Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Communion and Kids: What's a Parent To Do?

One of the best aspects of our current 31-week series, “The Story,” is the every-week observance of Communion. It has been a delight to return to the cross week after week, remembering and proclaiming our Lord’s death (1 Cor 11:26). Better yet, because our elementary children are in our service during this time, several parents have had the exciting privilege of leading their children to faith in Christ as a result of our weekly engagement in the Lord’s Supper. It appears the family conversations that stem from Communion are prompting the right kind of questions that lead to repentance and faith. For this we praise God!

However, perhaps some parents, still nervous about their child and an incredibly small cup of juice, wonder if there are some guidelines to help them as they sort out the best way to include their kids in Communion. “After all,” they might ask, “what if my kids don’t understand Communion yet? Should they partake?” These and other questions are legitimate, and so we recommend a few practical pointers for First Family families who wish to make the most of their kids and Communion.

1. Lay good groundwork early. Use the drive to church, or the few minutes before the service, to talk about what is coming up, its significance, and the protocol at FFC. And don’t feel bad for repeating yourself; reviewing is one of the cornerstones of genuine learning.

2. Explain the non-negotiable: It is for believers. So if your child isn’t yet a Christian, simply explain this to them, and have them either 1) wait in their seat if they’re an older child, or 2) go with you calmly without receiving the elements if they’re a younger child. You are not being mean, but simply obedient. And your obedience could breed questions that perhaps God will use to bring conviction unto salvation.

3. Expect correct participation. For families with believing children, model and mandate the appropriate way to engage in corporate Communion. It’s not a snack time, nor is it a laughing matter; it’s not race or a show. It’s a time of remembrance and proclamation of the cross, and our approach and response should be centered in these two words. The Apostle Paul demanded we not take the elements “in an unworthy manner,” so remind your children of this all-important heart issue and instruct them to show their attitude accordingly. (And yes, I said ‘mandate’ on purpose; this is not a time for dad or mom to ‘suggest’.)

4. Pray for them. One of the best ways to encourage the right attitude is to pray for it. That’s right – once you have the elements, place an arm around your child(ren) and pray for them – and yourself -- in a whisper. This way you both hear, but it’s not disturbing to others around you. You have the time to do this while the musicians are finishing up their song of reflection and meditation, so take advantage of it and pray with your kid(s). Specifically, confess your sins. Express your love to God and them. Pray for others. Thank God for His salvation. This kind of genuine intercession will go a long way in getting everyone in your family ready to partake. And even if they’re not able to partake yet, prayer is one of the ways to still include them without violating scriptural directives.

5. Take it with them, not just in front of them. Again, for families with believing children, take the time to assist your children verbally and visually. Get on their (eye) level, and show them how to follow along with the pastor and congregation as they eat the cracker and drink the juice. Even feel free to talk them through it, using words you are confident they understand to explain what each element means.

All in all, intentionality is the essential ingredient for families who wish to make Communion more than a rote ritual for them and their children. And this means you have to start planning, talking, and preparing for each week’s observance in advance. When that’s your overall mindset, Communion will explode with meaning and life for you and your kids.

NOTE: This brief article has not attempted to explain or explore the theological aspects of Communion; it is simply an effort to help parents with the practical side of dealing with smaller children during Communion.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What You See Isn't Always What You Get

His name was Michael, and the year was 1993. I was a youth pastor in Georgia, and had heard through a another YP that Michael, who was going to be helping us with a local function, was simply “out-of-this-world” when it comes to youth work. Whatever needed doing, I was informed he would be willing and able.

Immediately my mind started racing, painting pictures of a tall, tanned young man with a muscular build. I imagined him as having the loyalty and love of hundreds of teens, being a fabulous speaker, and driving a sports car. In my mind he was single, rich, and totally satisfied with everything in his ministry. But what we think will be is not always what is.

At our initial meeting, it actually took me several minutes before I finally realized to whom I was talking. This can’t be the same guy I heard about? I thought. Unbelievably, he was not like anything I had imagined. Oh, he was tall, but his arms were lanky. He was a bit overweight, and drove up in a Ford Festiva (out of which he humorously unfolded). He had to live on a budget, watch his diet, and work late. In other words, he was just like me. And you. And most other people. He wasn’t Superman, Batman, or the Hulk. And his wife wasn’t Wonder Woman, either.

Yet, what I had been told was partly true. He did have a super youth ministry, teens who loved him dearly, and a zeal and desire to really make an impact on young people. He did have the things that mattered, the things that count for eternity.

So why did I paint images – false images – of what I thought he would be? Could it be that we are geared to believe that successful people in God’s eyes must first be successful in man’s eyes? What is it that ignites the spirit of God in a man -- appearance, riches, performance? Or rather humility, grace, and submission? I was about to learn.

When the meeting was over Michael and I had a chance to talk and fellowship. And over the next few months we became friends. Since we were ministering in the same community, lunch was a weekly thing for us, as well as local seminars and prayer breakfasts. Over the course of time I came to realize that Michael was just like me (can you believe it?) He had problems just like I did. He had worries just like I did. He fought battles just like I did. He failed just like I did. He was actually human.

Like a speeding train rushing by, the wind of what I had just come to realize blew me away. It’s not the things on the outside that make much difference to God; it’s our heart, and its condition. Being used by God depends not upon our appearance, our talents, or our ability; it depends upon one thing: Our availability. When we make ourselves humbly available, God then has an open door to work in us and through us. Nothing more is required. Nothing less.

Isn’t this the point in I Samuel 16? Remember the story? The prophet Samuel has come to Jesse’s home to anoint the future King. Due to Saul’s disobedience and failure because of pride, Israel was in need of a leader. And so God told Samuel to go to the household of Jesse and he would find the future king there.

Jesse is ready, lining up his sons one by one. From the first to the last, they are there, each positive they will be the chosen one. Samuel comes, and after a close inspection, is puzzled by the fact that none have been chosen. He then asks Jesse if there are any more. And suddenly we have an unbelievable incident occurring before our eyes, a chance to see from God’s perspective what is really important. David is brought in from the field, and God speaks loudly and clearly: “This is the one.” Instead of the older ones, the stronger ones, or the obvious ones, God chose the youngest one, the one that everyone else overlooked. Seemingly, God works that way, doesn’t He? The ones we overlook and disregard are the ones He often looks to as His servants and workers.

The longer I am in the ministry, the more I realize that our human perspective is blurred. Really blurred. We look for talent, beauty, ability, and skill. God looks for willingness, heart, love and submission. When He finds that in a person, regardless of what others say, He will use them mightily. The power of God loves a willing heart in which to explode. No matter what men may say, if we are willing, God can use us. Not because of our talent, but in spite of it. Not because of our greatness, but in spite of it. Truly our greatest ability is availability.

Frankly, what we see isn’t always what we get. What we may see is a small child, a noisy teenager, a restless young person, a distracted, disruptive little brat. But what God sees may be totally different. Be careful not to focus so much on the outside that you miss the potential lying dormant on the inside. In God’s economy, our outward performance and ability are not nearly as important as our inward humility and availability.

1. Can you recall a time when you misinterpreted an outward appearance? How did the initial experience affect you?

2. What we see on the outside can often fool us. Read Acts 8:14-24. Do you think Peter initially believed Simon’s outward intentions?

3. When did you last fall prey to appearance-based judgments, whether positive or negative?
What measuring stick can you use if you can’t “judge a book by its cover?”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's a Matter of Perspective

Another Thanksgiving has rolled around, and so has the time to stop and consider all the "good and perfect gifts" God had so graciously given each of us. But this year I’ll not glibly say a memorized "Thank you," nor will I half-heartedly show my seasonal appreciation with a long and flowery prayer before the traditional turkey meal. No, this year will be different. For gratitude is more than mere appreciation for good things; it is a divine perspective that causes us to rejoice in the good and bad, the happy and the sad, the lovely and the unlovely. It is the ability and wisdom to see through Heaven’s eyes at the good that has come because of what appeared to be, at first, evil. You see, it's simply a matter of perspective.

A thankful heart is not inherited, stumbled across, or discovered. It is cultivated and developed. Like a rich garden that brings forth precious and sweet fruit, a thankful heart is first tilled and tended to before it produces an attitude of gratitude. Though this is no easy task, it is a vital one if we are to truly understand the essence of thankfulness.

To the untrained eye, what may appear to be a tragedy could actually be a blessing. When you were denied that promotion at work, perhaps you weren’t aware that it also meant a transfer. When that loved one passed away, maybe God knew it was not worth the pain they would have endured to remain on earth. When your girlfriend told you she preferred not to date anymore, maybe God was moving her aside so he could introduce you to someone even better suited for you. Or just maybe it’s not so bad after all that you weren’t able to buy that house. You know, the one you really wanted but would have forced you to scrape and pinch every month just to get by financially. God may have a better house -- and a better buy -- just waiting for you. You see, it's simply a matter of perspective.

Whatever the case, I’m personally convinced you, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will be able to spot the hidden things in your life for which you are thankful. And I don’t mean the material things. Nor do I mean the forgotten things. I mean the things that at first seemed unfair, unjust and hurtful. It's these that require a second glance. And with that glance you may possibly see through the outer layer of your trial at the blessing within. Sounds crazy, I know. But try it. You might be surprised how many blessings you discover that before now simply went unnoticed. You see, it's simply a matter of perspective.

What must I do to gain perspective? I must focus my vision and wipe away the dust from my spiritual glasses; clear my perspective and concentrate on the blessings God has bestowed upon us. But not as years before. This time, look for the blessings hidden behind the burdens, the joys disguised as trials, the happiness discreetly tucked away inside one of your hurts. After all, doesn't the meaning of Thanksgiving go deeper than the surface? Since the Latin root of thankfulness is thinkfulness, let's put this word into practice, mentally searching for the secret blessings. You see, it's a matter of perspective.

Frankly, developing perspective is like walking through a meadow full of green, beautiful grass lying like carpet on the ground. We could behold the beauty and color of it, or the unsightly and frequent piles of cattle waste (commonly called manure) could blind us to it. Both are in the meadow. Both are in your view. How you view the meadow depends on which pile gets your attention. How's your meadow looking? You see, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Dad Difference

Take a long, hard look at America and it’s families, and you’ll see, by in large, there is a leadership void among men. I personally believe the crises in our nation – dysfunctional homes, school dropouts, extreme violence, and teen suicide, to name a few – flow from deteriorating leadership on the part of men. In fact, recent stats tell us that men commit 90% of major crimes, commit 100% of rapes, commit 95% of burglaries, commit 91% of the offenses against the family, and comprise 94% of drunk drivers. Essentially, too many men are dropping the ball and everyone feels the damaging affects.

One such aspect of male leadership that has gone awry in our culture is that of an effective father-son relationship. Consequently, we won’t see the tide turn in America till dad picks up the slack and intentionally sets his sights on raising his son(s) with a strong moral and biblical compass. Fortunately, there are a number of good books and organizations that can help men grasp this all-important truth: A dad can make a world a difference!

The phrase that may best describe the father-son relationship comes from Proverbs 17:6: "…the glory of sons is their fathers." Robert Lewis, in his book "Raising a Modern-Day Knight," helps us understand the meaning behind this verse when he writes:

"As grandchildren are to old men, so a father is to a son: a source of wonderment and delight ... a reason for boasting. A son wants to feel like a champion in the presence of his dad."

But how? How does a dad become the "glory" of his son? Perhaps a personal example -- my father -- will give us a bit of insight into one idea that will help put some flesh to this phrase from Proverbs.

With earned degrees, a high position, and extensive travel under his belt, my father is, to me, the consummate dad. And yet, oddly enough, it’s not those humanly impressive accomplishments that I remember most. What I remember most are the times dad honored me by simply listening. Whether we were riding in the car, playing Wiffle ball in the back yard, enjoying a vacation, talking around the dinner table, or watching a game, dad made listening a common practice, nodding and raising his eyebrows while I chattered incessantly (I’m not sure, however, if my constant rambling was looked at so nonchalantly at that time!). By listening, dad communicated to me that I was important, that my opinion mattered, and that he needed and loved me. He said far more with his eyes and head than he did with his mouth. This, in turn, instilled tremendous amounts of loyalty in me towards my father, which made listening and following his lead a natural result.

Probably the fondest memory in regards to this happened just a few years ago when, upon being offered a prominent position at a Christian ministry, he called to ask what I thought he should do. Wow! I thought. He cares what I think! Whether or not dad really needed my input is immaterial. In the simple phone call, he communicated massive amounts of approval and affirmation, the things every son looks for and longs to receive from his father. It’s when sons receive these things from their dad that he becomes their "glory," their reason for boasting.

So, from a "father-of-four-who-was-once-a-son-to-a-father-of-three," here’s a simple tip for dads: listening actively can help you love and lead your son. Regardless of the arena, whether it’s your home, office, or ministry, make listening a top priority. In doing so you’ll be exhibiting love and exerting leadership in ways that affect him now and for years to come, and you'll have the incredible reward of being the "glory" of your son.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Real Issue

Some of my favorite conversations have been "discussions" (i.e., debates) on a current topic. Unfortunately, some of larger frustrations were those very same conversations where I found myself arguing about an issue with someone who’s mind is already convinced! (I suspect they were probably frustrated as well with me and my "made up" mind.)

Perhaps the debated issue is not the issue after all. Is music, preaching style, political affiliation, movie choices, drinking alcohol, and the like really all that’s at stake here? Of course not! In fact, most of these apparent topics would handle themselves if the issue of God’s authority and Lordship were settled. Much of our frustration stems from the fact that we’re trying to change minds, when God wants to change hearts. Bottom line? More of our time should be spent dealing with the real issue at hand – the development of a submissive spirit to God! In a flow-chart breakdown, it might look like this:

1. Issues are only settled when we exhibit increased submissiveness.


2. Increased submissiveness is a result of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.


3. A personal relationship with Christ happens only as a natural by-product of a supernatural conversion.


4. Conversion is the seed-bed for all spiritual change.

Four observations emerge:

1. Deep and lasting spiritual change is impossible apart from the work of regeneration. Everything starts with salvation (2 Peter 1).

2. Arguing without a mutual agreement that God’s Word will be obeyed, no matter what, is often futile. It's analogous to going to the doctor for treatment of an illness with no intentions of following through with his instructions -- useless!

3. Issues can be, however, used to focus our attention to the foundational problem(s) (i.e., conversion, a personal relationship, or an increased submissiveness).

4. Issues are never settled out of order. So shoot for the heart. When their heart's allegiance is aligned, adjusting their lifestyle to the issue won't be a problem.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Adrenaline god

More and more, people in the new millennium are looking for a rush, a thrill, a high-risk adventure that produces a non-stop flow of adrenaline. Think about it -- the return of Fear Factor, the Amazing Race, as well as various game shows that promise bigger and better prizes are indications that some people "can't get no satisfaction."

Hear me out -- I have no problem with legitimate "rushes" and the moments where our stomach jumps into our throat. But without a doubt it is becoming more of the expected norm as opposed to the anticipated anomalies. Excitement is the catchword; thrills are the hot item.

With society pushing the adrenaline surge to an all-time high, some ministries (and families) are asking: Should we follow suit? Is providing repeated thrills and one high after another the next step for those involved in making disciples and/or raising kids?

Just watch the landscape -- family calendars are chocked full of endless memberships to clubs, teams, and trips, and church schedules often look like the event list at a civic center or arena. Financially and relationally, we're going broke at the expense of the thrill. Our addiction to adrenaline is bankrupting us in more ways than one.

So...what's the answer to the question above? Is it worth it to follow the culture's model and provide an endless array of spine-tingling "rides" for those under our care? A resounding ‘no’ should be heard across the land! "Big-top" excitement is unable to sustain anyone over the long haul of his or her spiritual journey. Why? Concisely, the Law of Diminishing Returns. It is impossible to maintain the increased necessary level of excitement repeatedly. That detour is a dead end road.

What works? Connecting to deep relationships! Both families and churches need to make more of time together, not just time. True, often doing exciting things together does deepen relationships. But you know you've crossed the line from people to programs when, upon realizing that the exciting thing tonight is pizza at home while talking around the table, your kids start a coup to overthrow you. If you suggest that all the gadgets with screens be tuned off for one night so you can all talk and your family -- or small group -- looks up at you with fire in their eyes, perhaps that's a sign that some relational redefining needs to take place. All kidding aside, it's the same old contrast that's been around for ages, only dressed in 21st century garb: relationships vs. rituals.  And solid, deep relationships are what grounds people best for a lifetime of involvement in God’s body, the church.

One thing is true: We are doing our ministry, our family, and our church a disservice when we create the false illusion that life is one big thrill after another, and people are only there for the in-between times. Quite the contrary! Life is actually somewhat routine, typically a matter of engaging in daily discipline. And deep relationships – with God and others – is the high point of it all!

Here are a few diagnostic questions to ask yourself as you think through your own addiction to adrenaline:

· Do you sense a lot of physical motion but little spiritual progress?
· Does your calendar dictate more than your purpose/mission?
· Do you, your family, and/or friends “hang out” even when there is no official event?
· Do your family or church events allow adequate debriefing and processing?
· Is there a small group emphasis in place among your sphere of relationships?
· Is your overall spiritual growth plan based on events ("I need to go somewhere!") or relationships ("I get to be with someone - God!")?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Love Win[K]s

One of the dangers of generalizing something is that you remove most, if not all, of its power. It becomes so generic that it is no longer effective. And when people come in contact with it, it’s as if they’re anesthetized by its vagueness and broadness. In my opinion, this is largest danger lurking in Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins. It is dangerously nonspecific and subtly all-inclusive.

Frankly, the Gospel is generalized into “love,” hell into “mistrust,” heaven into “everything in its right place,”, and salvation into a “story.” Not that these words don’t have a place in God’s revelation language, but undoubtedly there is more. Much more! Specific words and concepts like regeneration, adoption, justification, judgment, eternal torment, the New Jerusalem, Lake of Fire, Great White Throne, and the eternal state seem conspicuously absent. Little wonder – it’s hard to be all-inclusive if you get too specific.

It is this unsaid-but-clearly-implied inclusiveness that has a number of trusted evangelical theologians squinting. And for good reason. If, in the end, “love” conquers all, doesn’t that mean you’re a universalist? Sure, he never comes right out and states his position as the universalist one, but the implication is rather strong: “In the end, you’ll finally give in. Then you’ll get in.”

Which begs the questions: Can people repent in hell? Or disbelieve in Heaven? Is it ever too late? Based on the interview with Adrian Warnock, Rob Bell believes it is never too late for someone to repent. Whether in the hell they have created for themselves now or the hell that may be waiting for them later, it is just a place of mistrust until they finally feel the pull of divine love and succumb to all its restorative, healing power.

Final judgment. Eternal punishment. Forever blessedness. These are specific ideas Rob doesn’t want to embrace, but he never comes right out and denies them. He just stays general enough that you can’t really determine what he does or doesn’t believe. Granted – after eight chapters, you’d think you’d know what he believes. But oddly, you don’t. And I’m not sure he knows yet either. In interview after interview, he consistently adds phrases like “It’s all we know right now” and “It’s the best we have so far,” indicating there may be information from God still on the way. This is why he is so general – he is afraid if more revelation shows up, he may be wrong. So keep it general; this way your chances of being right increase.

Expectedly, if you try to pin him down for an answer, as Adrian Warnock did in the interview on Premiere Radio, he becomes noticeably general. Falsely unassuming. Jabbingly questioning. He seems afraid to stand on revealed truth. We shouldn’t be surprised, though. Revealed truth is specific. Clear. Concrete. Absolute. And Rob is anything but that when it comes to his book, Love Wins.

Perhaps his fuzziness is actually the greatest evidence against him, the clearest demonstration that his stand is actually quite clear: You can’t trust the written Word or the risen Savior. No doubt that’s where you’re left dangling when all the wordiness is over. For in Rob’s world, it’s almost as if, in spite of the Scriptures or the Savior, God winks, disregarding everything he has said and done through his Son, and at the last minute pulls the proverbial curtain over the eyes of his followers and lets everybody in after all.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s a better title for his book: Love WinKs.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Just What is a Gospel-Centered Church?

At its core, a Gospel-centered church is a grace-focused church. It is a church grounded on the biblical doctrine that true spiritual life begins at, and continues from, the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14). Thus, it is essential to know exactly what we believe about this pinnacle event since it affects every single aspect of our existence. How do the Gospel and grace fit together?

In Scripture, grace and Gospel are twins. And both are seen together in the life of the incarnated One, Jesus. After all, Jesus, who is the visible personification of God’s grace (John 1:14) and the historical reality of God’s grace (1 John 1:16-18), fully and perfectly embodies both. He is the grace of God, and his finished work is the Gospel of God. Grace and Gospel are sovereignly seen in the Savior.

Ah, there’s the word we’ve been waiting for: Savior. It’s what he does by grace and through the Gospel -- save sinners! For sure, when it comes to our salvation, our Savior, Jesus, is at the center of everything. He is our source and subject. It is his grace. it is his gospel. So a Gospel-centered church is a Christ-focused church. He is the audience -- the eternally worthy One! -- and we are the earthly worshiping ones whom he has sovereignly chosen to save.

Furthermore, the Gospel continues to be the source of all sanctification and growth after salvation. While, as Peter said (2 Peter 1:5), we "add to our faith" by cooperating with the work of God, it is still, nonetheless, the work of God. He started it, continues it, and will finish it, all through the Gospel. As Tullian Tchividjian says, "The Gospel doesn’t just ignite the Christian life; it’s the fuel that keeps the Christians going and growing every day."

Therein lies the essence of a Gospel-centered church/Christian: It's a life that begins and ends every day at the cross (Gal. 6:14).