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.

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/

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

I was approaching agoraphobia—the inability to be in a crowd—and didn’t know it, but then, I didn’t know much of anything about anxiety disorders in 1980. All I knew was that I had trouble sleeping, I was constantly worried, I felt terribly alone, incessantly churning down inside. I had been a confident, risk-taking teen, but by age twenty all that was gone. I was so uncertain of myself that I stayed in my car between classes at the junior college and drove straight home after lunch to spend the rest of the day alone and miserable. The only way I could describe it was that it felt like I was free-falling, with no bottom in sight and no rope to stop me.

If any of that sounds familiar, then you may be among the thirty-odd percent of Americans who, according to the National Institutes of Health, have an anxiety disorder. It’s even worse among college students, 62% of whom reported “overwhelming anxiety” in 2016 according to The New York Times.[1]

The search for peace is driving unprecedented sales of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, over 15.2 billion dollars and rising in 2015.[2] The medications have helped many people. And the more we learn about the brain the better. But finding peace is about more than balanced brain chemistry. It’s about inner harmony. Bottom-line: if our souls are out of balance the medications will only mask problems, problems that, if resolved, might preclude the need for medications.

It behooves us to ask then, what exactly is peace?

Peace means wholeness. Shalom—fullness of life—is the old Hebrew word. Harmony, which comes from the Greek Ireinei (pronounced I-Ray-nye), “at one again,” is another. When I have inner peace I am at one, I am whole. My mind and heart are in harmony and every part of me is in agreement. Inner peace has little to do with external circumstances and everything to do with how my mind and heart respond to those circumstances. One thing is certain: I cannot have peace with others if I do not have peace within.

We chase peace in many ways.

Fame is one, the search for which is exacerbated by social media. Teens especially are vulnerable. When we are well-known (translation: many “friends” and “followers”) and well liked, the center of attention, we have peace. But the peace of fame is fleeting. It leaves us empty and anxious when the spotlight turns, as it inevitably will, to someone else.

Perfection is another. Pursuing perfection makes us feel an inch taller than everyone else. Ben Franklin had thirteen rules of virtue but found he could never keep them all at once. Eventually we hit the wall, the end of our ability to achieve whatever goal we set be it athletic, musical, moral or financial. When that happens, peace is replaced by frustration, another word for anxiety.

Finally, some pursue peace through conformity to a sub-culture: We’re Goths or Gays, Progressives or MAGA’s, Baptists or Brethren. Conformity is sturdy, reliable. The boundaries are clear and so are the “ins” and the “outs.” But conformity offers peace only to insiders. It erects barriers to outsiders. In the end, conformity is the peace of prison. Life stops at the gates.

The Bible explains where our anxiety comes from. We are fragmented, incomplete creatures, created whole in the image of God but broken at the fall. We are jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, un-synchronized and incomplete without relationship with Him who made us.

The Bible also offers the path to peace: Jesus. “For he himself is our peace,” wrote Paul, “who made the two one.” Jesus is our peace because of two things: His personal wholeness, he is shalom personified, and his work of redemption. He restored our broken relationship with God.

Jesus is the only unfragmented person who ever lived. He is complete, lacking nothing. “In him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.”[3]

Jesus restored, synchronized and harmonized, our relationship with God. “We have peace with God through” him.[4] He filled up what was lacking in us by “making us complete” in himself.[5] He unifies our minds in peace, overcoming our mental fragmentation by the control of his Spirit.[6]

In March of 1980 I gave my life to Christ, asking him to take control, and experienced the “peace that passes understanding.” The falling stopped, and my feet were finally on solid ground. I have had many ups and downs since then, but the rock beneath my feet has never moved. Aren’t you ready to do the same?

[1] https://www.eab.com/daily-briefing/2017/10/18/why-extreme-anxiety-is-at-an-all-time-high-among-american-students

[2] https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/anxiety-disorders-and-depression-treatment-market

[3] Colossians 2:9

[4] Romans 5:1

[5] Colossians 2:10

[6] Romans 8:6 & 9.

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

A RADIO FOR SPEAKING TO GOD

Maybe you remember one of my favorite scenes from the first Indiana Jones movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The villain, French archaeologist Beloche’, leans in to the drunk, grieving hero who believes he’s just lost his girlfriend, “Jones!” he insists, “the Ark is a radio for speaking to God!”

“You wanna talk to God?” the angry Jones slurs as he reaches for his pistol and begins to stand, “Let’s go see him together. I got nothing better to do!”

But before Beloche’s thugs can gun him down, friend Sala’s children rush in shouting, “Uncle Indy, come quick!” and haul him away to safety.

Everybody wants to communicate with God, but fewer and fewer seem to know how. That’s become apparent in many pastoral conversations I’ve had recently.

“How can I tell if this is what God wants us to do?”

“How can I have a more fulfilling spiritual life?”

“Why are there so many different kinds of churches and what distinguishes one from the other?”

These questions and others like them come up more and more often and, even though the questions are quite different, I find my answers keep circling back to the same theme: what the Bible is and what it does in our lives.

The Bible is the Word of God and therefore speaks with absolute authority on every theme it addresses. But don’t take my word for it.

Jesus, whom the Apostle John called “the Word,”–another way of saying God incarnate—also called the Old Testament, “the word of God.”[1] The Apostle Peter explained that the prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Spirit.” He also designated Paul’s writings as equal in authority to “the rest of the Scriptures.”[2] And, most notably, Paul explained that all Scripture is “God breathed,” in other words, inspired by God and therefore completely authoritative.

Without the Bible we cannot know how to become a Christian, how to live as a Christian, or how to grow up into full spiritual maturity. Our response to the Bible is first to seek to understand it, then trust it, then obey it. When we do these things we are understanding, trusting, and obeying God.[3]

More than anything else, what distinguishes one church from another is how they think about Scripture. Is it the only authority for all matters? Or is it one among many? It doesn’t matter very much which label a church wears, what matters is its commitment to Scripture as the Word of God.

Those are the basics about the Bible, but something much more powerful, much more transformative and fulfilling awaits when we commit ourselves to reading, understanding, trusting and obeying it. It’s best captured in Hebrews 4:12:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” [4]

This book is alive. The Spirit of God breathed it into the lives of its authors and breathes through its pages still, as they are read, studied, and preached, accomplishing several things in our souls that only it can do.

It awakens within us the knowledge of God’s holiness, our sin and separation from him, his love for us in Christ, and the salvation available only through him.[5] It reveals to us our true selves before the one true God who is full of holy love, speaking tender words of illumination, conviction, encouragement, and power for his children.[6] It gives us God’s wisdom for living healthy, joyful, meaningful lives.[7]

The list goes on and on, but I’m running out of space.

Want your questions answered? A spiritually fulfilling life? A radio for speaking to God? Read the Bible, trust it, learn how to properly interpret and apply it, and above all obey it. You will be speaking to God, and more importantly, he will be speaking to you.

[1] John 10:35

[2] 2 Peter 1:21 & 2 Peter 3:16.

[3] Wayne A. Grudem, Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, p. 17

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Heb 4:12). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[5] Acts 2:22-41; Romans 10:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-15

[6] Hebrews 4:12; 2nd Peter 1:3-4;

[7] 1Cor. 2:6-13; James 3:1; Proverbs 2:1-15.

CALLED TO SOMETHING MORE: Os Guinness on finding life’s purpose

CALLED TO SOMETHING MORE: Os Guinness on finding life’s purpose

Are you a doctor, a lawyer, a mom or a dad? Are you an engineer or sales rep, a husband or wife or any of a list of a hundred other things? Or are you something more? Have you found and fulfilled the central purpose of your life?

The great mistake so many of us make is to imagine that only preachers and missionaries have a “calling” from God. Some of us go as far as entertaining the thought that maybe doctors and nurses and others in the health professions have it too. But mechanics and plumbers? Engineers and inventors? CEO’s and wait-staff? Calling? From God? You’re kidding right? Our jobs aren’t callings. We just pray, pay and play. We make it possible for others to pursue callings.

Not so says Os Guinness in his 2003 book, THE CALL: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.

Calling is the truth, writes Guinness, “that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” Calling is the ultimate “why” for human living. “Follow Me!” was not just a command for Peter, James, and John. It’s for all of us.

The book is arranged in twenty-six short chapters, each addressing an aspect of calling from finding our purpose in the way we are made—the talents, passions, and aptitudes inherent in our DNA—to determining our ethics and discovering our passion by living before an audience of One. But they aren’t dry and academic. Every chapter connects to real life by beginning with an interesting story—from Thermopylae to Studs Terkel—and ending with a devotional challenge to apply what’s been learned. It also includes a study guide at the end for group discussion.

Unlike some very popular books on purpose, THE CALL is not a rehash of worn out motivational ideas that flatter in order to deceive and fail to deliver over the long haul. Guinness covers the pitfalls of calling as well as the potential and reminds us that we are not the center of the story, Christ is. And calling is not something we achieve on our own. The timing and opportunities are of God’s making. He calls us to be what he alone knows we can be.

As book reviews go, I realize I’m behind the curve by reporting on a book released 15 years ago. But, if you are like me and find the world is a more challenging place than a simple page or two of soft devotional thoughts will cover each morning, pick it up. It moved me, so I think it will move you.

With that in mind I’ll leave you with one of Guinness’s chapter ending devotional challenges:

Do you have a reason for being, a focused sense of purpose in your life? Or is your life the product of shifting resolutions and the myriad pulls of forces outside yourself? Do you want to go beyond success to significance? Have you come to realize that self-reliance always falls short and that world-denying solutions provide no answer in the end? Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.

GROWING UP IN GOD’S UNIVERSITY

The interview was disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most troubling thing is that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life. But she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her live as a true follower of Christ. I should not have been surprised.

In 2005, University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith and colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton published The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, revealing that most teens adhered to a pseudo-religion Smith dubbed MTD, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its tenets:

  • There is a God who created everything and watches over us.
  • That God wants people to be good as defined by most world religions.
  • The goal of life is happiness and feeling good about oneself.
  • We only need God when we have a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In other words, the moral part is superseded by the therapeutic. Purity of heart, Christlike sacrifice for others, repentance, forgiveness and the pursuit of righteousness and the rule of God in life[1] aren’t in the picture. Feeling good trumps everything.

Smith’s follow-up research published in 2011 showed nothing had improved. Though 40 percent of young believers said their moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or other religious feeling, it is unlikely that those beliefs were biblically consistent. And 61 percent “had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism.”[2]

Those teens are grown up now and most of America follows MTD.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be. The Church should be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.[3]

Healthy Churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some examples: What do you think about climate change?  How about a nuclear-armed Iran? What about health care? College debt? How about the Virginia Tax Code? And what about education? Helping the poor? Sex-ed in schools?

Simple answers elude us. How should a serious Christian respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think. That’s what it means to develop a Biblical Worldview. Christians truly educated in God’s university know how to ‘think Biblically’ on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. In that sense, a healthy church produces better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers and better citizens because it produces better thinkers.