Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Who Moved My BMF?

Blind Man's Fancy has fancied a move to bjmaxwell.wordpress.com. Our local Wal-Mart is undergoing its regular renovation to give customers a new look. If that strategy is good enough for Wal-Mart, it's good enough for the Blind Man.

Also, all posts from this site have been transferred to the new site. See you there, friends (and foes).

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Jane Austen on Youth Ministry

In the recent issue of Touchstone Magazine, Eleanor Donlon wrote an article entitled "No Plain Jane." In the article Donlon decries the Hollywood movie Becoming Jane. Becoming Jane is a biographical depiction of Jane Austen, author of the famous Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Rather than present the period piece according to period propriety ("Regency style" in Donlon's words), the director "sexed up" or "grunged up" Jane's life to appeal to a modern audience. The real Jane Austen would not workshop well among moderns.

Donlon provides a keen insight about how Jane Austen's culture gets lost in translation and which complements a previous post on youth ministry:
"[Jane's] life, letters, early writing, and general demeanor demonstrate a maturity and poise completely foreign to our expectation of a “teenager.” That’s the real problem. We have invented a false category of person—the “teenager”—who has the rights and “needs” of an adult but is not expected to behave as an adult, and who is expected to make all sorts of embarrassing and sometimes harmful mistakes."
Perhaps Jane Austen would've made a great youth minister.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why Arminian Foreknowledge Keeps God on the Hook

The doctrine of election is easier to understand than it is to stomach. God has chosen from eternity past those who will enter heaven (Acts 13.48; Eph 1.3-6). To state it negatively, no one will enter heaven who has not been chosen from eternity (Jn 10.26). These are simple enough statements, on which both Calvinists and Arminians agree, but are convictions hard to come by.

Arminians and Calvinists love Scripture and hope to embrace what Scripture teaches. Therefore, both agree that the "elect" (i.e. chosen, children of God, church, saints) are the only ones going to heaven (2 Tim 2.10). They must also agree that the basis on which God elects (or predestines, chooses, etc.) them is foreknowledge (Rom 8.29).

Examine Rom 8.29-30 in reverse order. Those glorifed are only those justified. Those justified are only those called (effectually to salvation). Those called are only those predestined (to salvation). Those predestined are only those foreknown to that end. In other words, those foreknown consists of the same number as those glorified. God glorifies in the end the same folks he foreknew in the beginning.

A critical hinge, therefore, is how we understand foreknowledge. Calvinsists define foreknowledge essentially as foreloving. Foreknowledge is not mere "prior knowledge" but prior affection. The common example is Gen 4.1, where Adam "knew" Eve. He didn't come into some facts about Eve, but engaged her intimately and affectionately.

Jesus will one day say to some who were confident in their self-righteousness, "I never knew you" (Mt 7.23). He didn't mean he didn't know the fact of their existence, but that he didn't have a familial, loving relationship with them. Therefore, Calvinists consider foreknowledge God's prior affection set on those he will then predestine, call, justify and glorify. His saving acts are based on no other reason other than God chose to love them before the foundation of the world. Hence, we derive the term "unconditional election."

Arminians object that this understanding of foreknowledge charges God with duplicity. How can God honestly demand everyone repent and believe when he's determined that some don't? He would be like Lucy who promises Charlie Brown she'll keep the football steady, but who always jerks it away at the last minute. For God to be truly and freely worshiped he must allow all men to truly and freely chose him before he acts savingly on them.

The foreknowledge, therefore, on which God's election is based (something Scripture clearly teaches and on which Calvinists and Arminians agree) cannot be foreloving, but foreseeing. In eternity past and according to his omniscience, God could see those who would freely choose him (i.e. exercise prevenient grace) in their lifetimes. And because they would choose him he then elected or predestined them to salvation, a gracious act God was not obliged to do. Hence, we derive the term "conditional election," with the condition being foreseen faith.

This definition begs as many questions as the Calvinist definition. For example, (1) Does it hold true in texts like Acts 2.23, Rom 11.2 or 1 Pt 1.20? This post is long enough without explaining that it doesn't. (2) If saving faith is God's gift (Eph 2.8-9), then isn't whatever faith God foresees merely what he must give those who believe? In essence, God foresess that he will grant saving faith to some and not others (and we're back to square 1!).

At any rate, this definition of foreknowledge apparently relieves God of any charge of unfairness, and encourages true and free (uncoerced) responses to the gospel. However, I submit that such a definition in no way leaves God off the hook, but still demands that God explain himself as it were. Let me offer a philosophical defense of this thesis.

For the sake of argument, I'll grant the Arminian definition of foreknowledge: God simply knew beforehand (by his omniscience) those who would respond savingly to the gospel and on that basis elected them to salvation. If God eternally knew who would believe, did God not also - by that same omniscience - know those would not respond savingly to the gospel? In other words, God must've known those who would not believe as surely as he knew those who would. And knowing that, God still chose to create those he knew would not believe.

The Arminian must still explain why God would create those he knew beforehand would go to hell. God is still on the hook and must explain himself because he hasn't been relieved of apparent "unfairness."

Some possible explanations are: (1) God's omniscience is not comprehensive or reliable. Some of those he foresaw as believers turn out not to be, or vice versa. What he thought to be true in eternity past turns out not be in time and history. In order to be "fair," God has to allow that some fall through the cracks or pleasantly surprise him. Simply stated, one must allow that God could be wrong about some of those he foresaw in either condition.

(2) God grants prevenient grace to all those he creates, even those he knows will not believe in hopes that they might. Then we're left in the same predicament as the Calvinists: God cannot genuinely demand repentance and faith from those he already knows will not do so. Unless, of course, God might be wrong about someone in the end and he's hedged his bets by granting prevenient grace. This doesn't seem consistent with Rom 9.17-18, 22-24.

(3) For God to be "fair," he must create only those he's reasonably hopeful will believe the gospel. Otherwise, if he creates someone he knows will not do so (based on his omniscient prior knowledge) he's not fair because that person doesn't have a real "shot" at salvation (unless (1) is true). But, in what sense can Judas then be called the "son of perdition" (Jn 17.12) or anyone a "vessel of wrath prepared for destruction" (Rom 9.22)?

Judas was such because he chose to be and God honored his choice. I can summarily agree with that. But the fact remains that God created Judas (fore)knowing he would not believe. In fact, he created Judas (a devil, Jn 6.70) to be the agent of Jesus' arrest and, with the rest, his executioners (Acts 2.22-23; 4.28). Otherwise, how could God guarantee that Jesus would even be killed? And if there was no guarantee that Jesus be killed then there has been no authoritative promise of salvation.

The Calvinist understanding of foreknowledge makes better sense of the biblical witness. Whatever God foresaw in me, it was not love for him (1 Jn 4.10, 19) but rebellion against him (Rom 5.8, 10). And although Arminians want to honestly relieve God of any guilty charges, they leave me with more questions about his omniscience and omnipotence. I'm thankful that God didn't foresee me, but foreloved me "to the praise of the glory of his grace" (Eph 1.6).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Shamu, Say It Ain't So!

My family and I traipsed through Sea World-San Antonio last week. Oh, to be a kid again! I found myself saying often, "So this is what my parents went through!"

Of course, Sea World is nothing without Shamu. We built him (or her?) up to our kids for weeks. We sat down in the "splash zone" eagerly waiting for the rain of terror. I remember the first time I met Shamu, The Killer Whale. Mesmerized. Terrified. I hated him. I loved him.

Imagine my surprise when the Shamu show opened with a schmutzy video about anything being possible if I just believe. What? I'm hear to see Shamu, The Killer Whale. Bring on the testosterone! Shamu and friends were then paraded around to Kenny G music like ballerinas. They'd castrat...I mean, tamed Shamu, The Killer Whale! (Please, no one tell me he has been a she all along). He's now nothing more than Flipper in an orca suit. Where's the fear and adrenaline that gripped me as a kid? Send Bud and Sandy for some real heroes or give me a refund!

Speaking of Sea World, Dale Ralph Davis has written some very helpful OT commentaries for Christian Focus Publications. Commenting on Joshua 10, Davis unleashed this insight I couldn't help but post:
"The popular image of Jesus is that he is not only kind and tender but also soft and prissy, as though Jesus comes to us reeking of hand cream. Such a Jesus can hardly steel the soul that is daily assaulted by the enemy. We need to learn the catechism of Psalm 24. Question: Who is the King of glory? Answer: Yahweh, strong and mighty! Yahweh - mighty in battle! (Ps 24:8). We must catch the vision of the Faithful and True sitting on the white horse, the One who 'judges and makes war' in righteousness (Rev 19:11-16). No mild God of soft Jesus can give his people hope. It is only as we know the warrior of Israel who fights for us (and sometimes without us) that we have hope of triumphing in the muck of life" (Davis, Joshua: No Falling Words, Focus on the Bible, p82).
"Reeking of hand cream". . . classic! Maybe that's why Shamu smelled so good.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Petrology 101

Rancor about energy has risen as quickly as its prices. Political rhetoric has grown nauseating. Entrepreneurs capitalize on fear and confusion. Environmentalist outcries near pathological proportions.

What are Christians to think or do about this supposed "global energy crisis"? I submit three broad responses. Perhaps we could assume that energy policies have nothing to do with faith in Christ. Therefore, I can worship God on Sunday but am free to curse the government or "Big Oil" or Saudi sheiks on Monday. God should stick to getting me into heaven, but I'll take care of concerns at the pump. If not careful and prayerful the Christian can get swept up into a this-worldly mentality of desperation. Worse yet, we could adopt a wholesale secular mindset that assumes my attitude at the pump has nothing to do with my attitude in Christ.

Secondly, we could buy into the notion that Christian faith is Christian environmentalism. We should reclaim our creation mandate to steward the earth's resources with doxological care. Therefore, we should create voting blocs and lobbies to baptize environmental concerns. How can the church claim to care for souls if she doesn't even care for creation, right? How can we look forward to a new earth when we've managed the old one so poorly? While I don't espouse abuse of creation, I don't suggest it needs "saving." It's groaning for its own resurrection (Rom 8.19f.) and we are free to enjoy it as far as it can be enjoyed.

Or thirdly, Christians should develop a "petrology" that guides our individual consciences and families in light of a robust biblical theology. We should maintain the primacy of our heavenly citizenship (Phil 3.20-21) as the "rule of law" that shapes our view of energy concerns. Rather than divorcing the city of God from the city of man or merging the two cities, Christians should interpret their earthly citizenship in light of their heavenly citizenship. Imagine two enjoining circles where in the shared area the Christian's heavenly citizenship is entwined with his earthly citizenship.

How should our heavenly citizenship inform our approach to any supposed energy crisis?

1. "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but the counsel of the LORD will stand" (Prov 19.21). We must refuse to assume our next President will cure the pain at the pump. Aside from the President's political limits (we have three branches for a reason!) his plans are derivative, not authoritative. God will have his way and do whatever he pleases (Ps 115.3). Our next President will do only what God intends he do, whether or not the President knows God controls him.

Christians need not wring their hands in desperation but rejoice that our God will do what is good for us. It may not look all that good to unbelieving onlookers, but we trust our God far more than our executives. And if God should allow gas prices to fall under a particular President's administration we must not be tempted to worship that President.

Whether gas is $1 or $10 per gallon, the Christian's worldview remains the same. We're citizens of heaven, sojourning for a time, seeking other weary travelers to join us, and waiting for the day when wine and milk are free (Is 55.1). High gas prices are no threat to our joy and are merely the costs of living in a fallen world.

2. "If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them" (Ps 62.10c). There is something that I've yet to hear from any talking head, pundit or preacher. Having gas and using oil are not rights that we have. They're privileges (much less low prices for the privilege). In other words, we act like driving SUVs, flying in planes, heating and cooling our homes are rights that government is bound to protect. We assume oil-rich nations and companies owe us lower prices.

We've set our heart upon riches and God said don't do that. Scripture is full of those who received riches as blessings from God, but soon assumed a spirit of entitlement toward them (Samson, Saul, Nebuchadnezzar, etc.). Blessings for which they should've been thankful became rights God owed them. And such is the heart's journey from humility to pride.

Take Hosea's Gomer (Israel), for example. Eighth-century Israel became so accustomed to free-flowing wine and bumper crops that they didn't care they'd "played the harlot" with foreign gods (Hos 2.5). It was Yahweh who gave them these gifts, but they used them in the service of Baal instead (Hos 2.8). They deserved their indulgences and cried "Foul!" to any prophet who suggested otherwise. They set their hearts on riches and God said don't do that.

Might we've adopted the same attitude towards oil? God created it; therefore, it's useful for our benefit and ultimately to serve God's glory. But have we used it to bolster our own indulgent lifestyles? Even worse, has it replaced God himself? In America, we assume we can't live without oil as though it sustains our life. We assume we have to live the way we do or else. In our "wisdom," We've exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for strategic oil reserves (Rom 1.21-23).

Suggest that someone get rid of their car and they'll say, "But, I have to drive to work!" Do you? Or does the lifestyle you want to lead demand that you do so? "But, I have to heat and cool my house!" Do you? Is central heat/air a right or a luxury God affords you because he's a kind, compassionate God?

I hate paying $4/gallon as much as the next guy. In fact, I recently sold my beloved F-150 and bought a Maxima in light of it. But no one forces me to live as I do. I'm not sure what my life would look like on minimal oil and its products (I'm not very crafty or handy). But I do know that God promises to meet the needs of those who seek his kingdom and righteousness (Mt 6.33). This does not mean, however, he's obliged to sustain my middle-class lifestyle. Worship God and not oil and we'll find God is much more necessary than oil.

3. "Then Jesus said to them, 'Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions' " (Lk 12.15). Does my demand for cheap gas reveal a greedy heart? Do I want cheaper gas so I can spend more on other indulgences (which have become rights I deserve)?

Perhaps we may piously assert (in public at least) that we'd give more to God's kingdom if gas was cheaper. Really? Then go without your cable or satellite bill. Eat out less. Buy fewer clothes or buy them at Goodwill. Stop smoking and drinking Starbucks. Then we'll see how pious we really are. We'll follow our treasure straight to our heart. We may find that high gas prices really don't prevent giving more to the kingdom; they cut in on our greedy action. (In the interest of full disclosure, I speak hypocritically here. We have a satellite dish, eat out too much, drink too much Starbucks and have way too many shoes.)

Jesus said to beware every (Gk. pases) form of greed. This means there is more than one form of greed (corporate usury). And we may find one of those forms sneaking up on us at the pump.

As citizens of Christ's kingdom, we've been made privy to a new economy. It's one in which God is our treasure and it's from that treasure that he sustains us. It's one that revolves around his gifts of grace. If he didn't spare his own Son will he not freely give us all things (Rom 8.32)? The next time we pay "the man" for his gas, may we erupt in worship that God has given us far more than oil. He's given us Jesus and one day we'll strike it rich with him.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Carson for President!

"As for democracy, if we promote it, we do so not because we take it to be an absolute good, still less as the solution to all political problems, and not even because it is an ideal form of government, but because, granted that the world is fallen and all of us prone to the most grotesque evils, it appears to be the least objectionable option. Our eschatology teaches us that the game isn't over. The way we get to the end is not by military conquest, and not even by the ballot box, but by our Lord's return - and meanwhile we engage in the proclamation of the good news about Jesus in word and deed and remember that he himself taught us that Caesar has a sphere, under God, that is to be respected, an authority that is to be obeyed" (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, p193).
Hear, hear! and amen.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Kairos Article on Infertility

Kairos Journal just published a fantastic little article entitled "The Pain of Infertility." My wife and I struggled for 10 years through infertility issues, which led us to Amy's full hysterectomy in July, 2007. As this article aptly points out, infertility is not a simple matter of bio-technology but is a test of idolatry.

11 Years and Joyfully Counting. . .

An excellent wife is the crown of her husband (Prov 12.4a)

Saturday, August 16, marks the greatest eleven years of my life. On that day eleven years ago Amy and I became one in mind, heart and body. She's given far more than she's gotten and served far more than she's been served. We're not who were were then and not who we'll be in another eleven years; but I'm thankful wherever we'll go and whoever we'll be we'll go and be together.
My Queen,

Solomon wrote that "house and wealth are an inheritance from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD" (Prov 19.14). In other words, we might "come into" wealth but we don't "come into" a prudent wife. She is a precious gift from God. You are a precious gift from God to me.

Eleven years together has not always been easy. I'm thankful for that. God has proven his love for us by leading us to and through difficult situations. Thanks to me we've not always handled them perfectly, but thanks to you we've handled them by God's grace and we're still standing. Together. In faith. In hope. In love.

We've tasted what it's like for Jesus to journey with his church. Ups and downs. High roads and side roads. Joys and sorrows. Weal and woe. He thought such a life worth the last drop of his blood. I agree. It is worth it. And the blessed "already" of our marriage makes me long for the "not yet" of his.

You are a woman of the Word. I'm so proud to see your Bible colorfully marked up with your multi-colored pen and "protractored" lines. I'm thrilled to see your shelves lined with biographies of women who cherished Christ at all costs. You are indeed being sanctified by the washing of water with the Word (Eph 5.26). While I doubt much of it has to do with me, I'm glad to benefit from such generosity from God. Christ is your True Husband and you serve him well.

You are a woman of the home. God has blessed us such that we don't have competing ambitions. Your "career" ambition is to make a home suitable for peace and godliness. That, my queen, is far more difficult and demands far more energy than any 9-to-5 job. I never worry that you're Puritanically oppressed or chauvinistically stunted. You're free in every sense of the word. By your gentle, quiet and submissive spirit, you prove you hope in God above all things (1 Pt 3.1-6).

You are a woman of the church. You love God's people and their growth in godliness. Like many of our generation, you're having to become the Titus 2 woman you never had yourself. I pray that our daughters and granddaughters will inherit a church where the women love the gospel, teach the gospel and model the gospel. You're part of a pioneering effort of sorts to reclaim the glorious name of "churchwoman."

You deserve far more from your husband than I've provided. I'm sure you've done far more sanctifying of me than I you. But whatever the case, we've journeyed together faithfully now eleven years. God ordained our marriage to help each other persevere in and toward our heart's greatest desire: our Lord Jesus. The worst may not be behind us but neither is the best. May God bless both to our eternal enjoyment of Christ.



Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Guilty as Charged

Thanks to Doctor Dictionary, I was recently brought to my knees in sackcloth and ashes. It appears I'm guilty of sesquipedalianism. Sesquipedalian is an adjective meaning "long and ponderous; having many syllables." Although, isn't "sesquipedalian" itself guilty of its own definition? Contradictions all we are.

Thoughts on Youth Ministry (Part 3)

These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons... (Dt 6.6-7)

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
(Eph 6.4)

Youth ministry has become an industry to rival all industries. Yet, at the first opportunity more teenagers abandon the church than ever before. Teenagers know less about the gospel and orthodox doctrine than ever before. This makes little sense unless we understand God's means of raising children/youth in the community of faith. Please allow some latitude for the following broad (but true, I think) generalities.

Biblical instruction begins first and foremost in the home. It's clear in the old covenant community (national Israel) and the new covenant community (Christ's Church) that the primary responsibility for biblical training lies with fathers (or parents, more generally). Yet Christian parents have long abdicated that responsibility and privilege. They've outsourced this duty. They provide mainly room and board, but entrust their children's souls to the local (youth) pastor.

The well-intentioned youth pastor is thereby charged with making church exciting for the teenagers because the parents are too bored with church to do so. Because "big church" (i.e. the ordinary means of Christ's grace) is obviously inadequate, he/she must orchestrate a lively atmosphere rather than lively faith. The idea of "worship" becomes more important than its reality. In so doing they cultivate the worship of "worship" rather than the worship of Christ.

Graduation from high school is full of anticipation and eagerness for the next stage of life. Graduation from the "youth group" is the end of all excitement and looms with future boredom. How can this be among those who guard and pass down the world's greatest news?

With that said, I humbly offer these naive comments:

1. The church's corporate gathering should be the youth's "main event." Eph 6.1 clearly assumes children are in the same setting in which husbands, wives, parents, employees, employers, etc. are addressed (cf. Col 1.20). Paul was not talking to adults about children, but talking to children among adults (hence, the vocative address "Children"). If that was true of children then how much more teenagers who were considered young adults (see previous post).

Assuming there must always be a youth alternative to the adult gathering undermines one of the very reasons we gather (to pass down the faith passed down to us). For example, many parents neglect corporate prayer because there is nothing for their teenagers during that time. There is no better place for them to be! They benefit much more from seeing/hearing how Christian men/women pray with/for each other. What about the church's members's meetings? Bring your teenagers to the church's members' meetings! Teach them how Christians resolve conflicts, address thorny issues and treat one another over against the world's approach.

2. The church's "youth pastor" is primarily a teenager's dad (or mom, as the case may be). This is not to anathematize the position of youth pastor, but to encourage it as a complement (not supplement) to a father's work. Youth "events" are to be extracurricular activities rather than the sum and substance of church life.

We've assumed something beyond biblical church life is necessary to keep kids interested in church. Times have changed and teenagers need some whiz-bang novelty to make them want to come. Does that really reflect NT Christianity?

Whose job is it to make sure church is "exciting"? The parents! If teeangers see that dad gets more excited about Saturday afternoon football than the church's gathering then they'll assume rooting on the Big 12 is more important than worshiping Christ. If dad lauds the size of Saturday's bass, but mopes through Sunday's truth about Christ then what conclusion must they draw? If mom constantly complains about church folk but praises her aerobics classmates then what seed is sown in young minds about church folk? If children do not see Christ (husband) and church (wife) at work in their home, they will not see their home at work in Christ "at" church.

Teenagers should see in their parents a distinct change when it comes to the church's worship. They should see that water parks and campfires are indeed fun and enjoyable, but nothing affects mom and dad like the church's worship. Dad may rejoice at his new raise, but nothing compares to his elation at new birth. Mom may glory in a new dress, but nothing lights up her face like hearing of being clothed in Christ's righteousness. Mom and Dad love family vacations, but nothing thrills them more than returning to the family of faith.

3. So, we do have a youth ministry (or rather "ministry to youth"). It's called the church. We do have "something for the youth." It's called the gathering of the church where we sing, preach, pray, read the Scriptures and observe the ordinances. If that's not enough, then it's not enough for anyone despite their age.

The best ministry we provide teenagers is the equipping of their parents, who in turn invest the passionate pursuit of Christ's glory in their children. I'm afraid this is much more intimidating for the parents than teenagers. It's time we confess that we've played fast-and-loose with our children's souls, and begin the long march back to biblical faithfulness. It's time parents seriously recover the grandeur of Christ in their own hearts for the sake of their children. God help us be strong and courageous.

(Backtrack to Part 1 and/or Part 2)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Thoughts on Youth Ministry (Part 2)

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3.28).

The gospel is revolutionary! By the gospel, Jesus is able to do what no other institution, leader, ideological system or government can do. He is able to unite seemingly un-unitable (had to coin a word!) people into one body, with one heart and mind (see Eph 4.4-6).

The world exploits our demographical categories (young/old, rich/poor, black/white, liberal/conservative, etc.). The world uses these distinctions to perpetuate division and hostility. In the church, however, Jesus is able to unite all these otherwise divisive categories into one people. Paul does not mean there is no gender, ethnicity or economy in the church. Men are still men, women still women, Greek still Greek. He means all those things that divide us in the world do not do so in the church. Whereas in the world we're able to see who's who and where we fit in the pecking order, in the church we don't exaggerate our differences but celebrate the Christ who has redeemed them for his glory.

Whereas in the world ethnicity, gender and class create racism, sexism and classism, in the church those same differences testify to Christ's ability to reconcile the irreconcilable. And eternity will be spent praising the One who, by one life of obedience, was able to unite every nation, tribe and tongue under one rule and reign.

This theological reality should inform how we gather as a local church. Our gathering should reflect, as much as possible, the reality of heaven. When we consistently segregate teenagers into their own "church," we're saying the God of adults is to be approached differently than the God of teenagers. Jesus saves but he doesn't unify. We might even treat them as the center of the church's life, gearing everything toward attracting and keeping teenagers.

Jesus is clearly the center of the church's life. This is the beauty of the gospel. Jesus is able to take self-absorbed teenagers, feeble senior citizens, career-driven middle managers, high school dropouts and PhDs and make them one people with one mission.

I'm not categorically rejecting all youth-specific events or Sunday school classes (not a biblical requirement, by the way). I'm stressing a shift in mindset that seeks to incorporate children/teenagers in church life as soon and as much as possible. It's a mindset that stops emphasizing our differences (youth, children, senior adult, cowboy, Gen-X, etc.), but emphasizes the Jesus who is able to reconcile what our sin has caused.

In other words, it's not necessarily a great testimony to Christ to have 100 teenagers go to summer camp on the beach (secular organizations do the same). It's a tremendous testimony to see four teenagers partner with three senior citizens on an evangelism project. It's no great testimony to have a room full of hyped-up teenagers shouting to the Lord (a football game can create the same adrenaline). It's a tremendous testimony to see teenagers sitting respectfully with their parents, Bibles in laps and attention staid to the sermon. Where else can we find that except in Christ's church?

So, have your midnight bowling trips and laser tag nights. But make sure your teenagers know that's not church (even if you mention Jesus at snack time). Make sure they can distinguish the fleeting excitement of pizza night and the eternal excitement of the church's worship.

The greatest threat to our children/teenagers is not boredom, for which entertainment is the remedy. Their greatest threat is their sin, for which the gospel is the remedy. They need rescue from their narcissim to life in community. They don't need a Christian alternative to the world's entertainment. They need the alternative to hell and where else will they find it but in Christ's church?

To be continued . . .

(Warp to Part 1 and/or Part 3)

Thoughts on Youth Ministry (Part 1)

Some question about youth ministry arises often at our church. Visiting parents ask what we have for their teenagers. Members wonder what we're doing for the "youth." By modern standards we have or do very little. No glitzy youth building for youth "worship." No services designed to package God's truth in sound bites teenagers can understand. No teen-centered atmosphere that defines our church. But, we do have a youth ministry.

There is a rampant adolescentizing force that raises adults/parents to act more like children rather than training children for adulthood. Commercials regularly depict children teaching their parents as though they're the prudent ones in the family. Companies market childish products to parents in the name of relevancy ("Thirty is the new twenty," for example. Everything is geared towards appearing and acting younger). Popular sit-com fathers are overweight dunderheads, while their children are the "wise" ones who teach him about life. Public service announcements have children urging their parents to talk to them about sex, drugs and predators. The overall message is "mature" children and teenagers are now forced to tell their parents to grow up.

This mentality has seeped into the church such that we assume the "youth" should be the church's main emphasis in all we do. There is great pressure to occupy (read: entertain) teenagers. They are "the future of the church" (I thought Jesus was) so we must do anything and everything to keep them interested. To question such an approach and being willing to take attention away from teenagers is tantamount to hating them. Therefore, I want to think aloud through some seminal thoughts, asking if we should assume "youth ministry" a biblical category. (I suppose the same could be asked about other demographic-specific ministries, i.e., children, senior adult, young marrieds. etc.)

Scripture seems to promote two categories of development: childhood and adulthood. One is a child until it's time to prepare for adulthood. In Jewish tradition, a boy or girl enters the initial stages of manhood and womanhood at thirteen and twelve, respectively (via bar and bat mitzvah). They don't become full-fledged adults per se, but the expectations were geared towards adulthood. There doesn't appear to be this formal, intermediate (teenage) stage where you are half-child, half-adult. Rather, you are a young adult learning to become a mature adult.

The expectation was that when a boy reaches (say) thirteen he gets involved with men. He didn't hang out with his 13-year-old buddies at the mall all day, texting acronyms and shuffling his ipod. He tags along with his father at the mill or in the field (where his buddies would also be!). He learns what men do and grows in his physical, emotional and spiritual abilities to assume leadership of his own family one day.

In the church, we should prepare our young adult (teenage) men and women for churchmanship (Titus 2.2-8). The young men should be involved with the older men, learning what men do to lead families and Christ's church. The young women should be likewise involved with the older women, learning what women do to serve families and Christ's church.

As it is, we keep teenagers cordoned off as though they're not mature enough to handle adult teaching. This is a cop out for two reasons. One, they're learning physics or chemistry in school so they have the capacity to process heady things. They may not be disciplined to do so, but they're equipped to do so. Two, they're subject to "adult" themes everyday, all day. The world is not waiting for them to reach a certain again before it peddles adult themes to them. They learn about sex, war, religion, etc. before they're able to drive. While the world indoctrinates our teenagers with its wicked dogma, the church gives them pizza and puppets. We pinch their cheeks rather than pierce their hearts. We chalk up their silliness to a "they're just teenagers" mentality rather than call them to maturity.

We do well to learn from our Supreme Example, Jesus, who at 12-years-old was found listening to the temple teachers (Lk 2.41-52). Our teenagers should be sitting in on adult conversations, Bible study classes, congregational prayer and church meetings. They should be learning about theology and church life. They won't be able to handle all of it, but they'll be able handle much of it. The church is not responsible to make cute churchgoers, but to make disciples. Our largest mission field is our own children/teenagers, whom we must teach to obey all that Jesus taught.

More to come.

(Teleport to Part 2 and/or Part 3).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mandatory Speed Limits and Total Depravity

As a countermeasure to rising fuel prices, Washington contemplates a mandatory 55mph speed limit. This is akin to the same 1974 legislation designed to enforce better fuel economy and ideally lower fuel prices. Aside from the obvious political stupidity this measure says volumes about total depravity.

Politically speaking, why don't all those lobbying for the mandatory speed limit simply choose to do 55mph? Why do we need government to dictate something that can be easily chosen by those governed? It's not illegal to slow down so why do we need a law making it legal? The assumption is we're bound by law to do 65mph unless Aunt Samantha (Uncle Sam's feminist sister) restrains me from doing so. While I try to hold my political cards close the vest, this pot is too rich. "We the people" (i.e. free-market citizenry) can have greater and quicker impact on fuel prices than anything else. It's Economics 101.

I digress. From this we learn far more about our common depravity than our common recession. This issue gives great insight to our approach to the law, but especially God's law.

For example, our 4-year-old daughter is old enough to process things she sees on TV. When an inappropriate advertisement we often shield her eyes from seeing it or distract her from it. She now often senses what material is inappropriate and says, "Dad, cover my eyes so I don't watch that." To that I respond, "Sweetie, why don't you just choose not to watch it?" The assumption is she's going to do what she shouldn't unless she's restrained from something outside herself.

You see, we overestimate the power of the law and even more the fallacy of free will. Take those speed limit signs, for example. They can state the law as a potential deterrent to crime. They serve as a basis of judgment if the law they state is broken. They provide some measure of safety. But of all the things they can do they cannot make us to the speed limit! They're impotent to do the very thing they're designed to do (create law-abiding drivers). Such is a matter of the heart. Drivers must still choose to do the speed limit.

Such is the nature of God's law. As much as it can do, it cannot make us law-keepers. Like my daughter and speeders, we will insist on sin and demand to be restrained. If God doesn't want us to sin then he'll have to stop me because I'm certainly not going to restrain myself.

To insist on the fallacy of free will is to insist you're free not to sin. Try it and see how free your will is, especially when you've the tasted the thrill of 65mph. How eager will you be to throttle down?

What we need can only be accomplished by the change of the heart, not the change of the law. Thus, Paul wrote in Rom 8.3-4: For what the Law could not do (i.e. make law-keepers), weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

We need more than the law written on signs (or tablets), but on the heart. This is what Jesus accomplished in his obedience and gift of the Holy Spirit. By engraving God's law on our hearts the Spirit ensures that we want to God what God commands. We're compelled from within, not commanded from without.

All that to say: drive slower, drive less, vote Bob Barr (did I say that out loud?) and consider how desperately we need Jesus to make us law-keepers.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Carson on Common Grace

In our morning Bible study yesterday, Preston Atkinson discussed the reality and implications of and our responsibility toward God's common grace. In light of that discussion I couldn't help but post this quote from D.A. Carson:
"It comes as an enormous relief to recognize that, however odious and sweeping sin is, whether in personal idolatry or in its outworking in the barbarities of a Pol Pot or an Auschwitz, God intervenes to restrain evil, to display his 'common grace' to and through all, so that glimpses of glory and goodness disclose themselves even in the midst of the wretchedness of rebellion. God still sends his sun and rain upon the just and the unjust; he still guides the surgeon's hand and gives strength to the person who picks up the garbage; the sunset still takes our breath away, while a baby's smile steals our hearts. Acts of kindness and self-sacrifice surface among every race and class of human beings, not because we are simple mixtures of good and evil, but because even in the midst of our deep rebellion God restrains us and displays his glory and goodness" (Christ and Culture Revisited: 49).
The question is not why God would allow so much evil, but given the depth of our depravity why there is not more evil than there is.

We covered Joshua 6 in our preaching yesterday. The text begs the question: "How could God endorse what appears to be genocide?" God was not guilty of genocide. Jericho was guilty of "theocide" and deserved every bit of God's fury. So, let's not ask why God did what he did to Jericho, but contemplate why he didn't do it sooner. And there we enter the mysterious world of God's common grace from which we must never emerge.