Thinking Out Loud

June 17, 2019

I Love Analogies, But…

I am a great believer in the power of analogy. Jesus did this in his ministry. However, I’m not so sure that this one works. The kids in the post in which this appeared on social media were quite young. In other words, impressionable. But fortunately, also prone to forgetting this over the years.

In the larger scheme of things, “Father, Son, Spirit” is itself an analogy to the point that it is God trying to describe the community of God — or Godhead, a word I’m not fond of — in a way that we might understand. But of course we’re forced to create other analogies (ice/water/steam, length/height/depth, eggs, shamrocks, etc.; each of which has its own liabilities) to try to make this more understandable.

I guess my objection here is that on any level, even allowing for liabilities, this one just doesn’t work.


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December 1, 2018

Both Disgraced and Silenced

This morning I noticed in one of my “to-be-read-or-watched” piles a curriculum DVD by a pastor whose career was caught up among the #MeToo cases of the past two years.

The thing that struck me was that I had no desire to watch it now. I’m sure the teaching it contains is every bit as valid as the day it was recorded. It was vetted at the time by one of the top Christian publishing houses. No one has ever suggested he taught anything heretical.

However, I couldn’t help but think how in addition to the disgrace he suffered — and no doubt continues to suffer this very day — he has lost his voice; he has effectively been marginalized. Among the many voices competing for your attention his has become far less impactful; far less consequential. Though citations of his methodology and quotations of his messages might approach the one million mark online, for me to quote him now in an essay or blog article would simply lead readers to wonder, ‘Perhaps he hasn’t heard what happened.’…

…The whole #MeToo thing is a valid opportunity to examine your own life. In my 20s, I was known for an itinerant youth ministry that connected me to dozens of churches, a handful of missions, and a couple of camps. I found myself replaying events and scenarios in order to remind myself that fortunately, lines were never crossed. Blurred? The opportunities and motivation didn’t really present themselves. I can think of a couple of situations where a person could, if they so desired, misconstrue a couple of situations, but then that is true for all of us because anyone can pretty much make up anything.

Everyone reading this knows what follows (I hope) but here are some principles for anyone new to the game:

  1. Stay accountable. This was hard in itinerant ministry and without a board, but fortunately I had some people I could defer to for direction.
  2. Avoid being alone 1:1 with the people you’re serving. Always leave the door open to the office, or, as I did once, if you’re meeting in your car, park it right at the front entrance to the building.
  3. Avoid anything which could even contain the hint of something scandalous. This includes things done seemingly in jest.
  4. When working with youth, remember that a leadership role can be inferred (by the child/teen) even if it is not official. The same responsibilities rest with casual volunteers as rest with paid staff.
  5. Be ever conscious of your personal vulnerabilities to temptation. If you’re even thinking the thought, you’ve already started down a dangerous path.

 

January 15, 2018

Another Reason the Kids Aren’t at Church

Looks like nearly half of the 15 kids in this class are on their way to a ‘perfect attendance’ award; leading some Children’s Ministry directors to suspect this image is more fantasy than reality in many of our churches.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Sunday School classrooms were adorned with attendance charts with stickers applied for each Sunday kids were present. Today, those charts would be rather spotty as church attendance has suffered greatly over the past 20 years.

Back then we also were graded on a weekly point system with points applied for:

  • being present
  • being on time
  • bringing your Bible
  • bringing some money for offering
  • knowing the memory verse
  • completing the lesson in the “quarterly” (often done in the car en route to church)1
  • staying for “big church” afterwards

The Christian Education (CE) curricula of those days weren’t perfect, perhaps; but over a 3-4 year cycle we were exposed to the major body of Christian literature. Today I’m grateful to be Biblically literate2 and especially for the verses committed to memory, something harder to accomplish as you get older.

So why aren’t the kids showing up more consistently these days? In past writing and discussion I’ve always isolated two reasons:

  • Sports: Sunday morning and midweek programs for kids and teens is taking a major hit because of scheduling of competitions and practices involving soccer, baseball, swimming, gymnastics and for those of us in Canada, hockey.
  • Shift Work: Families with a single vehicle find it impossible3 to get to church if someone has to work a Sunday morning shift (or is coming off a midnight shift).

However, in a discussion last week with a CE specialist — today sometimes referred to as a KidMin specialist — I realized I was completely overlooking a significant factor.

  • Custody Arrangements: When spending the weekend with one parent, church is part of the package, but the other parent doesn’t attend, so on those weeks the kids don’t get to connect.

I asked this person how many children in her program would be affected by this, and she said, “20 percent; adding, “I have kids for whom I’ll put some extra weeks of material together for them to take home, knowing I may not see them for a few weeks.”

(Related: If you missed our 3-part series on divorce, guest-written by a youth ministry specialist, click this link.)

We don’t have room to get into this here, but statistically, if the male parent takes the kids, there is greater likelihood of the children continuing to attend church as adults.4

Either way, not only do the kids miss the benefits of the lessons presented, but they also miss the more consistent contact with their church friends, often the only Christian friends they have. By the end of my junior year in high school (Grade 11 for my Canadian readers5) my friends were largely church friends, not school or part-time-job friends. If weekend services are missed, but they get to a solid midweek program at the church, much is redeemed, but the same factors (shift work, custody, and especially, sports) play havoc with those as well.

Then there is the issue of blended families. One parent may wish to take his children or her kids to church on Sunday morning, but the other kids weren’t raised with it. Just as water seeks its lowest level, I think you know that this might easily end up with the church-raised kids wanting to opt out for whatever reason.6

With the divorce rate showing no sign of changing, this is going to continue to be a challenge facing the church at large.7 You can’t have teens leaving church who were rarely there to begin with. 

If yours is a traditional family, encourage your kids to build friendships with those whose attendance is sporadic because of any of the three issues mentioned at the top of the article and then offer to pick up these kids and drive them to church yourselves.

 


1 If the church could afford the lesson books for each kid. Our church did for awhile, but we used a 6-point evaluation system, and I’m not sure which one in the list wasn’t included. Today, the cash cow for curriculum developers is VBS, and I suspect that many churches pour a lot of their CE budget there, instead of on weekly lesson workbooks.

2 Somewhat Biblically literate, that is; please don’t challenge me to a Bible trivia contest. For some reason I do not fare well at those.

3 Even if the parents weren’t attending, getting the kids to Sunday School was easier when there was a church bus available. Today, the phrase ‘church bus’ is a bit of an anachronism.

4 Focus on the Family did this research in the 1990s, I think. Extrapoloating from this, I’ve developed a theory that it’s equally important for kids to have memories of the male parent reading. (Related, see this item re. Bill Hybels’ ‘Chair Time’ concept.)

5 The American system of ‘freshman, sophomore, junior, senior’ is now under attack because of the men in freshman. To non-Americans, junior would tend to imply the first year of high school or college.

6 In some middle school and high school communities, it isn’t cool to go to church. But churches such as North Point have created curricula that the kids and teens find to be the highlight of their week. They can’t wait to get there each weekend.

7 For more about the impact of kids being shuttled back and forth between custodial parents, check out the 2008 Abingdon title, The Switching Hour.

 

October 6, 2017

Teenage Rebellion is not Mandatory

It didn’t happen to our kids — now 23 and 26 — and it need not happen to yours, but many parents take the perspective that teen rebellion is simply to be expected. It also didn’t happen to Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, author of the book Why I Dind’t Rebel: A Twenty-Two-Year-Old Explains Why She Stayed on the Straight and Narrow and How Your Kids Can Too (Nelson Books) which released in paperback just a few days ago.

First, the story of how the book came to be. You need to know that Rebecca is the daughter of Sheila Wray Gregoire, a Canadian author whose work includes 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and To Love Honor and Vacuum; the last title also being the name of her popular blog.

In the winter of 2014, Sheila asked daughter Rebecca to write a blog post for her on why she didn’t rebel. At first Rebecca said no — yes, I supppose you could call that small scale rebellion — but later changed her mind. Rebecca dashed it off in 20 minutes, and within the week it had been seen a quarter of a million times on the blog and over a million times on Facebook. You can read that article at this link.  Her mom then suggested she turn it into a book proposal.

Next, I need to explain why I wanted to read this book. Although we’ve never met, Sheila is a neighbor, inasmuch as last time I checked, we live in the same part of South Central Ontario. Or maybe we’re Eastern Ontario. It’s a big place and I’m never sure. I haven’t heard her speak but I’ve been aware of her traveling with Girls Night Out, a relief-and-development awareness program for women which tours Canadian cities. So there was a local-interest factor here, but honestly, I figured I’d read a chapter or two and then leave it there. As often happens, I ended up reading the entire book.

Like your first year Psychology textbook, this book relies highly on anecdotes from two dozen Millennials reflecting on their childhood years, with a very generous helping of Rebecca’s own family memories. Today she’s married and is considered a “self help blogger” at her website, LifeAsADare.com. So while everyone contributing to the book has the perspective of a few year’s distance from adolescent events, the voices in the book are all young.

This brings me to where I’ll probably depart from other reviews and publisher marketing on this title. For example this one: “Why I Didn’t Rebel provides an eye-opening way of raising kids who follow God rather than the world.  It should not be expected that teens are going to rebel, especially if you start to teach them the right way young.  The big key is to teach them right from wrong and consequences from a young age.”

I agree wholeheartedly, but I think there’s more potential here. I think that other Millennials might want to read this, and dare I say it, I think some teens could benefit from this; especially those whose home situation is not exactly perfect. I believe some — not all — adolescents might benefit from seeing some ideal family dynamics, and might also identify with the stories of those who persevered and survived amid family chaos.

Was Rebecca’s home situation the exception to the rule? She’s quick to point out that it wasn’t perfect, but it obviously provided her the security or stability which ruled out going through teen rebellion. In ten chapters she deals with the contributing factors and because of her age provides a refreshing perspective against a backdrop of more mature ‘experts’ writing parenting books.

I’m glad I chose to read all the way through; it’s a book I would recommend.


Read a sample chapter at proud Mom Sheila’s blog.

 

September 16, 2017

Reaching Outside Your Megachurch’s Bubble

So let’s pretend that you go to a megachurch in a large urban area. Oh wait, that’s not a ‘pretend’ for many of you. Now let’s pretend that your church is one of the really “hot” churches in town; you’ve got a great children’s, youth and college and career program; the type of church where nobody would consider missing a single weekend service if at all possible.

But let’s pretend — and it’s not a stretch at all — that if you were to take a drive and head about an hour out of town, you would find people in a small town or village who simply didn’t have the same exposure to an urban church like yours. And let’s pretend that you took some other people with you, and also took some of the passion and excitement you have about your faith.

Maybe your end product would look different than the kind of “road show” that the man pictured at right was part of. Russell Wilkinson lived in a different era to be sure, but his weekly trips to the little town of Mount Albert were no small adventure. It was a long, long drive northeast from the city of Toronto; especially on the rare occasions where they picked up children and teens there, drove them to a special service in Toronto, drove them home to Mount Albert and then drove back again. In a post-war time before freeways or even good roads.

I like that they (a) identified a group of people who were unable to connect with the church ministry programs going on in the city, and (b) did something about it. The term “missional” may not have existed back then, but this was textbook “missional” thinking. I am sure that their willingness to do this also had some measurable impact on the parents of the youth they got to know.

They didn’t just absorb all the great music and teaching that went on at their big-city church, but they shared the gospel of Jesus Christ out of the overflow of all they had received.

And here’s a big component of this: Churches of all size would do this. They would send teams out to bless both rural and inner-city small(er) churches. Or even unaffiliated people — in this case youth — in small(er) communities. Instead of being focused inward, part of their church culture involved being focused outward. Not in a one-week mission trip to an exotic destination sense (which requires extensive fundraising) but in an ongoing, low-key manner.

I still have the trumpet in the picture. Until today, I’ve always thought of it as a musical instrument, but it was an instrument of ministry, too.

What are you doing this Fall to connect people with Jesus?

July 11, 2017

Post-Camp, Post-Festival Spiritual Highs: When they Crash

From the moment she got in the car for the one hour drive home, she didn’t stop talking. It had been an awesome two weeks. God was doing incredible things. She started talking about the people she wanted to take from her home church the following year. She described the insights the weekly speaker had shared on one particular Bible passage. When she got home she went into her room and for another hour worked out the chords for various worship songs she’d learned that week. 

So what happened? Over several days she got very sullen. On Sunday she seemed a little unsure if she even wanted to go to church. “Don’t you want to tell your friends about your great week?” you asked her. She had come down off the spiritual high and simply crashed

image 073115…Over the next few weeks, teens in your church will return having spent some time this summer

  • going to a Christian music festival
  • attending a Christian camp
  • working at a Christian camp
  • serving on a missions trip.

They return spiritually energized only to discover that their church experience now seems rather flat by comparison. Suddenly, business-as-usual or status-quo church holds no interest. I say that from personal experience. One summer, after the spiritual high of 13 weeks on staff at large Christian resort, by whatever logic it seemed to make sense, I simply dropped out of weekend services for an entire month, until a friend said something that gently nudged me back.

On the other hand, there are other teens in your church whose summer experience has not been so positive. They’ve been negatively influenced through contact with people

  • hanging out at home
  • vacationing at the campground, cabin or RV park
  • met on a road trip
  • interacting in the virtual world online

For them, returning to church has lost its appeal because they’ve either backslidden a little, or taken a nose dive into the deep waters of sin. Perhaps they’ve made new friends outside their Sunday or youth group circle.

Either way, summer is always a transitional time for preteens and adolescents, and while that’s true of mental, physical, emotional and social development, it’s also true in terms of spiritual development; and while some have soared spiritually, others have taken one step forward and ten steps backward.

The first challenge is knowing the difference between the two types of summer experiences. Identifying the source of the first type of disillusionment is easy because you probably already know the youth went to camp, the music festival or the mission field. It’s then a simple matter of probing what is they are now feeling after having had such an inspiring and uplifting summer experience. That might consist of finding ways to get them soaring again, although here one is tempted to caution against having teens live a manic life of going from spiritual high to spiritual high.

The group in the other category might not be so willing to open up. There may have been factors that drove them away from the centeredness of their past spiritual life. Perhaps their summer has been characterized by

  • a divorce in the family
  • an experiment with drugs or alcohol
  • delving into alternative spiritualities and faith systems
  • a loss of someone they loved or a pet
  • depression following a regretful first sexual experience.

They are dealing with pain, or doubt, or guilt, or uncertainty. Restoring them gently, as taught in Galatians 6:1, is likely your strategy at this point.

The second challenge is that many of these youth were, just a few weeks ago, on a parallel spiritual track. In post summer ministry, you’re reaching out to two very different types of kids: Those who prospered in their faith and those who faltered. Either way, they now find themselves back into the fall routine and the spiritual spark is gone.

A temptation here might be to let the first group help and nurture the second, but I would caution against that. The first group needs to sort out their own spiritual status first. They need to process how to return from what they did and saw and felt and learned and apply it to life in the real world. (One only goes on a retreat if one expects to go back to the battle and advance.) They shouldn’t live off the experience, but rather try to keep the closeness they felt to Christ during their time away.

The group which experienced everything from a lessening of their faith to a spiritual train wreck need a lot of love. They need to be reminded that their church or youth group is a spiritual home to which they can return, no matter how they feel, what they’ve done, or where their summer experience has left them.

Youth ministry is not easy. I only worked in it as an itinerant presenter, not as someone facing the same group of kids over a period of several years. If you were to graph their spiritual life, some would present an even line rising to the right, while others would show erratic ups and downs.

Either way, I think the greatest challenge would be those critical roundup weeks in the early fall when you’re trying to assess where everyone is at, and then try to collectively move on. For teens, and for all of us, the spiritual landscape is always changing.

March 11, 2017

New Zondervan Childrens’ Bible May Undermine Faith

If I could spend five minutes in the board rooms of some of the publishers in the Christian book industry, my message would be, “Anticipate your critics.” Why release products that simply feed those who think their agenda is to actually undermine the Christian faith?

A few months ago I had a visit from someone far more trained in apologetics than I. We got talking about the various things published about Noah’s Ark and how few of them would be considered theologically accurate, either in terms of the text or the illustrations. 

He also said that we have to really avoid the temptation to talk about Bible stories. In a child’s mind, a story may or may not be real. Ditto the word tale. While it’s a bit above some kids’ pay grade, the term he liked is narrative. In other words, ‘Here’s how it happened…’

Any English speaker knows that “Once Upon a Time…” is simply code for “It didn’t really happen; but let’s pretend.” If you’re talking about the parables, then by all means. Jesus begins his parables with “A certain man…” which amounts to the same thing. But the parables are only a small percentage of the whole of scripture. “Once upon a time…” consigns the whole Bible to realm of fiction. It puts it on a par with fairy tales.

So that’s why this particular NIrV Bible, releasing this month from Zonderkidz, has me very, very concerned. Did they anticipate their critics? I don’t think so.

October 14, 2016

Today, Lawyers Would Nix This Book

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:24 am

I really don’t know how this book came into our home. I was looking for something else and suddenly there it was, published by Zondervan in the year MCMXLVI.*

chemical-illustrations-by-basil-miller

The book is part of Christian Education resource genre referred to as “Object Lessons,” and these may have been more prevalent in early days than they are presently. The book naturally fell open to the following page:

chemical-illustration

Reaching the list of necessary chemicals at the bottom I realized that this book would never be published today.

First of all, your church’s insurance policy would probably be all over quashing the idea of someone showing up for church with turpentine, ammonia and kerosene. I know that when I show up for church with those things, the greeter at the door always takes me aside.

Second, Zondervan’s lawyers would have the same concerns and not want to be in a position of liability encouraging people to do this little trick. A page later, we’re warned, “Care should be taken not to spill any of the ingredients or the completed solution.” I guess so. I would be uncomfortable with the idea of doing this with adults, let alone teens or children. Things are simply too litigious these days than to risk presenting this in a church basement.

zondervan-classic-logo


*70 years ago in 1946

August 18, 2016

One Day at the Christian Bookstore (Sort of)

From the archives at Christian Book Shop Talk, this never appeared here until now.


The exchange below didn’t actually follow the exact script shown, but when it comes to Sunday School teachers and Christian Education directors purchasing novelty items it’s a scene I’d like to see repeated…

Customer: I’m looking for something to give my Sunday School class on the first week; maybe some pencils or something…

Clerk: You know, kids are pretty high-tech these days, they’re not really impressed with pencils anymore and we’ve kinda stopped ordering them.

smileCustomer: Well, what does that leave? How about some rubber stamp things, or stickers; or one time I got bookmarks with smiley faces…

Clerk: You know, forgive me for saying this, since I don’t know you well, but maybe you should just give them you.

Customer: I’m sorry. What was that?

Clerk: Maybe you should just give them yourself. Pour your life into them. Spend time listening to their stories. Invite them over to your house a few times.

Customer: Okay. I get that. But I really felt I was meant to come in and buy something here today.

Clerk: And so you should. Invest in your own spiritual development. Build yourself up in God’s Word, and then, out of the overflow, you’ll have so much more to give your Sunday School students.

Customer: Like what?

Clerk: I don’t know. It will be different for each person. But something that challenges you to get deeper into Bible study, deeper into prayer, deeper into global missions, deeper into witness… deeper into Jesus.

Customer: But that doesn’t directly benefit my Sunday School class.

Clerk: Actually it does directly. As you are being moved deeper into grace and deeper into knowledge; as you are being moved toward the cross; your kids will pick up on that spiritual momentum. It’s truly the best gift you can give them.

June 7, 2016

Rewind: Visiting Past Themes

We don’t…

Not AllowedAs someone who has spent a lifetime in and around Christian music, whenever I visit a church I often make my way to the front after the service and converse with the worship team, especially when I know one or two of the musicians.

A few weeks ago I did just that, and we started talking about songs that have the possibility of two parts being sung at the same time. Then we talked about ‘call and response’ songs where the worship leader sings a line and then the congregation repeats it. Then we talked about songs that parts for men and women.

At that point someone on the team said, “We don’t do men’s and women’s parts here.”

Days later, I was sharing this story with someone who knew exactly where I had been and they made an interesting comment, “I wonder how many times in the course of a week someone at that church begins a sentence with ‘We don’t?’

So true. So sad. Some Christian institutions have policy after policy; operating guidelines carved in stone for no particular reason. My feeling is, if you don’t have worship songs that offer something where women’s voices and men’s voices can highlight their unique giftedness, then next week would be a good week to start.

I hope the place where you worship isn’t characterized by a spirit of ‘We don’t…’


Children at Church: The Place for Inter-Generational Worship

At your church are the kids off in another part of the building throughout the service, or are they dismissed to the basement part way through? Perhaps another world is possible.

The YouTube channel that I oversee is named after our retail covering, Searchlight Books, but consists almost entirely of classic Christian music songs that you can’t buy at Searchlight or anywhere else. More recently however, we’ve been including some sermon excerpts and this weekend we posted an eleven-minute segment from the Phil Vischer podcast where Wheaton College Associate Professor of Christian Formation Scottie May spoke about visiting inter-generational churches during her sabbatical. The full podcast runs about 45 minutes, and I knew no matter much I mentioned enjoying these each week, the click-through ratio would be fairly low, so we created this highlight.

This is a must listen-to segment for anyone who cares about church and especially for people in children’s ministry or youth ministry.

This is an audio-only clip with no moving images, so even if you are not on a high-speed connection and don’t normally click on video links, you should be find with this one.


Paul Vaughan on 90% of the Work is Done by 10% of the People

Paul was a Canadian pastor who, after a successful insurance career, served as a missionary in Kenya; a place so arid that converts were baptized in sand. Returning to North America, he dedicated his time to the type of causes that nobody else wanted to embrace. He was a big influence on me…

It’s probably accurate that 90% of the work of the church is done by 10% of the people. The problem is that those who do the work, if they do it anonymously, receive all the glory. If they do it publicly, they ruffle feathers. Those who take the lion’s share of the life of the church are denying the body of the church the blessing and the opportunity. Probably the most blatant thing is that if a few are doing the work of many, then why would the Lord surround himself with a number of people with which to share the ministry? Why would he commission and ordain and send them two by two. Let’s ask ourselves the basic question, why isn’t all ministry, preaching, teaching and healing done by legions of angels? Why does God choose the fallible, unreliable, flesh-covered method that he did?

He chose us knowing that, through the Holy Spirit, we are capable of fulfilling the task given to us. But in addition, his constant emphasis of community of family — in the Hebrew, hebron; in the Greek, koinonia; in English, fellowship — is critical in church life. If it’s going to be a one man band then we will certainly stir a lot of people, but I wonder if we’re praising the Lord, serving the Lord, healing the hurts, and reaching the untouched.

One of the reasons that the modern day cults are successful is that they have clearly grabbed the demonstration given in scripture about assignment of tasks. If you become a Mormon, you owe their church two years missionary service. So if an apostate church demands that, why are we humming and hawing and hoping that if someone accepts the Lord, they might ask for offering envelopes and maybe they’ll join a small group and wouldn’t it be wonderful if they offered a musical gift, or taught children, or could sweep the floor. Why are we not a little more bold in demonstrating that millions haven’t heard and there’s work to be done?…


Paul Vaughan on Over-Commitment

There is a natural fear within a man that he is either going to overextend himself — because he knows the effect of a shotgun scattering small pellets is not as effective as one shell under high velocity compressed into a small area — and some people are able to so spread themselves that they are ineffective in any one area. But I believe that God who has given us mercy, grace and wisdom and peace also gives us the opportunity to exercise prudence and in doing so we are led to resign from one particular organization — graciously — in order to amplify and reapply ourselves with greater intensity in another area.

One of the measuring sticks of that might be that you decide which talent you have is least likely to be accepted by the mainstream of Christianity. And that’s where God really wants you. …He does release power, long-suffering, endurance and incredible energy to apply ourselves in the hard places of the world.

…I suggest to everyone who is seriously to apply themselves before the Lord to ask God, who is the creator of time; and God, who will cause time to stand still; to direct them toward a specific plan and program of action, suited to their lifestyle under the Lord and suited to the gifts and talents that God has given them.

 

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