Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Abandoning of Youth/Children in Ministry

I recently read an article about the changing viewpoints of young Christians in America, and the effect that it is beginning to have on churches across the country.  It is one of the best written, and insightful articles on the current state of young adults in the American church.  Here is a link to that article:

The problems that we are facing as church leaders are many, but I believe that there is one key issue here that is at the heart of it all.  That is the Abandoning of Youth and Children in ministry.

Now, some of you may be scratching your heads thinking, "We invest a ton of money in our youth/kids programs, and have large facilities and staff dedicated to running it all...  I guess we can be exempted from this discussion?"  Absolutely not...  And I might add that this could be the very heart of the problem.

Churches in America, especially churches in the southern part of the United States, have fallen into the "If you build it, they will come" trap.  Don't believe me?  Drive around and look at the churches near you.  Multi-million dollar facilities that could easily double as a university theater department, mega-complexes with gyms, workout facilities, ball fields, laser and LED light shows, smoke machines, and the list goes on.  We employ (meaning pay) people to play instruments, run lighting/sound, and set up the vast technical a/v show that has become our weekly worship service.  We run sports leagues in our churches, even schools and daycare centers.  We do all of this under the banner of what we call "Ministry" and then sit back and wonder why things are as they are described in the above mentioned article.

You see, the problem is not simply doing all of the things I just mentioned.  There is nothing wrong with having a nice building, running programs, or even having a nice A/V presentation.  To really see the issues here, you have to look a bit deeper.

The problem is that we as churches have been working so hard to become all things to all people that we have let the church become a product.  We advertise it, tweak it, and try to sell it in the same way that advertising agencies and soap companies try to sell us shampoo.  Nearly every time I purchase a bottle of shampoo, the label has been changed, and the term "New Look" is printed on a banner at the top.  Why is that?  It is because marketing gurus have decided that we humans are too dumb to realize that we like a product for what it is, and that our buying decisions are solely dependent on what we see at the moment of purchase.  Sadly, we in church leadership have taken the same approach to how we lead churches.  Constant updating of websites to be more current, constant changes in programming and even in the worship service each week.  Spending the vast majority of the man-hours of church employees to produce a 1 or 2 hour production each week that we title a "Worship Service."  Friends, this is simply NOT working.

In our quest to be the next Willow Creek, Saddleback, or North Point, it is entirely possible that we have put the methods before the ministry.  Don't believe me?  Sit down with a group of teenagers or children and begin to ask them basic questions about doctrine, theology, or the Bible.  You will be surprised by the answers that you get.  Our children have grown up without something that many of us Gen-Xers did not...  a solid Biblical foundation.

THIS is where the abandoning of Youth/Children's Ministry has occurred.  We may have large numbers in the seats, enrolled in programs, and wearing our t-shirts, but we have failed at the very thing that Jesus tasked us with in Matthew 28:19-20

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to open everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

We have become so focused on the "how," that we have forgotten the "why" in ministry.  We are supposed to be forming disciples (or followers) of Jesus, which should be vastly more important than acquiring followers on social media.

Fellow pastors and lay-leaders, we need to take a hard look at the way we do ministry.  Are we investing in the lives of of young people in order to help them become grounded in the Christian faith, or are we just wanting to be the largest group in town?  Are the people in our churches growing deep in their relationship with the Lord, or just checking off the church box each week?  Changes probably need to be made in how we all do ministry.

We can no longer afford to be castle builders...  We need to be Kingdom builders.  It is time to get back to teaching our children and youth the Bible, and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  We then need to teach them how to help others grow in their faith.  Paul talks about this in 2 Timothy 2:2,

 "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others."

Studies have shown that most people that choose to follow Christ do so before they turn 18.  Instead of throwing money and activities at our young people, we need to invest in quality leaders that will guide them into mature faith and knowledge of the Scripture.  Programs are fine, facilities are fine, but if we do not show them how to keep "The Main Thing... The Main Thing," then we are abandoning our responsibility to our younger generations.  May God make a change in us all!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Great Unknown

Recently, we were with our youth ministry at youth camp out in east Texas.  On a couple of nights, the worship band played a song that I hear a lot... In fact, to say that the song "Oceans (Where My Feet May Fall)" is well known would be an understatement.  Beautiful melodies, soaring vocals and powerful music make this song easy to sing, and easy to get swept up in.  However, I believe it is the lyrics of "Oceans" that strike a chord with so many.  Here's the first two verses:

Verse 1
     You call me out upon the waters
     The great unknown where feet may fail
     And there I find You in the mystery
     In oceans deep
     My faith will stand

     Verse 2:

     Your grace abounds in deepest waters
     Your sovereign hand
     Will be my guide
     Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
     You've never failed and You won't start now

The imagery of this song is very strong.  Even if you have not personally experienced the power and size of an ocean, pictures like the one above bring life to these words.  When we embark on this life journey of following Jesus, we find that God has indeed called each of us to a task that can seem as vast and daunting as an ocean.  Still don't get the picture?  Watch a couple episodes of "Deadliest Catch" and you'll understand just how unrelenting and dangerous the ocean can be.  

Life, particularly in vocational ministry, can feel like sailing on the open seas.  It can be thrilling, epically rewarding, and amazing.  However, this life also has more than it's fair share of storms to weather.  Like the picture above, the wave that is about to hit you is the one that holds your attention.  Sometimes the waves are small, but more often than not, you can find yourself being rocked, blasted, and tossed about.  Fear is an obvious companion of storms.  Fear of being left alone, fear of failure, fear of being overtaken by life that seems to be unrelenting.  Even if you know that storms always have an end, it is hard to remember that fact when you are in a fight for your life... trying to desperately keep your head above water.  The chorus of "Oceans" is such a good reminder of where my thoughts really need to be:

    So I will call upon Your name
     And keep my eyes above the waves

     When oceans rise
     My soul will rest in Your embrace
     For I am Yours and You are mine

I have been in ministry long enough to encounter many storms.  I am currently in a storm right now that feels like it has more power than I could ever hope to overcome.  The oceans rise, the world reels back and forth, and the very ground under my feet feels unstable.  However, I have to remember to keep my eyes focused on the One that has the power over even the waves of the actual ocean.  This story in Matthew is exactly what I'm talking about:

"Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.  The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”  He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.  The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”" -- Matthew 8:24-27

As followers of Jesus, we have to look towards where He is leading us, not just where we are at this present moment.  We must remember that Jesus is not surprised when we are thrust into an emergency, health crisis, impossibly hard church situation, time of depression, loss of friends, etc.  He is right there with us in the midst of it all, whispering to us in the chaos, and shouting to us in the silence... "I've got you...  I'll never leave or forsake you..."  We must call upon His name, we must rest in His presence...  And we must stay at the wheel of our ship, even when we feel like we are out of control, or entering treacherous and uncharted waters.  We are reminded of this in Hebrews 12:1b-2:

"Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne." 

"Oceans" adds these words towards the end of the song:
   Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
     Let me walk upon the waters
     Wherever You would call me
     Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
     And my faith will be made stronger
     In the presence of my Savior
     Oh, Jesus, you're my God!
I know many of you are in the midst of storms right now.  Many of our ministry friends are in the fight of their lives right now.  I personally believe that Satan is in an all out war on churches right now, and is doing his best to destroy all that the Lord has planned for us.  I also know that this is not just a problem that ministers deal with.  Storms affect us all.  If you are in the midst of a storm, I pray that you will truly be able to pray for God to strengthen your faith, and take you to new heights in your relationship with Christ as you battle the storms.  May you find rest, comfort, and strength through Jesus.  Keep your feet about you... you are not alone.  May God lead us as we forge ahead into the great unknown!