The Prevailing Religion of the Day

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

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

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Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?

_______

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


Putting a Stop to the Youth Exodus in the Church

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

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

Generation Z/Boomlets

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

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

The Numbers

Pew Research shared the following:

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

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

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

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

What Can the Church Do?

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

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

Yet, all hope is not lost.

Reaction is not the answer, but godly response is. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Rite of Passage for Junior High Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ban the Bait & Switch in Church!

Years ago one of our church members (John Green) founded a young men's mentoring group on a local school campus. It was originally designed to help students who needed some guidance and male role models. The groups started small and eventually grew to over fifty gathering on campus prior to the beginning of the school day. The group was unapologetically faith-based, which is politically correct way to say "religiously focused." In the case of this group, the desire to present godly examples of men living out their faith became the focus. 

Over the years, leadership has shifted. I joined the leadership team a number of years ago. It is a weekly responsibility I have had for all these years and we are seeing God work mightily through the young men (and the older men mentoring them as well.)

The founder of the group is no longer working in the school system, but now oversees the educational aspects of a local group home for boys and girls. He is still very much involved in the promotion and focus of this group and since he is still a leader, active member, and minister at our church, he too promotes the solid theological focus needed to lead these boys not just into strong adulthood, but biblical manhood.

The on-campus ministry is called Real Manhood. The word "Real" is an acrostic that reveals the definition of biblical manhood being taught to the boys.

A real man...

  • Rejects passivity
  • Expects the greater reward
  • Accepts responsibility
  • Leads courageously

These are aspects of manhood that all men should seek to attain.

We have expanded the ministry in recent years to newer schools with a plan to be at even more in the fall. Of course, to have a ministry group meeting on a public school campus causes some to wonder. "Is this legal?" is a common question. Absolutely it is, especially since the group has a faculty sponsor and meets prior to school. Student leadership in the group is clear and reservations of facility mean that we are abiding by all laws as well as the "Student Bill of Rights." Our group is not unlike FCA or Cru or even non-religious groups meeting on school campuses. 

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The unique thing about our group for young boys is that it is targeted to just one segment of the student population. A girl's version is being developed. With gender confusion and identity a front-page story nowadays, the need for what we are teaching our boys is needed now more than ever, in our estimation.

All boys, regardless of religious background or belief (or non-belief) are invited. Many who attend now do not regularly attend any local church. Some attend ours. Others attend elsewhere.

When talking with John about the viability of maintaining the group as leadership has changed, we have been adamant that no "bait and switch" occur when inviting boys to attend.

The Bait and Switch

For decades, businesses have been accused of using a "bait and switch" to gain customers. Simply put, this is an advertising technique that pretends to offer one thing, but once the customer arrives, seeks to sell another thing. It has been called a shady marketing strategy and customers, by and large, hate the practice.

Businesses who consistently utilize the technique tend to gain a poor rating from customers. In other words, you don't want to be known as a "bait and switch" company.

When Churches Bait and Switch

Though we denigrate businesses for using such unwholesome techniques, the church has been guilty of doing the same thing. Even with good intentions, the practicality of saying "Come to our event and win an iPad...but really, we just want to preach to you," comes across as more P.T. Barnum than C.H. Spurgeon.

Tweet: Saying  Saying "Come to our event and win an iPad...but really, we just want to preach to you," comes across as more P.T. Barnum than C.H. Spurgeon.

 When John and I were discussing the future of Real Manhood, we agreed that in no way should a "bait and switch" to be used to gain attendees. Parents who allow their children to attend MUST know that this group is an extension of our church's student ministry. That means we are up front with saying "Hey, Real Manhood is a ministry. It's a Christian ministry. It's a Baptist ministry. We teach the Bible to these young men and believe that God will reveal Himself to them through these stories. Real manhood, based on the definition we use, is unattainable apart from Jesus Christ." 

Tweet: Real manhood is unattainable apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ. Real manhood is unattainable apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ.

So far, so good.

Even non-believing parents understand where we stand.

Why is this important? Because to devalue the gospel by trying to package it as something other than it is, is wrong. Why would a ministry choose to be deceptive when sharing Christ? Why would a church do so? There's one in the Bible that is identified as deceptive and we, as Christians, should never wish to be associated with him.

I often wonder if we would have twice as many participants if we just promoted the gathering as a "mentoring group for boys with good life lessons." Perhaps. But, then we'd be lying. To be honest, if I had a son in school attending a group gathering that promoted itself as one way and sold a different bill of goods once the group was gathered, I'd be irate.

Perhaps all churches should consider then when seeking to engage the community and the culture? I'm not really opposed to gatherings that offer fun events, give aways (we even gave an iPad away a few years ago at a student ministry event), and special guests, but be sure to promote who you are and whose you are clearly, especially in our culture of cynics and charlatans. The Gospel deserves better.


Playing Games & Calling It Ministry

I have heard the comments throughout the years, but it seems that over the past few months they have grown with regularity. I wouldn't really file these away as gripes, but they are close. Maybe it's a sign that there's a holy unrest among a generation seeking more? At least, that's how I define it. The common thread is that I am hearing from members of a certain generation who are tired of being a part of a ministry that is content at remaining shallow.

Some of the things said in passing are things like. . .

"I really want to be a part of a ministry that is more than just focused on fun."

"I don't think just getting together to play games constitutes ministry."

"I love being with people, but shouldn't we be doing something for the Lord rather than just talking about it?"

"The trips are fun. It's just that they're only trips. We don't do anything related to God, the church or ministry."

"All we do is eat."

Holy discontent?

Sounds like young adults who grew up in a youth ministry that was built on pizza parties, trips to the beach or amusement park and maybe game nights. As a veteran of student ministry and student of the culture, this is one of the reasons many teenagers leave church when they graduate. They were never invited into ministry, never given significant tasks within the church and eventually they either desire more or see church as frivolous.

The thing is, the comments I'm hearing now are not from the younger, Millennial generation. These comments are coming from senior adults.

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I don't categorize them as gripes, but as honest questions from men and women who have more chapters read in their life stories than I do. Most desire to finish well and do not see empty "ministries" as allowing them to do so.

It's funny, they're not saying they don't want to play games, eat and fellowship together or even take trips together on the big bus somewhere. Their frustration is that these activities alone are called "ministry" and yet, should not be.

In other words, if the church only offers activities for seniors that the local community senior center can, there is a good chance that what is offered is not ministry at all. 

It is offensive to me when pastors and leaders who serve senior adults treat these seasoned saints as if they're little more than old versions of preschoolers.

We live in a culture that does not value the aged. This is evident in how many view senior adults. There is a treasure of wisdom available, but many just walk on by and never experience it, destined to repeat the mistakes of previous generations by ignoring wise counsel.

Now, just because a person has lived long on the earth does not mean that person is living holy, redeemed and wise. These attributes are Spirit-given and often choices of the individual. Nevertheless, the church in the United States that rightly seeks to reach Millennials and young people with the Gospel must also discover ways to not push aside those who still have much to offer the Kingdom.

Intergenerational ministry is key. . .and it's not defined by games, meals and bus trips.


The Amazing Moment of the Father Blessing

Last night marked the culmination of our young men's initiative called "REAL Manhood." Each Wednesday at two local junior high schools, male mentors who affirm our Statement of Faith, meet before school for a time of teaching, training and mentoring. 

REAL Manhood is the mentoring initiative of Battle Ready Men, designed to lead young boys into an understanding of true, authentic, "real" biblical manhood. The journey is not complete in just a year, but as we meet regularly, we are able to reveal God's truth regarding the masculine journey. In an age and culture where gender differences are pushed to the back burner, totally ignored and most recently determined to be man-made and changeable, we "fight the good fight" for the hearts of these young men.

Over fifty junior high boys were decked out in tuxedos, complete with royal blue ties for the Lakeside Gators and green ties for the Green Cove Springs Cougars. Our ceremony took place at The Club Continental in Orange Park. Parents and family members squeezed into the room to celebrate the "knighting" of these boys as "REAL Men" and the beginning of their journey into authentic manhood.

The word REAL is a reminder of what a godly, biblical, authentic man is. He is a man who. . .

  • Rejects passivity
  • Expects the greater reward
  • Accepts responsibiilty
  • Leads courageously

This was our ninth knighting ceremony. The group has grown over the years. Founded by Principal John Green, there now are hundreds of alumni in our community and beyond. 

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The ceremony is unique. Junior high boys stand uncomfortably in tuxedos. Fathers and mentors recite words of affirmation and blessing. Family and friends record the ceremony and take photos. First year graduates are "knighted" with a sword symbolizing the Word of God and the journey that lies ahead. Then, a very special part of the ceremony occurs.

 

Two years ago we wrestled with what to do with the second year participants (Prior to that time, only 8th graders could participate. Our junior high schools are only 7th and 8th grades.) After many hours of prayer and discussion, it became clear that the most powerful moment in such a celebration is when a boy's father (or other designated male influence - grandfather, uncle, older brother, coach, pastor, mentor, etc.) presents a gift to the young man and speaks words of blessing upon him. We did not want to rob these men of this special role.

The Blessing

This moment has become the highlight for me.

The second-year participants select their presenter. In most cases, it's their father. In some cases, it's another man who stands in the gap when there is no dad or he's unavailable.

The blessing is public, in that it takes place before the crowd. The words of blessing are private - just between the two. 

It is at this moment time seems to stand still. In a crowded room, these two men are alone with God and the blessing is bestowed. I'm sure some of the men aren't sure wha to say. In truth, most men were never blessed by their own fathers, so this is new for them. The awkwardness melts as words of "You have what it takes, son" and like phrases pour out upon the young man.

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Why The Blessing?

Former NFL player Bill Glass, founder and leader of "Behind the Walls" was interviewed about this by Christianity Today a few years ago (full article here.) His response regarding the blessing is powerful and clear.

You see it in Genesis 27:30–38, where Isaac is blessing his son, and Jacob steals Esau's blessing and his birthright. Four times in those eight verses, Esau begs for his father's blessing, but it's never forthcoming. The Scripture says Esau always hated Jacob for that. The emphasis is more on the blessing than it is on the birthright.

The blessing always involves a hug and a kiss. Not the kiss of abuse, but the kiss of blessing—there's a vast difference. You can't force yourself on your child, but you can hug them and get close to them physically to a certain degree without embarrassing them or turning them off.

I found my kids love to be hugged and kissed. I grab my little girl by her ears and look into her eyes and say, "I love you, I bless you, I think you're absolutely terrific." That's easy with her because she's little and dainty. But I've got two boys, 280 and 290 pounds. One played pro ball, and both played college ball. They're 6'6", bench press 500 pounds, and are bigger than I am, but I grabbed that eldest son of mine recently and said, "I love, I bless you, I think you're terrific, and I'm so glad you're mine." His shoulders began to shake and his eyes filled with tears and he said, "Dad, I really needed that."

It's got to be said out loud. It's got to be stated. It's not like the lawyer that's getting a divorce and the judge says, "How often did you tell your wife you loved her?" and he replies, "I told her the day I married her and then never told her differently."

The blessing is also unconditional and continuous. If it's conditional, it's not love; it's a negotiation. I was in a prison in Texas recently where they've got 300 boys ages 10 to 15. These boys have committed every crime you can imagine. I asked the warden, "How many of these boys got a visit from their father in the past year?"

He said, "One, and he only stayed 15 minutes, got into a fight with his son, and stomped out mad." They're not fathers, because fathers hang with their kids no matter what. I know a lot of fathers that disown their kids because they go to prison. But it's got to be something that is continuous and unconditional in order to be a real blessing, in order to be real love.

Glass's ministry is in the prisons and he encounters many, many young men seeking the father blessing, and they do not even recognize what they're missing.

A kid who is searching desperately for a blessing will put himself in all sorts of contortions in order to get it. You see this in gangs. Kids get into gangs because they want to be accepted by a family. Most kids that get into gangs have no father relationship. So, as a result, they go into the gang, because the gang promises them that they're going to be part of a family. "I've got your back, and I'm going to watch you all the way, and I'm with you no matter what." They have these little teardrop tattoos. Have you seen them on a kid's face? Those little tattooed teardrops stand for some heinous crime they committed in order to get into the gang—the initiation fee. If I have to kill someone to get into the gang, I'll do it, because I need to feel that I'm part of a family. And only a father can make a child feel that way. A mother, by herself, has a hard time ever doing that. All those guys on death row love their mothers. It's their fathers they've got the problem with.

There is power in the father blessing. We saw this last night. 

Yet, there are some young men with no father in their story. The Bible is clear that God is the Father to the fatherless and for these young men who have this gap in their story, God, in his providence and grace brings along real men to stand in the gap. It is in this story the mentor, teacher, pastor, coach or maybe another male relative can bring the blessing.

You Have What It Takes

The message to these young men is clear - "You have what it takes." Why is that so important? Because the world and the Enemy will shout at them for the remainder of their lives that they offer nothing and do not have what it takes. It's the continual barrage on the heart of men. Therefore, these young men, these REAL men, need to hear this and know this regularly.

This is Just the Beginning

The years to come for these young men are bright with promise and potential. Parents and loved ones have high hopes and pour into them with love and understanding. Our focus as leadership of REAL Manhood is to partner with these families and provide spiritual insight and spiritual truth that is needed for the journey.

I was moved when I received a note from one of my young men that featured a quote and a personal message. The quote was. . .

A mentor empowers a person to see a possible future, and believe it can be obtained." - Shawn Hitchcock

The personal message was a thank you for being a part in his journey toward manhood. 

It's not an easy journey, but I'm continually reminded of this truth. . .

"It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." - Frederick Douglass


How Must the Church Respond to Transgendered Children & Their Parents?

Recently, NBC Nightly News has run a series of "Stories" highlighting the challenges facing parents raising transgendered children. NBC's National Correspondent Kate Snow is getting much attention online and through social media due to this series of stories.

This is a subject that I have found to be growing in our cultural dialogue, but often absent regarding the church - unless the church is the subject of such dialogue and couched in negativity.

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Is our church facing the challenge of ministering to those who self-identify as transgendered? Not overtly, but I am sure that over the years there have likely been attenders and maybe even members who have struggled internally with their gender identification. 

Before you get too far into this post (if you haven't already left) I will be upfront and honest about my beliefs regarding transgenderism. I DO NOT believe it is a viable lifestyle and therefore, I believe that God intentionally creates man and woman, in His image, for His glory, and on purpose. Therefore, my posting is slanted, based on my convictions. While some label this as "hating" I see it as choosing to believe the fullness of God's Word and trust Him as Creator and Father. This ultimately leads me to believe that gender is bestowed by God and in His plan, His image-bearers are created either with a masculine heart or feminine heart and those always match the physical gender assigned by Him.

As for those who are born into a classification now known as "intersex" I still believe that God is sovereign over gender and while I won't get into that discussion here, it should not be tabled by the church just due to discomfort.

I have watched the wonderfully produced short by NBC News featuring "Jacob." It is clear in the video that this is a family who deeply loves their child. The child is beautiful and winsome. This family seems to be an atypical American, middle-class family.

Some background. . .

Jacob is transgendered. This child is only five years old (maybe closer to six now) and the story of his identity has gone viral thanks to a letter written by his mother Mimi. The letter was published online and by The Boston Globe. It's a heart-felt, well-written, love-laced letter from a mother to her child. Comments online are overwhelmingly positive. Any stance against Mimi and her husband Joe's desire to transition their daughter (born as Mia) into their son (Jacob) based on their understanding of his desires, nature and gender is met with anger. I've embedded the video from NBC News below, without edit, so you may watch their story as they chose to present it.

 

As I watch this, I must say that the combination of moving music with the winsome words of the the parents works. This is a moving video and yet, there are some troubling things that come to my mind regarding the story.

  • "He's just like the funnest (sic) kid and a great buddy to have around. He was also born in a girl's body." Joe makes this statement. I do not question his love for his child and his authenticity here. I do, however, question the now common and culturally acceptable phraseology of "born in a girl's body" or the opposite if the genders are switched. This affirmation seems to be based on love (and again, I do not question Joe's love for his child) but in viewing this through a biblical worldview, this statement is actually an accusation to God that He made a mistake. God (and I believe He is real and does exist) must have messed up in the creation of this child. He meant to add a part or remove a part, but forgotSo God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. - Genesis 1:27 (ESV) is a verse speaking of the initial creation of humanity. The veracity of this passage leads to understanding that creation is intentional and gender assignment is as well.
  • "Jacob is transgender." It's a statement of affirmation and declaration. Mom and dad have come to this conclusion after struggling with understanding their child. LGBT counseling affirms that this is viable and to not accept it and even affirm it is paramount to child abuse. Therefore, the declaration is made. I wonder what happens if/when Mia (Jacob) hits puberty and begins to discover that she is actually female, is not ashamed of it and even begins to want to be identified as such. I would hope her parents would affirm this as well. However, if this were to happen, "Jacob" could never be used as an example of transgender identity being natural and assigned at birth.
  • The changing of clothes 10-12 times a day is interesting, but does it really lead to a revelation of transgenderism? I understand the justification of describing this as a way for Mia to hide or discover her identity. Yet, I'm not certain that the clothes changing habit is gender specific or even identifiable by gender roles. This perhaps is just a child being a child?
  • Throughout the story there are indicators that Mia was making decisions that impacted everyone - the sweater being worn for six months, almost daily, the desire to have a "boy haircut," the ability as a two year old to express gender desires fully. As I watch, a thought continues to come to mind, and I don't desire this to sound mean-spirited, but when did two-year-olds get to make decisions that impact entire families? I'm not advocating the ignoring of one's children's desires or voice, but there are things that simply parents should decide and lead.
  • The parenting role is divinely given. It is powerful. Parents will fail (Lord knows I have many times) but we are accountable. Parents are to be the lead disciplers, discipliners, guides, nurturers and . . . parents. There are roles within the family and these must be filled. A family meeting where the members vote and majority rules may look good in a sit-com, but in real life, it leads to disaster. While I do not doubt that Mia's parents are great people and seek the very best for their child, I struggle with understanding this area of their strategy. Yes, I know, I'll be lambasted for "judging" someone else's parenting style. This is dangerous in that I don't feel I do this to the best of my ability anyway as a dad. Nevertheless, it was a question that continued to come to mind.
  • "What do you think about that boy? Do you think you might like to be like that? The question asked of Mia (Jacob) after viewing the story of another transgendered child from California, if asked this way, seems very leading. It almost seems as if the parents want their daughter to be transgendered. Maybe they do? Maybe they do not, but are settling for what they believe to be true? 

More questions arise as the story of transgendered men and women become more commonplace. The story of children struggling with the issue also trend regularly now. I grieve the loss along with parents and communities when young people see no way out of the internal struggle apart from taking their own lives. The suicide of Joshua (Leelah) Alcorn ripped apart a family and community and his story was exploited (a term used by the NY Post) by many wishing to use it for political or agenda gain.

How Will The Church Respond?

The church is left with questions.These are not questions regarding the sin or the veracity of scripture. . .at least they shouldn't be. The questions are regarding the way the church engages (without affirming sin) those who struggle with same sex attraction and gender identity. When a family attends the church with a transgendered son/daughter, the church must be prepared to respond. From my perspective, the only correct response is to love this family if they will allow it, but not to affirm the gender switching by allowing little biological boys who dress like girls to be in girls' classes and vice versa. Love is affirming that God is sovereign and like the little magnet that used to hang on my mother's refrigerator stated, "God don't make no junk." Therefore, his gender assignment (based on physical body parts and chromosomes) is good and perfect and not a mistake. This will lead to loving parents struggling to be the very best they can be for their children.

The LGBT issues are not going away and the church for years has allowed others to frame the conversation. Cultural affirmation does not change the Gospel's truth.

We must stand narrowly on the Gospel so that we may impact the world broadly for the sake of His Kingdom.


Guest Blogger Ashley Tarkington: "My Journey From PK to Child of God"

Growing up in a pastor's home is not easy. Oh it can be a tremendous blessing, but there are also the pressures that those who do not live in this "fishbowl" just don't understand. My daughter, Ashley, is graduating from the University of North Florida this spring. She has been a pastor's kid (PK) her entire life. She's known no other story. While many PKs find themselves pushing strongly against the values and biblical worldview that is taught in the home and echoed in the church, and thereby creating the bad stereotype that is joked about often within church circles. However, there are many more PKs who discover a faith that is their own, not just a carbon copy of their parents. That faith is right and true and Gospel-centered and leads them onto journeys that rightfully bring glory to God.

This summer, Ashley plans to serve internationally as a summer missionary. As always, God has the right to change those plans, but her prayers and opened doors seem to leading down this path. In preparation for this summer, she must be able to clearly articulate her story of faith (i.e. her personal testimony.) She has been journaling for years and today at lunch, she shared the following with me. So, here's Ashley, my "Guest Blogger" speaking truth as a Pastor's Kid, but more importantly as a Child of God. . .

In 2000, a movie was released based on the popular book series, Left Behind. Now, it wasn't a great movie, but there was a message at it's core that had me asking questions. I was only six years old and up to that point (and even up to today) I had been in church all my life. At the time, my dad was the youth pastor at our church. You could say that I had never missed a Sunday or Wednesday service. As a child, my life revolved around church. Not only did I attend all the children's activities and events, I was also "cool" enough (at least that's what I still believe) to go to many youth events.

Staff - atarkAt the time of this film release, I was six years old. I was in first grade. I knew right from wrong. I knew that every Sunday I would sit in the front pew with my dad, while mom sang in the choir. Dad would stand down front at the close of each service with our pastor waiting for people in the congregation to come forward for prayer or to make a spiritual decision public in their lives. At this time, to me at least, it seemed like people were coming down front following the worship services to make a decision every week. It always seemed like there were baptisms happening as well.

Now, as much as my six-year-old self could understand, this was a great thing. People were being saved! Then, I thought to myself, "Am I saved?" 

I knew who Jesus was. I knew most of the major stories in the Bible. I knew Jesus going to come back one day. The Left Behind film was shown at our church when it was released and the building was packed. The story showed how horrible scenario was for those who were not saved. To me, so many in my church were making decisions for Christ and the thought came to my mind, "What if what happened in the movie happened now? I would be left behind. I'm only six-years-old, my mom pretty much did everything for me. I can't be by myself."

It was a moment of panic for me.

One Wednesday evening after church, I was riding home with my dad in the backseat of our Honda. I was asking questions. I didn't want to be left behind. The movie was just that. . .a movie, but my dad shared more about God and his promises. I prayed to God and received Jesus into my life as Savior. I was so excited. A few weeks later, I was baptized, and the cool part was that my dad baptized me. It was a great day! I even told my teacher at school about what happened.

But, life just kept going. I still attended every church thing that was offered. I grew in knowledge and as a Christian and did all the "churchy" stuff. As the years went by, some things changed in our lives. Right before I entered high school, my dad became the Lead Pastor at our church. Our previous Senior Pastor retired. I always said that dad was now the "big man." It was cool, I guess, but there weren't as many fun trips with him anymore. 

I went to the youth group, but it wasn't the same as when my dad was the youth pastor. High school was. . .well, high school. It didn't change me. I knew who I was and I was not ashamed of it, but I was pretty quiet most of the time. I behaved like I was expected to, how a PK should. I never pretended to know it all. Lord knows I never did. . .or will, but people would act like I did, or should. That was probably one of the most frustrating things.

I thought youth group was supposed to be more than it was. I wanted to be more involved and be a leader so I could make an impact. My life was pretty busy, though. I played basketball at school and during the season we had a lot of mid-week games, so it was impossible to make the leadership meetings.

I felt like I had nothing to offer. I was not blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument. I wasn't super-outgoing and bubbly, so I wasn't sure how to engage with new people. I wasn't sure how to relate to people. In some ways, I felt that people were intimidated by me because of who my dad was. I hated going to youth group at times. I felt as if I didn't really belong, but no one could tell. I was good at putting on masks.

This was high school and at this point you're supposed to figure out where you belong and somewhat about who you are, right?

Then, my senior year began (2010-2011.) It was finally here! I was so excited. This was the year that I was going to become somebody and excel in the sport I loved. I was so ready for basketball season to begin. I had the potential to play in college. There were three schools looking at me at this point. Then, during our first game of our season, I suffered an injury - an ACL tear. I was  so angry and upset. 

Why me?

Wasn't I showing Christ to my teammates?

Did I not use my ability to play basketball to impact people for Christ?

My basketball career was over. I didn't know what to do.

This was the first time I cried out to God. I knew He had it all under control and that he had plans for me (Jeremiah 29:11), but I had to get to the point I truly believed that. I had to be able to see my complete identity in Christ. 2011 was the year that I felt I really became close with Christ. Our relationship went to an entirely new level for me. I knew I didn't want to just settle and live comfortably. I wanted to live for Him. I wanted, and still do, want people to see Christ in me way before they even see me.

Now I know this is pretty long and I've been told that testimonies, if you call this that, should only take two minutes to share, but this was just the beginning of my story. It's still being written. God is always working in my life, giving me desires and passions for Him and His glory that I never thought possible.

I find my identity in Christ. In some ways, I always have. I had to figure out how to bring Christ everywhere I went, to live for and become more confident in Him. 

It does not matter that I have not been given a talent as a singer or artist. God can, and does use me the way I am, exactly how He created me. 

I'm not as quiet anymore (I know some of my friends and family would laugh in agreement with that statement.) It's funny - when you get excited about Christ and what He does for you, you just can't really shut up about Him.

So, here's my two minute "testimony":

I was lost. I asked questions. I didn't want to be left behind. Christ died for me. He forgave me. I live for Him. I can't just keep that to myself.

I mess up. I sin. Yet, He still loves me and his grace is overwhelming.

I am saved. 

Now, I'm ready to go into all the world.

To tell others.

Everyday I try to live for Him and become more like Him.

As I said before, my story isn't over. Christ has put a passion within me that I am ready to act upon. Im ready to be sent. That could be across the street or across the world. I want to make an impact for His kingdom. I want to pour into teenagers and college students the truth of the Gospel. I want to be a part of the "big picture" - to live missionally and worship Him daily. To encourage, engage and serve.

I want to go.


Providing Parents the Tools Needed In This Ever-Changing Culture

Years ago, as I met with a new student pastor who was struggling to grow a healthy ministry, I shared something that took me a few years to figure out. It wasn't that others hadn't already been doing this. It was more that I was young and thought a strong student ministry was determined by how many students arrived at mid-week worship and events. 

A wise student ministry professor had told me years prior (and I guess I didn't listen too well, at first) that a healthy student ministry is built upon a strong ministry with parents of students.

This frightens many new, young, student pastors. In many cases, these pastors do not have children and since many are young themselves, they are closer in age to the students in their ministry than to the parents of their students. Therefore, a sense of fear and lack of expertise often leaves parents feeling as if they're on the outside.

Consequently, many student ministries end up being built on the personality of the leader and parents are unintentionally led to "outsource" disciple-making to pastors, small group leaders and others in the church.

As First Orange Park, the church I am honored to pastor, enters into 2015 soon, we are excited about the changes on the horizon and the steps to be taken that will result in what we believe will be a healthy church with healthy families and all (preschoolers, children, students, young adults, married adults, single adults and senior adults) actively serving in a framework that honors God and provides natural growth and opportunities for parents to be the primary disciple-makers in their homes.

THE NEED FOR PARENT MINISTRY

Ministering with parents of children and teenagers is essential. As many of our senior adults can attest, there is no manual for culture changes and parenting helps presented when a baby is born. Biblical principles are present, and vital, but often the church has been ineffective in giving moms and dads (and grandparents, foster parents, uncles, aunts, etc.) handles to hold as they embark and live out the journey of parenting.

As one aspect of our new family emphasis, we (our ministry leaders) are making available to parents of preschoolers, children (K - Grade 6) and students (Grades 7-12*) resources that are practical, helpful and needed through ParentMinistry.net.

The ROPE - Rites of Passage Experiences are vital in the life of a child. 

So, whether you have a child or grandchild or a young person in your family in need of these helps, we are proud to be your encouragers along the way.

We're putting the "Magic Button" on our website soon, but in the meantime, click here or the image below to view resources that can get you started.

The "Magic Button" leads to information for parents of teenagers. Other resources will become available soon.

Magic_Button_Blank

Our strategic framework for family discipleship will lead all areas of ministry within First Baptist to change over the next few years. This is a needed step and we believe God is leading clearly in this direction to be biblically sound in our discipling strategy. BTW - the resources are just the beginning. More info to come.

*6th Grade is actually in the "Youth" section of ParentMinistry.net, though at First, as in our community's schools, 6th Grade is in our Children's Ministry.


Cross Dressing Christians

For years, comedians have garnered laughs by dressing up as the opposite gender. It's a comedy tool as old as the art.

Whether Milton Berle, Flip Wilson, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams or even Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari (Bosom Buddies) the dramatic and humorous move to dress men as women always seemed to work for a laugh.

Even in the church, this has happened. I remember a small group party that was held at our church where the men in the class put on a "talent" show dressed as some of the ugliest women imaginable. It was all in fun, and drew laughter, but as I reflect back. . .not exactly something that should be done in a church, or by Christians.

Over the years, the humor in this has dissipated for me. This is based on an incident years ago at a youth camp where I was serving, a meeting with a former transvestite at a ministry network gather, and the most recent trends in our culture regarding widespread acceptance of "alternative lifestyles" and the normalizing of such abherrant behavior and its impact on loved ones, friends and family members.

CROSS DRESSING AT YOUTH CAMP

Years ago, I was given the task of creating a relay game at a youth camp. I had seen relays involving numerous students at camps in the past and borrowed a themed idea from a friend. I thought nothing of it, other than it involved dozens of students, was fun, messy and would fit our timeframe. The name of the relay was "A League of Their Own" and was based, loosely on the film with that name. 

Each station in the race involved something to do with baseball and women playing it. So, one station had a designated male student who would be dressed in a women's skirt and ball jersey by teammates. The uniform was just thrown over his current clothes. Then the next station, this boy would have a wig placed on his head, a baseball cap and lipstick, all done by teammates who were blindfolded. This made it maddening and fun. The relay race went on and eventually the boy dresssed as a girl was swinging a bat trying to hit water balloons. There were other steps as well, but you get the idea.

After having the relay run, one of the youth pastors at the camp came to me concerned. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it, so his concern took me off guard.

He informed me that he had a young man in his youth group struggling deeply with gender identification. He had been abused as a young child and had numerous problems, but one was that he would often dress up like a girl and pretend he was someone other than who he was. 

They were counseling him and his family. He was only about 15 years old. He was an outcast of sorts in the group, but even the other students showed concern for him and were working to help him personally and help him see the love that God has for him and the hope through Jesus Christ.

He was a long work in progress and then, at a Christian camp, we had a cross-dressing game for all to participate. It was a step backward and I never saw it coming.

"It was just in fun," I thought at first, but soon realized how the Enemy had warped even our game and good intentions. 

MAN LIVING AS A WOMAN

611943_85016721Another incident took place at our area network office. Pastors and church leaders gathered to hear testimony from a guest who had experienced an amazing transformation through Christ. This gentleman shared how he had struggled his entire life with same sex attraction. His story was not unlike many others I have heard.

He put a picture up on the screen of a beautiful woman and everyone in the room expected to hear how a story about his female friend. However, we were told that the picture on the screen was not of a woman, but of him. It was years old and was strangely amazing. The picture on the screen appeared to be a woman and when he dressed as such, he was very convincing. He shared how he would speak differently, walk differently, create the appropriate facade of anatomy and hide other distinquishingly male marks. His story was deep and eye-opening.

He then shared of his rescue by Christ. 

It was clear, evident and true. However, as he shared, he was still being daily rescued from a false identity as he would often, as all believers do, forget who he was in Christ.

TRANS, TRANS, TRANS OR JUST DRAG?

Within every alternative sexual lifestyle, there are variations. This is evident in the ever-growing acronym of LGBT to LGBTQ2IA and beyond. 

So, to be clear, there are apparent differences in transvestites (A person who dresses at times in clothing identified as for the opposite sex. These are most often males dressing as females.), transgenders (One who identifies as the opposite sex than their physical gender, such as Laverne Cox), and transsexuals (One who has changed or who is in the process of changing his/her physical sexual gender to be the opposite.)

Then, there are Drag Queens, who are male entertainers and performers who do so as women (RuPaul, Dame Edna, Courtney Act and others.) There are "blurred lines" between these designations, no doubt.

IS IT REALLY THAT BIG OF A DEAL?

This is the question that often is asked and on the surface it seems that I'm just another Christian making a mountain out of a mole hill, another Christ-follower without a sense of humor. Believe me, there are many that fit that designation, but my concern goes deeper. 

Cultural identifiers, such as television shows, movies, music and media emphases, reveals that this subject is not only mainstream (as evidenced by the Time magazine article about Laverne Cox, the popularity of "Orange is the New Black" and shows on LOGO such as "RuPaul's Drag Race") but to consider this issue as anything but normal will place you in a category of out of touch, hate-mongers who just aren't progressive. Even Facebook backtracked and apologized to drag queens after initially refusing their us of  character names as their Facebook names. Now, "he" can be "she" on Facebook with the social media giant's approval.

Culture shifts never happen overnight. It is always a slow turn. Then, when some declare the turn to be wrong, or most likely, the current state of things to be "too far gone" it is often too far gone.

Where Flip Wilson would don his Geraldine costume for a sketch on a variety show and your parents and grandparents laughed when he said "The Devil made me do it," we now find ourselves celebrating parents who dress their little boys up as Disney princesses and laugh when teenage boys are lipsticked, glammed up and made "sassy" by their girl-friends (not to be confused with girlfriends.) 

And, in this case, the slow turn now leaves us asking "When did this shift take place?" 

Not in the 1990s, 1980s, or even the 1960s, but thousands of years prior as God's enemy worked to deface the cream of creation, the image-bearers of God.

When it comes to male and female, each person is created intentionally and strategically in the image of our Holy God. Males with a distinctly masculine heart. Females with a uniquely designed feminine heart. Both as image-bearers of God.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A woman shall not wear a man's garment, nor shall a man put on a woman's cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 22:5 (ESV)

The word "abomination" draws much ire from the tolerance police. The Hebrew word translated to "abomination" means "a disgusting thing, abominable, a wicked thing as it relates to rituals and ethics." So, this is a very strong word.

To be clear, and to avoid the legalistic understanding often attributed to this verse that has led to a proliferation of jean skirts and button down shirts, this verse is not about a certain item of clothing (i.e. women wearing pants) but about women dressing in such a way as to present themselves as male and men dressing to present themselves as female. 

Appaently, even when the intent is just the punchline of a joke, these are things to be avoided. You never know when there will be a young man or woman struggling with personal sexual identity who may end up even more confused through this. 

For more on this subject from a biblical perspective, check out this article on GotQuestions.org.