PARTY WITH A PURPOSE

PARTY WITH A PURPOSE

It was a muggy fall evening in 2000 and our youth leader Marty, and I were almost finished. We’d been at the county fair all afternoon conducting surveys to learn the spiritual needs of our community. Among the questions we polled: Do you attend a church? Why or why not? What attracts you to a church or turns you off?

The replies varied on all but the last question: What do you think the county needs most?

Ninety percent responded with, “Something for the youth.”

I was already leading a small outreach to Christian kids on Wednesdays at the middle school, but, frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. Marty was doing a great job with the kids from our church, but they were already “churched” kids and besides, he had a full-time job at the power plant. He was doing as much as he could. A local pastor’s group, of which I was a member, considered opening a youth center downtown, but funding and leadership were insurmountable hurdles, mostly leadership. We knew that anything effective would need a dedicated leader, called to minister to kids, with plenty of time on his or her hands.

Nine years went by and though I prayed about it from time to time, nothing happened. Then one day I got a cold-call, “Hi, I’m Dave Snyder and I’d like to talk to you about a ministry called Young Life.” I had known a Young Life guy in seminary and was impressed so I listened. “My kids are grown, but I feel a burden from God to get something going for the youth. I think Young Life is the way to go. Would you be willing to visit one of their camps and think about serving on a startup committee?”

I visited two camps that season and was so impressed I’ve been involved ever since. Here’s what I learned.

Young Life was founded in 1941 by Presbyterian minister Jim Rayburn. It is known for its high-quality youth camps—they study Disney World for ideas—and enormously fun club nights. They call it a party with a purpose. But it isn’t about the camps, or the clubs, or the party. It’s about the kids.

Teens have tense, pressure-filled, lives. Well over half live in broken homes. Smartphones and social media make escape from peer pressure impossible. Drugs and alcohol are everywhere. The sexual revolution is steam-rolling them into porn addictions, unwanted pregnancy, STD’s, abortion and emotional emptiness. Dave Snyder got involved after attending a law enforcement seminar on growing gang activity in our community.

Young Life starts with concerned adults who are willing to go life-on-life with teens on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship. That takes time, patience, trust, and authenticity. Its leaders go to their games, and hang-out with them at Bojangles to build real relationships. And not just with churched kids, Young Life specializes in developing innovative approaches to reach uncommitted, disinterested teens. It is the most sociologically intelligent outreach organization I’ve ever seen.

Young Life’s mission is simple: Introduce teens—all teens, black, white, Hispanic, everyone—to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith. They don’t wait for the kids to come to church, they go where the kids are and earn the right to share the gospel with them.

Most pastors are generalists by default. We do not have the training or the time to invest in teens effectively. Most church youth pastors also play multiple roles for their congregations and can’t spend the necessary time with unchurched kids.

Our county launched Young Life when local teacher, Sarah Reaves, after responding to Dave Snyder’s invitation to attend a camp, volunteered to lead it part-time without pay for its first year. Many kids began relationships with Christ under her leadership. Last year we took a financial risk and invited Matt Rich to lead full-time. He’s been doing great work. Last weekend, twenty-five teens from our community attended fall weekend at a Young Life camp. Eight began relationships with Jesus Christ. I’ve been in ministry over twenty-five years and never seen that kind of effectiveness. That’s why our church has Young Life in its monthly budget.

I hope you will put it in yours.

For more information, or to give online, visit http://www.younglife.org.

OF TIME AND TELOMERES

OF TIME AND TELOMERES

“My arm won’t quit hurting and I can’t figure it out. It hasn’t slowed me down yet, but I’m in constant discomfort.”

“The weather has cleared, and I need to be out working but my back is a wreck. I can hardly move. I’m on my way to the doctor now.”

“My wife used to walk five miles with me every day. Now she can barely make it down the block and the doctors don’t know what’s wrong.”

“I never felt old, but once I did, I got old quick!”

I could fill pages with such quotes, and not all of them from my baby-boomer peers. Some are men and women twenty years or so behind me. They got me thinking about time and telomeres, or frailty, the inevitability of it, and how to handle it.

Telomeres form a kind of protective cap at the ends of our chromosomes. Scientists liken them to the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces that prevent them unraveling. They degrade as we age and as they do, disease becomes more likely.[1] As sure as the sun rises our telomeres will unravel and with them our bodies.

Of course, this is not news. David sang, “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” [2]

And Moses wrote, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”[3]

The young never imagine getting old but are wise to take good care of themselves. I never believed in unions with their high labor costs and productivity choking rules until I saw what low-profit-margin manual labor and inadequate support does to the bodies of young men. It isn’t pretty. Most of them are somewhat crippled by age 55 and unable to work by 60. I still don’t like unions, but young contractors could learn a thing or two from them about the bids they offer and the jobs they take. Their bodies might last longer if they did.

Middle-aged people, even in white collar jobs, can see their slow-down coming. But most don’t take time to think about it. They’re in the middle of margin-less living, to borrow a phrase from Dr. Richard Swenson. And most aren’t setting aside the financial resources that will provide security when they can’t keep up with the guys in their thirties. Spending less and saving more would go a long way to securing their future.

My grandma, who was not known for profanity, shockingly said, “I don’t mind being old, it’s just such hell getting there!” Most senior friends will agree. They know now what their 30-something selves never imagined, and some are depressed by it. But they shouldn’t fall prey to the lie of uselessness. Remember Simeon who blessed the baby Jesus, and the prophetess Anna who did the same (See Luke 2:25-38)? Drink deeply of scripture and develop a life of prayer. Think about the major life lessons you’ve learned—you remember them as stories—and boil them down to short sentences, personal proverbs you can share when the time is right. They are invaluable to the blades of grass coming up behind you.

Frailty is a fact of life, but Christ has overcome it for all who will believe. He died for us that we might live forever and rose from the grave to guarantee that promise. Long after our flower has faded, and our earthly place has forgotten us, we will be living in flawless bodies that time and telomeres cannot touch.

Have you put your faith in him yet?

[1] From Wikipedia.

[2] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 103:15–16). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Ps. 90:12

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

FAITH IN THE CLOUDS

The tiny taxi’s wheels crunched gravel and sand as we dodged yet another car-sized hole in the washed-out road through the Himalayan foothills. Rounding a bend our host said something in Nepalese to the driver and he whipped the little car sideways, backed up into a gravel patch and stopped. We were on this road to view Mount Everest, but it remained lost to us all day, shrouded in clouds.

We found instead evidence of the movement of God that is also shrouded to most western eyes.

“Here,” said our host in clipped English, pointing to a narrow, red, three-story house built into the side of the hill, “this is a Church, and this is the pastor.”

The proud pastor, whom I’ll call Sundar, led us down into the second-floor. “This is the worship center,” he said. “My family lives upstairs and we work downstairs.” We removed our shoes and followed him inside a 30’ X 15’ room with no chairs. “Fifty people at a time worship. The Church has 250,” he explained. “Fifty-eight are baptized believers.”

Two pictorial Bibles graced the yellow walls, the whole narrative of Scripture on three-by-four-foot banners filled with 5” X 7” images from the Garden of Eden to Revelation. The Lord’s Prayer, in Nepalese, was on the far wall, The Apostle’s Creed stood opposite. So, this is how they do it, I thought. This is like the early Church, before anybody had Bibles. They tell the stories and recite the Creed to cement the meaning of the stories in place, then follow the Lord in prayer. Remarkable!

More remarkable still was the faith of Pastor Sundar.

Sundar started the church about ten years ago in a rented house near the district’s Buddhist temple and police station. “The first year was OK,” he said, “no problem.” But by the end of the second year, with more and more people attending, the Buddhist monk got angry.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” said Sundar. “The Buddhist monk attacked me. He slapped me three times saying, ‘Why did you come here? What do you think you are doing?’ and he mocked me, and the Church, and Jesus.”

“I was angry,” said Sundar, “so I prayed: God, what am I to do? If I grab him and throw him down the mountain he will die. Then the authorities will arrest me. So, what do I do?”

Immediately, God spoke to his heart, “Sundar, this chance to suffer for me many people do not get. But you get this chance. There is no need for you to take revenge. I’ll take care of him.”

“I am an easily angered man, but all this happened inside my heart in an instant. So, I threw my hands up and said, ‘Lord, I give thanks!’ And the Buddhist monk walked away, still mocking and joking about Jesus, and opened his clothing and urinated in public.” (This is an intense form of mockery for them, like saying: “I relieve myself on your god!”)

The quarrel had attracted three policemen from the nearby station. One said nothing to the monk. The second said to Sundar, “Why are you arguing with the monk? He does good things for the community!” The third said to the monk, “This man Sundar brings new things, good things to our town. You should not quarrel with him.”

“Within three months,” said Sundar, “The man who said nothing was transferred out of the area. The man who opposed me was paralyzed in half his body. And the man who supported me was left here. God confirmed his word to me that day.”

Nepal is an officially secular, but predominantly Hindu nation with stiff laws against evangelism. It is also the birthplace of Buddha. I was amazed by the strength of Sundar’s faith and the vitality of his Church. Professor Phillip Jenkins, in his landmark work, The Next Christendom, explains what I was seeing: “By most accounts, membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs in to the hundreds of millions, and congregations are located in precisely the regions of fastest population growth. Within a few decades, such denominations will represent a far larger segment of global Christianity and just conceivably a majority. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority.”[1]

There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of men like Sundar leading new churches all over the global south. They are expecting to meet persecution of all kinds every day and trusting God in the middle of it. Are we?

[1] Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, third edition, 2011, p. 9, Kindle version.

IS YOUR PREACHER GETTING IT RIGHT? Five Steps to Accurate Interpretation

IS YOUR PREACHER GETTING IT RIGHT? Five Steps to Accurate Interpretation

Eugene Peterson, best known for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, has died at age 85. One of Peterson’s lesser known works, Eat This Book, includes this challenging word: “The practice of dividing the Bible into numbered chapters and verses … gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken up at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit.”[1]

Peterson was right, but his challenge raises a serious question: How can we know we are interpreting Scripture correctly? Perhaps more important, since most pastors—including this one—often preach topical sermons with collections of verses from different books of the Bible, how can we be sure they are getting it right?

Accurate Bible interpretation is a big subject so I’m boiling it down to five steps anyone can take toward accuracy. The steps are a summary of the study method Haddon Robinson teaches in his book, Biblical Preaching. They are so simple anyone with a high school education can use them.

First, read a paragraph or better yet a chapter at a time. Note any questions you have about it. Are there cultural, historical, grammatical, geographical references or vocabulary you don’t understand? Is it poetry, history, story, wisdom literature, or prophecy? Each literary type has associated interpretive guidelines. We do not interpret poetry for instance with the same level of specificity as law. Jot down your questions to look up later.

Why whole paragraphs? Paragraphs as opposed to individual verses, are complete units of thought. Later translations like the NIV and ESV identify them in the typeset. But most important, read complete thought units, not just verses.

Second, ask: What’s the subject? What’s the author talking about? Example: In Ephesians 6:10-20, the Apostle Paul is talking about spiritual warfare, our struggle “against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world…” That’s his subject, the main thing he’s addressing in the paragraph.

Third, ask: What’s the compliment? In other words, what is he saying about the subject? In our passage he’s saying, “Be strong in the Lord … put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand…” He could have said, “Run away!” But he didn’t. He said to take a stand. That’s the compliment.

Fourth, ask: What’s the context? What is said about the subject in the sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and rest of the book that precede and follow that paragraph? What about the rest of the Bible? Do we see Jesus, Peter, or any of the other writers addressing spiritual warfare? Can we—keeping the contexts of their comments in mind as well—legitimately apply their insights and knowledge to Paul’s? This is where many Bible interpreters get in trouble. Context is king. “A text without a context is a pretext,” someone said. Context is even more important than vocabulary because it gives shading and a frame of reference for individual words.

Fifth, ask: What principles do I see emerging from my analysis? One of the most prominent in Ephesians 6:10-20 is that God expect us to stand strong in the battles, not to run away. Courage, faith, fortitude, and above all preparation, “putting on the full armor,” are supporting principles but taking a stand seems to be the main one.

You may need to answer some of your questions from step one before you can take that fifth step. Most good study Bibles, like the NIV Study Bible or The ESV Study Bible etc. will help as will a good online resource like BlueLetterBible.org.

We should never read a text of scripture and ask: What do you think it means? That invites us to use the Bible simply as a mirror to reflect what we feel in the moment. We don’t find its meaning in ourselves, we find it in the text as the authors wrote it. Ask, “what did Paul mean? What did Luke or John or Matthew or Moses mean?” That’s the way to interpret the Bible or any other text. Then we take that meaning and build bridges for how it might apply in our time and culture. The NIV Application Commentary is structured like that. It’s easy to read and a good addition to any Bible study library.

These five steps will take anyone who uses them to a deeper level of understanding than most people ever develop about the Bible.

And what about your preacher? It all boils down to trust. Has he demonstrated over time that he knows and respects the Scriptures well enough that he will not turn a text into a pretext and make it say something the Bible never said? No one gets it right one hundred percent of the time, but if he’s following these principles he’ll be close.

[1] Pg. 101. Quoted from John Stonestreet’s Breakpoint Facebook post of October 22, 2018.

GOD & HURRICANES

GOD & HURRICANES

Carl F. H. Henry, a well-known theologian of the 20th century who was respected for the profundity of his work and revered for his intellectual brilliance, wrote: “I think we are now living in the very decade when God may thunder his awesome “paradidomai” (“I abandon, or I give [them] up,” Romans 1:24) over America’s professed greatness … Our nation has all but tripped the worst ratings on God’s Richter scale of fully deserved moral judgement.”[1]

Henry said that in November of 1980. Almost four decades have passed. Things have gotten worse and better at the same time. Should we be thinking about hurricanes and other natural disasters as the judgment of God, or is something else going on?

No one on this planet knows when judgment will come or where it will fall, not even Jesus (See Matthew 24:36-39).

On the other hand, natural disasters provide opportunity for God’s people to excel themselves in showing mercy by serving those in need. As Mr. Rogers said, “When bad things happen, look for the helpers.” Thousands of Southern Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and other faith groups like Samaritan’s Purse, which our church supports, coordinate their relief efforts through National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) and stay in disaster-stricken areas long after the storm has passed. In 2017, NVOAD’s CEO, Greg Foster, reported that “80% of all disaster recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based.” That’s where God is working.[2]

The only natural – disaster – type judgments recorded in scripture occurred after they were specifically prophesied by one of God’s servants as such. Think of Noah and the Flood, Moses and the ten plagues, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Calling a natural disaster the judgment of God after the fact is theological Monday-morning-quarterbacking.

God is able and sometimes does use the natural elements to execute his judgment, but his habit is to tell us beforehand. Short of that, we should understand all natural disasters as the result of the fall and the curse.

Every natural disaster is an opportunity for us to consider our mortality, our impending personal interview with the judge of the universe. The book of Hebrews explains that, “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.” Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment we will give an account for every careless word we speak (Matt.12:36). Hurricanes are an opportunity for humility and reflection, as are other near-death experiences.

The best news that anyone can ever hear is that judgment has already happened, and they missed it.

Scripture says all of us carry enough sin to be swallowed up by God’s ultimate judgment. But it also says that all of us can, if we are willing, take refuge in the cross of Christ. He absorbed the energy of God’s judgment for our sin (Romans 3:22-26).

Hurricanes and other natural disasters are to be expected on planet earth after the fall and cannot always be avoided, but they can be prepared for. So too with the judgment of God: It cannot be avoided, but it can be prepared for by taking refuge in Christ.

[1] Citation: Carl F.H. Henry, The Christian Century (Nov. 5, 1980). Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 8.

[2] https://dailycaller.com/2017/09/10/christians-provide-more-aid-to-hurricane-victims-than-fema/

ALL ABOUT THE TEAM

ALL ABOUT THE TEAM

When Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley began talking to Billy Graham about writing a book on his leadership secrets the first thing he referred to was “The Team”. Think back on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and it’s always referred to that way. To his dying day, Billy gave credit to God and the team that committed to work with him saying: “It seems to me that the Lord took several inexperienced young men and used them in ways they had never dreamed.”

Myra and Shelley’s book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, chronicles twenty-one leadership principles that emerged from his life and ministry. None is more important than teamwork. Cliff Barrows, Billy’s chief platform partner for over sixty years, said that Billy showed, “he is a friend of the team. He always spoke of the team and team activities as ‘ours,’ not as ‘me and mine.’ ”

Given Billy’s familiarity with Scripture it is no surprise. Jesus sent his men out in pairs. The Apostle Paul never traveled without a team. We see it in the Old Testament as well, especially in Nehemiah.

Nehemiah chapter three is a detailed account of the reconstruction of the wall of Jerusalem and the names of the workers that rebuilt each section. Most likely this account formed part of a report to King Artaxerxes as all such nationally sponsored projects would have required. Many preachers and commentators overlook Nehemiah three. Chuck Swindoll in his book on Nehemiah, “Hand Me Another Brick,” skips it entirely. Others write it off as, “a meaningless list of names and assignments.”

But the truth is Nehemiah’s third chapter is a message on the triumph of teamwork.

The work can be traced on a map of Jerusalem by the naming of the gates in the text. It begins with the Sheep Gate (vs.1) and goes counter clockwise to the Fish Gate (vs. 3), then the Jeshanah Gate (vs. 6), the Valley Gate (vs.13) and so on back to the Sheep Gate.

Nehemiah is giving credit to his “team”. In fact, go down the list of workers and you will find a man named Nehemiah, but it isn’t the governor. He leaves himself out of the list which is unusual for ancient leaders. Instead, each man, each family, each craft or guild or district (goldsmiths, bakers, merchants, guards, temple workers, etc.) had a place on the wall-building team. Everyone had a part to play.

As governor Nehemiah didn’t have to do it that way. He could have taxed the whole territory and paid professionals to build the wall or pressed one group of skilled people into slavery to do it. But he knew the whole community, working with the right motivation under the direction of skilled supervisors, could do it much better and quicker and without the rancor created by doing it the other way.

The old saying is true, leaders can accomplish remarkable things if they don’t care who gets the credit. Are you part of a team yet?

WHAT’S ON YOUR BOOKSHELF?

WHAT’S ON YOUR BOOKSHELF?

Think for a moment about your Bible. Perhaps you have a favorite, but most American Christians have multiple versions.  I’ve had an NIV Study Bible on my desk for over twenty years, an essential resource for my work. I carry a personal Bible in my briefcase, well-marked from years of prayer and preaching. And I have multiple versions on my smartphone via the YouVersion app.

Do the same with your favorite Christian writers. Many of us can point to a few key authors or books that strengthened our faith. Chuck Swindoll, Charles Colson, J. I. Packer, John R. W. Stott, and Haddon Robinson not only line my shelves but shaped my soul. Then there are the tools like concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries that help us understand God’s Word in its historical and cultural contexts.

We don’t just have libraries, we have great treasuries of wisdom and knowledge on our shelves.

Now, imagine you’d never had a single one. Imagine being a new believer and the only resource you have is a 100-year-old edition of the King James Version that is difficult to understand and doesn’t even have a concordance in the back.

Imagine being a new believer and not even having that.

Now you know what it is like to be a follower of Christ in most of the non-English speaking world. That is why I visited Nepal and India last week, to find out how important Bible translation and the development of companion resources really is in the rest of the world.

In short, it is enormously important.

I met some fascinating people as well. Consider: Last year it became illegal to proselytize in Nepal. If you are caught with a Bible on your person, or talking to someone about your faith, you face a fine roughly equivalent to a year’s wages and imprisonment for five years.

Yet I worshiped with 1500 Nepalese Christians who are willing to take that risk. Why? They know the power of the gospel first hand, to heal, to deliver from demonic oppression, and to set them free from slavery to dark spiritualities. Their goal is to finish planting a strong, well-led church in every village in the Himalayas in the next decade!

I also worshiped with and preached to over 700 Indian pastors and church planters, some who traveled for days by bus and on foot, who are committed–in spite of official government opposition–to planting churches all over India. They want every people group in that hugely diverse country to know Jesus and experience the peace he brings.

If they even own a Bible, these brothers and sisters and millions–yes millions–like them have at best a 100-year-old Hindi translation from the King James. It’s hard for monolingual Americans to comprehend how this separates them from the Word. Hindi is the national language of India, but there are 11 other major language groups in the country and dozens of derivative dialects from each major group. Imagine trying to read the Word of God in Spanish with the equivalent of your High School Spanish level learning.

Yeah, it’s like that.

What’s on your bookshelf? Are you digging into those riches, or letting them gather dust? And what would you be willing to do to help your brothers and sisters in Christ in the global south share in that great treasury?