course of conversation, though, we discussed how polarized things have become. But when we examined it, it goes way beyond politics. Of course in the political arena everyone seems to be either Republican or Democrat (conservative or liberal). But in other circles, there seems to be equally tremendous dichotomies everywhere. In the church people tend to be either evangelical or mainline. Or in biblical interpretation they tend to be Fundamentalists or Moderates (conservatives or liberals). Even in the area of the environment and the enjoying the great outdoors people either tend to be hikers or hunters. Hikers tend to drive hybrids and AWD crossovers in stark contrast to the 4x4 equipped gas-guzzling hunters (I recently read an amazing article about this). People either support PETA or the NRA. They are either pro-life or pro-abortion. They are either "pro-gay" or "no-gay". Even in our church worship services we are either contemporary or traditional. Some have made attempts at blended worship services, but I've hardly seen it done well.

In all of these walks of life, the bridge (if one exists) between the two poles is one that is never to be crossed. I'll admit, I'm politically and biblically more conservative. But that doesn't mean that I don't agree with certain policies that have been labeled as liberal, which are often more humanitarian. I have spent most of my life hunting as a hobby and pastime. But I'm learning to experience the outdoors without a weapon and it's very enjoyable. I love the modern sound and intimate lyrics of contemporary worship, but I also love the deep theology of the hymns.

But what I've found is that most of us are somewhere in the middle. I guess the thing that frustrates me is that those of us in the middle have no voice. It seems everyone who has a voice has been given that voice because they subscribe to an extreme form of their belief and these polarized right vs. left voices are the only choices we have been given. Are we just a society that celebrates the extreme and doesn't want to hear the things that some might consider normal?

Many things I post on this blog have been shared because I have felt I have discovered an answer for myself. But not this post. I'm simply throwing this out for discussion. Why has our society become so polarized? How do we move beyond that where those of us non-radicals who are stuck somewhere in the middle have a voice again?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Christian Maturity Means Carrying Extra Weight

Last weekend, I spent three days and two nights backpacking in the mountain trails of Big Bend National Park. This was my first backpacking experience. The remote area we were camping had no water, and we were several miles from the Chisos Basin water supply. That meant we had to pack in all of our own water, as well as food and supplies. As I started up the path with my friends Tommy and Warren carrying my 50lb. pack, I began to realize that the extra weight on my back and shoulders raised the ante for my footing. Any person walking in rocky, mountain terrain needs to be sure-footed. However, carrying that extra weight meant that each step needed to be made with at least a bit of thought, otherwise the weight of the pack would cause me to stumble a lot easier than if I was not carrying it. As I began watching the terrain, I found that I was missing some of the amazing scenery because my head was down focused on the path ahead. Nonetheless, I continued to carefully calculate each step of my journey until I reached my destination.

While planning my steps occupied a large amount of brain power, I was able to spare a few neurons to recall a passage in I Corinthians where Paul is talking about having freedom in Christ. Apparently, there was some food that had been sacrificed to pagan idols that was being sold in the street markets of Corinth. Some mature believers were buying it and eating it with a clear conscience (after all, isn't all food from God, anyway?) while some younger in their faith were appalled by their actions (after all, it had been dedicated for worship of false deities, right?) So what Paul essentially says is that it is okay for Christians to eat this food, however, if there are believers who might have a problem with that, don't do it because it will cause them to stumble in their faith.

Last time I checked, modern Christians don't swing through the McDonald's drive-thru and order a #4 Pagan Sacrifice Special with fries and a Coke. But there are plenty of things of which we partake and enjoy that could potentially cause another believer to stumble. Maybe it's the occasional cigar or the bottle of wine on a special occasion. Maybe it's an R-rated movie or a guy who prays with his hat on. It could be that you enjoy the music of a particular artist which some might think is unbecoming of a Christian. (I'm not talking about perpetual sin, but rather things that Christians do that may be misconstrued by others) Regardless of what freedoms we have in Christ, mature believers are all carrying a pack...a pack filled with the expectations of younger believers who are hanging on their every move as examples of the Christian life. This extra weight means that Christians need to be careful what freedoms they exercise and the context in which they do those things. Extra weight means that it is easier to stumble, and each step should be made with caution.

So what freedoms do you have in Christ? What things have you done that have been perceived negatively by others? Do you feel like being a Christian means living in a fishbowl?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Social Media as Spiritual Discipline

Every follower of Christ knows (or should know) that this journey we are on is not one of accidental, whimsical, or random actions as we iron out this relationship with our creator, but rather it is intentional. I suppose perhaps one could coast through life without giving much thought to the disciplines of the faith, but it might raise some questions with other Christ followers who were more purposeful about the rites of their faith. I guess I would say this, if faith is a pinball machine, we should be more like the flipper than the ball. We should be doing the acting, rather than being the ones acted upon.

We call these "acts" spiritual disciplines, and they are pretty obvious to anyone who has spent at least a little time in church. Prayer, study of Scripture, and church attendance have for years been considered to be the important spiritual disciplines--and rightfully so. Another discipline that was always difficult for me was journaling. For a while I tried to journal and write down these "aha" moments I had when I was studying the Bible, but often it seemed canned and forced. I felt like every time I sat down with a Bible, I was supposed to have this mind-blowing revelation of truth and to be honest, it didn't always happen...not to mention the fact that my handwriting has been mistaken for ancient cuneiform. Also, I found that when I did journal something, I hardly ever went back to look at what I journaled. It just sat there in its nifty little book. The whole thing was frustrating and felt like in some strange way I was trying to earn my salvation.

But fast forward a few years. The internet and other technologies have taken over all facets of life. And for the longest time I heard about "blogs" but I didn't have a clue what one was. Then after the internet was established, social media came into the picture. Now everyone is on Twitter or Facebook and wouldn't you know I even have a blog. And what is my blog? For me, it's a journal. But rather than journaling every time I study and feeling like I have to write something, I try to be open for those teachable moments when God gives me those glimpses of who He is, then I sit down and write about it. Also, a blog can be shared with others, so maybe the things this spiritually dim-witted and hard-headed sojourner has learned can be of value to someone else. (side note, the blog is also legible because I can type rather than writing in my chicken scratch)

Some people do blog daily, like my online friend Adam McLane who has even written a post about how to blog consistently, which I highly recommend. His article has some great tips on ways he is disciplined in his blogging. If you have never had a blog, it is very easy to do. There are free blog sites (Wordpress , Blogger), where you can write your blog for free without paying any web hosting fees (such as this blog), or with a little web knowledge you can host your own blog on your own domain. In a blog of this type, all the copyright and content belongs to you and can be done for less than $100/year.

So what if you don't have a blog? Are you on Facebook or Twitter? Part of the Christian experience is the idea that we are on this journey together. We may go hear a sermon at church, but in a Sunday School class or a small group we have a chance to interact, discuss, and share our experiences with one another. Social media gives us that ability as well. As followers of Christ, who are we to keep the things we learn about God to ourselves? Surely, if God teaches us something, others will benefit from it if we are just willing to share it. So I want to offer some ways we can make social media a spiritual discipline.

1. Be intentional about sharing spiritual things with others. While we all want to update our status about how we are cheering on our favorite sports team or how we are proud of our child's good grades, be also willing to share what God is teaching you with others, even if it's just in a few sentences.

2. Be willing to pass on what others have learned. None of us have written the book on being a Christian, but there are a lot of other believers just like you and me out there who have been given some tremendous insights about God. Whether it's the pastor of a 20,000 member megachurch or your neighbor down the street, when these people share insights that they've learned about God, repost or retweet them so others can learn, too.

3. Be consistent. You don't have to blog daily like my friend Adam, but be on the lookout for things God is doing in your life and try to share those things on a regular basis. If I learn something while I'm not at a computer, I try to write it down somewhere so I can remember to write about it next time I sit down at my desk. This allows me to share things on a regular basis.

4. Be yourself. I write this because part of social media is being who we are. So if we decide we are going to be more intentional about sharing spiritual insights, that doesn't mean we have to stop sharing about our life experiences, our thoughts and feelings, so that we can be the next Facebook guru who brings peace, comfort, and healing every day to all of our 178 friends. I think if all we ever post or tweet is Bible verses or quotes from great Christian thinkers it becomes a turn-off to those who are not on this journey with us and they begin to formulate opinions of us because we don't seem like we live in the real world. I think it's great to post things about how you are excited about eating at your favorite restaurant or how your favorite baseball team won its first playoff series in the history of the franchise, but if God is an important part of our life, shouldn't we be sharing what we learn about him with others?

So what are your thoughts? How do you use social media to share about what God is teaching you? Have you ever been turned off by someone who used social media for spiritual purposes?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Youth Ministry: Why I Quit Doing Hot Topic Lessons (mostly)

Youth culture is always changing. Every week or so, there is a new movement, social connection, video game, movie, behavioral trend, or teen cultural issue that makes youth workers like me scratch our heads. Whether it's emos who cut themselves, another teen's obsession with all things vampire from the Twilight movies, or being engrossed in the latest violent video games, there are constantly cultural patterns that demand a response from youth workers. In youth ministry circles, these are known as "hot topics".

I used to be one of those guys who felt the need to address every diabolical trend that came down the pike. And there was no shortage of fodder for lesson material. I might have been in a rut and not sure what I should teach for Wednesday night. Suddenly, I get an email from a leading voice in youth ministry about a cultural trend that was cause for concern. I might contact a few students to ask them if they'd heard of this. Then I did some research online about it. Then, of course, I would find a Bible passage that speaks to the issue (not the specific issue, but to the idea behind the issue), and then VOILA! I have a youth lesson.

But in hindsight, here is where I think I was getting it wrong. Youth culture changes so much that I think addressing these little issues is really getting to the symptom rather than the problem. My lessons were knee-jerk reactions to all the terrible evils floating around in youth culture and were attempts to steer my kids away from them, rather than showing them how to learn to navigate these issues themselves. If we mold our ministry around the concept of teaching students to avoid certain issues or telling them what to think or believe about those issues, what happens when they go on in life and are forced to formulate those values for themselves? Are they going to continue to ask, "I wonder what my youth worker would say about this?" Or, are they going to be able to articulate a healthy stance on the subject through a mature, faith-based world view? Another problem is there are so many things that could be seen as worthy of being addressed--TV shows, movies, video games, new things kids are doing at parties, things students are doing on social media, cell phones, new drugs, bullying... Where does the list end?

So in recent years, my approach has been to teach Scripture as it relates to modern culture. In this sense, I feel, I am keeping the horse in front of the cart. For example, we've had an issue in recent months with boys and girls struggling in their interaction with one another. While teenage interaction is usually awkward and unrefined to say the least, there are things that are appropriate and things that are not. Rather than doing a lesson on how students should interact with one another, I have been doing a series on the book of Ruth. Through studying Ruth, we get to learn about the Israelite culture and what social nuances were expected of the characters. We also learn how the characters worked within those social confines to communicate admiration for one another in a socially appropriate manner. Another thing the story teaches is how Boaz was attracted to Ruth because of her commitment to Naomi and to the God of Israel.

So in teaching Scripture, as opposed to teaching cultural issues, the intent is that we are laying a foundation that will be relevant not just to the areas of immediate concern, but that will have meaning throughout the students' lives as they make their journey into adulthood and beyond. To put it plainly, I prefer to teach Scripture in light of youth culture as opposed to teaching youth culture in light of Scripture. A good metaphor would be one of riding in the front seat with the students driving the car rather than driving the students to the desired destination. Through the Bible, we are giving instruction, but ultimately it is the students making the decisions. I do find myself doing topical lessons on occasion, but usually to break things up (this statement posted after Adam McClane's comment) a bit. Topical lessons do have their place in ministry. I just don't think they should be the main focus.

So what are your thoughts? Have you ever found yourself formulating a ministry around knee-jerk teaching? When and how often do you do "hot topic" lessons?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Maintaining Balance Among the Church's Ministries

One of the first books I read early on in my ministry career was Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Church." That book shaped not only my approach to ministry, but also that of thousands of pastors and church leaders. So I can tell, now, you are probably thinking a couple of things.

1. Purpose-Driven Ministry is so 20th century, after all, it was first published 15 years ago.
2. Why would anyone be commenting on it now when they should be commenting on something modern like "Radical" or "Crazy Love" or if the modern antiquity, "Blue Like Jazz"?

But after nearly 15 years in various types of ministry roles, I realize how much that book impacted me. If you've never read the book, in a nutshell, Warren lays out 5 purposes that each church should fulfill: worship, discipleship, fellowship, evangelism, and ministry. Every church program or event should accomplish one or more of these purposes. At the time of the books release, apparently, a lot of churches, had lost their focus in a quest to make themselves more relevant to non-believers. This model helped them give "purpose" to their ministry programs.

Here is the problem I have with that (and this is not a slam against the book or the ministry model, but deals more with my response to the model). I have found that in my ministry, I have become more intentional about accomplishing a particular purpose with each program or event I plan. What has unwittingly happened, though, is I have begun to put these programs in a box. Therefore, programs designed for fellowship are not evangelistic. Programs designed for discipleship do not allow opportunities for ministry. Programs for worship are not geared for discipleship.

So should there be overlap between our programs? Can a church worship service be designed for worship, but also equip believers (discipleship) and be evangelistic as well? I blogged a few days ago that I believe evangelism and discipleship are inseparable, and we inhibit spiritual growth when we separate the two. But are our churches likewise becoming anemic when we make a program or event so focused on accomplishing one particular purpose that we negate the other needs of the congregation? What do you think?