Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Bi-Lingual Gospel

Young people in America are growing up in an increasingly diverse culture. As people have moved to America from around the world, they have brought their culture and languages with them. As a result, an increasing number of families in America no longer speak English as the main language in their home. Recently I was at a beach in California when a young Hispanic family began to set up their beach items next to me. Though my Spanish is weak, I was able to follow enough of their conversation to realize that the mother was having an argument with the son about what he was going to wear into the water. What I found fascinating was that the mother spoke to the son in Spanish over and over again and every time the son responded in English. The mother was clearly more comfortable speaking Spanish, which I assumed was the language she grew up with. The son was clearly more comfortable speaking English, which he has learned growing up here in America. Both were clearly fluent in both languages because each of them used the other language at certain times during the conversation. But each chose most often to use the language that was more natural to them. It was one of the more seamless bilingual conversations I have ever personally witnessed.

This experience showed me a snapshot of the future of America. Increasingly young adults in America are growing up bi-lingual. They speak one language at home with their family and another out in the community when they interact with others. And they have no trouble moving back and forth between those two languages at will. If we want to reach this next generation for Christ, we may need to begin thinking of how we can use this bilingual reality to the church’s advantage. Though I only speak English well, this experience served as a good reminder that I might need to start brushing up on my Spanish. The future of the church may well depend on the ability of its leaders to speak more than one language.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

What's A Dollar Worth?

Recently I was staying on the campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California. Mill Valley is across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and is an extremely affluent community. Just down the street from the seminary are multi-million dollar homes and everywhere you look there is evidence of extravagance.

One evening I was picking up a number of items from a local grocery store to prepare for dinner back in the apartment I was staying in on campus when I got in line behind two young teenage girls. They were probably 15 or 16 years old and were dressed in the latest fashion (which showed way too much skin in my opinion, but that’s a subject for a different blog entry). They each bought an energy drink and one of them used her parent’s ATM card to pay for it. She then proceeded to get $200 in cash back with the ATM card. I’m sure my jaw dropped to the floor! I could not help but think that I’ve never gotten $200 cash back myself, and I’m a working adult! Of course, I didn’t grow up in a multi-million dollar home in one of the richest communities in the nation.

But the experience did serve to remind me that one of the issues facing today’s young people is a lack of understanding of the value of a dollar. Even young people from much more modest circumstances than those two young ladies in Mill Valley have gotten used to living very well on their parents’ checkbook and credit cards. While this may make their life easier, one does have to wonder if it actually makes their life better. If they grow up not understanding the value of a dollar, how will they ever learn how to manage their own money? If they cannot learn how to manage their own money, how will young people survive in such a difficult and competitive economy?

The number of young adults who graduate from college and then return to live with their parents is staggering. While some of these young people may not have a choice, the reality is that many of them have realized that life is a lot better living in mom and dad’s basement than it is renting a place on their own. Again, this makes life easier for them, but does it actually make life better?

Somewhere along the way young people have to learn to grow up and take responsibility for their own affairs. Until they do, they will never mature enough to make good decisions on their own. If they cannot make good decisions, they will not function as healthy adults in society.
If you want to help a young person in your sphere of influence take a step toward maturity, you might think about teaching them good money management skills instead of just giving them your credit card. They probably won’t appreciate it too much now, but they one day they will see the wisdom of your actions and thank you for it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Church of McDonalds

Every Wednesday is Youth Night at our church. Though attendance is affected by the various sports season, we normally have 55-65 teenagers participate each week. When the night is over and the crowd begins to disperse, there are always a few “stragglers” who don’t quite want to go home yet. They enjoy being together as a group and often ask the deepest questions of the youth workers after most of the other teenagers have left. We frequently end up at McDonalds with these stragglers for a late night snack. We sit around McDonalds laughing and talking and eating far more calories and fat grams than any human being should consume that late at night!

This past week the stragglers numbered more than 15 teens plus four youth workers. I’m not quite sure what the people in McDonald’s thought when we all came pouring into the place just after 10 PM. But as I listened to the group laugh and talk, it occurred to me that perhaps that was one of the most crucial moments of our youth ministry that night. Though I was tired and would have rather gone straight home, I realized the importance of building a sense of community among teenagers.

In a society in which half of all marriages end in divorce and many children are growing up isolated from their extended families; young people often don’t have the support they need for a successful life. Giving them safe, healthy and wholesome places to be together and helping them build a sense of community among themselves is one of the greatest things the church can offer teenagers. Whether we do it in the actual church building, or in a McDonalds, the result is the same. Young people need to feel like they belong.

Though a casual observer watching our group at McDonalds may not realize what they are seeing, those who watch more closely will realize that it is a very much a “worship service” at The Church of McDonalds. In that place we were “being” the church. Though we may not have our Bibles open in a formal Bible study, our lives are open and display the truths of the Bible lived out in real life experience. Though we may not verbally sing praise songs to Jesus, our hearts are filled with praise and the laughter on our lips honors the One whom we live our lives for. Though it not look “spiritual,” what happens at McDonalds has a profound spiritual impact on those who regularly attend services at The Church of McDonalds because they know they belong to a solid group of Christians who love God and love each other. That sense of belonging is vital in the discipleship process. If you are finding your sense of “belonging” in Christ is not as strong as you may want it to be, fill your car with some Christian friends and head over to The Church of McDonalds. You might be surprised what a difference it will make!

Learn more about reaching young people in Dr. Terry Dorsett's book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Into God But Not Church

I frequently hear people say they are into God but not the organized church. Normally they have been disappointed in some way by the church but are not ready to give up their faith completely. Having worked for a church my entire adult life, I understand how it feels to be hurt by a church. I have been underpaid and overworked my entire life by the church. Often the people in church who demand the largest portion of my time and energy are the same ones that complain about me the most to everyone else in the church. There is nothing more frustrating than pouring your life into someone only to have them turn on you and attack you. I know exactly what it means to be hurt by the church, I have experienced it more times than you can imagine.

Yet, I continue to remain loyal to the church. Perhaps it is because I understand that a church is made up of people. And people are not perfect. Even Christian people make mistakes. I have learned the value of forgiveness and the need to keep my eyes focused on Jesus, not people. If I focus on the actions of people in the church, I will frequently be disappointed. But if I focus on the Head of the Church, Jesus, then I will love the church, even when it disappoints me.

When thinking about the organized church, one must be practical. From a practical perspective, it would be difficult to accomplish much without some kind of organizational system to help make it happen. How many soup kitchens, homeless shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, youth groups, job training programs, after school programs, etc are operated by churches? Those churches have facilities and structures already in place to help those programs operate efficiently and effectively. Do you know any of these types of programs that are operated effectively or consistently by any “unorganized” groups? The nature of the universe requires some system of organization. And it seems that if we “dismantle” the church, we would just have to turn around and recreate something quite similar in order to accomplish the same things. Why not just keep the organized church to begin with?

Perhaps instead of complaining about the church, we should roll up our sleeves and get involved in the church? Perhaps you and I are the solution the church has been looking for? Perhaps you and I are the ones to help the church finally become all that it should be? Perhaps the God we say we love wants us to lead the church that He loves?

These are thoughts we must consider before we abandon the church, even when it disappoints us and hurts us. You and I must BE the church!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Honest Answers to Hard Questions

Recently one of my Facebook friends posted a question on his wall about why in the Old Testament God sent the Death Angel to kill people and then ordered the Jews to kill people when they occupied the Promised Land. I thought his question was valid and it is one that I have been asked many times by young adults. I have asked the same question myself, so I understand his struggle to understand why things like that happened in the Old Testament. I thought that perhaps my response to his question might help others who are also struggling with this issue. I have changed his name to protect his privacy.

Thanks for your thought provoking comments that you posted on your wall the other day. I commend you for asking hard questions, it shows that you are looking for real answers and not just shallow theological tidbits. I have asked those same questions myself and therefore wanted to give you my thoughts on the subject.

I am assuming that you are referring to the 10th Plague in Egypt and the command of God for the Israelites to kill all the occupants of the Promised Land after the Exodus. In regards to these two incidents I mentioned above, and to so many other difficult passages of scripture, it is important to remember that God is both a God of love and a God of Justice. His justice demands that sinful actions be accounted for and dealt with. His love demands that those of us who have sinned and deserve justice have every possible option available to us to get things right before the hand of justice falls upon us.

In light of that important truth, consider these ideas. The incident that you cite of the first born Egyptians being killed by the Death Angel must be understood in the context in which it happened. The context of the situation was that the Egyptians had enslaved the Jews for 400 years. During that time the Jews were subjected to the most horrendous acts. The Egyptians did everything possible to exterminate the Jews, but God kept multiplying the Jews because He loved them. For 400 years the Jews had lived godly lives in front of the Egyptians. I’m sure there were a few individuals who failed to be godly, there always are, but as a people, they lived godly lives in front of the Egyptians. In the face of the most terrible oppression, they lived the faith in front of their oppressors. One would think that the Egyptians would see that faith, realize the Jewish God was real and change their ways and follow Him. But for 400 years the Egyptians ignored the calling of God.

What a God of Love He is, that He withheld judgment on the enemies of His people for 400 years. I am a pretty nice guy, but I would not have been that patient or loving!

Even when it came time for the hand of justice to fall, God sent Moses to give the Egyptians another chance to repent and make things right. Not just one chance, but NINE more chances. After 400 years of chances, our loving God gave them 9 more opportunities to get things right! God gave them details about each one of the plagues so they would clearly understand why these things were happening. But the Egyptians ignored them all. So much for the argument that if God just gave people a chance they would turn to Him. He gave them so many chances that we can’t count them all. He is such a loving God. But in the end, when all the chances were used up, God sent the Death Angel and justice was finally served on the Egyptians for their evil acts against the Jews.

Even then, God, in His overwhelming love, provided a way out. He told them how they could put the blood of a lamb on the doorposts and the Death Angel would pass over them. Some Egyptians did this because the Bible says that it was a “mixed multitude” that finally left Egypt. This means that some of the Egyptians believed in the God of the Jews and joined up. So after all those chances, God still gave one more opportunity to escape the justice that was to come.

WOW, what a God of love! May His name be praised!

But sadly, the vast majority of people in Egypt chose not to take any of the many opportunities God provided for escape. Instead they chose the way of justice. They even knew when it would happen and how it would happen and to whom it would happen, because God told them in advance so they could avoid it. Yet they ignored His warning.

How can we blame a loving God who bent over backwards to save the enemies of His people when they ignored every warning along the way? The reality is that we cannot blame God for this. The Egyptians made a choice. It was the wrong choice and the consequences were severe. But it was their choice and they made it with full knowledge of what the result would be. They made it knowing there was a way out.

The same is true in our own lives. God gives us messages all the time about His love for us and He calls us to follow Him. He speaks through nature, through the Bible, through signs and wonders, through people, through the church, through dreams and visions, through words of knowledge and insight into our lives, and through the still small voice of His Spirit. We hear those voices over and over again. We know our lives are filled with problems and we know we have made many mistakes. We know that one day justice demands that we pay for our mistakes. Yet we ignore the many messages from a loving God and we choose to keep going our own way. One day we will eventually pray the price. We can get angry and blame God if we want to, but if we look at our lives in context, God has done everything possible to help us avoid justice. I don't want justice, I want mercy! Justice will destroy me, but mercy and love will save me. Oh, God of Heaven, give me mercy!

If we move past the 10th plague and into the period when God told the Jews to occupy the Promise Land, we must also view God’s orders to kill all the inhabitants in context. God had promised the land to the Jews hundreds of years prior to them occupying the land. That promise was very public and everyone in the land knew it. At the time the promise was given, the land was sparsely populated and only a few small towns existed. But people ignored the prophecies and built cities and kingdoms in the land, knowing full well it was promised to the Jews. When the Jews left Egypt, no one questioned where they were headed; everyone knew exactly where they were headed, people had expected it for hundreds of years. The Jews were clearly going to claim the land they had been promised. Those who had become squatters on their land could have moved away. They could have converted and become followers of God. They could have made peace with the Jews before the battle started, one city did that and though that city used deception to make the treaty, God made the Jews keep the covenant they made with that city. So peace was an option.

And once again God gave the people in the land many extra chances. Not only did they have 400 years of squatting on someone else’s land during which they could have relocated at any time, but then the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. That was plenty of time for the squatters to realize the end was near and to relocate, but they chose not to. And then when the Jews finally entered the land, they did not take it all at once. It was a process that took decades. Any time during that long occupation the squatters could have relocated, or converted, or taken any number of other options. But most of the inhabitants of the land did not choose those options. They chose to fight against God. What did they expect would happen when the battle finally began? Once again we see the long suffering and patience of a God of love. But we also see that eventually justice MUST come.

I am glad God is long suffering and patient, as I surely need that in my own walk with Him. I fail Him often and if He was a God of quick justice, I would have been stuck by lightening a long time ago. Aren’t YOU glad God is a long suffering and patient God? Aren’t you glad God is withholding justice and instead giving you one chance after another to return to Him?

The down side of all of this is that we don’t know when the “last chance” will come. We do know that once it passes, all that will be left is justice. If you feel God calling you to come back to Him today that means you still have at least one more chance. Why not return to Him today? You will not find an angry mean God who wants to hit you in the head with a club. You will find a loving father who has been patiently waiting for one of His most beloved to come home.

Just some thoughts for you to consider as you struggle with these very real questions.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Are There Really Fewer Christians in America?

In recent months there has been a rash of articles about the decline of Christianity in America. Statistics clearly show that fewer Americans identify with the Christian religion now than ever before. I have been reflecting deeply on this phenomenon in recent weeks and trying to make those statistics fit into my own experience as a church planting missionary in the least religious state in America. In the past eight years our mission efforts in Vermont have been more productive than ever. I keep asking myself “if evangelical churches are growing so rapidly in Vermont, how can we still be the least churched state in the nation?” I also wonder if there is a disconnect between the statistics and reality in Vermont, does the same thing hold true across the rest of the nation?

I’m not sure that anyone has done an actual scientific poll about this apparent disparity yet, but I have a theory about why statistics might not be matching up to my own experience. I think that a large number of people who have called themselves Christians in the past did so out of tradition or habit. But many of those people never truly had a personal commitment to following Christ in their daily lives. This does not mean they were atheists, it just means that their Christianity was more of a vague concept or in some cases more akin to a membership in a social club, than a deep personal faith in God. While such a commitment to Christianity has some merit, it also has significant weaknesses. The primary weakness with this less personal form Christianity is that when it is tested, it will almost always collapse.

Without question, the “concept” of Christianity has been severely tested in recent years. Too many Protestant television evangelists have gone bad and too many Catholic priests have molested children. Anyone with only a vague Christian commitment would distance themselves from the church under these circumstances. Therefore the number of people indicating they are Christians has naturally dropped as these individuals who were on the fringe anyway no longer identify themselves as Christians. However, it is my belief that the number of actual committed Christians has remained relatively the same. Thus Christianity itself is not in decline, people are simply being more honest about their commitment, or lack thereof, than in the past.

I am aware that this theory does not account for all the people who have dropped out of the Christian faith. There are some who were clearly committed to Christ who seem to have walked away from their faith, and my theory would not be true in their case. But haven’t there always been people who seemed committed to Christ that walked away during difficult times? Some of them will eventually come back, some of them never well. This has always been a difficult reality to explain, and there are no easy answers for why it happens. But in my own experience in Vermont, I have not witnessed a great falling away of “committed” Christians, though I have seen a great decline in people who were only sporadic in their commitment to begin with.

Perhaps this is what is really happening across America. Perhaps people are simply being more honest about their faith, which can actually be a good thing. Perhaps Christianity is not in as much trouble as some are so quick to declare. Regardless, we must continue to make the role of Christianity in America a matter of prayerful reflection and seek the Lord's will for how to respond to what is happening in our culture.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Will Christianity Appeal More to Young People Now that Liberal Non-Christian Values Are Mainstream?

In the 1950’s Christian values and ideas dominated American culture and were considered the “normal” way of thinking and acting in mainstream American life. Then the wild 1960’s came, during which many young people cast off Christian values and experimented with every type of sexual and drug experience imaginable. Even though the young people of the 1960’s did this, mainstream society remained firmly in the hands of the Christian value system. But as those youth of the 1960’s grew up, they revolutionalized American culture. Now their “free” ideas have become the “mainstream” culture of America and Christian values have been marginalized and pushed aside. There are now articles, books and documentaries being produced about the “end of the Christian era” in America. Our president recently said we are not a Christian nation. This shows just how much our culture has changed since the 1950’s.

Many conservative people are frustrated by these changes, especially in regards to the supposed decline in the Christian church. But I actually think this will work to the church’s advantage in the long run.

Why do I think this? Young people have always been drawn to “revolutionary” ideas. They want to “rebel “against the status quo and the establishment. Christianity was the establishment for a long time, so young people rebelled against it. But now liberalism has become the establishment. Liberals, who used to rail against “the man,” have now become “the man.”

So what will the pendulum of culture do? For the moment, liberal ideas are “cool.” Conservative ideas are out. But in another decade people will tire of the liberal establishment and begin to look for “counter culture” groups that don’t fit into the mainstream. And when they do, they will rediscover Christianity. I believe that a decade from now the youth of today will lead a massive spiritual revival of the church. The church that will emerge may look different than it does now, and I’m guessing the music will be quite a bit louder, but the church will emerge as the revolutionary force it has always been. The church will continue to change lives and make the world a better place.

That does not mean we won't have some rough days ahead of us, but it does mean there is hope. It does mean that Christianity is NOT dead in America. The liberals will have their day, but in time, the church will become “cool” again, and young people will lead the way!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Spiritual Renewal from a Clown Suit

When the youth group at our church was just a handful of teens that gathered in our home each week, we often dreamed of what would happen if God were to bring about a major spiritual movement among teens in our community. Since then our youth group has grown far more than we could have imagined. Now over 120 young people are on the roll and 60 or more of them gather for the weekly meeting which long ago outgrew our home. They come from all walks of life but the common bond is the sense of “belonging” they get from being part of a community of grace and truth that our church has created for them.

Recently we were having a special youth worship service and I challenged the young people to have 75 teens present. Though we seldom have trouble gathering a large crowd for our weekly meeting, we are not always as successful at getting them to come to an actual worship experience. So 75 was a challenging goal for them to have for an actual worship service. To sweeten the pot I promised them that if they achieved the goal, I would preach the following Sunday in a clown suit.

They put the word out to their friends and on the appointed day they exceeded the goal and had 79 teens present, plus about 20 youth workers and chaperons. True to my word, the following Sunday I preached in a clown suit during our regular worship service. It was a little awkward. I didn't exactly take a course on preaching in clown suits in seminary. But I got through it. A large group of teens joined with our regular attendees to witness the experience. The Lord was gracious and many of those present were faced with making spiritual choices that they had not thought about before. Without question we are beginning to witness a significant spiritual movement among teenagers in our community. Our original dream of seeing such a movement is rapidly becoming reality.

When I look back at the pictures, I still can’t quite believe I preached on a Sunday morning in a clown suit! But then I think about what Jesus had to do bring about my own salvation, and preaching in a clown suit does not seem too much after all.

Learn more about reaching young people in Dr. Terry Dorsett's book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church.