Friday, March 26, 2010

Into Jesus But Not the Church

Sometimes people tell me that they believe in Jesus but not the organized church. Such people normally go on to tell me some story of how they were hurt by the church at some point in their past. That negative experience soured them on the institutional church but did not make them abandon their belief in Jesus.

I can relate to these people because I understand how it feels to be hurt by a church. I have been underpaid and overworked by the church since I began working for my first church at the young age of 18. Often the people in church who demand the largest portion of my time and energy are the same ones that complain the most about how I go about doing my ministry. There is nothing more frustrating than pouring your life into someone only to have them turn on you when you least expect it. I know exactly what it means to be hurt by the organized church because I have experienced such hurt more times than most people could endure.

Yet, I continue to remain loyal to the organized 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 be frequently disappointed. But if I focus on the Head of the Church, Jesus, then I will love the church, even when its people disappoint 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. Think about how many soup kitchens, homeless shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, youth groups, job training programs, after school programs, and other community programs are operated by churches. Churches have facilities and structures already in place to help those programs operate efficiently and effectively.

On the other hand, how many of those same types of programs are operated effectively or consistently by an "unorganized" group? While the church might not be perfect, it seems to me that if we dismantle the institutional 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 institutional church, we should become more involved in the church. We should become part of the solution instead of just a complainer about the problems. After all, WE are the church, so if it is to be fixed, we are the ones to do it!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Contemplating Baptism

Baptism has been an important part of the Christian faith since Jesus walked into the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus was baptized to set an example for us and to bring glory to His Father. We know from the Scriptures that God the Father was pleased with Jesus when He was baptized.

There are many different ideas of what baptism means. There are also a number of views on when a person should experience baptism. Though we want to be respectful of the sincere beliefs of others, according to the New Testament baptism was the way that Christians publicly proclaimed their faith in Christ. It was not a covenant with the parents, but it was the outward expression of the individual's inner commitment to Christ. In the New Testament people were not baptized until they were old enough to make the decision for themselves. In the New Testament, people were always baptized by being immersed or dipped completely under the water. The word "baptism" actually means to immerse or dip under. If that was what baptism meant in the New Testament, why would it have a different meaning today? Much of the confusion concerning the meaning and timing of baptism would be cleared up if we simply practiced baptism when and how it was done in the New Testament.

Baptism is a picture of how Christ died for us, was buried for us, and rose again for us. When we stand in the water we are saying that we are taking our stand for Christ. As we are dipped under the water it symbolizes us "dying and being buried" to our old way of life. When we come up out of the water it symbolizes how we are raised to "new life" through our faith in Christ.

Baptism does not save us from hell; instead it shows the world that we have already been saved from our sin and received new life in Christ. The New Testament makes it very clear that every person who has trusted Jesus as their Savior and made a commitment to follow Him should be baptized after making that decision. If we have never been baptized, then we should be baptized after making a sincere commitment to Christ. This is how we publically proclaim our faith in Christ. Baptism will enhance our connection to God and improve our personal spirituality. Occasionally I meet a person who tells me they publicly professed their faith in some way other than baptism. While it is not my place to judge others, it seems that God already has shown us the way He wants us to publicly profess our faith in Him. Efforts to "edit" God's clearly declared system seem unwise to me.

Some people were baptized as infants before they are old enough to understand what baptism meant. While that may have been a very lovely ceremony to watch, we cannot find any examples in the Bible of an infant or small child being baptized. There are some examples in the Bible of children being "dedicated" to the Lord. So we know it is appropriate for parents to dedicate their children. But we should not confuse a baby dedication with the ritual of baptism. People who were baptized as infants should get re-baptized when they are older as a testimony of their own faith. Being re-baptized does not mean they do not appreciate what their parents did for them; it simply means that now they are making the decision themselves to be a Christian.

There is something powerful about being baptized. It gives us a sense of spiritual cleansing. It makes us feel closer to God. It is also a step of obedience to God, since He is the one who told us to do it once we had trusted His Son as our Savior. If we have not been baptized at all, we should do it as soon as we can. If we were baptized as an infant but it had no real meaning to us, then we should consider being re-baptized as our own expression of faith in Jesus Christ.

Anyone living in Central Vermont who is interested in being baptized, Faith Community Church of Barre will be holding their next baptism service on Sunday, August 8, 2010 at the annual church picnic. If you are interested in being baptized, please contact Pastor Terry Dorsett so that he can set up a time to meet with you to make sure you understand baptism and are ready for this exciting spiritual experience.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Things We Don’t Understand

A youth lesson based on Hebrews 11:1 and Romans 8:28. Written by Dr. Terry W. Dorsett and presented at the Faith Community Church area wide Youth Rally on March 21, 2010.

There are many items that we use every day that we don't really understand how they work.
(I had each of these items on the platform to use as props.)
  • Cell Phone
  • Memory chip
  • Wireless Internet
  • Medicine 
There are many things we experience frequently that we really don't understand.
(I talked about an experience I had recently in each of these areas.)
  • Wind
  • Fear
  • Love
  • God's Presence
Hebrews 11:1 - Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.
  • Real faith is built on reality.
  • There are certain things that we know are real, even if we do not fully understand them.
  • God is one of those things that deep down we know is real, even when we don't know how to explain it.
  • Faith that is built on reality gives us hope.
  • That hope becomes the proof of our faith even when we do not see how it will work out.
  • Those who place their hope in God through a commitment to Jesus Christ will begin to see how God works good things out of experiences that we do not understand when they first happen to us.  
Romans 8:28 - We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.
  • This is a powerful verse. But it is important to understand what it really says, and what it does not say.
  • This verse does not say that ALL THINGS are good.
  • It says that all things WORK for good.
  • This means that some things are bad but they produce good results in the lives of those who love God.
  • Notice that this promise is given only to those who love God and are looking for God's purposes in their lives.
  • Those who do not love God cannot claim this promise.
  • If we want this verse to be true for us, we must have faith in God even when we don't understand what is happening to us and we must love God no matter what.
Do we have faith in God even when we don't understand what He is doing in our lives?
  • If not, we might want to consider sincerely praying this prayer:
  • Lord, I don't always understand what You are doing in my life, but I believe that You love me and have a plan for my life. Help me to trust You even when life does not make sense. Help me to love You no matter what. When my faith begins to fail, help me to remember that You will somehow make it all work out. Amen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Faces of Heaven

For the past 16 years I have served the Lord as a pastor and church planter in Vermont. Vermont is the least churched state in America, so there is much work to be done. Vermont is also the second "whitest" state in America, with 95.2% of our population being white. Only Maine has a higher percentage of white people than Vermont.

But as our minority population in Vermont has grown ever so slightly in recent years, my own heart has been burdened to reach out to our non-Anglo neighbors in the name of Christ. It is actually a lot harder than it sounds because we can't exactly put up a sign in front of the church that says "non-white people wanted!" How does a middle aged white pastor attract minorities to his mostly Anglo congregation? Not knowing what to do, mostly I've just prayed and asked God to help us connect with minority groups. And when God has sent someone to our church who was not white, I made a point to ensure they felt welcome. I have tried to work this theme into sermons when it was appropriate. I have tried to encourage the handful of minorities that we do have in our church to bring their friends. Not exactly the most ambitious plan, but it was the best I could do given the racial make-up of our state.

Over the past five years we have had a small presence of minorities in our congregation and God has been answering our prayers as that portion of our congregation has slowly been growing. But I guess I did not realize just how much God had answered my prayers until this morning. Leaving an elders meeting, I walked past one of our children's Sunday School classes and realized that the Anglo children were only 1/3 of the attendees in that particular class. The other children were African American and Asian American. I stopped in my tracks and just stood looking through the window into the class thanking God for showing me a picture of what the faces of heaven would be like. Thinking that class might be an anomaly, I walked across the lobby to look into another class. My smile got bigger as I realized that class was evenly split between Anglo children and African American children. We only have three children's Sunday School classes at our church, so I decided to go look in the third class and see what it looked like. I was pleased to notice that it was evenly split between Anglo children and Asian American children. Admittedly, these three classes are all small, so the total number of children in them was limited. But the racial mixture represented must be something like the faces we will see in heaven and it was deeply moving to me as a pastor.

I am reminded of what the Apostle John wrote in Revelation 7:9-10, "After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God."

My prayer of gratitude today is, "Thank you Lord for showing me the faces of heaven! Help us be faithful in serving You as one people."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Family Matters

A lesson for teenagers about healthy families based on Ephesians 5:22-6:4 and written by Dr. Terry W. Dorsett
Note: this lesson was prepared for teenagers who primarily come from families who are not active in an evangelical church. The same scripture might be presented another way in a different setting.

Verses 22-25 - Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord.
for the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it.
  • When we hear the phrase "wives submit to your husbands" our mental picture is:

  • But the Bible says that the husband is the head of the wife like Christ was the head of the church.
  • How did Christ lead the church?
  • The "picture" of Christ's leadership is:

This is a different picture of leadership!
  • Ladies, if your husband loved you so much that he was willing to carry a cross for you, have nails driven in his hands & feet for you, hang on a cross between two thieves and literally sacrifice his life for you, would you be willing to follow him then?
  • In our modern world, it is unlikely that husbands will be called upon to actually carry a cross for their wife. But what if a husband loved his wife so much that he was willing to miss his favorite ball game on television so he could help around the house, or give up a job promotion so he could spend more time with the family, or stop hanging around with a friend that did not respect you properly?
  • Biblical submission is not about one person "controlling" another.
  • Biblical submission is about letting a loving and sacrificial person lead us.
  • A person like that must lead the family for it to be healthy.
  • If there is no one like that in our family, maybe we need to become that kind of person in our family.
  • Can we be part of the solution instead of adding to the problem?
Ephesians 6:1 - Children, obey your parents in the Lord, because this is right.
  • I've never met a young person who likes this verse!
  • The reason we should obey our parents is because it is the right thing to do.
  • Are our parent's always right?
  • NO!!!
  • But it is always right to obey them unless they ask us to do something illegal, immoral or that will hurt us.
  • This verse says that children should obey their parents "in the Lord."
  • It is especially important for Christian kids to obey their parents. It shows the parents how Christ is working in their lives.
  • This is even more important if our parents are NOT Christians. They need to see Christ in us. That may make them desire to become a Christian too, which will make the whole family better.
Ephesians 6:2-3 - Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with a promise, that it may go well with you and that you may have a long life.
  • This verse tells us to honor our parents.
  • What is the difference between obeying and honoring?
  • Obeying means doing what they tell us to do. Honoring means to respect them.
  • Will there come a day when we no longer have to obey our parents?
  • Yes, when we move out of the house and start paying our own bills then we will no longer have to obey our parents.
  • Will there come a day when we no longer have to honor our parents?
  • No, we should always respect our parents.
  • What promise does the Bible give if we honor our parents?
  • Life will go well and will be longer.
  • People who do not have a good relationship with their parents seldom have a good life.
  • The stress from such a poor relationship often shortens their lifespan.
  • If we obey and honor our parents, life will be better and longer.
  • If we disobey and disrespect our parents, we can expect a lifetime of pain, relational difficulties and additional stress that may lead to an early death.
  • Do our parents have any obligations in this or do they just get to be bossy and psycho?
Verse 4 - And fathers, don't stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

  • Parents are not supposed to "stir up anger" in their children.
  • This does not mean that our parents should never make us mad. They will probably do that a lot!
  • What it means is that they should not purposefully do things JUST to make us mad.
  • When Christian young people obey and honor their parents and Christian parents don't purposefully do things to make their kids mad, life is very GOOD!!!!!
  • When one (or both) side fails to act the way Christ wants us to, then life is NOT so good.
  • Sometimes life can be REALLY BAD!!!!
  • What can we do when life is not as good as we wish it was?
  • Notice this verse talks about training and instruction in the Lord.
  • We can grow our inner spirit even if our family situation is less than ideal.
  • Our faith can help us be better parents when our time comes to lead a family.

What Kind of "Family Material" Will We Be?
Adapted from LXVI™, Vol. 21 • Copyright 2006 • LifeWay Press® • Permission granted to reproduce this page for use with LXVI.

Let us each rate ourselves: Our options are NEVER, SOMETIMES, ALWAYS.

  • When I don't get my way….no problem.
  • The people in my life would describe me as loving and kind.
  • I like to hear other people's opinions.
  • I have a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • I can forgive people who have disappointed me.
  • I feel good about who I am.
  • I am making wise choices now so that I can have a healthy family later.
  • I am certain my relationship with my parents will change once I get married.
  • It is easy for me to love others as much as I love myself.
  • I see an example of a healthy marriage relationship in my own home.
  • I see an example of a healthy parent-child relationship in my own home.
Let's each add our scores up for the results:
  • If most of our answers were NEVER, our future family may be Headed for Disaster if we don't make changes in our relationships NOW!!!!!
  • If most of our answers are SOMETIMES, then our behavior and attitudes are too dependent on our circumstances. This means our future family could go either way, good or bad.
  • If most of our answers are ALWAYS, then our faith in Jesus Christ has obviously affected our views and behaviors. Our future family is looking good.
Conclusion - For a family to be healthy:
  • It must be led by a person who loves that family enough to sacrifice for them.
  • The rest of the family must follow that sacrificial and loving person's leadership.
  • Children should obey and honor their parents as a way to demonstrate their Christian faith and in order to have a happier life.
  • Parents should not do things to purposely make their kids angry.
  • If our current family is not doing so well, we should improve our own spirituality so that our faith can help us be better parents when we start our own families.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Next Generation: Whatever!

Whatever! That one word is packed with significant meaning and is a frequent response heard by those of us who work with teenagers and young adults. We often hear this response when we ask a young adult to do something, or to explain perhaps why they didn't so something they were supposed to. From my perspective, sometimes it seems that the next generation lacks motivation. They do not seem motivated to excel at school. They do not seem motivated to excel at work. They do not seem motivated to excel in their chores. Some don't even put forth the maximum effort in sports! One might think the next generation is content to drift through life not caring about what happens around them.

To be fair to teens and young adults, I question if they really lack motivation or if they simply doubt that working hard would actually make a difference. Dr. Jean Twenge, who has done extensive research on the young people between the ages of 7-36, has concluded that "many young people feel that the problems of the modern world are impossible to solve anyway."

Many young adults grew up in broken homes. They often tried to "be good" so their parents would stay together, but it didn't work. Many young adults went into significant debt to get a college education with the idea that they would get a good job and be able to pay off their loans. Now that they are out of college, good jobs are hard to find and their student loans are due. Many young adults voted in the last presidential election for the very first time thinking that their vote would be a positive change to the nation. Instead the nation remains gripped in partisan politics with no meaningful change on the horizon. If we look at things from the young adults' perspective, we might be tempted to join with them when they say "Whatever!" Dr. Twenge's research revealed that there is indeed a "declining belief in personal responsibility and the efficacy of hard work and sacrifice." Young people just don't see the value of hard work. They don't see that it makes a difference. Therefore, why bother trying?

Those of us who are pastors and youth ministry volunteers must help young people rediscover the value of hard work. We need to help young adults put Colossians 3:22-24 into practice. Those verses say: "Don't work only while being watched, in order to please men, but work wholeheartedly for the Lord. Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord—you serve the Lord Christ." Christians should think of everything they do as being done for the Lord. When Christians take that approach to life, then their hard work has great value even if they don't see the immediate results that they had hoped for. Christians should work hard and they should finish what they start. Christians should not quit just because the results are not exactly what we had hoped for. When we don't put forth the maximum effort, or when we quit part way through a task, we leave the job half done. A half done job not only makes an individual look bad, but when that individual is a Christian, it makes Christ look bad. That is why Paul wrote in First Corinthians 10:31, "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God's glory." Let's help the next generation learn to value hard work for the Lord's sake. The rewards for hard work are more than just immediate earthly results, sometimes they are eternal results. And those are worth waiting for.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Why Religion Doesn’t Work

A sermon based on Acts 17:16-34. Written by Dr. Terry W. Dorsett and preached at:
Bible Central Church, Enosburg Falls, VT on February 28, 2010
New Covenant Baptist Church, Burlington, VT on March 7, 2010
Faith Community Church, Barre, VT on March 14, 2010

Verse 16 - While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols.
  • Athens was considered the center of culture during the New Testament era.
  • Athens was known for its sculpture, literature, oratory skills and pursuit of philosophy.
  • The city had many statues of pagan gods and awe inspiring temples to those gods.
  • Many people considered Athens the most religious city in the world at that time.
  • Paul had traveled on ahead of the rest of his team and was waiting for them in Athens.
  • Paul was troubled when he saw how much energy, effort and money the people of Athens dedicated to false religions and gods.
  • Paul was troubled because all that religion had still not helped people find peace in their daily lives or peace with God.
  • The reason it did not work was because religion is a human attempt to reach up to God through various rituals and activities.
  • Religious rituals will never be enough to meet the deepest needs of our souls.
  • We must come to the end of religious ritual and instead realize that God has reached down to us and desires a personal relationship with us.
  • That personal relationship between God and people is deeper and bigger than just religious rituals and activities. It is something that flows from deep within us and changes us.
  • Without that personal relationship with God, religion is empty and meaningless.
Verse 17 - So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
  • Paul first tried to reason with those who seemed most likely to believe in Jesus.
  • But Paul also went beyond whom he thought might be interested in Jesus and spoke to anyone in the marketplace who would listen.
  • In our own lives we should definitely be talking to religious people about the Bible and what God is doing in our lives. But we must also share our faith with people outside the church as we encounter them in our daily lives.
  • A recent study tells us the 70% of Americans would LIKE to have a conversation about faith with a friend or relative. People actually WANT to talk about spirituality with a friend.
Verse 18 - Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him.
  • Paul got into an intense discussion with the Epicureans and Stoics. While 70% of Americans may be interested in talking about faith with someone, the other 30% may decide to argue with you about faith.
  • Epicureans believed that pleasure was the main point of life and the best pleasure was to be free from pain and superstitious fears.
  • Basically, they said that if it felt good, do it and don't worry what God, the church, the Bible, or anyone else said or thought about your behavior.
  • Theologically they did not deny the existence of God, but felt that if there was a God, He no longer took interest in the lives of mere humans.
  • Their strength was that they had a lot of fun and were fun to be around. Life was one big party.
  • Their weakness was that they had no real purpose in life other than pleasure. If they were not constantly finding things to do that brought them pleasure, they became depressed and anxious.
  • Far too many people in our modern world think they must be constantly entertained. If they do not have constant entertainment, they get bored and depressed.
  • While there is nothing wrong with fun and entertainment, at some point we have to go to work, do the dishes, wash the laundry, go to school, etc. If we want to get anywhere in life, then life cannot be one long party.
  • The Stoics believed in living in harmony with nature.
  • They also believed in the ability of people to rationally think through any question or problem and come to the right conclusion.
  • Theologically, Stoics were pantheistic, meaning that they thought God was a world soul that inhabited every creature.
  • Their strength was that their followers were expected to be very moral and have a high sense of duty to the world.
  • Their weakness was that when a person could not figure life out intellectually, they recommended suicide as an honorable means of escape. And many of them took that way out!
  • Even today there are people who think they are smart enough to figure everything out and when a problem comes along that is so overwhelming that they can't figure it out, they don't know what to do. Often they just give up and quit. They should be turning to the Lord and looking for supernatural assistance when "natural" answers no longer work. 
Verse 19 - They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, "May we learn about this new teaching you're speaking of?
  • The Epicureans and Stoics took him from the marketplace to the Areopagus and asked him to speak to the crowd about faith.
  • The Areopagus was just north of the main city.
  • People would spend the entire day there just discussing philosophy and ideas. They had lots of ideas but no real solutions. Hanging out at the Areopagus and talking all day was a way to feel intelligent and important without actually having to do much.
Verse 22 - Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect.
  • Paul stood in the middle of the people and spoke to them.
  • He was not hiding inside the church. He took the Gospel outside the church to the people.
  • Paul recognized that religion was important to them so he started the conversation with religion. If sports, or politics, or the economy had been important to them, he would have started with that.
  • We need to recognize what is important to people we witness to and start the conversation at that point, even if we disagree with it.
Verse 23 - For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

  • The Athenians were so religious that they even had built an altar to what they called an unknown god.
  • Scholars are not clear about the exact purpose of this altar.
  • But what is clear is that the Athenians realized that even with all their religious rituals and pagan idols, they had still not found what they were looking for.
  • They had built an altar to a god they hoped they would one day discover who would be all they were looking for.
  • We live in a world full of religion, but empty of hope.
  • We live in a world full of expanding technology, organized sports, endless entertainment, and historic institutions, yet many people still feel empty and purposeless.
  • People are still searching for something.
Verse 24 - The God who made the world and everything in it —He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands.
  • What people are searching for, without even knowing it, is a Creator who has a purpose for our lives and a plan to help us accomplish that purpose.
  • The God of the Bible is that Creator, and He does have a purpose and plan, both for the universe and for our lives.
  • But we often have a hard time connecting to God in a personal way.
  • The reason it is so hard for us to connect to God is that we like to control things.
  • Controlling things makes us feel secure.
  • Therefore, we want to make God small enough to control.
  • We want to confine God to a building, or an hour on Sunday, or to a certain aspect of life. We want God to be small enough for us to understand or explain or figure out.
  • Paul reminded the Athenians that the Creator God cannot be confined by human limits or intelligence.
  • Such a God is too great to live in a shrine or a temple, no matter how glorious it may be.
  • Such a God will fill the entire universe with His presence and power and will be far too big for us to completely understand or explain.
  • And that powerful God desires a personal relationship with us that is bigger than just religious rituals!
Verses 26-27 - God has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live,
so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.

  • God has determined certain moments of time and certain aspects in our lives that are designed to help us see our need for Him.
  • God did this because He knew that He was too big for us to figure out on our own, no matter how smart, educated or philosophical we are.
  • God knew we would need help, and so He left sign posts along the way for us to find Him by.
  • Those sign posts can be found in the Bible, in our experiences, in nature, in art, in both the sacred and the secular aspects of life.
Psalm 19:1 – The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky proclaims His handiwork.
  • The heavens themselves tell us that God is great and the sky screams out His existence.
  • An honest person cannot look at the vast array of stars in the clear night sky and truly believe it is all a result of chance.
  • The glory of creation screams out that there must be a Creator.
  • Christians accept that God's existence is declared by nature. But what about non-Christians?
  • Go to to download 20 PAGES of names of scientists who say that "something" created the universe.
  • These are mathematicians, chemists and biologists who say that it is impossible for life to have developed by accident. They are not necessarily saying that this creator is God, but they are saying that creation could not have chemically, mathematically or biologically developed by itself.
Verse 28 - For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.'
  • Creation screams out the existence of God, but so does our own personal experience.
  • Paul asserts that in Christ we live and move and have our very existence. Those of us who are true Christians have experienced the personal nature of the living God in our own lives.
  • Remember what life was like before we found Christ? Was it even real life?
  • Paul says that not only can we discover the existence of God in nature and in our personal experience but that even non-Christian culture claims there is a God.
  • He quotes a famous non-Christian Greek poet who wrote about people being "God's offspring."
  • Paul is not endorsing everything that poet said, but is pointing out that it is built into non-Christians to believe in the divine.
  • Think of all the non-Christians we know who ask us to pray for them when they are having a difficult time. Deep inside they know God exists, even though they may not be following God themselves.
  • Even though our culture wants to keep God in a very small box, they do accept that He should have a "box" to stay in. The fact that our non-Christian culture thinks that God should "have His place" is a subtle acceptance that He exists and there is no denying it.
Verse 30 - Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent.
  • God, who is merciful, has overlooked our sin for a very long time because we were ignorant of how bad our sins were. Before we became Christians we did wrong things and didn't even realize all of them were wrong.
  • But somewhere along the way, we saw enough of His sign posts for us to realize how messed up life was because of sin. At that point, God called us to repent.
  • Once we begin to feel that calling to repent, we must decide if we will heed that calling or not.
  • When we respond to the calling of God to repent, we make a commitment to turn from our sin and follow God for the rest of our lives. Some people call this being born again. Others refer to it as being saved. Some talk about being converted.
  • It really does not matter what term a person uses to describe the experience, the key is that the person has come to a place in life where they have moved beyond mere religious rituals and found a personal connection with God through faith and commitment to Jesus Christ.
  • We must examine our innermost soul and ask if we have had an experience like this yet.
Verses 32, 34 - . . . some began to ridicule him. But others said, "We will hear you about this again." . . . some men joined him and believed . . .
  • The Athenians responded to Paul's message in three different ways.
  • Some ridiculed him.
  • Some were not yet ready to believe but wanted to hear more.
  • Some believed Paul's message and joined with his cause.
  • These are still the ways that our modern culture responds to the call to repent and believe.
  • Some ridicule Christianity, hating every aspect of it.
  • Some are not yet ready to believe but want to hear more so they can decide later.
  • Some believe God's message and join with our cause to make the world better through Christ.
  • Religious rituals alone are inadequate to meet our deepest needs in life.
  • Only a personal relationship with the Creator God can give us that peace we are looking for.
  • The existence of such a Creator can be found in nature, in culture, in our experiences and in the Bible.
  • God has designed our lives so we can see these evidences of His existence and realize His desire to be personally connected to us.
How will we respond to God's invitation to have a personal relationship with Him?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Next Generation: Non-Joiners Who Desire to Belong

Earlier this week I had a conversation with a senior adult who told me that when she and her husband moved to a new town, they found a church to attend the very first Sunday. She recalled that she knew within the first 10 minutes that it was the church for them. Three weeks later they became official members of that church and remained active members of it until they relocated to a new city some years later. That ability to pick a church, make the commitment to join it, and then remain loyal to it is indicative of the older generation. But finding a church and making a commitment to it is much more difficult for younger generations.

One study revealed that today's young adults often attend three or more churches on a regular basis and may not be an official member of any of them. Though this is working out just great for the young adults, it is more of a challenge for the churches themselves. Churches survive by participants' willingness to volunteer to lead their various ministries and donate to their various causes. Young people who attend a variety of churches without being committed to any of them are less likely to volunteer or donate. This puts pressure on the churches to continue to provide the very services that the young adults benefit so much from.

Unfortunately, it is not just churches that are struggling with a lack of commitment from young adults. Today's young adults are less likely to join any group than previous generations. Dr. Jean Twenge has done extensive research on today's young adults. She discovered through her research that "memberships in community groups have declined by more than one-fourth since the 1970s. Groups like the Elks, the Jaycees, and PTA groups have all seen memberships fall. Young people would rather do their own thing than join a group."

Since young adults would rather do their own thing than join a group, churches and other service organizations are struggling to survive. What is interesting about this situation is that much has been written about how young adults like to volunteer. Dr. Twenge's research reveals that they like to volunteer ONLY "as long as time spent volunteering does not conflict with other goals." She goes on to reveal that young adults will volunteer "but we want to do it in our own way."

What makes this trend toward being "non-joiners" so ironic is that those very same young adults express a desire to "belong." They feel alone, isolated and frustrated. They frequently talk about the need for more friends and express a desire to be part of a group that will help them feel like one of the family. They are basically non-joiners who desperately want to belong.

Churches must help young adults realize that a meaningful life is not just about being served. Part of living a meaningful life is to serve others. The whole reason that churches, and other community organizations, exist is to serve others. The most effective way a person can serve others is to become connected to a church and one or more of these other service oriented community groups. It is clear that popping in and out is not giving young adults the sense of belonging and purpose they desire. It is going to take a higher level of commitment on their part.

I am reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 10:39, "Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it." Jesus was trying to help His friends understand that a life lived for self is meaningless but a life lived for others will be of great value. From a practical perspective, this means that young adults desperately need to get committed to a particular church and service organization and then get busy serving others. They need to be willing to make the commitment necessary to be a meaningful part of such groups. The church must help young adults move to a deeper level of commitment not just for the church's sake, but for the sake of young adults themselves.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Next Generation: Ignore the Rules

Reasonable rules help a family function in a healthy way. Likewise, well thought out laws help society operate in a way that benefits all. Religious boundaries help people overcome their weaknesses and become better people. As much as rules may annoy us, they are important for a happy life. Life without rules would be chaotic, frustrating and would produce all sorts of negative results.

Despite the clear benefit of reasonable rules, today's young adults are quite content to toss out all the rules. Dr. Jean Twenge wrote a book entitled GENERATION ME: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before which was based on 30 years of research. In this book Dr. Twenge discusses how the next generation's desire to ignore the rules is impacting American life.

The lack of respect for rules is having a devastating effect on the American family. After studying reams of surveys, research projects and reports, Dr. Twenge concludes that "parental authority isn't what it used to be." To use a teenage term, DUH!!!! Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that the American family is in trouble. Anyone who works with families agrees that few kids treat their parents with respect. Somehow the roles have been reversed and the kids seem to be in charge. But families that let the kids take charge are not healthy families because kids lack the emotional and mental maturity needed to lead the family. Leading the family is the parent's job. Dr. Twenge reports that "there has also been a movement against criticizing children too much." On the surface that may sound okay. After all, no child should grow up in a home that is overly critical. But criticism is not always negative. Some criticism is constructive, especially if the child needs correction for poor behavior or an improper attitude. When parents fail to give a child constructive criticism, those parents become part of the problem instead of the solution.

The next generation's problem with rules will not just affect the current generation, but it will have lasting effects on generations to come. If they are used to getting their own way their entire childhood, what will happen when they marry and have children of their own? After all, if they are not used to receiving constructive criticism, how will they know how to give such advice to their own children? In discussing this issue Dr. Twenge muses, "I wonder what will happen when this generation has their own children. Will they continue to move toward lesser parental authority, or insist that they retain the authority they have grown accustomed to?"

Families are not the only American institution being affected by this growing distain for rules. Dr. Twenge's research also discovered that the next generation "is also less willing to follow the rules of organized religion. Only 18% of 18 to 29 year olds attend religious services every week." Many churches are struggling to find and retain young adults. This has serious long term implications for the church. But more importantly, it has serious long term implications for the next generation. From a spiritual perspective, a lack of connection to a vibrant spiritually has eternal consequences for the next generation. From a practical perspective, that same lack of connection will rob the next generation of the happiness that faith brings. Study after study has revealed that people who are engaged in the life of a religious community are happier and live more fulfilling lives. When the next generation spurns a connection to the church because they don't like the rules, they miss out on the happiness that such a connection brings.

There is an interesting twist to the next generation's distain for religious rules. Dr. Twenge's research concludes that "the churches that have grown in membership in the past few decades are the fundamentalist Christian denominations that do require more strict adherence." Could it be that young adults actually crave rules without even realizing it? Several studies have shown that rules make us feel safe. This means that even though the next generation may say they don't like rules, sub-consciously they desire rules that help them feel safe.

What does this mean to the church? It means that we must find some kind of healthy balance between the next generation's verbal dislike of the rules and their inward craving for rules. That may not be an easy balance to find. But a church that takes a reflective approach to how the rules of the faith are explained should be able to find the proper balance. After all, the church has been balancing law and grace for over 2000 years. Instead of watering down biblical mandates, churches need to help the next generation see the benefits of living the way God intends.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Next Generation: Overly Optimistic

Every spring there is a flurry of paperwork that crosses my desk as high school seniors scramble to fill out college applications and scholarship forms. They often ask me to be one of their personal references. I am always happy to do so because I believe a college education is important. But I must confess that I do wonder if those high school seniors really understand the adult world into which they are about to be thrust.

Dr. Jean Twenge, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, has done extensive research on Americans between the ages of 7-36. She writes in her book GENERATION ME: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before that this generation is overly optimistic about the level of success they expect to attain. I recall two years ago hearing a parent of a high school basketball player talk extensively about how her son was going to get a basketball scholarship to college. While he was a nice young man, he was only of average ability on the court and her excessive talk about a potential scholarship was only setting up a scenario for disappointment. While having a positive outlook on life should be encouraged, giving the next generation unrealistic dreams will only lead to disappointment.

It is not just parents who have high hopes for their children. The young people themselves have set extremely ambitious goals. Dr. Twenge writes, "Generation Me's expectations are highly optimistic: they expect to go to college, to make lots of money, and perhaps even to be famous. Yet this generation enters a world in which college admissions are increasingly competitive, good jobs are hard to find and harder to keep, and basic necessities like housing and health care have skyrocketed in price. This is a time of soaring expectations and crushing realities." She goes on to say that "our childhoods of constant praise, self-esteem boosting, and unrealistic expectations did not prepare us for an increasingly competitive workplace and the [current] economic squeeze."

I don't want to sound negative, but I find that I must agree with Dr. Twenge on this matter. The harsh reality of the current cultural and economic situation in America is going to make many young people extremely disappointed with how life works out. Research shows that young people significantly over estimate how much money they are going to make once they graduate college. For example, in 1999 teenagers thought they would earn around $75,000 by the time they were 30 years old. In reality, when those teens finally turned 30, most of them were only making $27,000 a year. This is less than half of what they thought they would make. As frustrating as it is to admit, many of today's young adults are going to turn 30 and still have no viable career, few tangible assets and very little stability in their lives. Dr. Twenge predicts that this is going to be very hard for the next generation because they "hold on to dreams more fiercely, and in a way that makes you wonder how they will react" when they don't achieve their lofty goals. She is not saying that young people should not dream big dreams, she is simply pointing out that "although some dreams can be beneficial, others are clearly thwarting more realistic goals."

My concern, as a pastor who loves young adults, is how can the church help? Obviously we can't change the economy, nor alter the cost of housing or health care. But what we can do is help young adults set goals and dream dreams that will have a spiritual element instead of just economic ones. I am reminded of James 4:13-15 which says "Come now, you who say, today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit. You don't even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are a bit of smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead we should say, if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." These verses help us remember that none us know what the future holds, but we do know WHO holds the future. Ultimately our lives are in God's hands and if we trust Him with our future, then whatever it may be, we can approach it with confident faith.

Not only must be learn to put our future in the Lord's hands, but we also must learn the value of contentment. Life is not just about making money, being famous or getting a fancy education. We must help young adults be able to agree with the Apostle Paul when he says in Philippians 4:11-13, "I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am in. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content, whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. Because I am able to do all things through Christ who strengthens me." These verses remind us that contentment is something that comes from our faith not from outward circumstances. When our faith is strong, we can be content, no matter what happens in life.

I do not want to discourage young adults in any way. I hope they will dream big and set high hopes for the future. But I also don't want them to be crushed when they do not get to see all their dreams come true. Instead I want to point them to a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ, who will help them persevere when tough times come. Such a faith will make them resilient. Such a faith will make the dreams that actually come true all the more special.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Next Generation: Self Focused and Rude

Last week I got a phone call from a parent who was concerned about how rude and self focused his teenager was. The parent wanted advice on how to deal with this behavior. This was not a case of a parent just being overly sensitive; there really is an epidemic of rudeness and self focus sweeping the next generation.

Dr. Jean Twenge holds a Ph.D. in personality psychology from the University of Michigan. She has done extensive research on Americans between the ages of 7 and 36. From that research she has written a scholarly book entitled, GENERATION ME: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Dr. Twenge, who is herself a young adult, is quite candid when describing her generation. When referring to the young adult population in America, she says that "this generation has never known a world that put duty before self." She goes on to conclude that "this is a generation unapologetically focused on the individual, a true Generation Me." She explains that young adults do not care what others think, which explains why they are often rude. She says "because we no longer believe that there is one right way of doing things, most of us were never taught the rules of etiquette."

As we seek to help the next generation deal with their rudeness and self focus, the first question we must ask ourselves is; who made our kids so rude and self focused? Regretfully, many of us need look no further than the mirror to find the answer! Dr. Twenge says that "parents apparently decided that children should always feel good about themselves." While feeling good about themselves is not a bad goal, somewhere along the way, we forgot to tell our kids that is was important to also help others feel good about themselves. The result is that our kids say and do whatever makes them feel good at the moment and do not care how it makes others around them feel.

Even parents who have tried to instill concern for others in their kids' lives have found it increasingly difficult. Dr. Twenge correctly observes that "magazines, television talk shows, and books all emphasize the importance of high self-esteem for children, usually promoting feelings that are actually a lot closer to narcissism." Narcissism is a negative personality trait that is observed in people who have an excessive view of their own importance. While feeling good about oneself is important, when it becomes excessive, it produces bad results. Few would argue that the next generation has turned feeling good about themselves into something that is having numerous unintended negative consequences.

Parents, teachers and faith based youth ministry directors must begin to help the next generation begin to think of others. Why is it so important to teach the next generation to think of others? From a secular perspective, Twenge makes the point that there is "a mountain of research shows that people who have good relationships with other people are happier and less depressed. We develop our sense of ourselves primarily from interacting with others." It is impossible to build healthy relationships when we are rude and only think of ourselves. Rudeness and self focus lead to a series of broken relationships and a lifetime of hurt. Many young adults complain that they do not have a good friend they can really trust. How can they have such a friend when they are always rude to those around them and hurt the people they consider their friends? If we want the next generation to have a happy life, we must help them learn to think of others so they can build meaningful relationships with others.

From the Christian perspective, we might consider Philippians 2:3-4, "Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others (HCSV)." Those of us who work with the next generation in a church context have a Biblical mandate to help those future leaders understand how important it is to care about others' feelings. The very nature of "church" is about caring for those around us and taking actions that make our world a better place. If we allow an entire generation to miss that important spiritual lesson, our world is going to become a very bad place in which to live. While we do not want to take aware a healthy sense of self, we also do not want to contribute to an already inflated view of self that has become negative. Teaching Christian concern for others to the next generation is one way to help that generation have a good sense of self as well as a healthy concern for others.

Obviously this is something we need to talk to the next generation about, but more important than talk, is action. We must model politeness and caring for others in our own lives. If we are rude, how can we expect our kids to be polite? If we are self focused, how can we expect our kids to care about others? We must model the behavior we want our children to follow. When our actions match our words, our kids will learn how to behave in ways that will help them build healthy relationships with others and have a happy productive life.

The next time that sharp remark makes its way to our lips, we might want to think before we speak and put our faith into practice as a way to set an example for the young people watching us. When we plan our personal schedules, set our family budgets and make all the normal daily decisions of life, we might want to consider how our actions affect those around us. As the next generation sees us modeling concern for others and politeness in our relationships, they will learn how to be healthier themselves.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Teaching Biblical Truth to Postmodern People

Those who regularly read by blog know that I often write about how individual Christians, and the churches they lead, can relate to postmodern teenagers and young adults. In numerous blogs I have expressed the importance of music in these efforts. I have also discussed a variety of ways to use technology. I have stressed the importance of using more of a "discussion" format than a "lecture" format. I have also stressed the need to be open about our own weaknesses and failures as they relate to our spiritual journey. But recently a friend asked me how I actually teach the Bible to postmodern people. He expressed appreciation for my emphasis on music, technology, discussion and authenticity, but he longed to know how to open up the Bible and share its powerful truth with postmodern people who view that Book so differently than evangelical Christians. He addressed his question to me because I regularly speak to large groups of unchurched teenagers and young adults, and many of them are turning to faith in Christ. In his mind, I must be doing something right and he wanted to know what it was. What I share below is what I have learned from my own experience, it may not work for everyone, but it does work well for me.

When we prepare to teach or preach the Bible to teenagers or young adults, we need to remember that we live in a culture that is biblically illiterate. Most young adults do not know the stories in the Bible. Therefore, if we refer to biblical stories as illustrations, our young adult audience may not follow our flow of thought very well. This is not because they are stupid or uninterested. It is simply because they do not know the stories we are referring to so casually. If we want to use a biblical story as an illustration for some point we are making, we are going to have to take the time to tell that story to the audience. We simply cannot assume they already know it. The same would be true about using various words that may convey significant meaning to a churched audience, but have no meaning whatsoever to a non-churched listener.

In my personal experience, I have found it very helpful to pick a book of the Bible and teach through the entire book over a period of time. I pretty much teach through the book paragraph by paragraph. That helps the hearers build a base of understanding for that particular book. Then, when I refer back to a story from that same book, which was covered in a previous lesson, they tend to follow it better.

In addition to not having a general knowledge of the Bible, young adults do not automatically accept what they do know about the Bible as true. Even if we tell a biblical story that illustrates a point, or quote multiple verses that we think "proves" the truth we are teaching, we may not be convincing the listeners because young adults tend to be skeptical of absolute truth. Using a large number of verses from various parts of the Bible can actually be counter-productive. Part of this is due to them not knowing enough about the various parts of the Bible to be able to follow along, and part of this is due to a tendency for pastors and teachers to take one verse out of context when needing to "pump up" a weak exegesis of another verse. Young adults may not know much about the Bible, but they are not fooled by weak explanations or poor contextual analysis. Since jumping around from passage to passage is very confusing to them, giving them additional verses actually does not convince them any more than just giving them solid teaching on a subject from one good passage of scripture.

Personally, I have found that if I wrap the entire lesson around a single scripture passage and spend time explaining that passage well, young adults tend to be able to focus better on the truth that I am trying to convey. This is different than when I first started in ministry and "topical" studies were more in vogue. Topical studies are more helpful if the hearers have a general understanding of the Bible. Topical studies are less helpful if the hearers have little or no general understanding of Biblical teaching or theology.

Because teenagers and young adults are not sure the Bible is absolute truth, it makes little sense to ask them to make a spiritual commitment on the spot. This does not mean that we should not move them toward making deeply personal spiritual commitments; it simply means that they are unlikely to make such commitments instantly. Instead, preachers and teachers should consider challenging young adults to think deeply about the truth that has just been conveyed. Young adults should be challenged to reflectively contemplate biblical truth and only asked to make a commitment to that truth once they have come to a reflective conclusion. In my own ministry, I often tell the students in advance of certain dates in which we will be having a baptism, or some other spiritual milestone, and ask them to come see me before that date if they are ready to make some type of spiritual commitment. That allows them time to consider making a spiritual decision, but does not force them to decide without having thought it through completely.

Will teaching through the Bible a paragraph at a time with each lesson focused on that specific passage and then asking young adults to think about it on their own at a later date actually work? It sure works in our ministry in Vermont! Vermont is extremely postmodern. Vermont is the least religious state in America. Very few young adults in Vermont have a connection to a church of any kind, and even fewer have a connection to an evangelical church. Yet, the church that I help lead has over 180 teenagers enrolled in our youth ministry, with a weekly attendance at our primary youth gathering of 50-75 teens. We do not employ a paid youth worker, but have a team of adult volunteers who work together to lead the ministry. Most of the young adults we reach come without their parents.

It has been our experience that postmodern teenagers and young adults are curious about spiritual things and they do want to know that the Bible says about various issues they are facing in their lives. It may just take awhile before they accept biblical concepts as truth. When we get frustrated with how long it takes for them to come around, we remind ourselves of that wonderful Biblical truth that says no one comes to the Father unless the Spirit draws them. Let us teach and preach the Word, filled with His Spirit, and patiently await the Father to draw the next generation to Himself.