Monday, April 27, 2009

Young People and Spirituality

Most of my blog readers know that I am intensely interested in helping young people find a meaningful faith in Christ. I believe faith helps young people have the strength they need to face the difficulties of life. I think faith gives young people meaning and purpose. Obviously, as a Christian minister, I think faith leads to eternal life in heaven with Christ. But not everyone shares my interest in reaching young people. Many churches seem to be having a difficult time reaching young people in our post-modern world and this has led some churches to conclude that young people are no longer interested in spirituality.

However, when I recently conducted a poll on my blog about this subject, I was surprised by the results. Twenty-one percent of the people who responded said they thought young people were more interested in religion than in the past. In a culture that often seeks to marginalize faith, many young people are crying out for faith. They know something is missing in their lives and they are seeking spiritual answers. Though they may disagree with some teachings of the Bible, they view spirituality in general as something positive in their lives.

My poll also revealed that forty-seven percent of the people who responded thought young people were more confused about religion than in the past. Churches that use complicated language or that rely heavily on rituals that lack clear purposes, may find young people drifting away simply because they don’t understand what it is all about. This does not mean that young people cannot learn theological terms or that rituals hold no meaning for them at all, it simply means that churches are going to have to have a clearer message about these things if they are going to help young people overcome their confusion about religion.

The last thing my poll discovered was that thirty percent of the respondents felt young people needed to “experience” God before believing. Post-modern young people are not interested in just “hearing” about God, they want to experience Him. That is why they enjoy a more energetic and interactive worship experience. That is also why they are more likely to believe if they have had a specific prayer answered or “felt” God in some spiritual ritual they underwent. Once they have experienced God, they are ready to believe, even if they are still confused about Him.

My poll may not have been the most scientific poll in the world, but I do think it accurately reflects what is going on in the spiritual quest of the young people that I interact with. Despite popular myths that young people no longer want God in their lives, my poll shows that they do want to know Him. They just want churches to be less confusing in explaining God and want to experience Him before making a commitment to following Him. If churches can grasp these concepts, they can help young people find meaningful faith in Christ.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Spiritual Lessons from the Mist

Most mornings I start my day with a long walk. I live on a hill overlooking a valley and I often walk "up the mountain" and am rewarded with awesome views of God's creation. I pray as I walk and I talk to the Lord about whatever is going on in my life. I often ask God to help me share my faith with those around me. One day this week I started my walk earlier than normal and the mist was still hanging in the valley below. But as I walked, the sun began to come out and the mist began to lift. At first it was only a few strings of mist that began to rise up and dissipate. But as the morning progressed, more and more mist began to burn off. By the end of my four mile journey the mist had completely disappeared and the sky had become bright and sunny. The valley below was completely transformed from a place of shrouded in mist to a place of sunshine and light.

In my talk with the Lord that day I had a revelation about the mist. I realized that just as the sun slowly burned the mist away, the Son is also slowly burning the spiritual mist away from the valleys of Vermont where I have invested the last 15 years of my life. Spiritual enlightenment seldom happens all at once. It seems that in my own life and in the lives of the people I share my faith with, spiritual enlightment comes slowly as we grasp one spiritual concept at a time. It is like a spiritual mist covering the mind which must slowly disappear until suddenly the fog is gone and the Son is burning so brightly that one wonders how we could have ever missed Him in the first place.

It is easy to be fooled into the thinking that the mist is so thick and pervasive that it will never go away. But bit by bit and tendril by tendril, the mist looses it's battle with the sun. Likewise the spiritual mist that blinds the eyes of so many in my beloved Vermont will eventually lose it's battle with the Son. One day His light will transform the valleys of Vermont from places shrouded in the mist of spiritual confusion into places filled with the Light of the Gospel. Join me in praying for the mist to rise and the Son to shine in the lives of America's least religious state.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The God of the Backpack

Recently I was interviewing a young adult about her faith in Christ. She was sharing how her family went through some difficult times when she was younger. During those times she wandered from the faith of her childhood and felt like God was far too away to help. When a friend who had recently become a Christian invited her to return to church, she accepted the invitation. At first, it was difficult for her to feel close to God because of all the negative experiences in her life. At one point she was arguing with God over all the things that had happened in her life. During the argument she told God that He could not handle her problems. Suddenly she had a vision (yes, just like they had in the Bible!) of all her problems being in a huge backpack that was weighing her down. In the vision, she saw a giant hand reaching down and lifting her problems off her back. She realized it was the hand of God lifting her problems from her back. She was overcome with a sense of freedom as her burdens disappeared. My friend realized that God was big enough to handle her problems. Over the past two years she has re-engaged in her faith in a very powerful way. When I hear true stories like this one from a young adult, it reminds me that God is still active and working in the lives of the next generation. Our culture may be in decline and churches may be aging, but God is not discouraged. He has chosen the next generation to proclaim His mighty works and churches that recognize this will see His hand on a regular basis.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Vermont's Quiet Revival

(I wrote this article yesterday for Baptist Press. I thought my blog readers might be interested in reading it as well.)

I arrived in Vermont on a snowy afternoon in November 1993. I had left a church of over 900 members to become the pastor of a small mission church in a Vermont village of less than 1000 residents.

I had never lived in a rural setting nor did I know much about being a missionary. The church I served had less than 40 people on Sunday mornings and few of the other evangelical churches I encountered in nearby towns had many more than that. I found myself immersed in a completely different culture, but over the years I have grown to love my adopted state and am now so immersed in its culture and people that it is hard to think about living anywhere else.

Our little state has seen significant changes in the past 15 years. We finally have a Wal-Mart -- actually, we have four, spread strategically across the state. And though we are still a very rural state, cell phone service touches most areas, and cable TV has brought the “world” to Vermont.

The size of the evangelical Christian community is still small, but growing rapidly. I like to call it the "quiet revival." The Green Mountain Baptist Association, which is the Southern Baptist affiliate in Vermont, reports that it has grown from 17 churches to 37 churches in the past eight years alone. Records indicate that in 1999 less than 600 people worshipped in a Vermont Southern Baptist church on a typical Sunday. In 2008 that number had grown to nearly 1900.

Vermont was the last state to have a Southern Baptist presence, with the first church started in 1963. It took a long time for the fledging movement to take hold in Vermont, but now it is one of the fastest growing evangelical groups in the state. The Evangelical Free, the Assemblies of God, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance are also experiencing growth. One Christian and Missionary Alliance church in the Burlington area regularly has over 1,000 people in worship on Sundays. While that may be normal in other parts of the country, it is unheard of in Vermont, which was recently dubbed the “least religious state in America” in a January 2009 Gallup Poll.

Regrettably, even with all this growth in the evangelical church, that same Gallup poll revealed that 58 percent of Vermonters still don’t think of religion as being very important in their lives. That affects their decisions and the lifestyle choices they make. Nine years ago Vermont was the first state to allow same-sex civil unions. Though evangelical Christians opposed it loudly, they were unable to stop the liberal political machine from steam rolling over their objections. Then, on Tuesday, our legislators passed a bill legalizing "gay marriage." (The bill takes effect Sept. 1.)

There are times when those of us who are leaders in the evangelical Christian community become discouraged with the smallness of our numbers and the way that the mainstream liberal media marginalizes our efforts. But then we are reminded that the battle is not fought in the courtrooms or in the state House, but in the hearts of men and women who are in need of Jesus. I have personally witnessed the spiritual transformation of several homosexuals who are now living free from that emotional addiction. They were drawn to one of our Southern Baptist churches because the people in that church showed concern for them. Though that congregation did not agree with the homosexual lifestyle, it did agree that everyone needs a chance to be transformed through faith in Christ.

Through building relationships, Christians in that church were able to share the Gospel with their homosexual friends one on one. The result was a conversion from sin and a transformation away from an unhealthy lifestyle. For these former homosexuals, the spiritual war has been won, and the victory belongs to the Lord.

Few people outside Vermont have any idea of how the church is growing in our small state. Even many Vermonters don’t realize just how rapid the growth of evangelicalism is escalating. At only 1.8 percent of population, evangelicals may indeed lose a few more battles before our numbers are enough that people begin to notice. But in the end, we’ll win the spiritual war for the hearts and souls of our friends and neighbors, for we offer to them the only Hope that can change their lives.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tennessee Teens Serving God - Prisoners Don't Want Company

I have just finished speaking at a mission conference for five days in rural Tennessee. I spoke in six churches and one prison ministry about our mission work in Vermont. I enjoyed the entire trip, but was especially blessed by one church which used every teen present in the service in some way. Some of them led music, some did other things, but none sat and did nothing. That touched me because so many churches prefer their teens to remain quiet and in the background. To see a church using them in significant ways on a regular basis was a true encouragement to my spirit.

I also enjoyed the time in the prison. We were in a worship service planned and led by a praise team made up of prisoners. The lead guitarist is doing life in prison for killing an entire family. Among the men present was the first person to do a “school killing” a few years ago when we had that stream of high school shootings. Both of those men have come to know Christ in prison. I shared with them for a few minutes about our youth ministry in Vermont and said I hoped that none of my teens joined them in their prison. They cheered and clapped at that, for none of those men want anyone else to walk the same dark path they have walked. I asked them to pray for my wife and I as we try to share the Gospel with young people who have not heard it before. They agreed to do so.

I end my time in Tennessee by rejoicing that a rural church is reaching teens by letting them be involved in the worship service and that a group of hardened criminals are praying for all the teens in our ministry to walk the narrow path to Christ instead of the world. Seems to me that is a good way to end such a trip!

Dr. T.