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.

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.

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?

WALK IN THE SPIRIT: What Does Freedom From Sin Mean?

“Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16.

From time to time people ask questions that remind me how deep the discouragement and how hard the battle with sinful impulses can be. One of those came from a friend last week who asked: “What is freedom from the chains of sin?  Freedom to never sin?  Freedom from the worst consequences of sin?  I’ve been pouring over Romans 6 (don’t have to sin), 7 (it’s not me that sins but sin in my flesh), 8 (there is no condemnation),” but he had reached no conclusions.

He is right, of course, about Romans 6, 7, and 8. We are free from slavery to sin and free from the eternal consequences of it, but as long as we live in these fallen bodies we will continue to struggle with the impulse to sin which is why the ministry of the Holy Spirit is so crucial.

Maybe a Star Wars illustration will help us think about it.

At the end of act one in the first movie, Luke, Han, and Leah are trying to regain the Millennium Falcon, fighting their way through. On the opposite side of the hangar, Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi are in a duel to the death.

Darth Vader is overpowering and gloating. “Now I am the Master!”

“Only a master of evil,” says the old Jedi.

Then Obi Wan says: “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

That scene illustrates two metaphors for the Christian life: First, it is about power, but not the kind of power most people imagine, and second, the power we seek comes to us in a counter-intuitive way; to live, to have real power, we must die.

Our lives before the Spirit comes are full of darkness (Titus 3:4-7). A dark life is a life that tries to get its own way all the time; to have its own power. It follows dark impulses. Paul defines that darkness in Galatians 5:19-21.

Hear it in Eugene Peterson’s brilliant paraphrase from THE MESSAGE:

“… repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”

It is the worst of human behavior. And Paul is talking about Christians! When we live according to our ‘old man’ or ‘flesh’ or ‘sinful nature’ as it is variously translated we are capable of all such things. We look no different than the world.

But don’t get discouraged. Paul chooses his words very carefully. The original tense of the verb translated “those who live like this” (v.21) means “habitually practice”.

If your life is marked by this kind of behavior, day after day, week after week, year after year, you are kidding yourself about your salvation. The Spirit doesn’t reside in you.

But a life lived in the power of the Spirit is not like that at all.  It’s a life where the light grows stronger and stronger each day.  It’s outlined in Galatians 5: 22-23.

Here it is again in Peterson’s paraphrase.

“He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

How does all this come about?

God wants our lives to be full of His light, full of his power.  But it doesn’t happen automatically.  Like a Jedi Knight we have a part to play, we must learn how to, “Walk in the Spirit so that we won’t fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Otherwise we will fall back into the habits of darkness.

To walk in the Spirit, we must learn the difference between Spirit and Flesh, how the two operate in us. I’m doing some ministry traveling for the next two weeks and won’t be sure of my internet connection, but if I’m able I’ll write more about the differences between the two and how to walk in the Spirit next week.

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

In an interview one morning with Shankar Vedantam, Steve Innskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition, offered a fascinating peak behind the façade of American religiosity. Innskeep reported the findings of a study that surveyed our actual church attendance versus our professed church attendance. The bottom line: 79% of Americans report themselves as associated with an organized faith group. Nearly half, 45%, of all Americans report that they attend weekly religious services versus only 20% of Europeans. But the actual attendance is about equal: 20 % of Christian Europeans attend religious services each week versus 24% of Americans. Why the discrepancy? According to Vedantam, Americans want to see themselves, and want to be seen, as the kind of people that attend church. But when the clock strikes nine on Sunday morning we’d rather stay in our PJ’s watching Meet the Press than slip on our shoes and shuffle off to Sunday School.

It’s like when the dentist asks if you’ve been flossing. Everyone wants to be seen as someone who flosses. But our teeth tell a different tale. [1]

In the same way, Americans want very much to be spiritually deep people. We want the power that comes from a real, intimate, experience of the living God. But we either don’t know how or else we are confused and disillusioned by what we see in the professing Christians around us. The Church, it seems, looks little different from the world. And in some cases, it looks worse. Our spirituality, measured by positive transformation into healthy, happy, and honorable people, is one thousand miles wide and one inch deep.

Pastor and author John Ortberg summarized our angst well in an interview with Dallas Willard, “I went through this long era of intense dissatisfaction and confusion about spiritual life… It’s the cry of the heart,” he said, “God! I don’t know what to do. I know I need you. I know I want you. But I don’t know what to do. Then I picked up this book (referring to Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines) and opened to the preface and read, “authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to rearrange our lives around the things that Jesus practiced in order to receive life and power from the Father.”

Church attendance isn’t always a good measure of spiritual depth. But that is only one of the spiritual disciplines, and one of the most passive. We can no more expect to experience the transforming power of life in the Spirit via one hour a week of sermonic spiritual dentistry, than we can expect to become professional baseball players by watching the World Series. We have to get in the game. If we want to experience the presence and power of God in our lives, we must put into practice the habits and attitudes that Jesus modeled, the Scripture encourages, and that serious believers have practiced for centuries. (See for example 2nd Peter 1:3-9; Colossians 3:1-4; etc.)

These habits, known as the spiritual disciplines, include: confession, devotion, Bible study, celebration, sabbath, serving, stewardship of time and energy, solitude, self-denial, secrecy, listening, and the many forms of prayer.

Perhaps that is what many of us are saying when we fib to the surveyors about our religious lives: We really want to know God. We just don’t know how.

Want to know more? Three sermons on listening to God from the series The Spiritual Disciplines, are on fccsobo.org. Click the “podcast” tab and then click “Topical Sermons.”

For further reading: The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard; The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg (John calls this “Dallas for Dummies.”); The Transforming Friendship, by James Houston; Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, by Gordon MacDonald; Finding God on the A Train, by Rick Hamlin; Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. You may view the seven minute interview with Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, along with at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj5UaLzIiDA.

 

[1] See NPR.org /  Religion / What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep

 

 

ONE COMMUNITY & THE BASKETBALL BRAWL

ONE COMMUNITY & THE BASKETBALL BRAWL

High School basketball season, 1974, a mild winter’s evening in DeKalb County, Georgia, part of Atlanta’s burgeoning suburbs. My buddies, Randy, Paul, and I left the game and crossed Columbia Drive at the light in front of the high school and began walking up Irish Street toward my house, half a mile away. It was dark, but not too dark to see a group of black kids on the corner, fifty yards ahead, their bicycles laying in the grass either side of the sidewalk.

Randy murmured, “Maybe we should go the other way.” Racial violence was everywhere then, but especially in our school where integration had reached about fifty percent. Scrawny eighth and ninth graders like us paused before entering the school restrooms, hand on the door, listening for who was inside before risking a beating.

“Nah,” I said, “It’ll be alright,” and kept walking, right between the bikes.

“Don’t you touch my bicycle white boy!” I began to reply when WHAP! Something, a belt maybe, hit me and it was on. Outnumbered and scared spitless, the three of us broke and ran in different directions. Three black kids chased me across the street and into someone’s front yard.

I call it the basketball brawl, but it was not much of a fight. I managed to dodge most of the blows and skedaddle to the back door and banged on it asking for help. The porch light flicked on, the door opened slowly, and a large African American man looked down at me and said, “Yes?”

I am a dead man! I thought. But he turned out to be a very nice fellow and let me use his phone to call my folks.

That happened a very long time ago yet, every time I walk down a street and see a group of black kids my gut still does a double clutch.

Fast-forward to Georgia State University in the 1980’s. Atlanta’s races had reached an uneasy peace, with the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Racial violence had declined, but the tensions and many of the attitudes remained. Still, Atlanta was harmony city compared to Memphis, Tennessee, where I went to seminary later in the decade. We could feel the tension and see the hatred in the stares the first week we were there when my wife and I drove into a predominantly black neighborhood looking for apartments. Memphis felt like it was twenty years behind Atlanta.

It’s cliché, but my best friend in seminary, Robert, was a black guy from Augusta, Georgia. We had auto-mechanics in common. He had made the unusual choice—enabled by minority to majority transfer rules of the day—of attending a predominantly white high school. His stories of discrimination and abuse by white law enforcement in Georgia shocked me, but not as much as the fact that his fellow African-Americans treated him like an Uncle Tom for attending our mostly white seminary. Race relations are complicated, I learned. In Memphis, and through my friend, I began to understand what MLK Jr. meant when he talked about the content of our character versus the color of our skin.

Why am I telling you all this? I attended an event titled One Community last week, at the Prizery, our local community arts center. One Community’s mission is: To provide relevant enrichment opportunities and experiences for our community to address racism and diversity issues. My fear, frankly, was that it would be a politically motivated white-bashing party for people full of resentments who wanted to buttress a sense of entitlement. I was pleasantly surprised, met some very nice people, and heard some stories of what it was like to grow up black in segregated schools here in south-side Virginia in the fifties and sixties; stories told with grace, humor, and without animosity. I sensed a longing in that evenly mixed gathering of about 100 people, for understanding and harmony, not hate. Notably, the organizers of the event had invited white people who grew up at the same time to share their stories, but none volunteered. I wish they had.

Why did I attend? As a son of the South I feel no responsibility whatever for the “sins of my fathers.”  Besides my own experiences, I’ve had relatives who were denied career paths because they were, “the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Reverse racism is a thing. But I am also heartily sick of the chaos groups like Antifa are creating in our culture and committed to doing what I can to unravel it. Further, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful antidote to racism that was ever given to mankind. We are called to be ministers of reconciliation, of men to God and of men to each other. We can’t do that by sitting at home and stewing in our own juices. I do not want to stand before God one day and answer, “I had an opportunity to move our community forward and missed it because I wasn’t willing to listen and build relationships.”

At lunch recently with a good friend who is also African American—but prefers to be called plain old Frank—I heard the counterpoint to my basketball brawl, stories of white violence toward blacks that outraged me. And I finally realized, those kids are just as scared of me as I was of them. Isn’t it time we stopped our guts from double clutching and sat down at the table to talk?

BEST PARENTING PARADIGMS John Rosemond’s Parenting by The Book

BEST PARENTING PARADIGMS John Rosemond’s Parenting by The Book

The accuracy of our assumptions determines the effectiveness of our actions. If we assume, for example, that the power line to the lamppost is eighteen inches under ground then we can dig a fifteen-inch hole to plant flowers around the post. But if the line is oh, say, twelve inches deep, and we maintain our assumption of eighteen then we can still plant flowers, we’ll just have to do without the light at night. Visit my house one evening and I’ll show you.

Nowhere is this truer or more obvious than in the outcomes America is experiencing in child-rearing. Since 1965, about the time we traded in our traditional child-rearing assumptions for the new and improved psychological paradigm, “every single indicator of positive well-being in America’s children has been in a state of precipitous decline … The per-capita rate of child and teen depression … has increased at least five fold since 1965. In just one fifteen-year period, from 1980 to 1995, the suicide rate for boys ages ten to fourteen almost doubled!”[1]

Those stats come from John Rosemond’s Parenting by The Book, published in 2007. I’d been reading Rosemond’s syndicated newspaper columns for years, amenning all the way, but I’d never read one of his books. The intro to Parenting by The Book reveals how Rosemond came to his convictions and explains one of the reasons I enjoy his work so much. It’s another case of science catching up with Scripture.

John was not a born-again believer in Jesus when he began his career. He called himself a cultural-Christian up until his early fifties. But his work as a family psychologist kept exposing him to hard facts about human nature that did not fit the post-modern parenting paradigm he’d absorbed in graduate school. The more he wrote, spoke, and counseled based on his findings, the more he found himself in agreement with Christians and at odds with his profession.

Remember those assumptions? Psychology assumes that people are fundamentally good, that we are not responsible for our problems—it’s our parents’ fault—and that we can only be “saved” through therapy. Biblical Christianity assumes that we are created in the image of God with a free will and fully responsible for our choices. But we are also fallen, corrupted by rebelling against him. Our only salvation is in accepting responsibility for our sins, asking for forgiveness, and believing in Jesus Christ who died for our sins. Before he was born again, Rosemond discovered the difference in those assumptions by studying their outcomes.

“I have major problems with the direction my once noble profession has taken since the late 1960’s,” he writes, “when the American Psychological Association was hijacked by secular progressives who were focused more on advancing humanist ideology than advancing the human condition … I am absolutely convinced that modern psychology has done more harm than good to the American family.” These ideas were coalescing in his mind when Rosemond read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, and submitted his life to Jesus.

“The raising of a child, once a fairly straightforward, commonsense affair, has become the single most stressful thing a woman will do in her lifetime,” he writes. “That’s not the way God planned it, but then, God’s way is not modern psychology’s way either.” Parenting by The Book not only dismantles postmodern parenting assumptions, it also lays out a clear path based on the biblical worldview for parents to follow. Every parent should read it.

[1] John Rosemond, Parenting by The Book, p. 66.