Facing the Reality That Your Church Has Changed

"Your church is perfectly positioned and staffed to reach a people who no longer exist."

I first heard a Christian leader make that statement about fifteen years ago. His point was that often churches of a certain age find themselves overwhelmed by decades of programmatic, event-driven, historically successful strategies that were not and are not necessarily sinful, but over time become ineffective. Thus, your church may still be filling its calendar with elements designed to reach...people who are no longer in the community or attending the church.

Change Leads to Pastoral Frustration

I have discovered that I often do not think the way other pastors of churches think. This is not because I have some secret knowledge others do not or some insight that others have yet to gain. It is because I am weird. Yep, that's it. I tend to ask questions that others never consider and I just do not know better than to ask. Sometimes, I am like that four-year-old who responds to everything his parents say with "Why?" or the even deeper question of "But...why?"

It can be frustrating and I'm sure my frustration frustrates those who are part of the church I serve.

Yet, I still ask the questions. 

I still wonder why we do things we do. I wonder why things are the way they are. So I ask.

I do my best to look toward a place that is truly impossible to see - the future - to hopefully get a handle on trends and cultural shifts so that we as a church can be positioned well to present the never-changing, life-redeeming message of the gospel to the yet unreached.

"This is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile"

Now this dates me and those who are not at least fifty-years-old likely have no idea what I'm referencing. Yet, I'll attempt to explain.

Back in ancient history the company known as General Motors produced a line of vehicles under the brand name "Oldsmobile." Oldsmobile was positioned in the auto industry to reach a specific target market. 

At one point, Oldsmobile was focused toward an older demographic. Eventually, the market-share shrunk and GM was basically competing with itself (since Buick and Cadillac also targeted the same group.) Thus, in the mid-1980s Oldsmobile began running an ad campaign under the by-line "Not your father's Oldsmobile." The commercials featured actors who had starred in older television shows or movies along with their adult children. I remember ones featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek." They were in the cars with their respective children and the adult children were shocked at how sporty the new Olds were. Thus..."This is not your father's Oldsmobile" was then stated and plastered on the screen.

It was catchy and creative. Apparently, not enough though as the Olds brand was soon discontinued. Yet, that phrase stuck with me and in church life where the retirement of long-dead programs and outdated emphases remains, the marketability of "This is not your father's church" seems to resonate.

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Of course, when I speak of this type of branding and marketing of the local church, I am not speaking of the abandonment of timeless truths, the value of the Lord's Day, the doctrines that define us, or the inerrancy of God's Word. Those and other vital elements of who we are as Christians and our message are timeless and never change and should never be tampered.

Yet, as most of us who grew up in church know, there are elements that were used by God for a season, but the season ended. In these cases, change has to happen. Otherwise, the church ceases to to be faithful to the calling God has given and ends up existing in a form that exists solely for itself.

Some struggle with this reality, but it does not make it any less true.

Many of our Baptist churches in need of revitalization or replanting now have faithful remnants of brothers and sisters in Christ serving and seeking to survive in their communities. Yet, even by their own admission, walking into the church is like stepping back in time. Back in time not to a moment of biblical focus and holiness, but just back a few decades to a time when said church was reaching its community and had more people in the gathering.

And Then...The Pandemic

There has been much written for many years regarding contextualization and the changing landscape of church planting, sustaining, and community engagement. Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly what smart people said would happen within the coming decade occurred within a span of weeks. 

Churches who refused or never thought seriously about online streaming, online giving, or online anything were reevaluating their strategies. Pot-luck meals went the way of the buffet restaurants. BST (Baptist Standard Time) for all meetings, services, Sunday schools, etc. was erased. A year's worth of events and programming disappeared. And...many pastors and ministry leaders whose job description and in some cases personal identities were defined by what they do (or did) rather than in who they are began to struggle. All the "Ministers of..." and "Associate Pastors to..." that were tasked a certain age group, ministry element, or program found themselves wondering what to do since their gatherings and programs were gone. Of course, this is an over-simplification as pastors and ministers truly focus on people, but it is easy for one to slide into busyness and tasks. It happens to all of us at some point, I guess.

Suddenly, discovering how to connect and reconnect became paramount. How to "do church" when how we "did church" was unavailable. The longing for "getting back to normal" began to be shared. And now, despite the delta variant, many churches are back to meeting in person. Programs are rebooted and structures are being reset. But...in many cases, the church has changed. In some cases it has been dramatic.

A great crowd for many on a Sunday gathering is very much smaller than pre-pandemic. A shift has happened. Now, we must adjust.

This is not your father's church...and it's not even the church you attended pre-pandemic in some cases.

When I arrived at our church to begin serving in pastoral ministry our community was much different. It was 1994. The population was smaller. The number of homes within a drivable distance was much less. Average incomes of those living near our church was significantly higher than now. There were fewer schools, fewer churches, and much history to preserve.

It is now 2021 and as I stated to our congregation a few Sundays ago - we cannot pretend that we are the church we were when we were the only conservative Baptist (or evangelical) show in town. Our mission field has changed and in some cases, we have pretended nothing has happened. A new coat of paint on a wall does not fix long-deferred maintenance. 

There is no going back, but there is a way forward.

We cannot simply ignore the mission field that exists in the present, pretending we are who we were in the past (with the numbers in the room we had at that time and the budget we had then) and be faithful to be who God has us here to be right now.

Reality Checks Are Good

So, let's just be honest. People ask me how many members we have at our church. I normally answer "I have no idea" but I do know on the books we have about four times as many "members" as we do who attend and participate in ministry. This has been the case for decades yet has been exacerbated due to our pandemic-infused online only era of church gatherings. Thus, we have bogus numbers. And our church is not alone. 

Numbers are our friends, but only if they're accurate.

Can the brand of our church survive a dose of reality? What if we begin to admit our church is not as big as it used to be, or as big as the church down the street? What if we actually look in the mirror and see who we are, then look out the window to see who really lives nearby. If we continue to seek to reach people who do not exist we will ultimately be successful in reaching nobody. 

Change is a pain. I don't like it, but it can be helpful.

Ignoring reality is a sign of pending death. I am thankful for who we really are (and for who really is in the room - or online) and believe the never-changing God has kept us here for his glory and ultimately for our good and our community's good. Rear view mirrors are great, but there's a reason they're smaller than the front windshield. 

Maybe you needed that reminder as well. God is sovereign and maybe he has been shrinking our imagined crowds of self-defined "Gideon's army"  to those who are truly disciples and will be used for the work ahead.


"Gospel-Driven Ministry" by Jared C. Wilson - Book Review

There are a few authors who are on my "buy the book as soon as it is available" list. Jared C. Wilson is one such author. His books focusing on the gospel and specifically on church and ministry leadership are golden. Most recently, he has released a book titled Gospel-Driven Ministry: An Introduction to the Calling and Work of a Pastor. At first, I thought this may be a restructured or rereleased version of his book The Gospel-Driven Church. It is not. This book is focused more on the qualifications of the pastorate and the focus on gospel-centrality in ministry. (BTW - The Gospel-Driven Church is a must read as well.)

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I mentioned recently to some peers that Wilson's latest book is one I wish I had been able to read decades prior. The insight into the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry is so valuable. However, to be honest, even if this book was available a few decades prior, and even if I had been given it by a trusted pastor, and even if I had read it...I likely would not have been able to digest the depths of truth offered in needed and beneficial ways. The arrogance of my youth would have left me with a book full of highlighted phrases and healthy insight, but most likely not as impactful in my life and ministry as needed.

Nevertheless, I now have a stack of these books in my office. I have the honor of working with many church planters and new pastors in my city. Often over coffee or when meeting with one of these young men I give them a copy of Jared's book along with instructions to read, highlight, and think deeply on the insight offered. I am believing these men are more mature in their walk and less arrogant than I was at their age. I also have come to grips with the reality that I have shifted into the role of "older pastor" whom others believe may have some wisdom to offer. I may not have wisdom...but I do have a listening ear...and a free book by Jared C. Wilson.

What I love about Jared's writing is his clarity and boldness in declaring truth while also inviting the reader into his own stories of victory, pain, and pastoral calling. Jared writes about authentic situations and not just about ideal circumstances. He has a way of explaining the very true, challenging, fulfilling, and at times painful realities of serving as a pastor of a church while also seeking to be a godly husband, father, and friend. He reminds the pastor reading that church life is messy at times, but so very worth it as God is glorified when the gospel is central. I find myself reading through the book and pausing to say "Yep, that's true." It may not be new news, but it is comforting to know that the issues I face are not special, but are similar to what all pastors face (though certainly the context and circumstances may be unique.)

This book is a good read for all Christians, but a must-read for pastors and ministry leaders. The practical insight offered through easily understood story-telling, with real-life illustrations and stories remind the pastor/shepherd that ministry faithfulness is less on doing everything, but trusting that Christ has already done everything.

Being driven by and centered on the gospel is freeing and Wilson's writing is a breath of fresh air in an age of church-centered stress.

Here are just a sampling of quotes that I highlighted as I read Gospel-Driven Ministry. They're "tweetable" but ultimately are worth more than likes on a social media post. The wise will take these to heart:

  • "A call to pastoral ministry is the inclination to conform one's desires and direction to the aspiration of shepherding a church. it must not simply be a desire to preach." (p. 17)
  • "The pastorate is not a right or an entitlement. The pastorate is a sacred stewardship reserved only for the qualified, called, and commissioned men." (p. 24)
  • "If we do not preach Christ from the text, we are not preaching a Christian sermon." (p. 37)
  • "Ask yourself this: Could this sermon be preached in a synagogue? A Mormon temple? A Jehovah's Witness kingdom hall? Each of these religions affirms the moral uplift of the Scriptures. Each of them uses the Bible to make inspirational, spiritual points about doing god to others and honoring God. But the one thing that we have that they do not is the gospel. It is the gospel that chiefly distinguishes Christian preaching from unchristian preaching." (p. 65)
  • "Do not preach an illustration in search of a text." (p. 95)
  • "The heart of ministry is a heart that doesn't see people as the interruption to your ministry, but sees the interruptions as the ministry." (p. 121)
  • "Worse than an unfeeling, uncaring pastor is a sullen, whiny, sad-sack pastor." (p. 145)
  • "Be transparent. Be honest. Don't just share the what; explain the why." (p. 160)
  • "It may sound noble and godly to keep convenience store hours, but it's a fast track to physical exhaustion and gradual resentment of the flock." (p. 201)
  • "I used to think pastoral ministry was about helping people live. Then, I learned it was actually about helping people die." (p. 217)
  • "You are not ready to shepherd until you have been spiritual discombobulated by the gospel and essentially reconstituted by the gospel." (p. 226)
  • "Christian ministry is the overflow of the mystery of God in Christ coming to bear on your soul and, through yours, on the souls of others." (p. 227)

Certainly, it is clear by now. I highly recommend this book. Buy it. Read it. Highlight it. Thank God for the insight. Then, give a copy to another pastor or ministry leader. They will thank you for it.

And...in case you, like me, are now one of the "seasoned pastors" in your community. Read the book. Put it on your shelf. Then, in about a year, take it off the shelf and reread it. You will thank Jared for this.


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. 

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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 Difficulty of Being a Single Adult in the Church

About fifteen years ago, prior to being called as the Lead Pastor at our church, I had the honor of serving as our Single & Young Married Adult Pastor at our church. This was following my initial stint as Student Pastor. During that time, I learned much. Mostly, I learned how much I did not know regarding ministry to and with those who were categorized as single adults in our church.

For many current evangelical churches in America, the single adult ministry often is forgotten or deemed unimportant. While that may not be stated aloud, the lack of focused ministry to and with those who are unmarried proves otherwise. Even if not intended, this appears to be what is experienced by the unmarried believers in the church family.

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Recently, I was leading our deacon ordination council interviews with prospective deacons. One young man is newly married (within the past two years) and I asked him point blank "How difficult was it for you to serve faithfully in the church as a single man?" The question had nothing to do with the ordination interview. That was complete. It was simply a question that had been on my mind recently. His response was not unexpected, nor shocking. He stated, "Very difficult." 

His response was centered around the fact that many, if not most church programs and activities tend to be promoted with "family" or for those who are married.

Years ago one of our senior adult men (married for decades and wife still alive) asked me why we even had a single adult ministry. His question seemed odd, if not a bit offensive at first, but as I discovered, came from a sincere desire to understand. The last time he could have been categorized as a single adult was right after high school. He remains happily married and did not know why those who were unmarried would not feel comfortable in a couples' class.

The truth is some do feel comfortable with others, regardless of the marital status of others. Yet, the fact remains that not all do.

While our church is intent on ministering to and with families, leading parents to be lead disciple-makers in their homes, the reality is that while unintended, some who are not married feel left out. Some have expressed that it is like being the friend of the high school student with a boyfriend and being invited to go to the theme park with them. It can be enjoyable, but you end up sitting behind the happy couple on the roller coaster, or even worse, in the "Tunnel of Love."

Why is it this way in the church?

Writing as a man who has been married to the same woman since I was twenty years old, some may view my responses and analysis here as uninformed or disconnected. Yet, as a pastor called to lead a congregation into the fullness of God's teachings and minister to those who have been segmented into ministries based on age, gender, and marital status over the years, I hold a heavy responsibility to do my best for all who are part of our church family. 

Without doing an extensive survey, but simply talking to people who are single, and having served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years, here are some things that seem to be making it so difficult to be an engaged (not engaged to be married, but engaged strategically in ministry), faithful single adult believer in the local church. Of course, there are exceptions and varied other things that could be listed as well. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

1. There's a post-high school and college gap in the church.

If your church has a vibrant, strong student ministry - that is wonderful! Some churches even have a strong collegiate ministry. But, what about when a person makes it through those ministries that include events, mission trips, camps, conferences, Bible studies, and more? If your church is like most, many have couples classes and small groups for adults. These are good. But...what about the adult who did not get married in college or even has a significant other at this point? This gap is real and what many have discovered is that these ministries for youth and students tend to have designated pastors or ministers leading them. The youth pastor is the go-to person for teenagers. There may even be a collegiate pastor. Yet, the lack of designated leadership for the single adult ministry post-high school and college often leaves a large demographic with no where to land. 

Even if the church is not large and there are no designated pastors or ministers, the gap is still felt. Some single adults who desire to be married find in the smaller church that they stand alone in what well-intentioned, but wrong friends and parents claim a "small pond" and thus, the single adult is encouraged to go elsewhere to find a prospect for marriage.

This concept of "finding a prospect" leads well into the next point.

2. Singleness is often viewed as a stage of life to survive.

It may not be intentional, but whether from parents, grandparents, other family members, or those in the church, offhanded comments like "When are you going to get married?" often come across negatively. 

Rather than viewing singleness as a stage to survive and get through until you find that perfect someone, could it be the church should elevate those who are living faithfully to the Lord as single adults. Perhaps even honoring their faithfulness as Paul alluded to in his letter to the church at Corinth.

So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 1 Corinthians 7:38 (ESV)

This is not a shot at the married, but should be viewed as it is intended, as an affirmation for the single believer.

Often in the church, this affirmation is absent. One pastor of a neighboring church told me years ago when referencing his single adult ministry that "There are some who are single for a season and others who are single for a reason." While that statement could be taken well, if intended to affirm the "reason" as being for the calling of God, this pastor actually was speaking in a demeaning manner of those who apparently just couldn't get it together and find a spouse. That is wrong and in the age of the easily offended, that statement should offend.

In an article featured in Relevant Magazine, Preston Sprinkle states the following truths regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-singleness message in the church:

Much of this anti-singleness message saturates the air of our churches, sometimes with words, other times with actions. The message is usually it is subtle and unintended. But single people hear it loud and clear: You’re incomplete until you get married and have at least two kids. (But if you have more than four, then people think you’re weird again.)

Just ask any post-college single person at your church how they feel. Ask them if they feel like they are valued, honored, respected, loved and invited into the lives and homes of other families of the church. Ask them if they are ever made to feel incomplete by off-handed comments (“Why aren’t you married yet?”) or sermon illustrations that always draw from parenting. Ask them how they felt on the weekend that the church was away at Family Camp.

The fact is, marriage is a small blip in our existence. We’re all born single and called to steward our singleness for the first 20-30 years of our life. Many people will be called out of singleness and into marriage and then called to steward their marriage to the glory of God. But us married folks will be single again, in this life, whether through divorce or death of our spouse. And then we’ll spend eternity with God as single persons once again. (Full article here.)

3. Marriage has become an idol

This is a difficult topic. Marriage between a man and woman is ordained by God. It is good and is even used as an illustration of Christ's relationship with his church. It is honorable. It is holy. Yet, as with all good and godly things, there is the potential for marriage to become one's idol. The family unit has also become this for many in the American church.

It's difficult because the church actually, unintentionally, propagates this opportunity for false worship.

One woman declared:

What truly should be addressed in church is the idolatry of marriage. So many singles (well, for women) feel as if they can’t be on mission until they get married. (from article here)

When thriving as a Christian is equated to being married and having children, these great and godly elements of life are elevated to places they do not belong. 

This does not mean the church should avoid ministry to the married. In fact, with the divorce rate so high and marital issues between believers continually present, ministry to and with pre-married and married couples must continue. The godly marriage takes effort. No one drifts toward that reality.

Yet, alongside a strong ministry for those who are married, a vibrant, intentional, gospel-focused ministry with single adults must happen as well. Otherwise, the multi-faceted church intent on "being all things to all people" for the sake of reaching some, ignores a large demographic in the community.

4. We join ministries, not the church

The American church has been impactful for generations, but throughout the twentieth century an industrial model of business entered into the church. The programmatic structure became expected and helpful. It was beneficial for many as children's, student, age-graded, and gender-based ministries developed. The development of single adult ministry emerged as it was discovered the gap existed.

Even now, we understand that programmatic division, while helpful with age-based learning stages, often leaves many on the outside looking in when they cannot find where they fit.

The church's focus should not be built on a demographic study or gender focus, but solely on the Word of God. This may seem contradictory to the premise that single adults should be ministered to and with, but while I do believe a focused ministry for the unmarried (with or without children, never married, divorced, or widowed) is vital, I strongly believe that single adults should not be relegated to a satellite ministry that seems to orbit the church. I believe the same for student ministry and others. God ordained the church. We are called to unite together as his church locally for his glory and our good. If a person simply joins a ministry (regardless the demographic attached) they and the church find themselves disobedient to God's call. How many teenagers in our churches really were never called to unite with the church and fall under the shepherding leadership of the lead pastor, but simply joined a youth group and hung out with a youth pastor? Yeah - that hit a nerve, right? It's the same for any ministry.

5. The return on investment is not high enough

Oops. That's hitting too close to home, right? 

This is a sinful reality among many churches, but let's call it what it is. If a church seeks to grow, increase membership, and along the way increase its budget, the best option is to focus intently on family units. Create a ministry for mom and dad and the kids. It's a higher return. 

The single adult will have one income. It may be lower (not always the case) than the married adult. The activity in ministry is going to be limited to just the one person, rather than an increase in children's, youth, men's, and women's ministry. When it's all about numbers, the one becomes less valuable than the ninety-nine. So much so that often the one is left to fend for himself and ultimately will disappear from the fellowship.

What is the answer?

The answers will be varied, but it begins with the realization that all these issues and more are not only present, but prevalent in many of our churches. To ignore a large portion of the population is to simply say, either overtly or covertly "You don't belong." 

The answer likely has nothing to do with hiring a single adult pastor. It likely isn't to elevate a programmatic ministry model as the answer either. Yet, it begins with a passion to see all people come to Christ and thrive as part of the local church.  

Not every adult is called to be married. Yet, every Christian, married or single, is called to God and equipped for service within his church. 

As a pastor, I must be conscious of this reality and ensure that not every sermon illustration is about marriage or parenting - though many are from my own story, so I won't ignore them. I must ensure that when seeking those to lead in ministries, we are not only looking from a pool of married persons. I must lead biblically in all areas, focusing on the value we have as children of God to be bestowed by God alone and not elevated by whether an individual is married, single, divorced, widowed, or "it's complicated."


"Holy Sexuality and the Gospel" by Christopher Yuan - Book Review

Years ago I met Dr. Christopher Yuan for the first time. I was at a denominational convention where he and his mother had a booth set up to promote their ministry and book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God. At the time, I was intrigued by the brief introduction to them and their story. Little did I know that my wife and I would be experiencing similar circumstances when our son expressed to us that he identified as gay. It was during this time I contacted Christopher and invited him to speak at our church. All in our family were encouraged by his message of hope. Christopher shared his personal story along with his parents during our morning worship service. That evening he led two seminars related to Christianity, the church, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It was during his presentations that I first heard Christopher use the term "holy sexuality." He used the term in his first book as well. This term is more than just another evangelical buzzword. As Rosaria Butterfield has said, this term is "a concept that changed the paradigm of what it means to live out God's best for us."

Yuan book

Just a few weeks ago, I received an advanced readers copy (ARC) of Christopher's newly released book Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God's Grand Story. I began reading and found myself highlighting phrases and paragraphs on almost every page. Dr. Yuan unpacks so much related to sexuality. While he addresses LGBTQ+ identifiers, his book is not focused solely on these. Sexual sin, whether homosexual or heterosexual is sin. Yuan states...

We cannot properly understand human sexuality unless we begin with theological anthropology. Anthropology, in general terms, is the study of humanity. Essentially, it's the human search to answer the important question Who am I?

All our thoughts and actions are influenced at some level by how we answer the question Who am I? This suggests a closer relationship between essence and ethics than many realize. The two inform each other. Who we are (essence) determines how we live (ethics), and how we live determines who we are.1

Dr. Yuan's solid emphasis on the gospel and identity as bestowed by God presents a firm foundation for the book. As an HIV+ man who had for years lived sexually promiscuous as a gay man, was a self-described partier and drug user, and eventually went to prison for dealing drugs, Yuan does not speak as one who views sin as superficial or overly-simplified. He writes and speaks as one who has been in the pit, experienced an undeserved rescue, and continues to live amazed at the grace and mercy offered from God. The main character in Dr. Yuan's story is not himself, but God. 

Some have declared Yuan's perspective on anthropology or ontology to be flawed. I have read declarations that he misuses data and scientific proof. Others who identify as LGBTQ+ see Dr. Yuan as a sell-out or a betrayer. The negative reviews of his books mostly feign to be intellectual analyses, but often reveal a personal vitriol against Dr. Yuan based on his current message and lifestyle.

Yet, for those who have actually read Yuan's writings (not just the two books here, but also his second book Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: A Qualitative Study of Reducing Marginalization of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Same-Sex Attracted Students at Christian Colleges and Universities) or heard him speak, it is clear that Dr. Yuan is not playing fast and loose with science, research, or historical aspects of biblical Christianity and sexual ethics. His revealed research and intelligent insight debunks any theory that he simply bases his beliefs on conservative, biblical talking points or Twitter-size hot-button phrasing. Does Dr. Yuan have a personal agenda? Absolutely. Every author does. Every Christian does. Dr. Yuan's agenda is not to harm others at all. His agenda is revealed in his writings clearly. It is simply to declare the message of the gospel well, unapologetically, without compromise, and fully in love. 

On a practical level, Dr. Yuan's latest book on holy sexuality should be read by any evangelical pastor seeking to minister well to those in the church or community desiring to better understand their LGBTQ+ friends and relatives without abandoning biblical fidelity. He addresses the reality of loving without affirming. For those who do not believe their friends or church families are impacted by this reality of culture, it is time to wake up. Many pastors would rather just not address these issues. Some who have done so end up doing more harm than good, that is certain. For pastors seeking to ignore the very real questions being asked by those self-identifying as gender fluid or any one of the many letters being expressed by the common LGBTQ+ identifier (or their loved ones) the fact is clear - you cannot remain silent. Your silence speaks loudly. 

Dr. Yuan's book is not only informational related to the biblical understanding of sexuality, but relatable, insightful, and practical. The included study guide provides real-life questions that can be addressed in small group studies. These all point to biblical answers and are firmly rooted in the gospel and a biblical worldview.

I agree with Rosaria Butterfield who stated in her review that this book is the "most important humanly composed book about biblical sexuality and godly living for our times."

I encourage every Christian with a loved one identifying as LGBTQ+ to read this book. I encourage every single adult Christian (heterosexual or same-sex attracted) to read this book to better understand the very real concept of holy singleness and holy sexuality. In addition to Dr. Yuan's clear and correct take on holy sexuality, his focus on the value and role of those whom God has called to singleness within the body of Christ is powerful and needed. He addresses head-on the idolatry that has overtaken some within the Christian church regarding the false elevation of marriage as essential for spiritual maturity.

Read This Book

There's more to unpack here, but for sake of space, I will end with "Read this book! It is needed and valuable."

The book is available at these sites and more: Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  CBD.

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1Christopher Yuan, Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, (New York: Multnomah, 2018), 9.