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?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Crises, Christ, and Coffee Pots

A couple of months ago, my wife surprised me by buying me a new coffee pot. We had one, but I hardly ever used it opting to just wait until I got to work and get a cup there. The old pot didn't really get the coffee warm enough, so it was just easier to wait until I got to work.

But after she got me the new pot, I realized something. Now, I drink more coffee. This new pot warms the coffee better and it's more pleasing to drink. You see, I always thought I didn't drink much coffee at home because I could get it at the office. But the truth was that I didn't drink it at home because the pot didn't work very well.

As I thought about this the other day, I realized how faith in God has been sold many times like a new coffee pot. People are taught that if they just put their faith in God that all their dreams will come true, they will not have any more financial troubles, and hardships will be a thing of the past. I think this mentality has caused a lot of people to abandon their faith in God because honestly, they "signed up" under false pretenses. Life gets a little rough, and people just chuck it like an old coffee pot. When I went through my divorce, I came to grips with this mentality. As I was growing up in my faith, somewhere along the way I grew to believe that if I just followed God and put my faith in him, that life would be a cakewalk. Then at 22 years old, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was up against something that was beyond my control and there wasn't enough praying or church-going I could do to stop it.

I was at a crossroads. I could have abandoned my faith in God because, after all, it didn't work. It didn't shield me from this hardship. It didn't give me immunity from life's problems. It didn't even make the situation less painful. So what value was it? Well, what I've learned about faith in God is it's not immunity from life's hardships, but rather, it's the thing we cling to when the hardships come. Jesus said in John 16 that the believers (us) in this world WILL have trouble, but we can take heart because he has overcome the world!

So, hardships are a normal part of living in a fallen world. If life is getting rough, take heart. Christ has overcome the world. Just don't abandon your faith and toss it. A coffee pot can be replaced, but there is nothing in this world that can take the place of the love of God.