Thursday, September 30, 2010

Guilt, God, and the Green Police

The above commercial is from the ad campaign for Audi's new clean diesel car line. The premise is that the "Green Police" are out scouring the land for environmental infractions. Of course, the Green Police have nothing on the driver of Audi's cleaner running diesel. While the commercial is a humorous look at what environmental consciousness has become, people at Audi want us to believe that we need to buy this car to make all the environmentalists happy.

Believe it or not, this post is not about environmentalism. I have blogged here before about how environmentalism is a slippery slope because when we begin to do one thing to help protect one aspect of the environment, we often create more problems in another area of the environment. For example, the chemicals required to run the batteries in hybrid cars are a rare strain of elements and compounds that are only found in certain areas of China. But the point I think this ad makes goes far deeper than caring for the earth. I've said before, if someone can make you feel guilty, they can have control over you. That is essentially what has happened with the environmental movement. Propoganda in our society has made us feel guilty for using plastic bags at the grocery store, and for driving our V8 pick-ups and SUVs to work and back. We should feel guilty about taking a slightly longer shower, even though we really felt like we needed it, and we didn't unplug that cell phone charger because it was in an outlet that was just a little bit harder to get to. I'm not saying we shouldn't be conscientious of the environment (as an outdoorsman and a part-time farmer, I consider myself to be quite an environmentalist), but I think some people want to take the guilt factor to a whole new level.

Over the years, I have noticed a thread of thought in Christianity that we as Christians are called to live in guilt. We are supposed to constantly beat ourselves up because we are not there yet and we have so far to go. This plays into the idea that we should serve God because it's our "obligation" to serve him because of what he did for us on the cross. But I think rather, we should serve God knowing that following God is the best possible way we can live our lives, regardless of how it turns out for our careers, our pocketbooks, and our social goals.

The first century church at Galatia had received the message of the gospel, but there was a group of legalistic Jewish Christians called the Judaizers who were teaching what Paul called a false gospel that basically said that in order to be a good Christian, you had to keep the rites and laws of the Jewish faith. Paul tells them in Chapter 5 that they were set free for the sake of freedom. That passage applies to us, too. We have been set free!

So does guilt have no place in Christianity? The Holy Spirit, and those who are speaking in its power, are called to bring conviction that we may be made more into the likeness of Christ. So guilt is a necessary part of becoming more like Christ. And we should never lose sight of that idea that we are imperfect sinners in need of work. But a faith that is lived out in a spirit of guilt is no faith at all. We will tiptoe through this world in the fear that we are going to offend the spiritual equivalent of the Green Police. "How can I lead a Bible study after all I've done?" "How can I host a home group? I can't even be a good husband and father." "There's no way I can lead that ministry. I still struggle daily with a lot of junk." Living in guilt prevents us from being the people God has called us to be. So let us deal with the conviction from God, then move beyond our guilt-driven obligatory faith and let us rather, live in a spirit of freedom and victory.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why I Cashed a Check for 18 Cents

Yes, the title is true. I got in my truck, drove to the bank, and cashed a check made out to me for the amount of $.18. You're probably wondering why I even got the check in the first place. Last month, I made my last payment on my truck (9 months early, but who's counting). When I called for the payoff, a computerized voice told me how much to pay as long as I paid before a certain date. A couple of weeks later, I received the title to my truck and a check for $.18. So, given the fact that I have more than that sitting in the cupholder of the truck I just finished purchasing, why would I bother spending the time and gas money to go cash that check? Some would say that I was destroying mother earth by even burning the fossil fuels in my V8 to drive to the bank and make such a ridiculous deposit. (In case you're wondering, it was about 2 blocks away from another errand I had to make.) So here is how I rationalized driving to the bank to cash a check for $.18.

1. Money is money. My wife and I went through Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University over a year ago. And while it took us a while to get on the same page and discipline ourselves, it has really changed our marriage, and our finances. Therefore, literally every cent we have can be utilized for something good, which right now is buying food/groceries or paying off debts.

2. I'm reminded of all the people in the world who don't even have that $.18. In 21st century America, we may be whining about the economy and the recession we may or may not be in, or the economic projections various experts are giving us. But the fact remains that we are still one of the wealthiest countries on earth (at least as individuals we are based on our incomes and our bank accounts). So while that $.18 won't even buy a decent gumball in a dispenser, cashing that check is a matter of principle.

3. Somewhere out there, there is a young lady (or man) working in a cubicle who has been given the task of tracking that account. If I had just torn up that check, or left it in the console of my truck, her books would never be reconciled. Of course this is given the premise that the bank truly runs their books the way we all hope a large bank should. Now, don't think I want a Nobel Prize for being a great humanitarian, but I did have to weigh the consequences of my decision and ultimately I realized there was someone else involved in this greater process.

So what about you? Would you have bothered to cash it? What menial task did you have that seemed like it could have been a waste of your time, but maybe it wasn't?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Evangelism and Discipleship are Inseparable

I am currently serving in the United Methodist Church and have found that in the last four years philosophy of ministry has changed to some extent. Having come from an evangelical background to a mainline denomination, I have notices some stark differences between the way we approach different things, particularly evangelism.

What I've noticed in attending ecumenical events since I've begun working in a mainline church is that any time an event is planned where there may be non-believers in attendance, there must be a concerted effort to present them with the message of the gospel (specifically the idea that Christ's death and resurrection demands a response from us) hopefully causing them to repent of their sins and give their lives to Christ, putting their faith in him as their Lord and Savior. This is not a bad thing at all, so don't think I'm being critical of it. But there are a few problems with making anything specifically evangelistic.

1. With all the effort put into the presentation of the message, there must be an equally concerted effort on follow-up with the new believers. Unfortunately, this is rarely ever done effectively. Young believers are given a commitment card where they are asked to put their church home if they have one. And are otherwise left to follow Christ on their own until a pastor, youth worker, or another believer comes alongside them to get them plugged into the church. This should be a seamless transition, but in over ten years of ministry, I don't think I've ever seen it work well. You can also read a great post by my friend Tim Schmoyer about his struggles with outreach events.

2. New believers go to these outreach-focused events and think everything else in the church or ministry is just like that. Then when they show up to a normal Wednesday night youth meeting without the great band, the lights, and the videos, they are very disappointed. Then they feel like they've been a victim of a bait and switch coupon circular where they were lured into a store for a great buy on a great product only to find they only had two in stock which sold out the first day of the sale.

3. Edification of existing believers must be sacrificed to meet the needs of those who are curious about faith. I have heard some preachers say that every message preached ought to point to the gospel. While I agree with that, I think it gets off track when we put "the gospel" in a box. Making every message point to the fact that Christ died for our sins and we should put our faith in him to be saved will eventually sound like a broken record. While that is the primary tenet of the Christian faith, the fact is the "good news" is so much more than that. So a message can be directed at mature believers and still point to the good news of Christ.

4. Events that are focused primarily on bringing the lost to Christ can be designed to be emotionally manipulative and leave little room for the Holy Spirit. I've been to events where the gospel is presented in some dramatic fashion using vague terminology and a lack of specific criteria where every person in the room could have easily been made to feel that their status with the Almighty was lacking and in need of repair. Maybe some strong guys broke some stuff. Maybe some fantastic athletes shared the message that you can do "all things through Christ." Maybe a great story teller told the most dramatic, captivating rendition of a Bible passage. Maybe there was a band playing the same three chords over and over for 30 minutes lulling the audience into a trance and people start going down front just so they can go home soon. Maybe every head was bowed and every eye was closed and the person who had been made to feel guilty lifted their head, then later walked down front, talked with a stranger, filled out a card, and went home feeling just like she did when she arrived.

5. We equate lots of people coming down front with lots of conversions and spiritual change. I think there is a difference between effective evangelism and giving a good sales pitch. Unfortunately, I've found myself trying to "help God out" by making a dramatic sales pitch for the gospel. And some people do it very well, and the aisles are flooded with teary-eyed spiritual derelicts. But then after all the cards have been filled out and everyone is ready for the next day of work or school, has anything truly changed?

So what is the answer? Am I saying we should not be evangelistic? Absolutely not. But I am saying that we should not separate evangelism from discipleship. When I look back at Acts 2 and read where the believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer, I notice that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. While we don't know what specific teachings they were studying, I have a feeling that if the only tenet they studied was the idea of saving faith through belief in Christ's resurrection, their congregation would not have lasted very long. And remember, this was at a time in history when literally the whole world had not heard the message of Christ. If there was ever a time to be specifically evangelistic, it was then. But they devoted themselves to the entirety of the apostles' teaching.

Another hint is found in the writings of Paul. He refers to mature and immature believers and those who are young in the faith. He also refers to those who are non-believers. He encourages Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. He writes in Ephesians 4:11 that "some are called to be evangelists, while others are called to be pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of the ministry." While those evangelists have their place, their ministry is ineffective without the pastors and teachers who can nurture those young converts in their faith. Look at the encounter of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch. There were no showy gimmicks. There was no worship-band-induced trances. There was no preaching of guilt and eternal damnation. Philip simply was obedient to the Lord and met the Ethiopian where he was. He was already seeking. The Holy Spirit was already at work, Philip was just being available.

The message of Christ really speaks for itself. We should be more concerned with introducing people to it and less concerned with embellishing it to make it appealing. Then, when true conversion occurs, we know it's the work of the Holy Spirit and not the work of our indulgence.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Love the PC User, Not the PC

(Forgive me, Tommy!) Today, I ran across this post entitled Does Using Apple Products Make You a Better Christian? that was posted by my friend Danny Isom on Facebook. The humorous gist of the article suggests that by having Apple products, you are better equipped to carry out various spiritual disciplines. This piqued my interest because if there is an anti-Apple person out there, it's me. I'm not anti-Apple because I do not like their products. I simply, at this stage in my life, cannot find it in my family's current budget to justify purchasing any of their swanky devices. Oh yes, I love the Macbooks, and would love to have an iPad. But rather than going into more debt, I'm content rocking my XP-outfitted Toshiba Satellite that I got 3.5 years ago when our office upgraded it's computers. By the way, this is an office computer. Thanks to a computer crash at our house last year (I've heard that Apples don't do that...), we don't have a computer at home. So that's $50/mo. we don't spend on internet.

But my aversion to the cost of Apple products is not my only quirk in the trendy world of youth ministry. You see, I don't really care for Starbucks overpriced coffee(yes I know about fair trade). I have never worn a scarf when it's not cold. I prefer Third Day and MercyMe to some of the really modern worship music that's out there. I don't have a pair of Toms shoes (can you imagine vaccinating a herd of cattle in them?). I usually wear cowboy boots or flip flops (anything without shoe laces), but I hardly fit the bill of a cool, hipster youth guy. But I digress...

So while I think owning an iPhone, iPod, iPad, or a Macbook would be grand, there is something that makes me equally as proud not to be among the "chosen." That's the encounters I've had with Apple snobs. Yes, they exist...many do not realize that they are, but they exist. On more than one occasion, I've been made to feel less-than-human by a well-meaning geek because I was not sporting the latest silver-clad, touch-screen interfaced, sleek, light, piece of hardware with an illuminated piece of fruit on it. Someone will see me pull out my 12lb. dinosaur which has been described in the above-linked post as a "behemoth" and "clunky", and immediately go on an unpaid sales pitch about the merits of owning an Apple and how he or she has "seen the light." And while many certainly have comfortable enough lifestyles for me not to question how they acquire such fine pieces of machinery, there are others of whom I can only imagine a $10/month high-interest payment until the device begins to rust (or it is no longer cool enough to display in public).

And maybe I bring some of this harshness on myself. Maybe my annoyance with all things Apple is seeded deeper in some bitter childhood encounter with the throes of rejection. But regardless of what Freudian baggage I bring to the table, the fact remains that some Apple users would consider themselves to be the "upper crust" of the tech-pie (is it an apple pie?). And I know there are plenty of genuine Apple users who could care less about their tech toys being status symbols and are simply pleased with the convenience and functionality. For those of you in that group, this post hardly applies.

But as I pondered what I call the Apple snob phenomenon. I was reminded of a time not too long ago, when I was a bit of a snob myself. Not a tech snob, or a money snob. I was a Christian snob. You see, somewhere in my faith journey, I learned that following Christ was about avoiding all types of objectionable behavior (which is not entirely untrue). And so I began to be really systematic in my attempt to avoid these terrible vices. But one thing I did wasn't in Christ's desire for me. You see, as I became consumed with avoiding sin, I also became consumed with avoiding sinners, as well. I look back on my high school and college years and realize there were so many missed opportunities. There were people I never got to know because I didn't want to participate in all the same stuff they did. And now I regret that. And maybe they didn't want to spend time with me either because we were just into different things. But the point was, I never took the initiative to build those relationships. I was a snob. Self-righteousness personified. And this snobbery was way worse than any holier-than-thou feeling that would come from having a cool gadget with a touch screen. The example Christ set for us was that he abhorred the sin but loved the sinner. For that I'm thankful because that means he loves me.

So as Christians, let us live differently from how we once lived, but let's not forget where we came from. For people I never got to know as well as I should have, I can only ask your forgiveness.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Grounding Your Kids From Church

I recently had a discussion with a parent who informed me their student would not be attending youth group for a while until (s)he learned the merits of good decision making. This caused me to ponder a certain phenomenon I have yet to figure out. This weekend as I was on the tractor baling hay, my mind began to think about this idea at length. Here are some things I concluded.

First of all, from a ministry standpoint, grounding a student from church because the student has made bad choices, goes against all logic. In high school I struggled through algebra. When I failed an algebra test, my mom did not forbid me from doing more math homework. It was quite the opposite. My education-minded mother brought me to school early so I could spend time with my teacher learning what I had not yet mastered. So why would a parent whose student is not making good decisions deprive that student from an institution that I believe is set up to help them make good decisions? Here are three possible reasons.

1. Parents do not perceive church youth programs to be relevant, life-changing institutions that truly have a positive impact on their son or daughter's moral development. As youth workers, we know why we got into youth ministry, and it wasn't for the astronomical salary and benefits. It was to see students lives changed as they become molded into the spirit of Christ. However, from the outside looking in, it may be very accurate to say that parents perceive our youth programs as another social function where kids play "chubby bunnies" and have concerts and lock-ins, but do little to shape the spiritual lives of teens.

2. Church youth programs are not relevant, life-changing institutions that truly have a positive impact on their son or daughter's moral development. While some people who have not spent any time in a youth program may not have a clue what goes on, the fact remains that some of our youth ministries are not doing the work God has called us to do. Many of us as youth workers have bought into the "amusement park tour guide" mentality that it is our job just to make sure the kids are too busy to get into "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll". If our programs are not doing anything to mold the spiritual lives of our teens, maybe our parents are justified in grounding their kids from church.

3. Church members in general do not perceive the church to be agents of divine change in the world. If a parent does not perceive the youth group to be an important part of a student's spiritual and moral growth, it may be because the church is not an important part of the parent's spiritual and moral growth. This will depend on the individual and the church. But I would dare say that for many church members (including those with teenage youth), the church is another social network, a place to make business contacts, or it serves another menial role other than being an agent of change in the world.

So what would you add to this list? Do your parents ground kids from church? If so, why do you think that is? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What My Dog Taught Me About God

I have a great dog. His name is Tucker. He's 5 years old and he's 1/2 Lab and 1/2 German Shepherd. Which means he's 85 lbs. of mixed blood fun and loyalty. Tucker loves riding in the truck and following me just about everywhere in the house or otherwise (and yes, I mean everywhere!). He is a very obedient dog and never causes problems. The only time he likes to be hard-headed and strong-willed is when it's time for me to leave the house. We live in the country. It's really hot right now and it's just better for him and us if he stays in the house. However, he's not going to miss the opportunity to ride in the truck, if one comes available.

So as I'm getting ready to leave the house, even if I tell him he's not going to ride (which he does understand), he still tries to dart through my legs and force the door open. Most of the time this ends with me getting in the car and him spending the day in the shade of the porch where it's only about 95 degrees as opposed to 100 in the scorching heat. But what I've noticed is when I'm leaving, if I can make him look me in the eyes and acknowledge me, he will stay when I tell him to "stay". You see, it was never about understanding what I wanted him to do. It was me forcing to acknowledge what I wanted him to do. And so this morning, instead of trying to cover the gap in the door with my legs, I got him to look at me with his big brown eyes and told him to "stay". And you know what? He did it! And then the clouds parted, light shown down from heaven, angel choirs were singing, and I could almost hear God say to me, "Now you know how I feel!"

Whether it is sin in which we continue to engage, or good things that we need to be doing but aren't, obedience to God starts with acknowledging who he is to us. Most of the time when I find myself not doing the things that God wants me to do, I find it's not that I don't know what he wants from me. It's that I choose to acknowledge his presence and place of authority in my life. When Tucker tries to dart out the door, it's not because he doesn't know what I want, it's because he hasn't been made to acknowledge who I am and what I want from him.

God has been known to get the attention of his people. From Moses and the burning bush, the calling of Samuel, Jonah's attempt to run from God, and even Paul on the road to Damascus, God has a way of forcing us to look up at him and say "You're God and I'm not." But one thing I've learned over the years is that life is much simpler when we acknowledge God before he has to get our attention in dramatic fashion. It's my hope and prayer that we will all see Him for who He is and not try to run out the door without giving him the respect he deserves.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Has Social Media Replaced the "Church" Experience?

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm a sports fan, although most of my sports-related posts have been about baseball. But this morning, I was watching Mike & Mike on ESPN2 and they were discussing an issue with this year's NFL season as posted in an article in USA Today. Due to a number of factors, there is an anticipated increase in the number of NFL blackouts this season. A blackout occurs when a team does not sell all its tickets to a home game within 72 hours prior to kickoff, according to NFL regulations, television coverage of that game is blacked out from the local market. This gives fans (and corporations) an incentive to purchase tickets to the game.

Among the factors mentioned for the decrease in stadium attendance were poor performance by the teams, bad weather, and the economy-all which can be expected. But the one thing that struck me was technology. Thanks to HDTV technology and things like NFL Redzone (showing the highlights from all the games in real time), the argument can be made that the at-home TV NFL experience is superior to the being at the stadium with all the sights, sounds, smells, and tailgate BBQ. NFL owners have even gone to adding ridiculously large TVs (anyone been to Jerry's World just outside of Dallas?) and now will have NFL Redzone playing live at game time in each of the 31 stadiums. With the number of NFL fans playing Fantasy Football, access to scores and highlights from other games is a critical part of fan attraction.

So has the paradigm shifted? Is watching the game on TV better than being at the stadium? If this truly has taken place, what does that say about other markets that have a goal of putting people in seats...such as a church? Due to media technology, websites, and the rise in popularity of certain TV preachers, has "getting my church on at home" become easier (seemingly superior) than getting the family up, dressed, and after a 15-minute knockdown drag-out fight getting everyone loaded up in the minivan only to arrive 10 minutes late for Sunday School after the coffee and donuts have just run out and your 4-year olds shoes are still on the wrong feet? When you think about it that way, it's no wonder Joel Osteen has such a following. Has following our favorite Christian thinkers on Twitter or Facebook taken the place of showing up each week to hear a sermon from "our" pastors and church leaders?

Hebrews 10:25 says that we should not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing-but we should encourage each other, all the more as we see the day approaching. The connectibility of our world through technology has replaced the need for physical contact in some places. We all have the internet in our pockets. We all read each others tweets. We all comment to each other on Facebook. But what about "meeting together" as the writer of Hebrews instructed? Are their implications for the church in this culture shift? Do churches need to find ways to reconnect people? One culture shift is the way social media has become geographic with things like Four Square which has made the "miles away" feeling of social media become about being close in physical proximity. So is the church doing all it can to make the church experience superior to the connectivity of the Bedside Church? What can we do to improve?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Most Important Emotion in Ministry

As anyone who works with children or youth knows, every now and then you have discipline issues in the program. This is especially detrimental when the actions of one or more students changes the behavior or feelings of one or more other students. So, as part of our attempt to get all of the students on the same page, we decided to adopt a group covenant. A couple of weeks ago, we sat down and asked ourselves as a group, "How do we want people to feel when they are here at our meetings?" And here are the responses they gave.
  • Happy
  • Accepted
  • Loved
  • Welcome
  • Safe
  • Comfortable
As we looked at this list, I began to notice a sort of heirarchy to these feelings. It brought to mind Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In essence, Maslow believed (I think rightly so) that there are basic needs and more complex needs. Basic needs are things like food, water, sleep, and warmth, while complex needs are needs for security, safety, and even love. When I asked the students which feeling on the list was the most basic, they first answered "loved". After all, God is love and Christ has called us to love our neighbors as ourselves, right? But when I asked them if people could feel loved if they did not feel safe, I got a different answer. It occurred to all of us that safety is the most important feeling one should have when visiting our ministry for the first time. We should not do anything to threaten their self esteem. We should not put them down, embarrass them, or say things that would make them feel uncomfortable.

While we did this in the context of youth ministry, how does that change things if our churches were safe places? Many times first-time visitors are just thrown to the wolves. I enjoyed this blog post about how many people in churches have forgotten what it's like to visit a church for the first time. So what about you? Is your church or ministry a safe place? What things do you do to put visitors at ease? What things could you do better? Please share your thoughts in a comment.