So That's Why They Asked That Question - Pastoring a Church Healing From Sexual Abuse

*(JUNE 21, 2019) EDITED BASED ON INFORMATION I DID NOT PREVIOUSLY KNOW. APPRECIATE THOSE WHO BROUGHT DETAILS TO MY ATTENTION.

THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE REFERENCES A STORY FROM OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. THE STORY REFERENCED IS PART OF THE PUBLIC RECORD. THE PERPETRATOR WAS ARRESTED AND WENT TO PRISON. HOWEVER, THERE ARE MANY VICTIMS STILL SUFFERING FROM THE ABUSE SO NAMES ARE NOT USED IN THIS ARTICLE. 

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Twenty-five years ago I began serving as the youth pastor at our church. I had gone through the search process with the church. I was finishing up my final semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and was very excited about the possibility of being called to serve on a church staff, especially in a state I had never even visited prior. I had phone conversations with search committee members and the pastor. I was flown to the city to see the community, the church, and discuss possibilities of joining the staff. When the time came for the committee to present me to the church body, my wife joined me. We met with church members, students, and spent time in homes with key members and those involved in the youth ministry. 

I met with the church membership in an afternoon session where questions would be asked. I had tried to prepare myself for this portion of the interview, but with an open mic, there are often questions that seem to come from left field. I shared my personal testimony. I shared my philosophy of ministry. I then began to answer questions. 

One of the other staff members had previously warned me that I may get some questions related to sexual issues. 

Um...okay. I had not had a class at seminary where this type of questioning was covered. The staff member informed me that one or two church members had asked him some interesting questions like this when he was hired and that I should be prepared. 

"Okay," I thought. This must be normal.

The question was asked about our marriage. It was a question regarding intimacy in our marriage. I answered quickly, likely as my face reddened, and said something about "I love my wife and we have a new baby...so...yes, we know what intimacy is." 

Next question.

Fast forward a bit. The church voted. I was called to be the next youth pastor. I would go home to Texas, finish seminary, and following graduation move to Florida. 

I was loving the challenge of leading a youth ministry with more members than most churches I had ever attended. I was learning and seeking to lead well. I was setting up meetings with parents and reaching out to them. I told them "I am not a parent of a teenager. You are. You love your children more than I can and I want to help you as best I can. I will be your advocate and resource." 

It seemed biblical and right. This was part of the philosophy of youth ministry that I held. 

After a few months, one of the youth parents told me that he did not trust anyone with the title "pastor" or who held a seminary degree. I was surprised and felt this was going to be an awkward conversation. Then he said that after getting to know me and as he served as a leader in our ministry, he believed I was God's man for this role and that he was glad I was here. Whew!

It was a few months later and another, similar conversations occurred. I could not figure out what had led these people to distrust pastors and especially youth pastors. My predecessor was a good man. He was a godly leader, a faithful husband, father, and a seminary graduate. He was and continues to be a friend. Following a season serving at another church, he has come back to ours and remains a faithful member. I soon realized that he was not the one they distrusted. He was not the problem at all. This distrust went back years prior.

At one point after a short time into my service here, we were entering into a new building program payoff and fund-raising effort for newer facilities. We were tasked with visiting all the church members on the roll. (I don't recommend these visits, by the way.) I met some members of the church who hadn't attended in years, but being a Baptist church, their names were still listed on the roll. I don't remember the person's name, but I do remember the visit. He was cordial, but clear. He had an experience at our church - well, his child did - and he was not ready to come back (much less commit to a building program.) 

What Was Going On?

I eventually discovered the story. 

Back in the 1980s, while I was still in high school in Texas, the church here in Florida was growing and thriving. The youth group was huge and reaching many students at the local school. The leader was a charismatic (personality, not theologically) person who was able to reach and connect with students. There were ski trips and events and other things that drew in the students. They did not, however, do many events, camps or activities with other Baptist churches.

The church had a house in the parking lot that became the youth building. This was the norm for many churches doing youth ministry in the 1980s. 

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Photo on Visualhunt.com

Then, the story broke. This sad, dark chapter in our church's history was made known. The secrets were discovered. Families were torn apart. Students were revealed to be victims. The one with the pastoral title was the victimizer. 

I won't go into details, but suffice to say that in an era prior to online searches, internet news stories, and instant information access, our church was facing a reality that had to be dealt with immediately and clearly. 

I was not here. No one on pastoral staff when I was called here in 1993 was here either. Most current church members were not here at that time. Those who were do not talk openly about it. 

Why Bring This Up?

As a pastor of a Southern Baptist Convention affiliated church, we are talking openly and clearly about the reality of sexual abuse in our churches. Our votes at our annual meeting last week in Birmingham will go down as an important first-step to bring transparency, clarity, justice for victimizers, and healing for victims of sexual abuse in the church.

In our little story of shame, it was revealed that at least two other Baptist churches discovered similar acts being done by this same staff person upon students in their fellowship when he served there. However, rather than calling the police, these churches did what so many others have done over the years. They released him from his duties and let him go to find work elsewhere. In other words, they passed the buck and washed their hands of the story, letting others deal with it. In their passive dealings with the issue, for whatever reasons given (protecting the name of the church, protecting the victims, the family of the victimizer, fear of lawsuits, etc.) they became complicit in the sins perpetrated upon other young people.

That's why I bring this up.

Last Sunday I preached on the role of the father. I mentioned that some fathers try really hard, but are not leading well in the home and therefore leave their children spiritually void or worse.

I then took a sidebar, so to speak, and briefly addressed those who have been abused by their fathers and others (even pastors.) I mentioned forgiveness to be biblical and needed. I also referenced Romans 8:1 which states that there is "no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus." I affirm that verse, as I do with all Scripture, but made clear that the verse does not state that there are no consequences for sin. 

That, I fear, has been the ignored reality for many churches and Christians when addressing physical and sexual abuse. 

At that moment, from the pulpit I stated to our congregation,

"For the victim, we want to help. We want you to feel safe. We desire to walk with you through the very painful and needed areas of healing. We're still trying to discover how best to do that."

Then I said,

"To the victimizer, we want you to know that Christ loves you too and that you need to repent and receive the forgiveness for your sins. We also want you to know that you need to go to jail. We want to make sure that happens." 

It was quiet at that point.

Now I Know

I know now why that question was asked in my interview twenty-five years ago. I was not here in the 1980s. I have brothers and sisters in Christ who were. God has brought great healing to our church. The police were called, but apparently not by our church leadership (and for that we were wrong), but by a parent of a child and another person in the community that had learned. It seems that the church leaders were focused much more on potential liability and harm to the brand (of the church) than for the healing of victims. This was a perception by some. Sadly, it may be the case in that many churches have shown this to be the initial (if not only ) focus. Thankfully, the truth was made known. Truth is always right.

The accused was convicted and went to prison. Sadly, I am pretty confident that our church did not provide the healing place needed for all the victims. 

I also believe, based on what I have heard from some, that it was not because we did not want to. It was because we did not know how to do so. I am not sure we know how now. What I do know is that those who were hurt still carry scars. Some have remained in the church (if not ours) and are faithfully serving the Lord. Some may have pushed these stories back so far in their history as to not have to deal with them. I apologize if this has reopened wounds you thought were healed.

For others ... well, I don't know. I fear there is a group of fifty-year-old wounded people out there who have abandoned the church because a wolf entered the sheep pen and did great harm. For those, I am deeply sorry and I pray you will receive the help and healing needed that only God can provide.

The Caring Church

Like many pastor friends of mine, I am not content with just offering lip service to an initiative that can be perceived as simply a reaction to news articles. I believe the issue of healing and hope for those victimized by sexual abuse is a gospel issue. That's one reason we have signed up for the Caring Well Challenge and encourage other churches to do so as well. That is not enough, I know. However, it is a start.

Rather than have a dark chapter that no one speaks of, perhaps we can learn from the past so as not to ever repeat it.


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

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

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

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

You see why these statistics are a bit muddy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Gay Kid in Your Church May Think You Hate Him

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

The Moral Revolution and the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is More Than a Same-Sex Marriage Issue

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

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

The LGBTQ+ People In Your Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hating the Church 

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

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Photo credit: Texas Monthly - Sept 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Hated By the Church

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Affirmation Are Not Synonyms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


When Your Youth Group Functions As a Parachurch Ministry

Parachurch ministries have been common in American evangelicalism for decades. In most cases, these ministries have provided opportunities for mission involvement, evangelistic outreach, and domain engagement. The term "para" means to come alongside as healthy and beneficial parachurch groups come alongside the local church for the sake of gospel ministry.

As a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle leader at a local school, I see the value for many of these groups, but also the ease of a  parachurch group losing sight of the "para" concept. Of course, in my circumstance, I am not funded through donations or supporters as many parachurch missionaries are.

Recently, Sam Rainer, Micah Fries, and Josh King spoke of the local church and relationships with parachurch organizations on their Established Church podcast. Listen here.

But, this article is not about the good and bad of parachurch ministries. It is about those ministries within your local church that basically function as a parachurch ministry. This is not necessarily intentional, but it does happen. When this occurs, it ultimately is to the detriment of the church and the individual believers (or at least members of the group.)

Youth Group Experiences*

Last Wednesday we baptized two teenagers at our church. One of these students is a high school senior. We'll call him Andrew (not his real name.) Andrew had become active in our mid-week student worship service and faithful in attendance. The Lord had been drawing Andrew to himself and after a few weeks of wrestling with God's call, Andrew surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. The next (and first) step of obedience for Andrew was to be baptized. As a Baptist church we believe the biblical mode of baptism is immersion and that while it is not salvific, it is the right and obedient step for a believer. Since baptism is a public declaration, the Wednesday gathering for worship became the venue for the ordinance. 

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Andrew had met with our student minister and talked through the details and the meaning of the baptism. His family members were in attendance to witness this, as were members of the church.

The second student baptized was a young lady. We'll call her Susie (again, not her real name.) Following the evening's service, she surrendered to God's calling, repented of her sin, and submitted to Jesus Christ as Lord. We counseled with her and baptism ended up being a "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" moment.

Her family joined us and before her new church family, Susie was baptized.

"You're not joining the youth group."

I met with Andrew prior to his baptism. I was congratulating him on his step of faith and gave him a new Bible to remember this moment and for his further study. As he was preparing to be baptized and become a member of our church, I said to Andrew, "You are joining the church, not the youth group."

He responded "Absolutely!" I was encouraged, but also realized that through this, over the years we have sometimes been satisfied for students to simply join the youth group apart from being covenant members of the body.

As I look back at photographs taken at youth trips in the past, mission outings, and events involving our students (most of whom are now in their 30s or older), I cannot help but notice how many were faithful and active for the years they were in junior high and high school, but were never engaged in the life of the church. In many cases, as students became adults, their church participation dwindled. They are no longer active in a local church and often only see their church experience as a great time they had as teenagers, much like other events that were experienced during the formative years.

Perhaps it was the "At least they're coming to youth group" mentality held by church leaders that promoted this as acceptable? As I sought to see as many teenagers as possible come to the Lord, I would invite them, encourage students to invite their friends, and unwisely promote the "Wednesday youth service" as the end-game. 

The Virtual Parachurch Ministry

Parachurch ministries have been assets to the Kingdom of God. Many have come to know Christ and grow in their faith through them. In fact, many people in our church are supporters and partners in such groups as the Gideons, YoungLife, FCA, Bible Study Fellowship, and more. 

Yet, none of these groups are the church. 

They know it and they do their best to ensure their members do as well. The healthy parachurch ministry comes alongside the local church, not seeking to be "in place" of the local church. This is not a problem. What is a problem is when those ministries within the church begin to function as virtual parachurch groups.

This is not only in youth ministry, but in any age-graded ministry or specialized group (i.e. women's ministry, men's ministry, senior adult ministry, choir, children's ministry, etc.) 

There are numerous signs that this is occurring. Sometimes, they are not noticed until it is too late. In my experience, these are just some of the indicators...

  • People are encouraged to join the ministry rather than the church.
  • Volunteers are committed to the leader of the ministry, or to the concept of the ministry, but are unengaged in the fellowship of the church body.
  • In some cases, the ministries have separate websites, programming, logos, etc. that differentiate them from the church as a whole.
  • There are "hangers on" in age-graded ministries. For example you may have a student in youth ministry that graduates out, but refuses to step into the "big" church, and would rather just hang out in the youth group. At times, it may be a calling, but in most cases, it is due to the fact that a student joined the youth group and not the church. The unwise leader then seeks to find a place of service for him/her to keep him/her engaged. (I've done this, so I know it's easy to fall into this trap.) I have never seen then end in the development of a healthy church member, maturing in the faith. And...if the "hanger-on" is now 30 and still in the youth group, it's more than just a little creepy.
  • A family-equipping model of discipleship is not only difficult to build, but likely impossible to implement without major challenges.
  • The church body views ministries as separate entities designed to gather people and in the cases of children and teenagers, to "keep them busy" but never view the attendees as part of the church. In other words the students may be "those teenagers" rather than "our students."
  • In the age of segmented living (work life, church life, school life, etc.) the church is viewed more and more as a commodity designed to "meet my needs" or the family's desire. 

Why Is This a Problem?

I stated prior that "it ultimately is to the detriment of the church and the individual believers (or at least members of the group.)" when this occurs in the local church. But why? Why is it to the detriment of the church and members?

  • Biblically, the church is ordained, called by God, and as the bride of Christ is his chosen instrument for bringing him glory and fulfilling the Great Commission and Great Commandment. There are no parachurch ministries in the Bible. This does not mean parachurch groups are wrong, necessarily, but does emphasize that only the church can fulfill the calling of the church.
  • In other words, a parachurch ministry cannot biblically observe the ordinances of the church (baptism and the Lord's Supper.) This means that if a student is baptized in the youth worship service, it is not a youth ministry ordinance or observance, but a celebration of the church (just as it is at satellite campuses). This has to be clear and expressed plainly.
  • The Lord's Supper is for the church, not something that should be done just for a sub-group gathered for Bible study. This is why we don't observe the Lord's Supper in small groups, at funerals, weddings, or retreats.
  • Church discipline (Matthew 18) does not fit within the parachurch ministry. While there can be discipline of members in such and at times result in expulsion from such groups, it is not church discipline. Church discipline can only take place within a covenant relationship of the local body.
  • Another problem is that when individuals are only committed to a specific ministry or even the leader of a ministry, when that ministry ends (and there are times when ministries need to cease) or the leader moves on or no longer leads, the members leave. We have seen this over the years far too often. Individuals who were regular attenders to church events, but never engaged in the church and rather hid stayed in their ministry of choice end up in the category of "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" 

After 30+ years in ministry, it is clearer now than ever for me. Church leaders lament that members leave their congregations or stop attending after graduation (either their own or their children's) or when a ministry ceases to meet. Yet, what often has happened, though unintentional, is that the church has propagated a subset of good ministries that function as independent entities within the church (virtual parachurch groups) rather than elevate and emphasize the value and biblical foundations of being the church.

So, when we tell folks to "be the church" they struggle because they have only ever been the youth group, children's ministry, men's breakfast, women's tea, senior adult group, etc. 

Be the church, but be part of the church first.

_____

*It is not just youth groups. Any ministry within the church is susceptible to becoming a "virtual parachurch" group.


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."


Superheroes on Mars Hill - Engaging the Comic-Con Culture With the Gospel

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Acts 17:22-23 (ESV)

The story of Paul's engagement at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, reminds us that the message of the Gospel is not just to be held privately, but strategically taken to those in need of redemption through Jesus Christ.

While there have been many advancements regarding technology and industry in the centuries since Paul spoke to these ancient people near Athens, not much has truly changed. Humanity remains depraved and in need of rescue and redemption. The Gospel remains true. God's church continues to move forward under the mandate of the Great Commission as we go through life to engage others with the message of truth.

Comic Books and Superheroes

When I was a boy, I loved reading and collecting comic books. When I had saved up enough change (from that quarter a week allowance) I would ask my parents to stop by the 7-Eleven on the way home from church in Montgomery, Alabama so I could peruse the comic book stand for the latest issues featuring my favorite heroes. This was no comic book shop. There were no plastic bags with acid-free boards for storing the magazines. The rack was metal, spun, and sat near the door.  Most of the comic books were bent as children like me would bend them down to see which issues were hidden behind. I remember when they were 25 cents, then 30 cents and 35 cents and then "Still Only 35 cents." I normally would go home with two or three issues. These would be read numerous times and added to the stack I was accumulating.

Of course, like most people my age, I would get the first issues of new comics hoping that one day they would be worth thousands of dollars like the first "Action Comics" and "Batman" issues of old. Nevertheless, most of the magazines my generation bought were stored safely and because our parents didn't throw them out like those from previous generations, we now have a plethora of books that are "Fabulous First Issues" which aren't worth much because supply (in those plastic sleeves in cardboard boxes) is so high.

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Photo credit: Sam Howzit via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Resurgence of Superheroes in Comic Books

In case you haven't noticed, after a time when comic book sales tanked and superhero films and television shows seemed to be fading, a renewal of interest in these heroes with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man has occurred. 

The Golden Age (1936 - early 1950s)

Since the Golden Age of comics (1936 - early 1950s,) heroes with brightly-colored spandex have attracted the interest of children and teenagers. During the 1940s, superhero comic interest waned. Magazine publishers began to produce books with different themes such as westerns, romance, science fiction, crime, and horror. In fact, many superhero titles were cancelled at this time. Of the dozens produced in the early 1940s, the only ones featuring superheroes to continue production by DC (the industry leader at the time) through the decade were Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics, Batman, Superboy, Superman, Wonder Woman, and World's Finest Comics.

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Photo credit: Terry McCombs via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

The Silver Age (1956 - 1970)

Many changes took place in the world of comic books following the Golden Age. Controversy developed over the alleged connection between comic book themes and juvenile delinquency. In 1954, the comic publishers implemented a self-regulated Comics Code Authority and a shift from crime and horror themes led to a reintroduction of superheroes. The introduction of a new Flash from DC Comics launched this era and soon upstart Marvel Comics launched the Fantastic Four and a new wave of fans was born.

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Photo credit: Michael Vance1 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The Bronze Age (1970 - 1985)

This next age of comic book production moved Marvel Comics to the forefront. It was during this time I was collecting those books sold at the 7-Eleven. While many of the mainstay heroes remained, newer ones were introduced and a return to darker plot lines emerged (e.g. racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, urban poverty, pollution, etc.). Many of the heroes introduced in this era became the models for newer television shows like "The Incredible Hulk," "Wonder Woman," and "Spider-Man" and movies like the Christopher Reeve helmed "Superman: The Movie" and Michael Keaton's "Batman."

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Photo credit: Brian Wilkins via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

The Modern Age (1985 - present)

As generations shift, so too do the heroes they admire. While comic sales dropped, new business models were implemented. Character licensing was sold and plans for new films have been made. It is during this era when many comic book characters were redesigned, creators gained ownership of characters through independent comics, and publishing houses became more commercialized.

Some call this the Dark Age of Comics due to the influence of writers and artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Anti-heroes (like Deadpool, the Punisher, and even Batman) became more popular.

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Photo credit: Asbestos Bill via Visualhunt / CC BY

The Cinematic Universes

When Christopher Reeve first put on the blue tights and red "S" a new era of marketing comic book heroes developed. The "Superman" movie from the late 1970s stated that fans "would believe a man could fly" and based on ticket sales, they did. When Tim Burton introduced a darker "Batman" to the big screen in the 1980s, many fans thought it would fail, primarily because Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the campiness of Adam West's Caped Crusader was the prominent screen image known. When Burton's film became a hit, it seemed like superhero movies would soon take over the multiplex. Nevertheless, sequels didn't fare as well and other films like Dolph Lundgren's "The Punisher" and David Hasselhoff's "Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." proved that Hollywood hadn't quite figured out how to move the comic heroes en masse to the big screen.

Then Tobey Maguire became Spider-Man and soon thereafter Christian Bale moved under the cowl of the Dark Knight and, as they say...the rest is history.

Marvel and DC have created effective (at least financially) cinematic universes that have proven to connect with audiences.

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Photo credit: junaidrao via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
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Photo credit: junaidrao via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

More Than a Weak Sermon Series Theme

Apparently there are many fans of superheroes in our communities. These run the gamut from stereotypical fanboy or fangirl who knows intricate details of multiverses to the casual fan who just saw Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and watches Sheldon and Leonard on "The Big Bang Theory."

In recent years, with attempts to capitalize on pop culture with catchy themes, some have preached sermons or themed kids events at churches with pseudo-superhero concepts. I'm guilty of having done this in the past, but the truth is as Dr. Timothy Paul Jones stated in a blog post from earlier this year:

For many Christians, the temptation seems to be to engage in what I would identify as a “thin reading” of these cultural artifacts (comic books and superhero films,) hunting for surface-level connections between the Bible and our favorite superhero tales. Pastors who become caught up in such thin readings may construct entire sermon series out of the latest films or feel compelled to drop references to movies into their messages—all to achieve a perceived sense of relevance by linking Scripture to culture. This is not authentic cultural engagement, however. In most instances, it’s closer to uncritical cultural appropriation. Full-fledged Christian engagement with the culture digs deeper than surface-level links and wrestles with the conflicting worldviews that undergird these artistic artifacts.

Jones' article goes deeper and is well worth your read. Read it here.

Engaging on Mars Hill

What is it about these heroes that not only connects generations and draws fans, but gathers groups together at Comic-Con and movie premieres? The religious undertones are not always subtle and the fact that most early superheroes such as Superman were rooted in Judaism (ever wondered why his name is Kal-El?) reveals many Old Testament themes woven into the histories, especially from the Golden Age. 

Yet, even anti-religious sentiment and humanistic worldviews aside, there is a sense, for the most part of good, evil, truth, justice, and other such things that at the core are religious concepts.

Many of the fictional heroes and heroines either find their root in Greek and Roman mythology or at a minimum are influenced by some of these types of stories. It is my contention that the culturally popular fictional heroes are not much different than the false gods and goddesses worshipped and adored by the ancient people of Paul's day.

Paul engaged those who were far from God strategically. He went to Mars Hill for this purpose. He did not remain silent, but talked intelligently and not condescendingly to those in the crowd. 

What If?

After reading numerous articles and studying God's Word on living sent as his church to a lost and dying world, I thought of Dr. Jones' postings about worldviews as revealed in comic books and the cinematic universes of Marvel and DC.

What if the church engaged this affinity group through story-telling in ways that centers on the Scripture and the Gospel? What if rather than just continuing to add programs and events to reach the already reached, we went to this "Mars Hill" in our culture today? I have talked to a few teenagers specifically about this. Some attend church, but always seem to be on the fringes. Others have no place for church in their lives and basically have denied or ignored the message of the Gospel. I asked if they would consider joining me for a study called "The Meta-narrative of the Gospel as Revealed in the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes?" Yeah - that's what I named it, based on Dr. Jones' articles. However, I may shorten it to "Superhero Sunday Nights."

Their interest was piqued.

I asked, "Do you have any friends who may be interested in something like this?" 

The answer was yes and they began to rattle off names of students I do not know. Most have no connection with a church and no relationship (or desire for a relationship) with Christ.

I am not sure what this will even look like - The Big Bang Theory meets the Bible? I hope more than that. It's just that we (the church) have done much over the decades to connect with students through affinities like athletics, drama and theater, dance, and music, but I have yet to hear of an intentionally evangelistic effort (more than a gimmick event) that seeks to connect with those whom many categorize as nerds and geeks, but most likely think deeply and love and understand the intricacies of story. Ultimately, the Story is what they need.

Some will mock. Some will ignore. Yet, I believe some will be drawn by God to Himself. It's been done before.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. Acts 17:32-34 (ESV)

 


The Prevailing Religion of the Day

In a culture that seeks to be spiritual, but not religious (which ultimately is impossible) a certain version of religiosity has developed over the years. In the early 2000s, researcher Christian Smith surveyed adolescents in the United States of various faith backgrounds (Catholic, Jewish, Mainline Protestant, Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Evangelical, and others) to determine where teenagers stood when it comes to religion.

The research has been reviewed and updated over the years and while there are likely some shifts occurring, one standout revelation as defined and described in Smith's book Soul Searching states that across the board among American students, the religion of the day, as affirmed and modeled by their parents even, is now "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." It rightly sounds like therapy or at a minimum, the presentation of religious thought from a television talk show host.

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Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Smith goes on to codify the details of this religion as revealed in their interviews as follows:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. 
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The sad reality is that as many people read these descriptors, they will mentally affirm them to be true. Yet, this version of God who would find himself very welcome and affirmed in our culture misses much of what Scripture reveals. In other words the God expressed here is not the God of the Bible nor does he offer redemption, hope, or salvation. But...at least people feel good about him, right?

The tragedy is that many within the church today have slid into this affirmation of religion under the guise of progressivism or tolerance. 

This is why our churches must embrace a family equipping discipleship model. Church attendance and activities can be highly effective. Yet, we know that as we embark on high school graduation around our nation, many students in the church have falsely bought into a God described above. This is one reason why so many students have manageable gods in their lives, but not the true God and eventually walk away from "organized religion" to self-identify as "spiritual but not religious" and ultimately lost.

Thoughts?

_______

Smith, Christian with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


Putting a Stop to the Youth Exodus in the Church

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

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

Generation Z/Boomlets

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

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

The Numbers

Pew Research shared the following:

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

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

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

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

What Can the Church Do?

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

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

Yet, all hope is not lost.

Reaction is not the answer, but godly response is. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Rite of Passage for Junior High Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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firstFAMILY Podcast 015: Killing the One-Eared Mickey Mouse

Back in 1989, Stuart Cummings-Bond wrote in Youthworker Journal of the "One-Eared Mickey Mouse" that often develops within a church regarding student ministry. 

What is the One-Eared Mickey Mouse?

The premise is that left unchecked, the program model of youth ministry leads to an isolated entity with the thinnest of connections to church as a whole. This become a ministry silo (which I have written about here.) A healthier approach would find more overlap of the circles with intentional interaction and sharing of spiritual practices like worship.

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While student ministry often is the example used to describe this effect, the truth is it is not relegated to just ministry with teenagers. Any ministry within the church potentially can become its own "parachurch" ministry. This is often due to much weight being placed on the program model and the passion of those who serve within the ministry. For example, if John Doe serves in the intercessory prayer ministry, and has great passion for that ministry, there would be the natural tendency to elevate the prayer ministry over all other aspects of church ministry and opportunities. When this happens, a segmented leadership structure develops and an unintended "us vs. them" mentality develops which is evident in spiritual arrogance. You know, when only those who serve in "Ministry A" are considered to be really spiritual and doing something vital, while everyone else is missing out and living below the level of all that is holy.

Since Mickey's head is connected to his ear in this model at a very small, finely tuned point, it is very easy to be active in the "ear" and not be connected in the fullness of the church and its ministry.

This is poor ecclesiology and ultimately sinful.

And, just about every church of any significant age and size will inevitably drift here.

As our Leadership Team meets regularly to pray, plan and prepare (nice alliteration, huh?) we are more and more convicted of the potential for developing and even celebrating the "one-eared Mickey." Therefore, we must be strategic in our planning and more intentional in our practice to ensure this does not happen.

To declare our desire to have a family-equipping ministry means more than just saying "We're intentionally inter-generational." It means planning for opportunities where family members of all ages (and that's church family as well as biological and home-based families) to serve together, worship together, learn together, and grow together.

Perhaps one of the greatest divides in this era of legacy churches, church plants, megachurches, home churches, and all other models is the generational divide. When a segment of the church (defined by generation or age) is described as "those people" rather than "our family members" the divide is there.

By and large the "worship wars" of the 1990s and prior are over. The fact that "wars" were celebrated within the church is bad enough. The winner of the worship wars? Debatable, but likely not the church since division and self-centeredness tended to define the battle most accurately described as "The greatest waste of time within the church walls while the world kept on turning."

Yet, "Generation Wars" may be upon us...unless, we are proactive.

To ignore the "one-eared Mickey" is a recipe for loss. 

There are many resources available to help churches avoid this. One is Timothy Paul Jones' book Family Ministry Field Guide. I recommend it for all pastoral staff members (especially during the season of ministry planning and calendaring - which for us begins in August and ends in July each year.)