Dave Paxton's List - "101 Things In Student Ministry (To Do & Not Do)"

On Monday we gathered to remember the life of our dear brother and long-time minister of the gospel Dave Paxton. Dave had served over forty-years in student ministry in churches from Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. Over the years he impacted thousands of students and adults for the sake of Christ and he is dearly missed. A few years back he told me about one of the conferences he led at the Conclave in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This annual conference for student pastors draws thousands and Dave's breakout titled "101 Things in Student Ministry (To Do & Not Do)" always filled the room. 

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He shared this list with me. Of the items on the list, he experienced many of them, but a few were collected from other student pastors over the years. What I do know is that each is true and not just a made up illustration. And...as you read them, you too may be saying "I want to know the story behind that one." Sorry, I don't know the stories, but i do have the list. Enjoy.

  1. Love students. Work to build an atmosphere where students love one another, their families and those in need.
  2. Contact students. Contact students on a weekly basis. Seek ways to do this.
  3. Live expecting God to work supernaturally within the students and yourself—fulfilling God's vision for the community.
  4. Know Christ. Invite every student into a personal and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.
  5. No animals/pets/reptiles may be brought along or purchased on trips.
  6. It does not matter how great a communicator you are or how awesome you are at hanging out with kids, if you cannot administrate the daily needs of the ministry. If you cannot do these administrative tasks parents will not trust or respect you to take care of their students.
  7. Do not just randomly show up for a prepackaged summer camp without first being sure that you have the dates correct.  (A youth minister in our area arrived at BigStuf in Panama City Beach with his students on a bus. The camp staff stepped on the bus to welcome them searching for their church name. They could not find the church name on their list. The youth pastor made a joke saying "Wouldn't it be funny if we are here the wrong week." They checked the camp database. Sure enough, they were scheduled for following week. BigStuf worked it out. Fortunately for the youth pastor.)
  8. Never talk about church members to other church members unless you know them well.  You never know who is related or good friends.
  9. Be careful about contacting parents about a student’s choices or lifestyle.  Have a rule of thumb and use much discernment and wisdom in knowing how to proceed.  Do what is responsible...but maintain ministry options with the student if possible.  (Some new guys are too quick to overreact - I was.)
  10. Never host a Christian rap group for a bunch of white, preppy, rich kids.  It just does not work.
  11. Bad volunteers are hard to get rid of.  It is better to take the time and make sure you have the right person for the job on the front end.  It is easier to have never enlisted them than to have to "fire" them later.
  12. Don't just show love to and befriend the popular kids.  Do what no one else is doing and reach out to those who are tough to love!
  13. Don't mess with the pastor's kids...just let it go.
  14. On trips–Don’t ever allow girls and guys in rooms together...anywhere, anytime.
  15. Always be sure that you have checked out the people involved with you and your ministry. No exceptions.
  16. Plan ahead….far enough ahead to get the word out. Last minute stuff usually stinks.
  17. Once you set a ground rule for trips….don’t blink!
  18. Never be alone with a student, use the two adult rule.
  19. Never punch a student in the face in front of a deacon.
  20. You teach what you know but you reproduce who you are.
  21. Be sure the work you are doing for God is not hindering the work of God within you.
  22. People are more important than programs. Remember the value of relationships.
  23. Treat youth with respect and kindness. Someday they will be adults, who are treating youth the way you do.
  24. Take a serious approach to your ministry, but not to yourself.
  25. Cultivate flexibility and a willingness to change. Avoid the “concrete syndrome”.
  26. Be Patient. God can use time, people, and new beginnings to cure a lot of ills.
  27. Take care of yourself and your family or risk losing your ability to minister to others.
  28. Invest in a support group because you will need to make a withdrawal when times get tough.
  29. Care for and affirm your adult workers. They will stay with you longer.
  30. Equip youth and adults to take ownership of the youth ministry. Use the “BEST” approach to developing leaders.
  31. B - BELIEVE in them
  32. E - ENCOURAGE them
  33. S - SHARE with them
  34. T - TRUST them
  35. Make yourself more available and approachable.
  36. Spend more time nurturing and supporting Sunday School.
  37. Pay more attention to parents of youth.
  38. Devise strategies for enabling youth and adults to take ownership of the youth ministry.
  39. Avoid requiring volunteers to do anything. Instead, ask them to make a commitment to a set of expectations.
  40. Invest more time in equipping adults to equip youth to reach, teach, care for, and minister to their peers.
  41. Learn to care for, instead of ignoring or getting rid of troublesome people.
  42. Deacons are not your enemy. Be careful about jokes pointed their way. Develop positive relationships with them.
  43. Senior adults can be a major support group. Set an example of showing love to senior adults. You will be one someday. Oh…and by the way……they have a lot of scholarship money available for students. Enough of the “Blue Hair” jokes.
  44. If you cannot fully support your pastor, get out.
  45. Have frequent meetings with the pastor.
  46. It is YOUR job to communicate with the church your successes and goals. Teach the church to respond to kids who don’t look like the rest of the church.
  47. Parents are the number one influencers in the faith development of a teenager. It is not your job to disciple them, but to equip parents.
  48. Don’t expect what you don’t inspect.
  49. "Whatever else you do, if you do not take kids to the cross frequently, nothing else matters." - Dawson McAllister
  50. Ignore your baptism numbers and they will decline.
  51. Connect with a local network of youth ministers, even if you get nothing personally from the relationships.
  52. You are not the hottest thing on the block and the former guy was probably not a ditz. Not everything he did needs to be done away with. Build on it.
  53. Insecurity is a very poor motivator and a terrible way to run a ministry.
  54. Old guys in ministry made a lot of mistakes before you came on the scene. Learn from them.
  55. The five “W’s” (who, what, where, when, and why) are important on every advertisement. Remember them. Too many flyers with inadequate information are sent out every week by student ministries. It makes you look stupid.
  56. Do not accept cash or registrations from students. Have a drop box. One of our staff lost a student’s registration in his own pocket.
  57. Clearly communicate expectations to parents and workers.
  58. Too many rules create a legalistic ministry. Too few create one that is out of control.
  59. Trust is a wonderful thing. Set proper boundaries, but operate on a beginning of trust. Students respect that.
  60. Have medical consent forms on file for any out-of-town trip.
  61. Hall walkers (adults who do little else) at youth camp allow you and the volunteer staff to head to bed at the end of the day at camp. They free you up to get much needed rest and help assure volunteers for next year. Hall walkers get everyone in bed, and make sure they are up the next morning. They sleep during the day.
  62. If you can let someone else drive, do it. Spending time with students is more important than driving.
  63. Don’t assume anything on contracts with bus companies or retreat facilities.
  64. Be careful with a cash drop in the sanctuary. Kids will kill each other to grab a dollar bill.
  65. Always proofread everything.  There is a difference between Proverbs 3:5-6 and Philippians 3:5-6.  (the latter was proudly displayed on a t-shirt for one of my D-Now weekends)
  66. Do not keep the pastor in the dark about youth events.
  67. Do not serve chili dogs early in a lock-in.
  68. Carefully word your announcements when you get the microphone in big church.  “The big girls retreat” is not as effective as “the girls retreat for everyone.”
  69. Do not try to be someone you are not, in order to “fit in” to the youth culture.
  70. Do not discipline the whole group when it is just a few who are at fault.
  71. Do not speed in a church van.
  72. Do not speed in your own car with students on board.
  73. Never watch a rated R movie with a student, even if it is only rated R for violence.
  74. Do not get naked with the kids, even as a joke.
  75. Do not cuss in front of the kids no matter how bad you mashed your finger or stumped your toe.
  76. Never reserve spots for kids for a camp or retreat without payment in advance. People who don't pay, don't show!
  77. No matter how much they loved, trusted and respected your integrity and abilities at your last church, none of that is transferable. You start from scratch at a new church. (Hard lesson)
  78. When a student asks you to pray for them, do it then! Take their hands, standing in the middle of the hallway and pray. An immediate response shows you care, and too many adults say “I’ll pray for you,” yet never do.
  79. Don’t allow coed seating on long bus trips – especially on long bus trips during the evening hours. And spread your leaders out on the bus.
  80. Going along with the above, don’t think just because they are a minister’s son on your staff that they can be trusted. I caught one of our minister’s sons making out with a girl at about 3AM one morning on the bus.
  81. While at camp, if rooms have fire extinguishers, do not forget to make an explicit rule that they are not to be messed with or used unless a fire actually exists.
  82. Going along with the above, once again, don’t think just because a student is a minister’s son on your staff that they can be trusted. One of our minister’s sons and some of the boys from another room decided to have a fire extinguisher fight in their room.
  83. While on a student trip and you are running low on gas, don’t think that you can make it to the next gas station. Stop while you can. Five minutes invested can save an hour on the side of the road.
  84. Do not just take any sponsor that wants to go with you on a trip. Pick and choose your sponsors carefully and with great wisdom.
  85. Do not ever be shocked at what you may see or have to deal with while at camp or any other student outing. And don’t let it flavor the entire event.
  86. Do not ever forget that what you are doing matters and does make a difference in young people’s lives.
  87. Do not make promises to students that you cannot or will not keep. They never forget.
  88. Do not be so quick to think the grass is greener somewhere else. There is great blessing and satisfaction in longevity in student ministry at one place. I am celebrating my tenth year this month at our church and it has been a huge blessing to see students who have come through our ministry and grow into some of the godliest young adults I know.
  89. You cannot take the credit or the blame for student ministry until you have been there more than three years.
  90. When you first go to a church, there will be some upperclassmen who may never follow your vision. They are still mad the last guy bailed out on them (their perspective.) Love them anyway. You may win a few, but for some, you will just have to outlast them. 
  91. Do not become a full time minster and a part time follower of Christ.
  92. Do not send out a poll to get information. They always come back split.
  93. Do not believe that everyone is against you just because you have a few loud complainers.
  94. Do not believe everything your biggest fans have to say about you.
  95. Do not speak badly about the person who had the position before you. Build a relationship with him. He can become a great friend and resource.
  96. Do not forget to celebrate with your volunteers and staff.
  97. Know that if you are leading well not everyone is going to like you.
  98. Do not let your boss be caught off guard by an issue or problem in your ministry.
  99. Do not give up your day off.
  100. Do not forget to date your spouse.
  101. Do not finalize your youth calendar unless your wife approves it.

Wise words from a wise man.

Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future. - Proverbs 19:20


High School Graduate Recognition in a Family Equipping Church

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

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

What To Do For Graduates At Church?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over The Years, I Have Learned...

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

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

The Big Shift for Graduates & Parents - The Family Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a milestone.

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

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

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

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

And...congratulations graduates!


Teenagers Need More Than the Coolest Youth Group In Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is. He always has been.

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

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

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

More Than Lock-Ins and Pizza Parties

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

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

These were good days.

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

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

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

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

Hindsight is 20/20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What Are Parents To Do When Their Teenager Stands Alone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Families, Trevin Wax writes...

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

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

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

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


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

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

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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. 


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.

_________

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."