Why "Family-Equipping Discipleship" Is Needed Now More Than Ever (And Is Better Than What We Grew Up With)

Our church has been making the long shift from a family-based or programmatic ministry model to a family-equipping model over the past few years. It is difficult to understand why for man, but here is another reason... 
 
From Reggie Joiner and Carey Nieuwhof's book Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. (We give this to every parent during parent dedication services.)
 
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A dad was concerned as his daughter cooled toward the faith in her early teen years. She began to date a boy the dad described as "bad news," started to dress differently, and showed a general disdain for church. He confided to a pastor, "I just don't know what I am doing wrong! We have always been faithful at church, making it a priority. We've had her memorize the verses. We've sent her on the youth activities."
 
"What ministries is your family involved in?" replied the pastor. The father couldn't name any. "That might be your problem," said the pastor.
 
"The world is offering your daughter a more compelling story than you are. In the world she sees adventure and purpose. Here at church you have treated her as a receptacle of information."
 
The story goes on about how the father found a small orphanage in Central America that his family could adopt. It's a great story of living out the gospel, rather than simply gathering information about the gospel. It's also a good reminder that discipleship cannot be outsourced. It begins at home. 
____
 
This story is shared in J.D. Greear's book Gaining by Losing.
 
For more on the family-equipping model, read this previous post on the "One-Eared Mickey Mouse" here.

As Southern Baptists, We Aren't Even Reaching and Keeping Our Own Kids

Numbers and statistics can be grueling. Just ask anyone (like me) who moved through two semesters of statistics in college and more in graduate work. The values are vital and helpful, but can become overwhelming. Also, apart from good statistical procedures and analysis, numbers can be misleading, if not totally wrong. That is why I read through articles as carefully as possible and seek to discover where the numbers were gathered, if there was a large enough sample to make the statements being made, and if the information is helpful or simply click-bait for more articles.

As a Southern Baptist pastor who has been leading our church toward a family equipping model of ministry, any story that speaks of losing the next generation always piques my interest. Based on information from the Annual Church Profiles (ACP) (viewable here) provided by participating Southern Baptists, a downward trend in certain areas of categorization continues. For those who are not Southern Baptist, it should be noted that the ACP is provided voluntarily by member churches. Not all churches submit the report and to be honest, not all reports submitted are accurate. A question may be asked to signify the number of attendees in worship weekly. If the church does not do a systematic count each week of people in the room, save those numbers, and then average them, most often the individual filling out the form will simply make an educated guess. The number may be close, but likely not accurate. 

Yet, when it comes to baptisms, the numbers are most often accurate. As Baptists, we count those baptisms. We really don't have a metric to count disciples (unless we simply count those attending classes, study groups, and serving on mission) so we count baptisms. Those numbers have gone down as well. The most troubling of the baptism numbers is not the downward trend, but that the only growing or consistent age bracket of baptisms is that of toddlers (five years old and younger) in our churches. For a denomination that affirms believers' baptism, the toddler baptism numbers reek of little more than pedobaptism. Likely, many of those young children who were led in a prayer will struggle with their faith later in life and hopefully will come to Christ at a later age and then truly be baptized biblically. Of course, that means we have one individual being baptized twice (it happens more than you think) and for our overall numbers, that's multiple baptisms of the same person over the course of time. 

You see why these statistics are a bit muddy?

Nevertheless, those numbers are troubling, but this headline from a recent article published by Christianity Today caught my eye.

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It sadly did not surprise me. Not only have I been pastoring for decades and have seen this, but I am also a parent of two adult children. Statistically speaking, in my own home, we have only seen fifty percent of our children remain faithful in the church.

Rather than repeat all the article states, you can either click the image above or here to read it in its entirety.

According to the data here, the numbers seem to give a good representation of the trend. Just looking across the congregation I pastor, knowing that many of the fifty and sixty-year-olds have adult children who were very active in children's and youth ministry programs years ago, it is hard to debate the veracity of the numbers. 

Simply put - an active youth group does not always lead to an engaged church of adults years later. 

Some, it must be noted, do move from Southern Baptist churches to non-denominational churches or those who align in different denominations. Those as well as the defectors are counted as the half that leave. The fact is this is a reality that Southern Baptists (and I'd say many other denominations) did not face forty or fifty years ago.

But, as they say, times have changed. The sad reality is the model of family ministry in many churches has not. 

The article draws me in, but the lamentations end as I see the call to equip families as disciple-makers as God's original plan for reaching, growing, and keeping the next generation (not just in one's local church, but in God's church wherever the zip code may be.)

Most often when statistics like this are seen, excuses are offered as to why things are the way they are. In local churches when empty pews awaken the aging congregation to the reality of the absent generation, they often seek to push more money, create new ministries, and a new hire of a minister to "fix the problem." We should know by now, that is not the answer. That has never been the answer. It's been done many times...and we are where we are.

It is this time of year when we recognize our next group of high school graduates in the church. It is a celebratory moment where families come together intentionally to honor their child. My challenge to these students will be that they not take the path previous graduates have in our church. I encourage, challenge, and plead that upon their graduation from high school they do not also seek to graduate from church. Many have in the past and our last memory of them gathered together with the covenant members of the church has been when they wore their cap and gown and stood on the stage to be recognized for their achievement. 

We are coming alongside parents to change that. I wish the church had done so this way when my child was younger.

I'll write more on our strategy of making and keeping disciples alongside parents of children and teenagers soon. 


The Family Equipping Model is Right. It's Biblical. It Just Doesn't Market Well for the Church Consumer.

For the past three years, I have been preaching and teaching on a better way to connect with and reach families in our church than we have done in the past. It's a challenging subject, because we are a church that has been in the community for 98 years. Over those decades the community has changed dramatically, not to mention our church.

I have been at our church for twenty-five years. Initially, I served as the youth pastor. When our senior pastor retired, I was called to take on that role. That shift occurred almost fifteen years ago. Needless to say, I have been around a while. I have learned much and have discovered some things in my own ministry strategies that, if I could, I would do differently.

As a youth pastor, I inherited a great group of students. Each week we would have anywhere from 100 to 150 attending one or more of our events or services. Not unlike other churches at the time, I was building a structure around Sunday morning Bible study classes, Sunday evening classes, choirs, bands, and Wednesday evening worship services. In addition, I sought to ensure that no student was left without something to do weekly at or with the church. We were calendar heavy, as that was expected. This meant numerous mission trips, ski trips, beach trips, camps, DiscipleNow Weekends, lock-ins (the one youth ministry event I believe was created by Satan for the sole purpose of causing youth pastors to leave the ministry), concerts, conferences, and more. If LifeWay, Youth Specialties, Reach Out Youth Solutions, StudentLife, Baptist conventions, or any of a dozen or more youth ministry groups promoted an event, curriculum, or conference, we were in.

The Great Thing About Youth Ministry Then...

Our church was not unlike others. We hired a youth pastor (for that I was thankful) and parents and volunteers served in youth ministry. We loved God and teenagers and wanted as many students as possible to know Him and experience a great season of life through what could be a tumultuous time. It was about five years into our ministry that I began to regret some of the things we were doing as a ministry. Many of these things I inherited from and most were expected by the church leaders and especially parents. Yet, I knew that something was missing.

We had a number of students surrender their lives to Christ. This was and is great!

We had some who surrendered their lives to full-time ministry. This became a wonderful legacy.

We had a large youth group in a town with only a handful of churches and fewer schools compared to what we have today. We saw God do some incredible things, despite some very bad chapters in the story of our church and community.

The Regrets...

We were promoting the model known as the "One-Eared Mickey Mouse" that encouraged teenagers to join the youth group, but not the church. 

One ear mickey mouse

In truth, our youth ministry actually was functioning as a parachurch group. I have written about this issue here...

- WHEN YOUR YOUTH GROUP FUNCTIONS AS A PARACHURCH MINISTRY -

Students were active. They did much together. We had the required matching mission trip shirts, we took photos at Christian concerts, we attended camps, retreats, and a host of other things that made youth group great. The only problem was we primarily made youth group members and not disciples.

I cringe when I hear of youth pastors speaking of their former students. In many cases, it is a statement related to a by-gone day of youth ministry. Sometimes these former students remain faithful members of their local churches, raising and impacting the next generation for God. Yet, in far too many situations, these former students have graduated from church and faith and have no more spiritual legacy today than they did prior to moving the tassel on their mortar board from one side to another.

Once the youth ministry developed in this way, it was not long that others followed suit. We had other extended "ears" that grew over time. These were children's ministry, women's ministry, men's ministry, senior adult ministry, single adult ministry, music ministry, etc.

Once we began strategically removing the extended "Mickey Mouse ears," not by eliminating the ministries in question, but by ensuring they were within the church, not simply orbiting around it as a moon, we lost church attenders and members. Most of these (adults) were never active members of the church. They simply hid out in their chosen sub-ministry for years, under the leadership of volunteer or associate pastor. They would speak how they did not fit in with the church as a whole, and it was clear...they were never really part of the church with no covenant relationship with fellow members. They had settled for something less. Something God had not ordained. Something that could not replace the Bride of Christ.

It is sad, but I have talked with other pastors, and this is not unique to our local body. In fact, this is why so many people in the community have been members of numerous churches over the years.

While personal responsibility is required from those who abandon their faith family, the church (and pastors like me) need to acknowledge when our well-intentioned models of ministry have not fulfilled what Scripture requires. We have to confess that sometimes our ministries have been designed to simply draw a crowd for a season and not make disciples of Christ for eternity.

The Family-Equipping Model

Our church has been making the shift from an programmatic model (that which we have had for decades, built upon individualized ministries, separated from other ministries with adult leaders tasked with growing their groups) to a family-equipping model. This is no easy task.

The family-equipping model focuses as much or more on the parents/guardians of children and teenagers than it does on the young people themselves. 

The family-equipping church does more than just invite parents to specific ministry events. Every aspect of ministry with children or teenagers focuses upon training, involving or equipping parents as their respective children’s primary disciple-makers.1 Opportunities for service traditionally held for the professional church leaders or ministry directors now strategically involved parents.

There is much to be said about equipping parents to be the lead disciple-makers for their children. In fact, I have said it in writing, in emails, in text messages, and from the pulpit on numerous occasions. The responses have been positive. This is because we all know this is correct. We all know this is right. We, parents and church leaders, know this is the biblical model (Deuteronomy 6 and elsewhere.) We know we cannot argue against the biblical reality that disciple-making of our children is the goal and that parents are the primary ones responsible for doing this. But...

It Is A Hard Sell

Why is it so difficult for churches to make this shift?

Why do families leave the church when they see what it truly means to disciple their own children?

Why, when we KNOW the One-Eared Mickey Mouse is wrong, do so many seek churches that not only have that, but perpetuate it in all other ministry groups as well (children's, music, senior adults, college, single adults, etc.)?

I believe it is because the family-equipping model is difficult. I believe it is because well-intentioned, busy parents are afraid of what this means for themselves and their children. 

I also believe that everything else in our culture focuses on the consumer mindset we all are susceptible to have. We want our kids in the best schools, to have the sweetest friends, to have the right haircuts, best clothes, latest shoes, to make the team (and if they don't we'll put them in another school or just live as a travel-ball, cheer, or dance parent), earn trophies, get trophies, be popular, have fun, experience big events, etc.

Just because you desire these things for your children does not make you a sinner. What makes you a sinner is the fact you're human (see Genesis 3).

Joining a church with a smaller youth ministry (or children's or whatever sub-ministry is the most attractional at the time) is not something most parents desire, especially if those parents are now in their thirties and have memories of ski trips, camps, D-Nows, and other big 90s and 2000s youth groups. For many parents, those were great memories and they desire their children to have the same, or better.

But, at what cost?

As I reflect and repent over the model of ministry I led and perpetuated, I am convinced that God is honored not by the gathering of big crowds so much as the growing of disciples. This is biblical truth.

While I would love for our church to have hundreds and hundreds of students gathered weekly in our facilities and extended campuses, I would much rather see us equip families biblically (and step in when family members cannot or will not) to see disciples made. That is a legacy the One-Eared Mickey Mouse does not offer.

_____________

1Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011), 166.


The Gay Kid in Your Church May Think You Hate Him

As the years go by, the moral revolution continues to move forward. With changes in cultural norms, many churches struggle with how to respond.

The Moral Revolution and the Church

It is no secret that the moral revolution is in full swing in our culture today. The speed of change has amazed many and with new laws and the the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage being handed down by the United States Supreme Court. Legalized gay marriage led to churches having to define and describe their beliefs about marriage and especially weddings. For some, it was an easy slide to affirm that which the courts had decided. For others, it created a need for clarity regarding why same-sex weddings would not occur in their facilities and the non-affirmation of gay marriages.

Dr. Albert Mohler book We Cannot Be Silent addresses these issues. He writes...

Every Christian church – and every Christian – will face huge decisions in the wake of this moral storm. When marriage is redefined, an entire universe of laws, customs, rules, and expectations changes as well. Words such as husband and wifemother and father, once the common vocabulary of every society in its own language, are now battlegrounds of moral conflict. Just consider how children’s picture books have to change in the wake of this revolution. As those who demand this revolution make clear, there will be no model of a normative family structure left in its wake.

But this revolution has also reached into our churches. Some are arguing that Christians need to revise our sexual morality and definition of marriage in order to avoid costly and controversial confrontations with the culture at large. Are they right?

Faithfulness to the Gospel and to the authority of Scripture will not allow such a revision.

Just to be clear - our church holds to the inerrancy of Scripture. We do not affirm or accept same-sex marriages as biblically viable. We do not host same-sex weddings. We do not affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as biblically acceptable. We have stated this clearly and I am one of many signatories of The Nashville Statement

This Is More Than a Same-Sex Marriage Issue

While many churches have clarified their stance on same-sex marriages and weddings, the primary issues within the local bodies have less to do with policy and weddings. Depending on where the church previously stood on doctrinal matters relating to the Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, and other matters, there was likely no shock within the body related to each church's decision on this issue. 

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Photo credit: www.ownwayphotography.com on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

The LGBTQ+ People In Your Church

Regardless where the church stands on biblical fidelity and interpretation, all churches either have individuals in their congregation struggling with their gender and personal attractions, or have friends or family members who do. Some have come out of the closet. Many have not. 

As I think more about this and my twenty-five plus years on pastoral staff (nine as youth pastor, the remainder as lead pastor) of our church, I can name at least twelve young men and women (teenagers at the time) who were members of our church or actively attending that have come out as LGBTQ+. I'm sure there are more who are not coming to mind. There are others who are adults, married, single, of various ages. It is a wide demographic.

Over the past five years I have had numerous contacts with pastors and ministry leaders from other churches who are seeking to respond biblically and in love with these young people and family members. In many cases, the young people are children of deacons, elders, ministry leaders, and pastors. Now, more than ever, a biblically sound response (not reaction) is needed.

Each church responds differently. Some denominations and local churches have declared their affirmation of homosexuality and welcomed the moral revolution that affirms the LGBTQ+ lifestyle. In those churches, which admittedly hold to a more liberal or moderate view of biblical interpretation, there may be less of an issue related to the welcoming and acceptance felt for those who have declared their LGBTQ+ identity.

Other churches hold to a more conservative and often inerrant view of biblical interpretation, considered by some to be more stringent in their doctrinal beliefs (this would be my church.) In these churches, those who identify as LGBTQ+ often feel as if the church is a place of hate rather than love.

I am sure that hateful things have been done and said to those individuals. I know that while my constant intent is to show and reveal the love of Christ fully and clearly, there are times that my intentions are not evident. Due to my sinful nature, I repent of those moments where I poorly reflect Christ to others, especially those close to me.

Hating the Church 

I recently saw an interview featuring Bobby Berk of Netflix's show "Queer Eye." Bobby shares about his upbringing in church. His story of youth group doesn't sound much different than many students who have attended our church. You can watch Bobby's interview here. Be warned there is inappropriate language used in this clip.

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Photo credit: Texas Monthly - Sept 2018

In his case, after coming out as gay, he shares of feeling hated and ostracized. He responds "I carried so much hate for the religious community for completely turning their backs on me."

I do not know his former church or pastor, but I have no reason to doubt that Bobby experienced what he did, whether intentional or not from the church's perspective. 

I am certain that many of the students who have come out to their parents and peers within our church family have felt the very same way. I do not doubt that many, if not most, felt ostracized, looked down upon, perhaps even hated by the church and some within. 

In many cases, young people are afraid to come out due to fear of family rejection and friend disconnection. For the "church kid" who has been in the children's and youth ministry his/her entire life, this fear can be overwhelming. In some cases, years of hearing gay jokes and snide remarks from peers and even youth pastors and parents has created an honest fear of revelation.

Of those students who self-identify as LGBTQ+ and have grown up in evangelical families, 85% felt uncomfortable coming out to parents and 81% feared being viewed as disgusting by family members. A majority feared being disowned. Nine percent feared they would be literally kicked out of their home.1 I do not doubt that at times these fears were founded, but in some cases the story of response and rejection was already played out in the mind of the young person and therefore became somewhat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hated By the Church

You've likely heard the phrase "perception is reality." Therefore, many young LGBTQ+ people have echoed their feelings of abandonment from their churches and families and feel hated. 

At times, well-meaning Christians throw out the statement "Love the sinner. Hate the sin." as if they are quoting a Bible verse. It is not a verse, but a phrase that goes back to St. Augustine and his encouragement to nuns in Africa regarding prayer. Much later it was quoted by Gandhi in his challenge to Christians that from his perspective, didn't look like love at all.

There are biblical principles and commands to love God and all that is holy. Sin is to be hated. It's not to be taken lightly. Sin is an act and does not occur independent of a person. The truly loving response to a sinner (and we're all sinners in need of God and his grace) is to speak truth, in love, for the hope and purpose of redemption through Jesus Christ. This is the message of the gospel and cannot be weakened or watered down.

The most hateful thing a person could do is ignore sin and not tell loved ones the truth. 

Nevertheless, in the world today, this is viewed as intolerant and even hateful. When emotions get intense in such discussions, there are often tears and words then said that would be regretted later and even if stated in love, feel like hate. 

Love and Affirmation Are Not Synonyms

So, why does the student in your church who has been struggling with his/her feelings of same-sex attraction, been affirmed by friends, teachers, coaches, online followers and acquaintances feel like you hate him/her?

Presuming you don't actually hate the person, it could be because somewhere along the line love and affirmation have become synonyms in the young person's mind. This has been the reality for generations. Some wrongly believe that to truly love someone you must affirm their actions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

However, we all know this is not reality. Parents who deeply love their children with a love that is as close to unconditional as a human can offer, will not approve of every action taken, attitude, or belief held by their child. The same is true for every other relationship of true love, be it spousal, family, or friend-based.

The argument here is that to not affirm someone for feelings they did not choose and an identity they believe they were born with is akin to hating them. That is another conversation for another time. 

For the church, the pastor, the parent, or the Christian friend, the reality is that we are called to love our neighbor (even if they're gay) but that love does not mean blanket affirmation for every belief and action of the loved one. 

One reason that so many families are divided over this is because it is falsely believed to be a culture battle, rather than a gospel issue.

Dr. Russell Moore addresses that this way (full article here)...

One of the reasons this is so hard for some parents and grandparents (of LGBTQ+ children) is because somehow we assume this issue to be merely a “culture war” issue, and not a gospel issue. As such, parents are often perplexed as to how to deal with this in their families because they think this is about them.

They wonder if others will judge them, as though they did something to “cause” this. That’s ridiculous, and it leads people ultimately either to reject biblical teaching to keep their kids or reject their kids (and their gospel witness to them) for the sake of appearing to keep the biblical teaching. At the root of all of that is pride, and I don’t mean that in the sense of “gay pride” but in the sense of carnal self-seeking. That’s a temptation for all parents, not just for those of gay children. We’re tempted to see our children as reflections of ourselves, and we’re tempted then to keep up our image.

Crucify that temptation. God calls us to holiness, and to encourage one another to holiness. The Bible is clear that this means fleeing from sexual immorality, and that includes same-sex sexual activity (1 Cor. 6). God also calls parents to love their children. Be clear about your convictions, and at the same time don’t exile your child from your life. If we sacrifice grace for truth or truth for grace, we’re sub-Christian.

Love Wins (And That's More Than a Political Buzzword)

There are numerous voices in the church world today speaking on the LGBTQ+ experience and their experience within the church. Perspectives vary from those of Justin Lee and Matthew Vines (gay men who affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as not being opposed to Scripture) to Christopher Yuan, Rosaria Butterfield, and Jackie Hill Perry (those who no longer affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as biblically viable.) Each individual's story brings insight and reveals personal pain and in certain cases hope. Caleb Kaltenbach presents a unique perspective as he is a pastor who was raised by gay parents. His insight revealed in his book Messy Grace shows that Jesus's command to "love your neighbor as yourself" doesn't exclude your gay neighbors (or family members.) 

The "Love Wins" mantra is strong and has been used in pride parades and as declarations of LGBTQ+ affirmation. Beyond the placards held by protestors and hashtags used to promote LGBTQ+ agendas, the church must remember that this "culture war" is not about winning a political battle. It comes down to loving those individuals, as individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. Love does not equal affirmation and the church, and individual Christians must understand this. That being said, biblical fidelity need not be abandoned. 

Jackie Hill Perry gives wise counsel for Christians who seek to preach a "heterosexual gospel" with intent of getting their gay child/friend/family member straight (full article here)...

Stop telling gay people that if they come to Jesus, he will make them straight.

When the gospel is presented as “Come to Jesus to be straight,” instead of “Come to Jesus to be made right with God,” we shouldn’t be surprised when people won’t come to Jesus at all. If he is not the aim of their repentance, then he will not be believed as the ultimate aim of their faith. They will only exchange one idol for another and believe themselves to be Christian because of it.

What the gay community needs to hear is not that God will make them straight, but that Christ can make them his. In this age, they may never be “straight” (for lack of better words), but they can be holy (1 Corinthians 1:30). We must remind others (and ourselves) that Christ is ultimately calling them to himself — to know Christ, love Christ, serve Christ, honor Christ, and exalt Christ forever. When he is the aim of their repentance, and the object of their faith, they are made right with God the Father, and given the power by the Holy Spirit to deny all sin — sexual and otherwise.

Love does win...eventually. Otherwise, we have abandoned the gospel of grace and truth and swapped one idol of self for another. 

You may not hate the LGBTQ+ people in your church or community, but they may believe and feel that you do. Christians...we must do better.

_________

1VanderWaal, C.J., Sedlacek, D. & Lane, L. (2017). The Impact of Family Acceptance or Rejection Among LGBT+ Millenials in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Journal of Social Work and Christianity. 44(1-2). 72-95.


"It's All Your Fault" and the Host of Lies the Parent of the Prodigal Believes

The story of the prodigal son in Scripture (Luke 15) has been told over and over again for thousands of years. It is one of the most popular stories and is an incredible illustration of God's steadfast love and his patience. It is one in a listing of parables and stories about lost items being found. Therefore, it should be read along with the other stories (the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.) 

The story is wonderful in so many ways.

Yet, when you find that your personal story begins to parallel this biblical account in some aspects, you (well...I) tend to read it differently. I have to be careful here because I don't want to say that "I see myself in this story" because that's not the point of this or any biblical narrative. It's not about finding the character that most matches you or me. It is a story about and by God. He is the primary character, as he is throughout Scripture.

Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, I cannot help but do as many others have regarding the story of the prodigal.

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Photo credit: Philerooski on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

In the church subculture that many of us have grown up within, a child is viewed as a blessing. This is a biblically-based construct and is true. Children are blessings. 

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Psalm 127:3 (ESV)

Therefore, as Christians, when we first discover we are going to be parents, we seek to do our very best to live morally and faithfully, not just for ourselves, but for the little ones God has entrusted us to raise. This is not wrong. This is a holy calling and a right desire. In fact, this is one of the reasons our church is so focused on our family-equipping discipleship strategy. This is also the reason that churches historically have created Sunday schools, youth ministries, children's programming, etc. 

Wouldn't it be nice if we were guaranteed that our children would grow up to love the Lord, surrender to his calling, become faithful followers of his and be grand examples of a legacy of faith?

We do not get that promise as parents. We are afforded this proverb, and it should not be ignored or taken lightly. 

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)

The problem is that often as Christians we read that verse as a promise, rather than a proverb.

Then...if a prodigal story becomes a reality, a crisis of faith often results.

Perhaps the Most Difficult Part of the Prodigal Story

I know that many of you have read this story over and over. Yet, just a few days ago a portion of the story struck me as profound. I began to think about the father in the story and that moment which may have been most difficult for him.

Perhaps the most difficult portion is located somewhere between verses 13 and 14.

13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. Luke 15:13-14 (ESV)

It is in that moment when the son squandered everything given to him by his father, yet is not at the point of return.

At this point, the son has asked for his inheritance (i.e. his college tuition, the savings account created by his parents when he was a child, the car given to him at age 16, his own cell phone, wireless plan, clothes, and anything else that was agreed to be his) from dad and has left home. The story states that he took a journey into a far country. There's no need for more details than this in that we all know this means his new home is as far away from his original home as he could get. This is freedom, right?

While experiencing his newfound freedom, he squanders everything given to him by his father. He lives recklessly. He isn't going home yet, however. This may be due to pride or a continued desire to "be his own man." Things became even more harsh for the son. 

What About the Dad?

What is the father doing? Apparently, he is still living in the same house. He is waiting and watching, it seems, for his son to return. However, it appears that it was quite some time before the son came to the place where he would even consider a return. Spoiler alert: he does return. Read about it in Luke 15:11-32.

Now, I know this isn't part of the narrative, so please bear with me. 

For every parent of a prodigal, it is the waiting that proves to be so very difficult. The fear of what the child is doing can be debilitating. In the biblical world prior to social media, it was simply the imagination that created these possible stories. Nowadays, these fears are often affirmed due to postings and photographs that reveal what the Bible would categorize as debauchery. This pains the parent deeply, knowing that the present fun will not end well if the child continues down this path. 

In my own experience, as well as in conversations with many others who have gone through and are going through similar situations, there are some common thoughts that seem to pop up.

  • "It's all my fault." For the Christian parent with a wayward child, the blaming is immense. Questions such as "What did I do wrong?" scream loudly in the mind. Thoughts like - "Surely, I messed up somewhere." "I should've made him go to youth camp." "We spent too much time traveling for sports on the weekend. This is our punishment." And many more. Every little misstep or "I should have..." comes to mind and many parents hold onto these (fair or not) to try to figure out where they messed up. There is this innate feeling that someone is to blame and it often starts with self.
  • "Everyone is talking about my failure as a parent." Yes, this is often heard as well. I'm not going to pretend that good church-going people don't talk about others. It happens all too often. As posted earlier this week, stories such as this become "prayer request" fodder. I wonder if the father of the prodigal in the story had others in his community talking about how much of a failure he was because he lost this child to the world? Perhaps. Yet, they probably weren't praising him for his godly fathering prior to the exit of the prodigal or even the presumed faithfulness of the other brother. Nevertheless, whether someone is talking about the parent's failure or not is irrelevant. So often the Christian parent feels like they are. Why? Maybe because in the past they unwittingly blamed other parents for other wayward children. "Well, it's no wonder that kid ended up that way. Look at their parents." Statements like that said about others come back to haunt. 
  • "What is he/she doing?" The desire to know is not based on a need to see every detail in the child's life, but on the fear of discovering what is actually happening. The father in the Luke account did not know exactly what was happening with his son, we presume. I have determined that likely is a good thing. Why? I don't know. Maybe because if he did, he would seek to rescue the son in his own strength. It wouldn't end well had he tried. So, from what we know the father just stayed home, faithfully working, living, raising his other son, and praying for the prodigal to return. He waited. He did not obsess.
  • "Where is God in all this?" Even the most learned Christian comes to crisis of faith. For some the question leads to growing doubt, wondering if the promises of Scripture really are true. The valley moments are real and depressing and while we know that "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. - Psalm 23:4 (ESV)" it just feels so lonely. At these moments, it feels that no amount of assurance from well-meaning Christians reminding us that this is just a "storm" and "God is faithful" and "God will see you through" and "He will bring your child home," etc. regardless how true is enough. Why? Because that blessing from God that was gifted to you years earlier, as an answer to prayer, who brought joy to your life and a smile to your face cannot come to mind at this juncture without your eyes filling up with tears and your doubts of a future skewed. It is not really hopeless, but it certainly feels that way.
  • "I just can't." Can't what? Can't function? Can't talk to others? Can't bear seeing other parents with their children living out their happy lives? Can't look at pictures on social media where parents are bragging about how great their children are or celebrating their accomplishments? Yep. All that and more. The Enemy knows where the hurt is most severe. This may leave the parents, who prior may have been engaged in the community of faith, feeling as if they can no longer engage. It would be humiliating, painful, hurtful, and lead to more anger and frustration.

There are more thoughts that come up. Believe me, my wife and I have experienced these and more. I wonder if the father in the prodigal story did as well. Of course, I understand that this is a parable likely that does not reflect the story of an actual family. The father is representative of our heavenly Father. There is a teaching here regarding lostness and being found. I understand that. Yet, when you find yourself in a similar story, you cannot help but think this way.

In our church, over the past six years, my wife and I have had the pleasure (can you call it that?) of talking with and counseling many other parents who have also experienced a prodigal experience. For some, their story continues. They are older than us. Their children are closer to our age than the parents. It's encouraging to hear how they have persevered. At the same time, it is a bit discouraging to think that we may be closer to the beginning of our story than the resolution. Many others have come seeking advice, prayer, community. 

If I dared to start a small group for "Parents with Wounded Hearts" I fear we may not have a room large enough to hold the group.

I could promote it as "A broken pastor and his broken wife leading broken Christians through broken stories of broken relationships with broken children seeking wholeness and healing." That may be too long a title, but you get the point.

The pain of not knowing is almost as great as the pain of knowing. Sometimes it's greater.

Thankfully, the story in Scripture does resolve. I have no idea if our story or the myriad of others in our church and community of believers will resolve like the one in Luke. I wish I did know. Well, I think I wish I knew.

I have come to know that while this part of my ministry is not the one I desired (the ministry to other parents of prodigals) it is the one He has given. I have come to realize that God loves my children more than I do. That sounds easy when everything is going well. It is more difficult when the bottom seems to be falling out. It is no less true regardless of circumstances.

I have also come to realize that even in the questions (as listed above), the crises of faith, and confirmation of calling, God has remained faithful. Again, easy to say when you're on top of the mountain. Much more difficult to acknowledge in the valley. Nevertheless, I believe it to be true.

Lastly, I have come to know that religious clichés, ministry programs, shame-based Bible studies, and guilt-laden preaching* are not of God and provide no help or healing. Yet, pure religion, biblical relationships, true worship in one-on-one settings and corporately, and gospel-centric preaching, Bible teaching, and study resonate with the holiness, godliness, grace, and goodness of God. 

With that, I watch and wait. 

Trusting God. 

Everyday.

I pray that you can do that as well.

_____________________

*When I say "shame-based" and "guilt-laden" I am not referring to the clear, convictional, Holy Spirit-inspired and anointed teaching and preaching of the Gospel. For that, I offer no apologies. As a text-driven, expositional preacher, I believe in the inerrant Word of God and know that the cross is offensive. I believe we must preach the gospel at all times, and for heaven's sake, we MUST use words. It is just that sometimes, a tendency to create a listing of "dos and don'ts" that are ultimately legalistic Pharisaical add-ons to Scripture based on personal preferences and prejudices than God's Word have been propagated in the church, leaving the sincere, blood-bought, forgiven, God-honoring followers of Christ thinking that they must do more works to be loved and accepted by God. This is empty religion and is a false works-based gospel as dangerous as the prosperity gospel and others that masquerade as truth. 


Forgive Us Father For Pretending That Abortion Is a Political Issue

There is no subject more divisive in America than that of abortion. The issue of abortion is more divisive than immigration laws, the potential building of a wall, social justice issues, and on a much lesser note, whether the Saints were robbed in their NFC Championship game (they were, by the way.)

As you know, in 1973 a landmark Supreme Court case made abortion legal in all fifty states. The Roe v. Wade case stated that any state law that banned abortion (except in the case of the health of the mother) was unconstitutional. This decision was seen as a huge victory for those who had been at various times called pro-abortion, pro-choice, or pro-reproductive rights. Regardless the nomenclature, the court decision resulted in a major shift in American politics and created an even more-defined line between people regarding abortion.

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Photo on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/photos/beach/">VisualHunt.com</a>

Since that time politicians and political parties have taken sides. Party platforms were developed and affirmed that delineated where said party stood on such issues. In a very simplistic way of looking at this, the Republican party became the pro-life party while the Democratic party became the pro-choice (a politically correct term used rather than pro-abortion) party. Yet, it should be noted that just because a party platform states one thing or the other, not all members of such party adhere to or agree with all elements. In other words, there are pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats. As former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill is remembered as saying "All politics is local." 

My View on Abortion

My belief on abortion is that it is wrong. It is not God's desire. I believe the child exists at conception. I believe that every human being is made in the image of God. I'm not the first to declare this and I'm sure those who are opposed to my beliefs are prepared with pushback. 

Regarding Abortion As an Option to Save the Life of the Mother

It was former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD who said in 1980:

Protection of the life of the mother as an excuse for an abortion is a smoke screen. In my 36 years in pediatric surgery I have never known of one instance where the child had to be aborted to save the mother’s life. . . . If, toward the end of the pregnancy complications arise that threaten the mother’s health, he will take the child by inducing labor or performing a Caesarean section. His intention is still to save the life of both the mother and the baby. The baby will be premature and perhaps immature depending on the length of gestation. Because it has suddenly been taken out of the protective womb, it may encounter threats to its survival. The baby is never willfully destroyed because the mother’s life is in danger.1

The goal of any doctor, seeking to fulfill his/her Hippocratic Oath, is to "first, do no harm." 

However, if the argument is that the child is not really a child prior to birth (or at least in the first trimester) then no harm is being done if the fetus (child) is aborted.

There's a good article on this issue at the St. Joseph PRC's website here.

There are other issues for women related to rape, incest, and criminal behavior resulting in an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. While the intent of this article is not to delve into every instance, it is the church's responsibility to help women who find themselves in such horrendous situations, not only when there is a pregnancy involved, but at all times. 

Abortion As Politics

The political lines were drawn when Roe vs. Wade was decided. The challenge has been due to the fact that our judicial system actually created a federal law by defining state laws related to abortion unconstitutional.

Prior to the 1970s, abortion was not the political divider that it has been since. When Ronald Reagan ran for President against Jimmy Carter, abortion became a talking point. The Washington Post ran an article in April 1980 titled "Reagan Is Favored By Anti-Abortionists." It was true and since then, the Republican party has sought to wear the pro-life tag for political purposes.

A few years ago I had a conversation with a family member who differs from me on just about every political, religious, and moral issue. After stating his preferred political views on a number of issues touted by current candidates, I asked "What about abortion?"

The answer was short, but clear, "There are more issues than abortion."

The conversation ended. 

Yet, it is true. There are more issues than just the abortion one. That is what makes politics even more muddy nowadays than ever. The current political climate is resulting in a greater divide within the church and the Christian community, as well as throughout the nation. 

Yet, the question remains, "What about abortion? What about the lives of unborn boys and girls? What about the lives of women with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies? What about the value of God's image-bearers at all ages?" 

The question of abortion cannot be side-stepped. It cannot be ignored. It cannot be hidden under the banner of the latest terminology that seeks to make it sound simply like a viable health option (i.e. reproductive rights.)

Sometimes, in the divided world we live in, to state one's support for the lives of unborn babies gets one categorized as anti-woman, or anti-health, or something else like that. It is a challenge to be sure.

For Christians, for pastors especially, silence on abortion is not really an option.

By the way, if we claim to be pro-life, we had best be pro-life at all stages, not just at the beginning point. The care for the elderly and the ill is not to be ignored. The church cannot simply be pro-baby and not be pro-adoption, pro-foster care, and pro-everything else that has to do with healthy, biblical families. Pro-life is for new life and sustained life.

The Evil of the New York Law

The word "evil" is often overused today. Politicians use it to describe other nations or corrupt dictators in order to gain attention or make a strong point. I use the term sparingly, but here to describe something that is so perverse, so anti-God, so anti-holy, the embodiment of all that is godless and wrong. The term is properly used when describing the new law in New York.

The new law in New York, called the Reproductive Health Act, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, seeks to safeguard rights enacted by the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. This law is little than a reaction or response to the now right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court and the fear that this court may overturn the 46 year old decision. 

Prior to January 22, the law which had been on the books in New York, only permitted abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the mother's life was at risk. This new law shifts the section of state law regarding abortion from the penal code to health statues. It also expands who is legal to perform abortions. 

This update to the law had been pushed by abortion-rights activists for years.

What the law does beyond what has already been explained, is significantly expand abortion rights and removes protections for women and children. Since abortion is no longer covered by the criminal code, the legal term "homicide" can no longer be used. Prior, under Section 125.00 of the penal law "homicide" was defined as "conduct which causes the death of a person or an unborn child with which a female has been pregnant for more than twenty-four weeks." This language has been removed when related to unborn children.

Most notably, this law allows for late-term abortions. The law now allows for licensed health-care practitioners to perform abortions as they see fit, using their "reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient's case" within twenty-four weeks from commencement of pregnancy.2

The impact of this law is dire. It grieves me.

What Is the Church to Do?

Well, I guess we could get angry and do interviews on news channels, write articles and maybe blog about it. But, that's been done (and I'm doing that now) but that's not the answer. 

Prayer is absolutely our first response. Prayer for the women with unplanned pregnancies. Prayer for the babies in the womb. Prayer for the babies who are born but cannot stay with their mothers. Prayer for Christians to advocate for and become foster-parents and adoptive parents. Prayer (and support) for the crisis pregnancy centers throughout our communities. Prayer is something we have done and must continue.

Practically, we have to continue, if not more clearly now than in the past, to declare the biblical worldview regarding life. This means that we must somehow remove the lenses that view life and our American experience in other ways. 

We Must Confess Our Sin

The church (and I'm speaking of the definitively pro-life Christians and church attenders) must continue to speak for life. However, sometimes we fall into a trap believing that the answer to the abortion issue in the United States is solely dependent on elected officials, political parties, and court decisions. Those all matter, to be certain. They all are important. They're just not the most important.

That is our sin - putting our trust in politicians, government, and policy-makers rather than God.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. Psalm 20:7 (ESV)

Yet, we know and affirm the biblical mandate to submit to governing leaders.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Romans 13:1 (ESV)

We must acknowledge that no political or governmental leader is in place other than by God's desire. That is a very difficult concept to hold, especially when certain leaders, by their words, actions, or inactions, are clearly, vehemently opposed to God and biblical truth (and I'm speaking of those from both major parties.)

Yet, that does not change the reality of God's sovereignty.

The privilege of living in our democratic republic is that we have the freedom to state our opposition to certain laws, practices, and declarations without fear, as is the case elsewhere around the world. 

In this case, opposition to the recently passed law in New York does not eliminate or weaken our understanding of Romans 13:1. It also allows us to live by conviction as Christians, holding to the trust in God alone.

Church, we cannot remain silent on this and other issues. As long as Christians stand on the sideline waiting for others to speak up, the bystander effect will continue to reign. This is the effect that occurs when a situation is played out in front of a crowd and though many in the crowd desire to do something, no one does...just waiting for another to step up.

We must step up and speak up otherwise, we perpetuate what Edmund Burke is noted as saying:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

__________

1C. Everett Koop, M.D., as told to Dick Bohrer, in Moody Monthly, May, 1980. Reprinted in Bohrer’s book here: http://dickbohrerbooks.com/DownloadFiles/Opinion-8.pdf

2Joe Carter. Explainer: New York Removes Barriers to Abortion, ERLC, January 25, 2019. https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/explainer-new-york-removes-barriers-to-abortion


It Truly Is a "Tale as Old as Time" and That's the Problem

The lack of creativity in Hollywood has been spoken of in various venues over recent years. While it may not be waning creativity on the part of the filmmakers and artists, it does not take long to realize that remakes, sequels, and re-imagined stories of old seem to fill the "Coming Soon" lists from Hollywood. If not a lack of creativity, it certainly is a somewhat safe financial plan for the production companies.

The children of the 80s and 90s reminisce of days gone by as they find themselves forced into "adulting" (apparently, that's a word now.) For the Gen Xers, this explains the "GI Joe," "Transformers," "Dukes of Hazzard," "21 Jump Street" and "Chips" movies. For Millennials, perhaps this is why live action versions of Disney cartoons are such a big hit. In some cases, as with "Alice in Wonderland" and "Cinderella," the original animated films were made decades prior to the birth of the Millennial generation. Yet, it was when these young adults were children that Disney began to "unlock the vault" on occasion and release these classics on VHS. How many young twenty- and thirty-somethings grew up with those bulky plastic cases strewn around the room as they watched their favorite films over and over and over? As a parent, I remember these films being worn out and while "Robin Hood" was incredible, a man can only take so much "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo."

A Tale As Old As Time

The internet and media outlets blew up last year when it was announced that a live-action version of the newer classic Disney film "Beauty and the Beast" would be developed. Early clips shared online revealed that Emma Watson was to play Belle and the film was to be, in some cases, a scene-for-scene live version of the animated classic. Watson was cheered as the new Belle. The rose in the early trailer was celebrated online as just a glimpse of the new film began to elicit positive buzz. 

Even when Angela Lansbury, one of the stars of the original, shared her confusion as to why the film was being made and clearly wasn't a fan of the endeavor, it was clear to those watching the industry, the film would be a huge hit and make millions. Disney is banking on that. In fact, that's the answer to Ms. Lansbury's question.

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Photo credit: Castles, Capes & Clones via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The marketing has been systematic. Disney definitely knows how to do this and with marketable tie-ins such as the races at the Magic Kingdom and new dolls already on the market (though the Belle doll did get some pushback with claims it looked less like Emma Watson and more like Justin Bieber). Make no mistake, this film will rake in the bucks and many will celebrate the music, acting, reminisced childhood, and message.

Oh, the message.

It has changed a bit from the original.

Belle is more liberated, it seems. She's an inventor now, as is her father. This was revealed a few weeks back. Most read that and thought "No big deal."

Yet, last week another revelation was shared by Disney regarding their new film.

Disney's First "Exclusively Gay Moment" in a Children's Movie

Since this is an updated re-telling of the "tale as old as time" or at least as old as the early 1990s, the writers and directors have taken the opportunity to insert a sub-story into the plot revealing that one of the characters is actually gay. This story truly blew up the internet last week and continues to be shared online and through entertainment "news" television shows and media outlets. 

To the Christian with an eye on culture, this should be no surprise.

When the online push to make Elsa a lesbian in the Frozen sequel began, it became inevitable that Disney would step even more intentionally than in the past into the LGBT revolution. Some have declared this to be the first gay character in a Disney production. That actually is not true. The Disney Channel show "Good Luck Charlie" depicted a lesbian couple as parents of a friend of the main character. The Disney produced television show "Once Upon a Time" on the Disney-owned network, ABC, presented familiar characters from film as outed lesbians in April 2016. Yet, the difference here is the fact that the upcoming film is marketed to families. 

The Gay Sidekick

The protagonist in "Beauty and the Beast" is Gaston. His sidekick is LeFou. In a recent Washington Post article by Elahe Izadi, the following is stated:

In recent years, Disney has increased the racial and ethnic diversity in its stories, and has made strides to reimagine female characters as fully formed protagonists rather than simply damsels in distress.

But there have been calls among some for children’s entertainment to portray same-sex relationships as well. Last year, a Twitter campaign asked Disney to make Elsa from “Frozen” a lesbian character in the movie’s sequel, inspiring the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend.

A few Disney movies have left viewers wondering about the orientation of characters, with allusions to same-sex relationships. “Zootopia” featured Bucky and Pronk, two male antelopes who live together, bicker like a couple and share a common last name. An episode of the Disney Channel show “Good Luck Charlie” included a character who had two moms.

But the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” will bring an overt depiction of a gay man to the big screen.

This has been called a watershed moment for Disney.

The culture celebrates the seemingly progressive step in this upcoming film. However, not all parents are excited. Many who planned to relive their childhood with their own kids while watching the film together in the theater are now questioning if they should. For some, it is the frustration that they may be forced to address an issue of sexuality with their children in a way they did not plan or desire to do.

Nevertheless, some will celebrate the opportunity to share the normalizing of such things. This is the cultural revolution in full swing.

To be clear, while turning a beloved animated film into a live-action movie is intriguing, I am not a fan of the subtext in this one. There are no accidental messages in such multi-million dollar presentations. There never have been. 

Movies and Messages

Movies are made to make money, but in the process are not made in a vacuum. Movies (even the ones in the $2 bin of DVDs at the store) present a worldview. It's inevitable. It cannot be avoided. Christians have struggled with this reality for decades. And, surprisingly, not all Christians agree about movies. For generations, Christians were declared bad and sinful in the church-subculture if they ever went to a movie. Now, churches produce films intended to be shown in the multiplex. 

So-called "faith based" films pop up. Some are good. Most are bad. Many create online debates. Ever heard of "The Shack"? Wow! That hot-mess of messed up trinitarian presentation is causing more confusion and frustrated Christians than even the bogus heaven-tourism flick "Heaven is for Real."

Yet, this new Disney film isn't marketed as "faith-based." I am not sure there's such a thing as a Christian Disney film. Since movies don't go to heaven, there may not be such a thing as a Christian film at all, but I digress.

Dr. Albert Mohler recently shared thoughts on this film on The Briefing and as followers of Christ in the midst of a worldview shift, his words are wise and should be considered.

But we also have to note that when we laugh at something and when we find something interesting and, not to mention, entertaining, effectively our thinking will become aligned with our hearts. That’s exactly why Hollywood is ground zero for so much of the change driving the moral revolution around us. But there is something even more ominous in all of this, and that’s this. We’re not here talking primarily about the effect upon adults, adults’ eyes and ears and minds and hearts, we’re talking about entertainment with an agenda, an agenda to reach eyes and ears and hearts and minds directed at children, and very effectively so.

I guess most of us suspected that it was only a matter of time before some film directors said something like,

“It is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”

But now we know that that time is now. It may not be surprising, but it truly is shocking.

While some call for boycotts, I am not. However, I do think families should consider how what is sold as entertainment actually impacts belief systems. Parents should consider this.

It's Not "Just a Movie"

It's really not about "Beauty and the Beast" or the LGBT revolution. That's just the clear issue on the front-page today (it will be old news in about a week). It is about living with a biblical worldview as ambassadors for Christ in a world that rejected him. 

Declaring loudly all that we are against will likely not lead to engaging conversations about the Gospel. However, ignoring the blatant worldview shifts seems to lead many to live isolated from the mission. 

Oh, and please don't fall into the "It's just a movie" or "It's fiction, enjoy it" groups. Nothing is ever just anything. The story is much larger and the mission becomes even more clear. 

The Real "Tale As Old As Time"

The "Tale As Old As Time" is truly about a battle and a rescue. It did not start in a castle with a beast and some talking dishes. It began in a garden. Actually, it began prior to that. This tale includes beauty, deception, rebellion, shame, death, rescue, and life. 

Christians must be wise and understand the times. As for the characters in the latest Disney film, they are not real, but they represent the depravity of humanity clearly. Perhaps this is why people are so drawn to the stories. 


Putting a Stop to the Youth Exodus in the Church

For the past few years, church leaders and evangelicals have been lamenting the loss of younger people in the church. While some new church starts and mega-box churches have seen growth in seeming success in reaching the younger generation, the statistics show a loss overall. Much has been written about this and most hearkens back to Pew Research Center's 2015 report. While that report is two years old, it is likely no significant changes have occurred.

Generational labels differ based on what study is cited or book read, but by and large, the Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000) and Generation Z/Boomlets (born after 2000 ) are trending away from the church. There's not as much data regarding Generation Z, but the older portion of the generation are in high school and graduating this year. 

Generation Z/Boomlets

This generation has been described this way (from MarketingTeacher.com):

  • In 2006 there were a record number of births in the US and 49% of those born were Hispanic, this will change the American melting pot in terms of behavior and culture. The number of births in 2006 far outnumbered the start of the baby boom generation, and they will easily be a larger generation.
  • Since the early 1700s the most common last name in the US was "Smith" but not anymore, now it is "Rodriguez."
  • There are two age groups right now:
    • Tweens.
      • Age 8-12 years old.
      • There will be an estimated 29 million tweens by 2009.
      • $51 billion is spent by tweens every year with an additional $170 billion spent by their parents and family members directly for them.
    • Toddler/Elementary school age.
  • 61 percent of children 8-17 have televisions in their rooms.
  • 35 percent have video games.
  • 14 percent have a DVD player.
  • 4 million will have their own cell phones. They have never known a world without computers and cell phones.
  • Have Eco-fatigue: they are actually tired of hearing about the environment and the many ways we have to save it.
  • With the advent of computers and web-based learning, children leave behind toys at younger and younger age. It’s called KGOY-kids growing older younger, and many companies have suffered because of it. Most recognizable is Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls. In the 1990s the average age of a child in their target market was 10-years-old, and in 2000 it dropped to three-years-old. As children reach the age of four and five, old enough to play on the computer, they become less interested in toys and begin to desire electronics such as cell phones and video games.
  • They are savvy consumers and they know what they want and how to get it and they are over saturated with brands.

The Numbers

Pew Research shared the following:

Religious “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)

Overall, religiously unaffiliated people are more concentrated among young adults than other age groups – 35% of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) are “nones.” In addition, the unaffiliated as a whole are getting even younger. The median age of unaffiliated adults is now 36, down from 38 in 2007 and significantly younger than the overall median age of U.S. adults in 2014.

Yet numbers can be confusing and sometimes do not tell the full story. In a 2016 article, Pew reveals the factors leading the growth of "nones" in the US:

Indeed, our Religious Landscape Study finds a clear generational pattern: Young people who are not particularly religious seem to be much more comfortable identifying as “nones” than are older people who display a similar level of religious observance. Nearly eight-in-ten Millennials with low levels of religious commitment describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” By contrast, just 54% of Americans in the Silent and Greatest generations who have low levels of religious commitment say they are unaffiliated; 45% claim a religion. A similarly striking gap between Millennials and others is also seen among those with a “medium” level of religious commitment.

What Can the Church Do?

Normally, at least it has been my experience, when data like this surfaces, churches and denominations react, rather than respond. In many cases, the exodus of young people comes as a surprise, all too late. Parents who had faithfully attended church, signed their children up for every program and event from AWANA to DiscipleNow, youth camp, mission trips, etc. wonder where they went wrong when the now adult child seemingly walks away from church with no intent of coming back. 

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In the past, churches would say (well, not out loud, but it was a predominant thought) "Just wait until they get married and have kids. Then, they'll come back to church." Maybe that was true a generation ago, but it doesn't seem to be now. The fact is that young parents who just attended church and were entertained as teenagers seem to find more community in social networking sites, school activities, athletic endeavors for kids, and other areas and church is not avoided...it just never come across their minds.

Yet, all hope is not lost.

Reaction is not the answer, but godly response is. 

What we are facing is not new. Have you ever read the Old Testament? When you read Moses' commands to the next generation in Deuteronomy 6 regarding the passing on of truth to the next generations, there is a since of fear in his words. The fear is that unless the family teaches of God, models worship in the home, and remembers the covenant past with God, the kids and grandkids will not only forget, but walk away. The journey away from God is not without consequence.

What faithful parent or grandparent of a prodigal hasn't shared similar lamentation in prayer?

Since trends tend to raise awareness, let's look at observable trends of those who have not abandoned the faith.

Jon Nielson, Pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, recently shared an article highlighting some of the trends he has personally observed of faithful Millennials and young adults (full article here).

  1. They are converted. Sometimes, we deem attendance as a faith indicator. Yet, just being in the youth room or the church building does not a convert make. Teenagers from "good families" who get good grades, play football, cheer, get accepted to multiple schools, etc. are considered by many in the church to be "good kids" and while they may comparatively be, the problem is when salvation is presumed. Christians truly don't abandon Christ. Church attenders and members do.
  2. They have been equipped, not entertained. Oh boy, this is big. "Come to our youth group. It's really fun!" isn't a bad thing, but when everything in the ministry is focused on the student or young person, rather than on the God we worship we perpetuate a "better than the church down the street" model that defaults to the latest events, concerts, praise band, dodgeball tournament, ski trip, and other such events (which are not bad...they're just no the ultimate point.) I'm all for fun and I like being entertained, but if we're simply creating consumers of Chrstianese rather than making disciples, no wonder the younger generation walks away. "Big church" will never be that fun. Seriously - the deacon retreat is not quite the level of youth camp. 
  3. Their parents preached the gospel to them. Better yet, their parents worshipped with them and not just at church. The gospel was lived out, modeled, and shared. Normative home life was Christ-centric. Parents who are discipled well disciple well. When the parents are not believers, the church fills the gap. The problem occurs when Christian parents outsource discipling their children to the "professional Christians" at the church. Let's just say that after decades of promoting this model, the proof is in the pudding. It does not work.

Walker Moore of Awe Star Ministries developed a model of student ministry years ago where students led. The gifting of "significant tasks" to students for the health of the ministry allows God to work in and through young people at levels where the "come into the youth room and wait for the adults to feed you" model never will. 

So, what can we do? We can remember. God has not abandoned young adults and teenagers. And, God is not through with the older generations, either. It's not like all the Boomers and Gen Xers are believers, right?

I'm not pessimistic when I read the statistics. I'm actually happy that the scales are now falling off our eyes. Sure, many are walking away, but it's not too late. We (the church) are now being forced back to Scripture and the model is clear. Disciple-making is our commission. It begins in the home, not the church building. Family equipping discipleship is more than a model. It's a biblical command (Deut 6). 

I believe God is recalibrating our focus. While we may be as fearful as Moses, the hope we have in Christ remains. So, don't lose heart. 


When Your Child's Sin Leads To Your Bitterness

Parenting isn't for cowards. That sentence was used in a book title years ago and there's much truth in it. Yet, as challenging as parenting may be, the blessings of God through being allowed to parent His image-bearers are innumerable.

 

 

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Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass via Visualhunt / CC BY

As a pastor I hear many stories from friends and church members related to heartbreak and pain connected to the sins of their children. My wife and I are not immune to these feelings either, so I must say I was pleasantly and uncomfortably jarred this morning while reading a book on biblical parenting. 

The book is The Faithful Parent: A Biblical Guide to Raising a Family by Martha Peace and Stuart Scott. For a good review of the book by The Gospel Coalition, click here.

Uncomfortably Jarred

Knowing the truth and doing what God desires are not always the same thing. After years of struggling with personal angst regarding some family issues with a child, Peace and Scott's writing revealed something I have been holding within. Through the words of Ephesians 4:31-32, God revealed that I had allowed bitterness to solidify within my heart. 

The section I was reading is titled "When Things Don't Go As Planned" and is focused on Christian parents who raise rebellious, unsaved, unrepentant children and wonder "How did this happen?" I share Peace and Scott's words on this here (from pages 180-181):

Instead of being angry and bitter, we are to trust and be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. We are to go the extra mile (Matt. 5:41), return good for evil (Rom. 12:21), and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). If we do not obey these commands we may find ourselves doing ridiculous things such as sharing the gospel in anger or using anger to try to change the heart.

For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. (James 1:20)

Bitterness can be hard to see in ourselves because we're so busy rehearsing why we didn't deserve what has happened to us. Ask yourself these questions to help evaluate whether you're bitter.

  • Am I withdrawing my love and commitment to my child or God?
  • Am I shocked and appalled that my child would sin against me?
  • Do I wonder how God could do/allow this to happen to me?
  • Am I not willing (or finding it very difficult) to do good to my child or for God?
  • Do I feel I deserve to be treated better by God?
  • Do I find myself avoiding my child?
  • Do I secretly delight in his misfortune?
  • Do I see his sin as the "log" and mine as the "speck" before God?

Repent of any bitterness that you have! Make glorifying God your focus instead of dwelling on how you're being treated.

Boom!

Guilty.

Bitterness is a deadly thing. It's like a cancer that seeps in unknown, but infects all areas - especially attitude. Is this just about me? No. I know many parents who have faced the very same feelings. Somewhere in the midst of "log" and "speck" analysis, anger, hurt, frustration, and pain become all that is known. 

And the Enemy wins a small battle.

Nowhere in this section is sin minimized - the sin of the child (speck or log) or the sin of the parent (speck or log), but the strategy of the Enemy is clear. Bitterness leads to sin and ineffective Christian living. Sin hurts. It always does.

Our Perfect Father knows how this feels. Read Isaiah 1:2-4 for details. 

Peace and Scott remind us...

He knows what it is like to be rejected by those whom he has loved and cared for. He knows what it is like to see a loved one headed for disaster. He knows what it is to long for his children to return to their senses (Matt. 23:37). He knows what it is to have anguish over his own, although they may cause it. Rest assured, God the Father is able to sympathize with you and knows how to work with the wayward.

Trust him. Remember, grace is enough. 


A Rite of Passage for Junior High Boys

Nine years ago a school administrator and two teachers began a mentoring club at one of our local junior high schools for boys, simply put, who had little to no father influence and were getting into trouble in class.  This administrator, John Green is the founder of the group and eventually became principal of the school. He is now serving on the leadership staff at Seamark Ranch, a local ministry with group homes for children in need.

The mentoring group continues to meet, and currently has chapters at three local junior high schools. Our clubs (RealStuff Clubs) focus on leading young men into REAL Manhood that…

  • Rejects passivity
  • Expects the greater reward
  • Accepts responsibility, and
  • Leads courageously. 

As a ministry of our church, we provide male mentors for these young boys. Our groups meet for one hour a week, prior to school in a room reserved on the campus. We abide by the law regarding student leadership and faculty sponsorship (Equal Access Act) to ensure no false allegations of “separation of church and state” have any grounding. We teach sessions on what it means to be a real man, using characters from the Bible and ultimately Jesus Christ as our perfect model.

Each year, as the culmination of our club meetings, we host a “Knighting Ceremony” where 7th graders are “knighted” into the journey of authentic manhood before their peers and family members. Each 7th grader receives a Bible as a gift. Our 8th graders receive the cross pendant from Band of Brothers ministry.

In the past, our mentors were the “knighters” and the presenters of the pendants. However, we now affirm that the ones who need to be doing this are the boys’ fathers (or grandfathers, or other significant male.) As mentors, we gladly stand in the gap for boys who have no father figure in their lives. Yet, for those with fathers, we focus on helping them learn how to do this vital rite of passage.

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So, this year, with over 250 in attendance (boys, parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.) our young men were charged with the code of being a real man, then their fathers were invited up to knight them (7th graders) or present the pendant (8th graders.) The fathers of 7th graders knighted these boys in the “name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and welcomed them into this fraternity called real manhood. The fathers of the 8th graders presented the pendant and then in their ear, spoke a word of blessing that included these key phrases “I love you! You have what it takes!” plus anything else they desired to say.

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It was a momentous evening and while it was focused on the boys, it truly was a night to remember for these fathers. For some, it was the first time they had spoken such words to their sons. Many had never heard their own fathers say such things. It was a divine rite of passage and we seek to provide support for them along the journey.

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