High School Graduate Recognition in a Family Equipping Church

It is spring in an almost post-pandemic year and high school graduation in our county is tomorrow. We have received graduation notifications in the mail, invitations to family-hosted celebrations, and some neighbors have the now common-place signs in their yards stating that a graduate is in the house. Social media feeds are full of memory photos including many reenactments of those "first day of school" pics from kindergarten with the now adult-looking child holding a sign that says "last day of school." In our county, public graduation ceremonies are back on, without masks even. It is almost like it used to be prior to COVID-19.

Churches are having their annual high school graduate recognition time. For some churches this involves having the students march down to the stage in their respective caps and gowns. A brief introduction will be made to the congregation stating who the student is, from which local school he/she is a graduate, and sometimes future plans are shared as well. It is a nice stroll down memory lane for those in the church who actually know the students. 

What To Do For Graduates At Church?

Most often the church will acknowledge the achievement of graduating high school. Then a gift is given to the students. Many times the gift is a book that, to be honest, we know will never be read.  Many students will just pack the gift in the box with the rest of their "high school memories." There was a season when our church would give a compilation cassette tape or CD (FYI - cassette tapes were small plastic reels of magnetic tape containing recordings of music. CDs were round, reflective discs that could hold music, videos, and data. These were played in the dashboard audio systems of Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs or on the Gateway personal computer in the home - if said computer had a CD-ROM drive. For information on Oldsmobile, Pontiac, or Gateway, search the items on Google.) of Christian music to graduates. 

It is a special day for the students. It is likely more monumental and special for the parents of the students.

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Pastors and church leaders often struggle with what to do for high school graduates, especially with the understanding that the Lord's Day worship gathering is to be just that, a focus on the Lord. Holidays and special events (Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day Weekend, Independence Day, Arbor Day, etc.) often create great confusion, and anger groups of church members when what is expected on a particular Sunday morning is seemingly ignored or not prioritized. 

So, what do you do with high school graduates on the Lord's Day?

If you take the entire service honoring graduates is that not a problem for a church commanded to honor God alone?

If the focus is on the accomplishments of the seventeen and eighteen-year-olds in your fellowship, is that wrong?

If you totally ignore the fact that some in your fellowship have just graduated from high school is that ignoring the context of your culture?

What about those students who really never come to church, but their parents or grandparents do? So, on high school graduate recognition Sunday there is a teenager standing before the congregation who is not only not a part of the fellowship, but is unknown to most but those who are related to him? Does that graduate get the "free gift" too?

What about students who joined the church and attended worship, but never attended any student ministry activities, events, or trips? It is often the student pastor leading the recognition. It is awkward, but does that student count? Or...should that student count more because she was part of the church and not just part of the student ministry?

Over The Years, I Have Learned...

After thirty-plus years in full-time pastoral ministry here is what I have discovered and recommend regarding high school graduation and church:

  • If you recognize graduates on Sunday morning, some will love this. Others will be angry.
  • If you do not recognize graduates on Sunday morning, some will love this. Others will be angry.
  • I don't believe it is wrong to recognize high school graduates. You may disagree, but I'm writing this blog and that is my opinion.
  • Graduates are not excited about the gift the church gives them (for the most part.)
  • Just because most graduates may not read the gift book you give them does not mean you should stop giving books. Books last. Books are good. Good books are great. If you give them a book, don't waste money on a "Promises for the Graduate" book, but give them one that speaks of identity in Christ, life in Christ, proper doctrine, and truth. Self-help books (even Christianized ones) are not worth it. They may not read it...but they may and it is best to offer a timeless work than a pop-Christian-psychology-you-have-what-it-takes manual. Oh, and even if they have a Bible, a new Bible still a good gift. I actually still have the Bible my church gave me in 1986 when I stood in front of our congregation as a graduating senior. Thanks Davis Boulevard Baptist Church (now CrossMark Church.)
  • No graduate should be given the microphone and asked "What do you plan to do for the rest of your life now that you are an adult?" Don't do this to a student even if they have thirty honor ribbons and everyone knows they've been accepted to the most prestigious university around. Why? Because there are likely students standing next to them who are just really glad they have graduated high school and are unsure of their next steps. It is a recognition for all graduates, not just the valedictorian-level students. The school's awards ceremony is the place for acknowledging those academic accomplishments.
  • You will have students show up for graduate recognition that you cannot ever remember seeing before. So, if you have a gift for others...have one for them. This "who gets recognized" issue is no hill to die on.
  • Don't make participation in youth ministry activities and events the litmus test for being recognized on Sunday.
  • Regarding the sermon - preach the gospel. This should be understood, but Sunday's sermon should not sound like the secular "Believe in yourself" or "Follow your heart" drivel offered at many commencements. In fact, if you are preaching through a series, stay in the series. It is a clear reminder that while you are acknowledging the accomplishments of your now young adults, the church gathered is focusing on God's teaching from God's Word for the day (just as you do every Lord's Day.)
  • If you are recognizing graduates do so as a church, not as a student ministry. 
  • Consider a post-service or pre-service fellowship with graduates and their families. Or, do as we did for years, have a drop-in graduate recognition party for all your graduates. This will provide space and fellowship for all your graduates and that way when families are calling the church to reserve the fellowship hall for their graduate's party, you can say "We do this for all our graduates on ______ day. You're welcome to participate." It will keep church members from trying to hit every party in town and will provide a celebration for those students whose parents may not schedule such an event. And...for families who want their own...they will do it anyway.

The Big Shift for Graduates & Parents - The Family Blessing

Moving to a family equipping ministry as a church has been challenging, yet fulfilling. I have written about this philosophy of ministry prior. You can read about it here.

Since the church is helping parents, grandparents, and guardians of children and teenagers to be the point of the spear when it comes to discipleship, we believe it is imperative that our recognition of graduates moves beyond the traditional presentation of students and a gift from the church during a worship service.

The family blessing is a milestone that cannot be replaced by a church event. The words of a loving parent (or guardian) spoken publicly to a young man or woman will be remembered much longer than any words spoken by whomever was chosen to give a speech at the high school graduation. The blessing is biblical. It is intentional. It is public. It is spoken. It is right and holy.

And...for many parents, it is frightening.

It is most frightening for those who fear standing in front of or speaking in front of a crowd. We understand that. In those cases, we stand with the parents, we provide mentors, we even will read the blessing of the parents upon their child for them if needed.

We will see this play out on Sunday here at our church.

We have just a few graduating seniors this year, but they will be recognized. During the early part of our worship service, these students will be brought to the front of the congregation (wearing their respective graduation regalia.) They will be introduced to the congregation. Words of encouragement and challenge will be offered by the pastor or student pastor. Then, their parents (or guardians/mentors) will come stand with them. The microphone will be given to the parent and he/she will speak a blessing upon their now young adult child before the fellowship of believers.

This is a milestone.

Some may call it a rite of passage, but it is more than that. It is the loving parent's words of blessing upon a child who is stepping into a new chapter of life.

It will not be easy for all. Some parents may struggle with finding the words. In some cases, the wounds between parent and child make this even more difficult. Yet, even then, we believe there is power in the biblical blessing within the fellowship of the redeemed. Since we are intent on equipping parents, we help them with this. We make this step doable. We are equipping parents to bless their child even if they have never experienced this in their own lives.

And with this...an added on recognition to a worship service becomes a time of redemption, calling, blessing, challenge, and will shift from being solely about the graduate and more about God and all that he desires for the future of this person. 

To God be the glory, may we do this well.

And...congratulations graduates!


Teenagers Need More Than the Coolest Youth Group In Town

A few weeks ago I was asked to lead one of our local junior high school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle. 

What I love about these young people is that once they determined that being an athlete on a school-sponsored team was not required for attending the huddle, they began inviting fellow students and have played around with an alternate name for the club. While still officially a Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle (and approved by FCA as an official group) these students will say that the "A" can mean athlete, academician, artist, or just anybody. To be honest, I like the name "Fellowship of Christian Anybodies."

I asked them to list some of the issues their fellow students were facing. We focused on the "other students at school" in that it is often easier for the students to share their own struggles when it is seemingly focused on what others may be facing. Believe me, everyone in the room knew exactly what we were talking about.

Every generation of teenagers has had their issues, their struggles, and their challenges. Just being a twelve to fourteen-year-old in a public school brings overwhelming challenges. Yet, this group shared things that were on such lists years prior.

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As the students began to share, the list grew longer and sadder. Here are just a few of the items I wrote upon the whiteboard as they shared.

  • Pressure to vape
  • Pressure to drink and do drugs
  • Pressure to have a "significant other"
  • Family issues
  • Struggles with being adopted
  • Parents divorcing
  • Bullying
  • Grades
  • Pressure from parents (to play sports, be in band, be on a travel team, keep good grades, get into the college of choice, get a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.)
  • Gender confusion and identity (LGBTQ+)
  • Sexual pressure
  • Etc.

Many of these items have been issues for decades, but some are moving up the list to be more prominent now. Others, like vaping, were not issues in years past because they did not exist. The stress of performance partnered with parental pressure and peer bullying is huge, and not only in-person, but also, if not more so, online and through social media platforms and oft-used apps by students.

I then asked the students what the answer was to all these issues and in typical fashion, from students who state they are Christians, "Jesus" was the answer given.

He is. He always has been.

Then I asked, "But do Christian students–those who have surrendered to Christ as Savior and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit–deal with these issues, too?"

Their eyes opened wider and it was an "a-ha" moment for many of them. They knew the answer was Jesus because in Sunday School, at youth group, at camp, and in most every evangelical youth gathering in our churches today they are taught he is. It is not that the answer is more than Jesus. It is not, but the realization that even being a Christian does not make them immune to such pressures seemed like a revelation to them. 

The bell rang. We prayed. They then went to begin their school day.

More Than Lock-Ins and Pizza Parties

As I was driving to the office following this meeting, I began to think about the youth ministry God blessed me to lead for many years here at our church. We filled the room weekly for our Wednesday worship. We would load the buses for trips to the beach, the theme parks, youth camps, and special concerts and events. We held DiscipleNow Weekends in homes where over one-hundred students paid to go "deep" in Bible study with guest leaders over a weekend. We held lock-ins (the absolute worst event ever devised for youth groups–designed to eradicate all sane adult volunteers in student ministry, IMHO) and concerts, game nights, competitions, movie nights, work days, matching T-shirts mission trips, and every other thing created by youth pastors in what I see now as the "golden age of big group youth ministry."

I planned these events. I enjoyed them. We saw thousands of teenagers over the years attend and many make life-changing, eternal decisions for Christ. 

These were good days.

But...there was always something missing. I could not put my finger on it at the time, but I knew we were just a degree or two off in our mission and our focus.

Perhaps it was the trickle-down effect of the church growth movement?

Perhaps it was the pressure to create the best youth experience in the city?

Perhaps it was always feeling the need to out-do the church down the street, or even worse, the youth event we held the previous month?

Hindsight is 20/20

I know young adults (and not as young as they think adults) now whom I was blessed to serve as youth pastor, who are walking with the Lord. They are serving him and his church. They are leading their own children well. Some are even serving in full-time ministry. There are many whom are considered co-laborers for the sake of the gospel.

Yet, there are many others who walked out of the church building after receiving the free book (they never read) and the "ConGRADulations" CD of Christian music when we recognized them as high school graduates. They seemingly left the version of faith they claimed to be true, impactful, life-changing, and important, back in the youth room, or in that dusty box of high school memories in their parents' attic.

I heard the very real issues and concerns shared by the group of teenagers I had the honor of meeting with last week. I think about the immensity of what they face. In many cases, their parents or guardians are feeling similar pressures. I know this is true because of the emails, texts, and direct messages I receive almost weekly from parents or guardians hoping I can give them practical, step-by-step answers for some of the most grueling issues their teenagers are facing. 

The answer is still Jesus. He always will be, but as these parents are recognizing, the very real and important need for growing as a disciple is not something that can be outsourced to a youth minister or a Sunday school teacher.

When I served as a youth pastor, I was satisfied living in my silo of youth ministry. I talked with and resourced parents as best I could, but ultimately, I was engaged with reaching teenagers. I would say that my intent was to reach them for Christ (and it was) but sometimes, it seems I was focused on reaching them for my youth ministry. Ultimately, we had hundreds of teenagers who joined a youth group, but never joined the church or God's family. Lost teenagers wearing Christian t-shirts was common.

This is changing as our church has moved to a model of student ministry (as well as preschool and children's) called Family Equipping (read more here.) The focus is less on the young person and more on equipping parents and guardians to be lead disciple-makers in their homes. Those who understand the value are praising this shift.

Others who simply long for their teenagers to be part of a large youth group so they can make great memories and do all the things their parents did a couple of decades earlier do not like this. Some have left our church. They have found other churches who provide the very same type of ministry that was so prevalent in the golden age. These are not bad churches. They are wonderful and God is using those ministries for his glory. It is just that they are functioning under a different model. I pray for them and their impact for the kingdom.

Since hindsight is 20/20, I now know that when our church functioned under such a model, we did a disservice to families and students. We settled for good, when God was calling us to better.

The bottom line is that teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality, their gender identity, the pressures to perform, the temptations to vape and other things, the stresses of family breakdowns, and the host of other things that end up on a whiteboard at a junior high school do not simply need the world's greatest pizza party, a sub-par event with dumbed-down inspirational "talks," matching t-shirts, or just someone to sit by in the church service.

They certainly need Jesus, but they also need a roadmap for next steps in their journey of life. Not only that, they need a guide to help them take those steps. Ideally, those guides are their parents. In some cases, they must be another (such as Paul became for Timothy.) 

It is essential that we equip believers well, for this generation and the ones to come.

May we never be guilty of outsourcing discipleship that is commissioned to us.

Oh, and by the way, I am not opposed to pizza parties, youth camps, mission trips, and DiscipleNow Weekends. I think these are all valid, good, and helpful. As for lock-ins though...they are of the devil, so no love for them.


What Are Parents To Do When Their Teenager Stands Alone?

Three years ago we  began making the very strategic shift in our church from a simple age-grade programmatic model to an equipping model. This model is focused on equipping disciples within families with an emphasis on making disciples who make disciples (within the home.)

I have written on this before. One of the warnings for any church making the shift is the inevitable loss of families, members, and attenders who just do not understand the shift or plainly do not like the focus. In other words - count the cost. (I have written about this here.)

Often when there is such a shift in ministerial philosophy within a church, the real results of effectiveness are not known until months or even years later. Earlier today, I received this email from a church member with a teenage daughter. While the subject is a specific issue the daughter was facing in school, the celebration shared was that home-based discipleship with intentional family worship has led to the response celebrated by both mom and dad. I celebrate alongside them as God is glorified in this. 

Here's their story, with names removed...

It is 9:30pm on a Wednesday. Lunches are made. Homework is completed. Chores are finished—only to begin again in a few short hours. You gather the family together for a short nightly devotional and prayer. And then it hits you out of nowhere. That unseen spiritual attack at the moment when you are exhausted and weak, simply seeking refuge and rest. Putting away her studies and work for the day my daughter informs us that she is struggling with a school assignment and not because of its level of difficulty but its content. We pull up the assigned short story and are immediately shocked. The story is not even borderline pushing the limits—it is graphic. Not knowing who is reading this, I will not even give the author or title so as to not glorify what is basically soft-core pornography, nor do I want to put in the eyes of others what should never have seen the light of day. It is not art. It is not literature—and my wife and I are both language arts majors and educators. We taught Shakespeare with all of his innuendo. We taught Twain and Lee and the controversial language and race issues. We understand the dangers of censorship and are firm supporters of the First Amendment. However, this is in-your-face sex and violence and it has been put into my 15-year-old daughter’s eyes and the eyes of hundreds other young people. In just a few hours she will be told to continue reading the story and provide written answers to in-depth questions about its content.

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How do you respond? What do you do as a parent? As a student? Immediately we run the gamut of human emotion and response. Anger. How could this teacher think this was even remotely appropriate? We will be at the school to meet with the principal first thing in the morning. Frustration. Who approved this assignment? In a world that greatly struggles with domestic and sexual violence, why are our public schools increasingly pushing and glorifying it? Sadness. Why can’t our kids just go to school and be kids? At younger and younger ages our children seem to be bombarded with heavier and darker topics hidden under the guise of liberal arts education. Fear. If we speak out, will my daughter become the target of harassment and retaliation? Confusion. Maybe we are just overreacting. Is it really that big of a deal? Spiritual warfare at 9:30pm on a school night.

Surely other parents will be outraged, too? We put the kids to bed with instructions to pray for wisdom and then begin to discuss and reach out. It is late and we are met with this response and thought: It is not a big deal. The Bible is graphic. This is just a similar description of what was occurring inside and outside the Gates of Hell. We can’t put our kids in bubbles. We begin to waver. Yet this seems different. While the Bible does sometimes graphically describe man’s wicked deeds and ways, it is always presented as sin--man’s depravity pointing the way to the need of a Savior. Sin is never glorified. It is presented as exactly what it is: deadly and destructive. The story that my daughter read portrays it as pleasurable and life-giving. It is a lie being presented as truth. This is a big deal. It is an attempt to isolate, indoctrinate, assimilate, and confuse my daughter and others. As Christians we are called to be many things—light, salt, ambassadors. We are “beggars pointing other beggars to the Bread.” We are called to be set apart and stand for the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Augustine is to have once written, “Sometimes we must stand against the world for the good of the world.”

We end our evening with prayer—heartfelt and intimate. Our daughter may very well have to stand “alone” and it may come with a cost. The next morning, we instruct her that we stand with her if she is led to stand and refuse to complete the assignment. We assure her from Romans 8:1-2: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

God knows her heart and we love her—no strings attached. I kiss her cheek and then watch her walk out the door with her older brother into the darkness of an early morning.

My heart is heavy and my wife and I begin to pray over her. Then come the texts. None of her friends will stand with her. She will be standing “alone.” She is afraid and is just going to do the assignment.

I get this at 7:06am: “I don’t know what to do.”

Those two voices: the Lord gently affirming her faithfulness and the world screaming for her conformity. We feel helpless. We want to rush to the school and fight for her. This is why families matter. This is why churches must equip families no matter their structure. Because when faith and life intersect, when spiritual attacks happen late on school nights, we must be prepared.

I text her back: “It is okay. Either way God loves you. He KNOWS your heart and He knows you are for Him. We love you. You do what God leads you to do. You are NOT alone!”

Fifteen long minutes go by and then we receive a picture of the assignment with her handwritten response:

Ms.______, I mean this in the most polite way possible but I cannot do this assignment. I think you are a fantastic teacher but this story goes against my morals and values. Some parts of this story are so straightforward and disgusting that I don’t feel okay reading it. Jesus died for us so I think I should not entertain what He died for. So I will take a zero for this or I would be happy to do another assignment. Thank you.

Tears well in my eyes. I am proud but I know this did not come from me or her mother. Paul continues in Romans 12:1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Her Father in Heaven taught her well and she was ready for this test. As of this writing we have not received the teacher’s response but I know this: no matter the outcome my daughter has taught me something. She was not “ashamed of the testimony about our Lord” and displayed “a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (1 Timothy 1:7-8) While my first response was to fight in my power, she showed reliance on the Lord and His wisdom. She stood firm, responded in love, and glorified our Lord.

Families, Trevin Wax writes...

“In every age, the world implements strategies of isolation, indoctrination, assimilation, and confusion, and in every age, the church must resist with confidence and courage, trusting that our faithfulness will be a gift to the nations we know will one day bow before the world’s true King.” (article on TGC here.)

Begin today to prepare your children for the spiritual battles that lie ahead. Fight the temptation to isolate them or fight for them. There may be a time for that but be led by the Spirit through prayer and Godly wisdom. When your faith and life intersect, when spiritual attacks happen at 9:30pm on a school night, what will your children learn about your walk with Christ?

Sometimes you just need a reminder from God that the effort you are exerting to help parents be equipped to equip their children is worth it. Sometimes, as parents and guardians of children and teenagers, you just need a moment where God reveals the effort is making a difference.

Disciples making disciples–it's not a new idea. It just sometimes gets ignored or forgotten in our celebrity-focused, consumer-centered, attractional, event-oriented versions of church. But don't lose heart, equipping the saints (even those within our homes) is worth it. Better yet, through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to do so.


The Pastor's Kid Responds to "The Pastor's Kid" and Other Stuff (Guest Post by Ashley O'Brien)

Ashley (Tarkington) O'Brien has read the book The Pastor's Kid:What It's Like and How to Help by Barnabas Piper and as a pastor's kid (my kid) she has written this review of, or rather a response to, his book. Yet, this is more than a book review, it is a wise discourse from one who grew up in the fishbowl known as the "pastor's family" and her perspective of how this impacted her view of God and the church. 

_________________

I recently read the book The Pastor’s Kid: What It's Like and How to Help by Barnabas Piper. Barnabas Piper is the son of Pastor John Piper, known by many as the 33-year pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, founder of Desiring God ministries, author of numerous books, speaker at Passion Conferences and more. I initially saw the book advertised on my social media pages (apparently my pages know the occupation of my father...that's scary.)

I was interested on Barnabas’ perspective as a pastor's kid (for obvious reasons) and what he had to say.  I enjoyed the book and could relate to Piper's stories and understood how some would struggle under the identity of their father's title. I could also see how some would be benefited by the role as well. I talked to my brother about our experiences growing up in a pastor's home, just to get his perspective. We grew up in the same God-honoring home, were active in the same church and ministries, had many of the same influences in the church, but as teenagers and adults diverged into the two most common and opposite stereotypes of a being a "Pastor’s Kid" or "PK."

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This is not a picture of Ashley, but these look like church kids.

As my brother and I discussed points highlighted in the book, we concluded that our dad’s occupation and position as pastor of the church had little to do with how we were raised. What I mean is that we were not raised to be good PKs, but were raised to know the Lord, know about him, to love God, love people, love God's church, and become his disciples. We "grew up in church" as did many others, and were loved, taught, and prayed for by many in our church family. My brother and I concluded that none of those things would have changed if dad were not the pastor. In other words, we determined that our family simply was seeking to be authentic Christians and our upbringing was not any more Christian just because our dad stood on the stage and preached each Sunday. 

We agreed that due to dad’s position we were able to experience places and people that we would not have otherwise. So, we selfishly are thankful for that. Nevertheless, a negative aspect of being a PK would be the expectations placed on us by others. This is understandable, but a bit frustrating. Adults have expectations of children and teenagers, especially related to behavior. For any church kid, there are expectations and since the church is supposed to be family, there comes a collective expectation from "family" members and a heightened level of responsibility. 

Based on Piper's book, the concerns and issues experienced by a PK can actually be valid for any person who grew up with a church family. This is not a bad thing. It is just a reality. 

To the person who grew up in church and abandoned church upon entering adulthood, there are many reasons as to why that exit occurred. Statements like “That's my parent's faith. It's just not for me" or other similar reasons (excuses) are common.

Growing Up Is Inevitable

At some point, the church kid (not just the PK) grows up. It's unavoidable. The church kid has to graduate from the kids' ministry (or at least they should) and move up to the next level of age-graded ministry. Maybe this was the shift to the “cool” youth group (at least "cool" as it pertains to church youth groups.) In some churches this means gathering in a separate room designed by concerned adults seeking to create place where teenagers would feel welcome. Maybe it included the designated seats in big church where teenagers would sit together, rather than sitting with their parents. It is a rite of passage of sorts. Then comes the next step into "big" church–high school graduation. For the few who remain in the church, moving from the youth room with all the smoke machines, old couches, broken ping pong tables, loud praise music, pizzas, and games to the "boring big church" services is required. It is here that the music volume decreased, many people seemed disengaged, most didn't sing along with the music, and the music was not new or cutting edge (or at least it seemed the songs were strange versions of those performed by the youth band.) Church was now boring, it seemed. It was no longer fun. Gone was the weekly social hour where you could gather with friends during the middle of the week. No one was making you attend any longer. Friends moved away to college. Some stopped attending after receiving their free gift from the church during the high school graduation recognition. In fact, for many, that was the last time some former members of the youth group (at least some of them) were seen at church.  And you are tempted to walk away as well. Perhaps using the old excuse of “I am not being fed," but deep down knowing you just do not want to be fed what they are feeding you. You had rededicated your life to Christ many times, especially at youth camp, but now...church just isn't the same.

This isn't the biography of PKs only. There are many kids who grew up in the church who can relate because this is their story as well, whether they were a PK, a deacon's kid, a committee member's kid, or just a kid who went to church a lot.

We collectively nod our heads in agreement and think of all those fond memories of our childhood and teenage years. As adults, some of us become frustrated with the church. Some shop around for new churches, always seeking the newest experience (while actually being driven by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia resulting in a search for a Sunday experience that is basically an updated version of the youth worship at camps from years prior or the mid-week student gatherings of our high school years.)

Though I loved all the camps, mission trips, and pizza nights, I believe we may have unwittingly done a disservice over time. We created silos of ministry and rarely if ever integrated generationally. This led to an easy exit for active attenders upon high school graduation. Certainly, the individual has a choice. We cannot force anyone to remain in the church, but we must not put all the blame on the individual if the church as a whole never intentionally connected church family members beyond those of the same age or demographic. 

While Piper's book is focused mainly on his experiences as a pastor’s kid, it can easily relate to everyone who grew up as a church kid. 

Jeremy Noel is quoted in the book stating...

“Finding God was the greatest challenge. Being raised in an atmosphere where God was ministry, vocation and hobby makes it hard to be amazed by the gospel. Being raised where life is always about showing God to a group makes it hard to see God individually.”

At some point, the child has to own it. The now adult, former "church kid" must own their decisions and their relationship (or lack of relationship) with Christ and his church. Take responsibility. Noel's quote is real and reveals authentic challenges. It also explains why so many leave the church after high school. We can blame parents, teachers, and preachers…but, at the end of the day, when the now adult does not take ownership for his or her relationship with Christ, it falls on them. Children have to grow up. There is a needed graduation from the “fun” church and the “feed me” church that is built upon a consumer mentality.  

Barnabas Piper stated well...

“PKs (church kids) despite all these struggles cannot wallow in and bemoan them. Rather, we must own what responsibilities are ours; to honor Jesus, to honor our fathers and mothers, to love and support the church, and to go about our lives not as victims but as the redeemed. Grace is here for us all!” 

For the Pastors

To the pastors–love your children. Be willing to listen. Be a parent first, not always their pastor. Cheer for them at ball games (but remember who you represent so maybe don’t yell so much at the referee.) Don’t elevate your children in a way that they believe they are better than their church peers. They are surely the most important to you, but no one wants some little snot (sorry - I'm venting a bit) saying to his or her Bible study teacher “But don’t you know who my dad is?”

None of this may stir up issues for you or them initially, but it could be harmful in the long run. It can impact how your children view church and Christ. It will affect how they function as a teenager and adult when you are not there to tell them the right church answers or force them to be at church with you. Those outside the church do not care that their dad was a pastor (or they may have some unfair preconceived ideas about what that means.) Just remember that your children did not choose to be the child of a pastor or to be in the spotlight (even if it's just the spotlight of a local church.) They do not typically enjoy being illustrations in your sermon. Be sure to have a genuine conversation with your children about his or her decision to be a Christ follower. Do not doubt, of course, but understand that this decision could have been easily made due to the pressure and assumption that they should be a Christian simply because you are the pastor. Help your children make the decision to surrender to Christ as Lord their own, and not yours. Remember, God has no grandchildren. Be real with your children. If your child never sees you struggle or knows that you doubt at times, then they will feel as if they are not allowed to either. Allowing them to wrestle with their salvation or relationship with Christ and his church is healthy and all believers experience this. Offer up transparency and allow your children to ask you the hard questions so they may view their relationship with Christ and his church more real and their own. When their dad is supposed to be the “super-Christian” it is tough to be raw and real, especially when they feel they do not measure up.

For the PK

PKs–understand that your identity is not founded on what your father or mother do for a living. It is not what you excel at or how you look. As a child of God, your identity is solely found in Christ. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you will feel free from others expectations. Standing strong in Christ and his church and growing up to be a bold follower of Christ is truly what your Christian parents desire. God gave you the parents you were intended to have for a reason. So, appreciate them and love them, it is not easy being a pastor. It's not easy being a pastor's wife. And, we know, it's not easy being a pastor's kid either. But...who said this was supposed to be easy? That's just one reason we can rely on God and his grace. 


"The Gathering Storm" by Albert Mohler - Book Review

Dr. Albert Mohler has become one of the best-known Christian leaders in the United States over recent years. As president of The Southern Baptist Seminary (SBTS) he has a particular platform in evangelicalism that offers him opportunities to speak and respond to the many issues impacting the world today from a viewpoint described by Mohler and others as a "biblical worldview." 

I, for one, have appreciated his input on numerous cultural issues, especially over the past decade and a half, as seismic shifts in cultural norms and the now-termed "moral revolution" has sought to change the landscape of our understanding of right and wrong.

In addition to serving as the president of SBTS, Dr. Mohler has a prolific speaking schedule, as he is sought by many to fill pulpits and speak at conferences and special events. He is the host of two podcasts–"The Briefing" and "Thinking in Public." He is also the author of numerous books and this article focuses on his latest published by Thomas Nelson Publishers titled The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church.

Mohler book
Image from https://www.thomasnelson.com/p/the-gathering-storm/

Churchillian Title

One of Dr. Mohler's favorite figures of history (known to anyone who regularly listens to his podcasts or has visited his personal library) is Sir Winston Churchill. The British Prime Minister, known for his solid and tenacious leadership of the United Kingdom during World War II, wrote the first of his six-volume series on the Second World War covering the growing threat of Nazi Germany. Churchill used the title The Gathering Storm for this volume. Mohler credits Churchill's book title as the reason he chose his book's title.

As the threat of Nazism was growing in Europe, many in the UK and elsewhere minimized Hitler's potential impact and most saw Germany's revival as something that would remain within the German borders, not impacting the neighboring nations, much less the world. Churchill, on the other hand, was a voice crying out for others to take note of the growing threat. When it became clear that Hitler and his powerful Third Reich was bent on European (and eventual global) domination, Churchill seemed prophetic as one who had warned of the storm.

In the same way, Dr. Mohler speaks in this new work of the growing and present threat of secularism to the culture and to the church. This is not a cry heretofore unmade. Dr. Mohler, as well as others, have been speaking of these threats for decades. Not unlike many in the UK who heard but ignored Churchill's warnings, sadly it seems that many Christians have either willingly or unintentionally been ignoring the warnings of secularism to such a degree that now the storm is not simply something that may impact us, it is clear that landfall has occurred.

For those, like me, who live in Florida, hurricane preparedness is a way of life. Floridians have different seasons than other regions in the nation. We have spring, summer, football, and hurricane seasons. When hurricane season begins, we begin to watch our local meteorologists more intently as they share of new storms forming off the west coast of Africa. We know those storms often build up, begin spinning with more intensity, and at times, move from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane with eventual impact somewhere in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, or the southeastern coast of the US. The "cone of concern" is developed and we watch daily wondering if we will be impacted personally. Watching the daily hurricane updates is like watching a turtle run a race. It's slow and plodding and uncertain...until it isn't.

Hurricane Warnings

Living in a state where hurricanes are part of our annual schedules, there are often times where warnings are given, but ignored by many. It is akin to the ignoring the flight attendants in commercial flights as they give instructions regarding how to wear the seatbelt, put on oxygen masks, and emergency exit rules. Since most who have flown numerous times have never experienced an in-flight emergency, these repeated warnings go unheard. Yet, when something mid-flight does occur and the oxygen masks fall from the console, it is clear that many would be doing their best to remember what was said pre-flight as they slide into panic.

In our culture wars and shifting sands of morality and rightness, the storm is no longer on the way. It is here. For those who have listened to Dr. Mohler's daily podcast "The Briefing" and at times felt overwhelmed with the data and daily updates of issues that run counter to a biblical worldview, his new book is a welcome resource. Many of the illustrations and delineated accounts in the book have been covered at some point by Dr. Mohler in one of his briefings, but to have the book available giving a systematic unveiling of the history of secularism and the subtle (and overt) impacts of this philosophy in our lives is telling and helpful. In some cases, the shifts have seemed immediate (e.g. the 2015 Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage) but in truth are simply the latest visible impacts of the storm gusts upon culture.

Responding to Landfall

When hurricanes make landfall, the impact varies depending on wind speed, the structural strength of the buildings nearby, the depth and health of the roots of trees, and the preparedness of residents. Once the storm has passed, disaster relief teams arrive (many wearing yellow hats representing Southern Baptists serving and helping in Christ's name,) damage assessment occurs, and next steps for recovery begin. 

Unlike a natural hurricane, the storm we now face seems to be only increasing in intensity with an ever-widening cone of concern with no end in sight. Yet, as Christians we are affirmed that as we stand firmly on the gospel of Christ, though a narrow foot-hold certainly, we will not only withstand the storm, but thrive in its midst and in the aftermath. So, be encouraged.

In Dr. Mohler's book, he focuses on nine specific issues impacted by the rising secularism. Sadly, this is not only a secular, godless worldview present outside the church, but also at times visible within. The chapter titles categorize these areas so the reader can more clearly see that which has occurred and is occurring. Chapters speaking of "The Gathering Storm in..."

  • Western Civilization
  • The Church
  • Human Life
  • Marriage
  • Family
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Generational Divides
  • Engines of Culture
  • Religious Liberty

After reading The Gathering Storm, I cannot help but see indicators of the growing secularization and worldview shifts daily as new headlines appear on my newsfeed. In fact, yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled in what I deem a disastrous ruling, that "that 'sex' does, in fact, include sexual orientation and gender identity, despite the fact that legislators repeatedly voted against including those categories in the legislation." (ERLC - "After the Bostock Supreme Court Case") Where would this lie in Dr. Mohler's analysis? It is clearly part of the storm related to gender and sexuality, but also impactful in the area of religious liberty, not to mention family and generational divides.

This is just one headline from today. 

One can simply peruse other current and recent stories to see how the moral revolution and the rise of secularism continues to impact all avenues of our culture on a daily basis.

What Now?

Dr. Mohler's concluding chapter hearkens once more to Churchill's warnings prior to World War II. While Churchill, along with the other Allied leaders, entered into the storm against Nazism, fascism, and imperial despotism with a united, military campaign that proved to be essential for victory, Dr. Mohler is not calling for a militaristic movement. He is, however, clearly reminding the church that what we face today is truly a battle. The church has been in this spiritual battle since the very beginning, but the storm of secularism is our most recent and current beachhead.

Dr. Mohler gives reasoned, practical, and timelessly biblical encouragement and insight into how Christians and the church must live in such times. The concluding chapter is titled "Into the Storm" and that certainly is our calling. 

I recommend The Gathering Storm highly and encourage readers to subscribe to "The Briefing" for continued daily updates of current trends and shifts in culture from a biblical worldview.

Insightful Quotes from The Gathering Storm

  • A central fact of the storm now gathering strength is moral liberalism, which cannot be explained without the dechristianization of society. (xv)
  • Secularizing societies move into conditions in which there is less and less theistic belief and authority until there is hardly even a memory that such a binding authority had ever existed. (5)
  • We do not need a political movement. We need a theological protest. (13)
  • A true church does not give a non-answer to a direct biblical question. (27)
  • What morally atrocious age we have slipped into where we sacrifice babies on the altar of "women's health, autonomy, and their right to the pursuit of happiness"? (47)
  • Secularism has paganized the culture. Pagans speak of holy things as if they were lowly while speaking of lowly things as if they were holy. (64-65)
  • The headlines will continue down this trend–we will see not only liberals versus conservatives but revolutionaries versus revolutionaries; feminist ideology versus transgender ideology; gay and lesbian activism against transgender activism. (97)
  • We should lament the brokenness and understand the many failings of the Christian church toward those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. But we dare not add yet another failure to those failures. (115)
  • In response to the storm gathering over gender and sexuality, Christians must do at least two things: preach true gospel liberty in the face of erotic liberty and stand ready to receive the refugees of the sexual revolution. (119)
  • Teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. (128)
  • Liberalism often fails to distinguish between conservatives and the extremists on the right. this can be driven by intention or by carelessness, but the result is the same. (153)
  • Consider the fact that religious liberty is now described as religious privilege. By definition, a privilege is not a right. (166)
  • Where you find failing churches and denominations, you find a loss of faith in God. (191)

 


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.

Screenshot 2019-05-30 13.13.45

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.

Berk
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.


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.

Pregnant-woman-standing-at-seaside-at-sunset
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