Before You Go Bashing My Generation, Please Remember These Three Things

C5WcZQvWcAAbyVC Over the last few years, Millennials have gotten a lot of press.  There are numerous articles written about why Millennials are the laziest, least motivated, and most narcissistic generation.  These articles suggest that Millennials are over educated, but lack the necessary job skills needed to succeed in life.  They paint Millennials as being addicted to social media and their phones, being socially inept – unable to have a conversation in real life, and being disinterested in spiritual and religious matters.  They bemoan the fact that Millennials have given up on church and given up on God.  That they simply don’t care about anything unless it will directly benefit them.  They use statistics to illustrate that previous generations were more in-tune with daily life affairs, had a stronger work ethic, and were more drawn to starting their family earlier.

This is one side of the story, but then we also have the backlash of articles written by 20somethings stating otherwise.  These young adults claim that we are the product of an older generation that refuses to retire, that we have master’s degrees and work at coffee shops, and that we are delaying marriage because we simply can’t afford a million dollar house.

I realize that we will likely never come to a conclusion on the matter.  But I’d like to suggest that fighting about which generation is “better” is entirely missing the wonderful opportunities that could be had fostering inter-generational dialogue.

I understand that my generation is not perfect – neither was yours.  I know we have an unhealthy preoccupation with the screen, we are facing the social pressures of trying to keep up with our friends who post a “picture perfect life”, and in many cases we are struggling to even get a half-time position in our field.  Yet, I also believe that Millennials provide an incredibly dynamic worldview which could greatly inspire the older generation if they were willing enough to listen.  I know that I am only one person, but as a Millennial, I do feel like I am able to represent my generation.  Below, I’d like to share some of the ways the technological craze and Millennials in general are actually a great asset to our church, our culture, and our world.

#1: Is a nose stuck in a screen really a nose stuck in a screen?

Millennials like myself are often glued to a screen, held captive by our phones, and have conditioned our minds to respond the minute we hear a ding or buzz go off.  There are many negative side effects to this such as decreased concentration during conversations.  I have to admit that one of my greatest pet peeves is someone who tells me they are listening to my story while mindlessly scrolling their newsfeed.  On the other hand, they probably are – we are a generation of multi-taskers.  We have learned to pick up on the vital information, while playing Candy Crush or Snap Chatting.

However, there is another side to this story.  Sometimes seniors think that all we are doing is Facebooking, but that’s actually not the case.  As anyone under the age of 60 realizes, our phones are our mini-computers.  We are using our phones to connect with friends, but we are also reading the news, finding recipes, and learning new languages.

There definitely are disconcerting things about the technological world.  In “Overrated: Are We More In Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World” Eugene Cho states that the newsfeed barrage has dulled our sensitivities and compassionate response.  I definitely believe there is much truth to this statement.  Causes are valiantly fought on Facebook and forgotten the next day.  Articles and photos circulate to raise awareness, but next week we don’t remember them.  We somehow think that clicking the “like” button or even the new “sad face” option makes up for a personal phone call when someone is going through a difficult time.

However, there is also a positive side.  The cool thing about social media is the way we now have access to people’s thoughts and opinions around the globe.  I often engage in meaningful church discussions with friends in North America, Europe, and Australia when previously this would never have been an option.  I am part of Facebook groups and blogging collectives (like the MennoNerds) where ideas are circulated and shared by people I never would have met in real life.  The blogging world provides opportunities for many to add their voice to a continuing conversation when previously only a select handful of people would be published.  Of course, there are individuals whose blogs probably are not worthy of publication, but for the most part, many blogs are helpful and provide unique outlooks and possibilities.

#2: The Generation that Doesn’t Grow Up, Might Actually Be the Most “Grown-Up” of All

Many people in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation are deeply concerned with the Millennial generation that refuses to grow up.  It’s just a much different world now than it was then.

Back when my grandparents were kids, a Bachelor’s degree was your ticket to nearly every profession.  A master’s degree showed you were some type of genius and a PhD meant you were practically on the Mensa list.  People back then often started their profession in their early 20s.  They worked in the same field for many years and then retired in Florida (unless, of course, they are still working and not opening up those jobs for my generation).

Not so today.  Today’s world sees people changing professions at least 6 times over their lives.  People seem unfocused and unwilling to put down roots.  And what’s worse, people don’t seem concerned at all with the fact that they are approaching 30 (or even 40) and still don’t have tenure anywhere.

This can certainly seem disconcerting in the moment, but take a closer look.

When I was 24 and a recent graduate (holding a master’s degree – a higher degree than either my parents or grandparents attained) I spent a year in Scotland.  Many people tried to discourage this.  They said it was a waste of time, that I should just “settle down” and that I would later come to regret it.  Their ideal for my life was something I considered “boring.”  Being a globe trotter often seems like an irresponsible use of education, however, I believe it’s a great asset.  Living abroad really broadens your understanding and scope of many things.  You learn how it is possible to make friends in a country and culture where you didn’t know anyone.  You wrestle through bumbling social conventions, you become more aware of global affairs, and your whole outlook on life changes.

Many people my age are also interested in intentional communities.  The older generation often doesn’t understand this.  I have often faced ridicule about my involvement in L’Arche, even being told it was a “cult.”  But I think it’s actually this increasing sense of isolation and individualization that propels us towards life together.  And I think our willingness to cook and share meals with one another, to give of our time and talents, and even to share in monetary resources is not a sign of immaturity, but actually a great witness towards the inter-dependency God ordained for us when He stated “it is not good for a man to be alone.”

#3: The generation that isn’t into church, has redefined what “church” actually means

Lastly, many older people are frustrated with the lack of young adults who not only skip church on a regular basis, but don’t seem to be interested in serving at all.  Yet, I think what this generation is failing to consider is that we ARE part of church, we’re just living that differently.
Of course, there are increasingly more Millennials who ditch church entirely, who embrace a “relative truth” schema, and who clearly are not considered with spiritual matters.  However, for those who are, we just want to see things done differently.

Millennials are perhaps the greatest proponents of social justice endeavours there are.  We clearly care about the ills that befall humanity and we are out to change that.  We need churches that will harness that creative energy and passion and allow it to fuel their ministries.  We’re done with the talk, we want action.

Here’s another thing, people often confuse denominational affiliation with the Christian title.  Here’s the thing, for many Millennials denominations are simply a buzz word, if not a distraction.  I know many committed Christians in their 20s and 30s who don’t want to be affiliated with the Baptist, Mennonite, or Anglican movement, but who nevertheless love God.  I, myself, do not like to stay tethered only to one denomination.  I am a Free Methodist because they are the denomination that hired me on and as a result the one I am seeking ordination with.  However, it could just as easily have been the Presbyterians, the Anglicans, the Pentecostals, or any other denomination which ordains women.

This can often be difficult for elderly people to compute.  Many grandparents grew up in the same church, raised their children in that church, and are proud to be Catholics, Lutherans, or Episcopalians.  To them, there is only one theology that can be correct.  They may extend grace to other groups, but they proud to claim the title of only one.

But that’s just not the way things are anymore, and I think it’s for the better.  I believe being trans-denominational is a wonderful asset that Millennials bring.  It shows that we are not so caught up in “only one” option, but that we are willing to bring the best of all denominations into the picture.  It shows that we are willing to communicate and discuss different theological topics without always having to be the ones who are right.  I believe that ultimately this will be to our benefit as it will likely help patch up many of the church rifts that occurred in the past for what we deem to be “quite silly reasons.”

Millennials are not perfect.  They have addictions like every other generation.  They struggle with mental health issues like every other generation.  They find it difficult to break into the job market, like many other people just starting out.  They wonder how they will afford expensive housing let alone get married and raise a family. Yet even in the midst of all these trials, they are able to bring us multiple job skills (acquired through a variety of different jobs rather than simply being an expert at one), many different world views (acquired through living abroad and in intentional communities rather than starting their career in one country and never leaving), and the unity of a group who is more focused on Christ than on denominations.  And because of this, I think we have a lot to thank the Millennial generation for.

When Is a Church Not a Church?

churchI remember hearing this old joke when I was a kid “When is a door not a door?  When it’s a jar!”  This joke, despite how many times it was told, never seemed to grow old #endlesshoursofamusement.  However, today, considering the Easter season I am tempted to ask myself a similar question “When is a church not a church?”  My answer is slightly less funny, and altogether important: when it fails to PREACH the Gospel, when it fails to LIVE the Gospel, and when it fails to SHARE the Gospel.

A Church that Doesn’t PREACH the Gospel, Is Really No Church at All

By its very definition, the church is a body of Christians believers who regularly gather together for teaching, encouragement, and edification.  In the book of Acts we see that the purpose of a church is 4-fold.  Acts 2:42 reads, “They devoted themselves to the Apostle’s Teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” and we read in the next verse, that because of their faithfulness to this rhythm God increased their numbers DAILY.  Let’s stop and think about that for a moment.  The Early Church was the greatest evangelical explosion in history, and why?  Because the church was committed to God and to one another.  Fast forward to today when many churches are now closing down because of lack of congregants and where faith has become passe.  I believe a large reason for this is because individualism has even crept into the church itself and because we live and act as if we don’t truly need one another.

Using this model of church – one of the very first accounts we have of the order and structure of what happens when likeminded believers get together, we see 4 distinctly important roles the church plays.

Firstly, we attend church to learn and receive instruction.  A church that is not built on the solid foundation of Christian teaching and principles is a church that likely will not withstand the storms and pressures of this life.

Many more “liberal” Christians today find the Gospel narrow-minded and even “offensive.”  In the West, we have very much bought into this idea that truth is relative and that we should simply do what feels good and right.  People are more concerned with positivity and everyone being validated for their beliefs than what Scripture itself actually teaches.  Those who stand by what the Bible says can then be put down and ridiculed, even considered “arrogant”, “close-minded” and “snobby.”

I understand this to a degree.  I used to be a “liberal” Christian myself until I started studying the Scriptures more.  Now, I have no issue if you consider yourself a Unitarian and want to believe that all paths lead to God.  However, if you are calling yourself a CHRISTIAN and saying you attend a CHRISTIAN church it is imperative to know exactly what that means.  The very term “Christian” implies that you are a devoted follower of the Christ, Jesus.  Christian, was actually a derogatory name used to insult early Christians who believing differently than society.  Therefore, if you are going to take up this name than I think it’s important to realize that by donning this title, you are implying that you are willing to live with a different set of moral and spiritual priorities than what others agree with.

Now being a follower of Christ, means that you are a devoted disciple of His teachings in the same way that a Buddhist follows Buddha’s teachings, a Muslim follows Allah’s teachings, and a Confucian follows Confucius’s teachings.  In fact, even ardent atheists will follow a master’s teachings (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer).

Jesus definitely said a lot of things in line with liberal theology – including loving those who were on the margins (we’ll get more into this in the last section), however, He also said some pretty straightforward “narrow-minded” things.  For example, He said that He was the only way to His Father (John 14:6) and that the way to heaven was a narrow gate (Matthew 7:13).  He even said that while many will profess Him as Lord, unless they believe in their heats that He truly is the Messiah, they are not His true followers (Matthew 7:21).  There definitely are areas of contention and debate within the Christian tradition.  There are several grey areas in Scripture and places where different interpretations are welcomed and will not destroy the very bedrock of our faith.  However, areas such as sin, salvation, and eternity cannot be debated too much because they are laid out in quite clear terms by the very founder of our religion.  Many “liberal” Christians today say that they will always place the words of Jesus at a higher level than any other sections in Scripture.  They may discount Paul’s words because they feel he is a chauvinistic gay-basher, but they maintain that whatever Jesus says goes.  However, if those same Christians are arguing that truth is a broad term and can be approached from many different angles, I ask myself where their allegiance truly lies.  This is not a question of judgementalism.  It is not my place to act as a “gate-keeper” determining who is in and who is out.  Rather, it is a matter of concern that even though many Christians are dying for their faith every day in closed access countries, we, in the West, feel we do not have to be responsible for Christ’s teaching and all because we are choosing to buy into popular psychology.

A Church is Not a Church When it Fails to LIVE the Gospel

The last three descriptions of what church is in the book of Acts all hinge on community.  The church gathered together for fellow, breaking the bread, and prayers.

The purpose of attending a church is to be energized and revitalized not only by the message that is shared, but by the people who share in the message.  There are several Scripture verses that back up the importance of being together with believers.  In our culture, many people make excuses for not attending a live service.  They may suggest that they listen to a sermon on Podcast or read the Bible on their own time, and thus may question what is so important about actually leaving the house.  It is true that Podcasts and online sermons are a great benefit to many people, however, they are meant to enhance not to replace the actual meeting.

Hebrews 10:25 reads “do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.” It can be tempting to skip small group when you’re busy and stressed, but it is through fellowship that we become encouraged.  One of the best descriptions of someone longing to attend church came from a Catholic colleague.  This young man, attended mass daily.  When I asked him about his eagerness to not let anything detract him from worship he simply stated, “I am nourished by the Body of Christ.  I NEED it to get through my day.  I cannot survive without it.”  Although I am not Catholic, I was deeply touched by his devotion and believe many Protestants can likewise learn from his willingness to place fellowship as a priority.

Although meeting together is definitely a necessity for believers, there are also instructions for HOW to go about doing this.  We are told that as much as it depends on us, we are to live at peace with one another (Romans 12:18).  We are also told to do good to all people, but especially those who belong to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).  And we are told to not “bite and devour” one another by engaging in futile arguments that ultimately don’t matter (Galatians 5:15).

All too often we see churches split over the most inconsequential of matters.  Sometimes these churches are able to recover their formerly good reputation and numbers, however, more often than not, it ends up turning people away from the faith.  Christians must always be aware that their words, attitude, and actions are being scrutinized by those outside the faith.  Therefore, it is of utmost importance to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1).  Living in a worthy manner includes not just preaching to the choir, but inviting others to join in, especially people who never knew they could sing.  This brings us to our last point.

A Church is Not a Church When It Fails to SHARE the Gospel

In our culture today, evangelism can often be seen as a big turn-off.  People don’t like the image of a preacher standing on a soap box in the middle of a busy street.  People view religion as a “private” matter and often say that if it works for you, great, but please don’t impose it on them.  To a degree, I can understand this notion.  No one wants to be pressured into a faith they aren’t sure they want to have.  Also, the old tactics of scaring someone into conversion, have long been proven to do more psychological harm than good.  However, just because we aren’t aggressive with the Gospel, doesn’t mean we should avoid sharing it at all costs.  In fact, the very last thing Jesus said before He left this earth is “go into all the world, preaching the Gospel, making disciples, and baptizing in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:16-20).  Remember the very first point I made – being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus.  Jesus was pretty clear that we weren’t meant to keep our faith to ourselves and in fact, to do so, would be going contrary to His wishes.  What He wants us to do is share our faith with others.

There are many ways to share one’s faith.  For example, I am not the most out-spoken evangelist out there.  I still get a bit tongue-tied and awkward when I am asked to share my faith or even pray in public.  However, God is using platforms such as my Facebook page for His glory.  I unashamedly post Scripture verses and thoughts about Jesus and to my surprise, often receive “likes” and even personal messages from non-Christian friends.  Even though my friends may not share the same God I do, they often relay that they were encouraged by something and at least one has referred to it as a “ministry.”  To me, this is what sharing the Gospel is all about.  It’s not dragging someone to my church who doesn’t want to be there, it’s about being light and life.  It’s about setting an example that draws others and makes them curious to learn more.

However, the buck can’t just stop with evangelism.  Oftentimes churches are all about “soul winning” (as if the soul was really ours to win and we should get a prize for doing so), but more often than not, the real work of sharing our faith is much messier.  We share our faith when we break down systems of oppression, when we welcome in the stranger and the foreigner, when we break bread with the outcast and the lost.  We share our faith by becoming a safe haven, a beacon of light amidst a dark and turbulent ocean.  Oftentimes, it is through these acts that people are willing to enter into our midst and share life with us.  Oftentimes these moments of real and authentic community take place not in the cathedral but in the courtroom.  Not in the baptistery but in the bar.  Christians must not be ashamed to touch the social “lepers” of our day.  They must not be afraid to be “contaminated.”  If anything, they must be the ones to sit by the bedside of a dying person, offering hope and reassurance, serving as an intermediary between places of war and peace, and choosing love over hatred every time.

I started this article off by asking “when is a church not a church” and suggesting that when we fail to preach, live, and share the Gospel we are failing to be the true Body of Christ.  However, I’d like to end on a positive note.  When is the church truly the church?  The church is the church when we offer a cup of cold water to a thirsty and weary traveller, when we visit the wrongfully imprisoned, when we put our own selves on the line for someone we’ve barely met.  The church is the church when it craves real and authentic fellowship over fake individualism.  The church is the church when it boldly and fiercely fights against oppression.  The church is the church when it breaks down dividing walls of hostility, fear, and unbelief.  And the church is the church where two or more are gathered and where Christ is in the midst of them.

 

The Case for Christ Movie Review

The-Case-for-Christ-1  Yesterday, I had the incredible privilege of seeing the brand-new movie “The Case for Christ.”  To be honest, I was a bit skeptical before going to see it.  Of course, I believe in the resurrection of Christ and all the scientific data proving that He was a real person, that He lived and died, and also that He is Lord and Saviour.  However, I was a bit more skeptical of how they were going to pull it off.  Lee Strobel is a brilliant mind and an incredible thinker.  He is a great person to read if you are interested in scientific data, and logical reasoning.  But, I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily the kind of person you would rush to for Saturday afternoon amusement, I was wrong.

The new “Case for Christ” movie is an incredible conglomeration between a documentary and a life-story.  I believe it fits well into the category of “docu-drama.”   The story unfolds Strobel’s life as a former ardent atheist who was shocked and upset when his wife, Leslie, became a Christian.  Strobel set out to prove her faith null and void in the attempt to “win her back.”  Yet, in the process, Strobel discovered that there was overwhelming evidence for Christianity and became a Christian himself.  The movie focuses primarily on his testimony and progression to the faith, however, not without adding in some of those extra punch arguments that would be sure to convince even the hardest skeptics.

Later on that day, I attended a Good Friday musical production at a local church and picked up a free copy of “The Case for Easter.”  Although I am quite familiar with the name “Strobel” I have to admit, I have never read any of his works, but the movie definitely made me interested in finding out more.  So when I got home I immediately began reading and just finished the book a few hours ago.  Strobel’s work is once again filled with strong evidence that the crucifixion indeed happened, that Jesus did die, and that the best explanation for His disappearance is that He was raised to life.  Yet the real clincher for me is the way it impacts the way I see Christ.  I have heard about the crucifixion for years and I am well aware that it is a horrendous process to go through, however, hearing how Dr. Robert Stein, a leading forensic pathologist describes the ordeal really puts Christ’s love into perspective for me.  It is truly a sacrifice that none of us are able to compute because likely none of us would be willing to endure it.  And yet Jesus did, not for His friends, but for those who were “far off” and “enemies” of God (Ephesians 2:13).

Even though the movie and the book were both amazing, my only concern is that many atheists have simply closed their hearts and minds to these very arguments.  I do find it encouraging and refreshing to see that even people trying to prove Christianity wrong often end up believers (including C.S. Lewis), but still for some individuals no amount of evidence will steer them towards Christ.  They have determined not to believe, and they are not interested in anyone trying to convince them otherwise.  Strobel’s work is a great engaging message for anyone willing to “spar” with claims of truth, but to do so, I think there still has to be a significant amount of curiosity.  Something that simply isn’t there in the “truth is relative” day and age.

Nevertheless, I applaud this new work and think it is a movie that will likely help other Christians formulate and articulate their own thoughts and arguments better.  I also am elated that in the last few months two blatantly Christian films “The Shack” and “The Case for Christ” have hit the theatres.  We often do not get many Christian films out and that two were released almost simultaneously is a great blessing.

Our world is still very much going in the direction of post-modernism and a disinterest in the Christian faith, however, the fact that Christian movies are now hitting Hollywood a bit faster does leave me with a bit of a question.  Is it simply a mere coincidence or might there be something deeper?  Is it simply that Hollywood jumps on Christian films at Easter, or might it be, that deep down people are crying out to fill this spiritual void and are willing to go to any length to find it – even if that include a bag of popcorn in one hand and a can of soda in the other?

How Welcoming Is Your Church Really?

1.24.AreYouWelcomingChurch_637716742   Everyone wants to claim that their church is welcoming, in fact, I have yet to meet any genuine believer who likes being part of a “closed church.”  The Christian faith itself is based largely on communion, fellowship, and evangelism (encouraging others to join in).  However, even though being “welcoming” is a great ideal to have, how are we actually doing with putting this into practice?

Below, I’d like to offer you a gauge to help you determine where you fit into the spectrum:

NOTE: Oftentimes liberal Christianity is associated with being more “open-minded”, inclusive, and welcoming than conservative churches.  However, the point of this article is not to debate theology.  Instead, it is to suggest that there are very closed liberal churches, very open conservative churches, and plenty of churches that fall somewhere in the middle.  I believe that being “welcoming” often has more to do with the inherent attitudes and cultures within the church, than with the theology that is being proclaimed from the pulpit.

A Closed Church – A Case Study

When I was in my last year of seminary, I did an internship at a local church.  The church was amazing.  I taught the kids Sunday school and assisted with the midweek program.  The pastors were very kind people and my director supervisor was a hard-worker who really invested into all of his interns.  Communication, for the most part, was clear and directed.  We had leadership training, many opportunities for informal check-ins, and I very much felt supported.  There was only one problem, breaking into the young adult’s group.  Even though the church was fairly large and I aligned myself theologically with their tenets, their young adult’s group made me feel pushed to the edges.  It was near impossible to break into it.  People just appeared very cliquey, and uninterested in pursuing other friendships.  I soon felt like there was absolutely no point in attending this group.  I only went because I felt I was expected to.

Warning Signs That You are a Closed Church

A closed church usually exhibits several of the following traits:

* They speak like insiders.  They only relish in what happened in the “good old days.”  They constantly refer to people who attended previously, but are no longer there.
* They may host informal get-togethers, but it is only for people who they are friends with.  They aren’t interested at all in “widening the circle.”
* They constantly use acronyms and short forms that only people from that church or denomination will understand                                                                                                           *They assume that there are no visitors.  You might think, well, every church expects visitors, but you’d be wrong. Simply saying “we welcome all visitors” from the pulpit is not enough.  If you’re a church that truly values visitors, this will be exemplified by having a friendly greeter team who helps usher you in and find a seat, by having a prominent welcome desk or informally having people who provide information on upcoming events, and by something as simple as having accessible parking.
* The sermon is way too theologically based whereby anyone without a PhD doesn’t understand a single word of what is being said.
* People are not made aware of programming or ways to join groups within the church.  In fact, people might not even be sure where to drop their kids off for Sunday school or nursery.

A Falsely-Welcoming Church

Some churches go out of their way to be welcoming and include everyone, but by doing so, they fail to see that they are actually pushing people to the margins.  In these churches, welcoming may come across as “fake” or “strained.”  People need to see the real side of your church.  People in this generation are concerned with INTEGRITY and GENUINENESS.  If people sense that you are only letting them see the good, but that you are secretly covering something up, they won’t be interested.  Likewise, if people get the sense that the only thing you care about is converting them or growing your membership list, it will also be a huge turn-off.  Rather, a church that seeks to be welcoming is transparent and open.

A Mid-Range Church

In many churches, growing attendance is a huge priority, but one they are not seeing enough of.  I’ll be blunt here… if you’ve had a goal of growing your church by 25% for the past 25 years and you’ve only had one or two new people come through your doors, you might need to ask yourself what you can do differently.  Additionally, things like church-splits, and declining attendance due to ill health, family conflict, or even death may be unavoidable at times.  However, this is no reason to excuse a church whose attendance is plummeting consistently.  If a church is welcoming, then even though people may leave, and even though the church may go through a rough few months or even years, it will eventually rebound and grow stronger because of it.
As humans, we like to make excuses.  Sometimes we think that if we moved locations, got a swankier building, or had a bigger budget, we’d be able to do some of the things the mega-churches do and people would flock in.  But I’ll let you in on a little secret.  I knew of a house church that started with one young man (barely in his twenties who had a vision).  This man, who we’ll call Craig, didn’t set out to start a church, all he really wanted was something to do on a Sunday night with his friends.  So he got a group of other kids together, formed a little possie, and they began meeting weekly.  For the first few months, this group of 4-5 friends gathered together for prayer, Bible reading, and sharing about their lives.  In a lot of ways, this group had all the elements of church, but they didn’t consider themselves anything other than friends.  Craig had no seminary education.  Being a pastor was the furthest thing from his mind.  Yet, over time, he began to see more and more need for what he was doing.  So around the 6 month mark, he asked his friends if they’d be willing to invite a few more friends.  This then brought his weekly attendance up to around 10.  Then he suggested that each friend could bring their parents as well.  Now his group was well into the 30s.  Eventually, it snowballed and his house could not longer fit everyone in.  Craig, opened his first church, and today that church is still thriving and the core group is mostly still intact.  Craig was not a church-planter, a pastor, or an evangelist.  He was just some shy kid, who craved community and had a vision to make that happen.

Conversely, we see once large churches now closing their doors because of lack of congregants.  It doesn’t matter that their building is worth a million dollars or that they have a high tech sound booth.  If no one attends, those things are basically pointless.

A few weeks ago I was listening to Christian radio and the pastor said “God never called us to be successful, He called us to be faithful.”  I have heard this old adage and employed it myself on several occasions, however, this time around, I actually paused and thought about it.  I do believe that sometimes we may define “success” differently than worldly standards (in other words, it’s not all about numbers), but I also disagree with this statement.  If we are truly being faithful, God WILL bless us with success.  A church that is actively seeking to welcome in others and that has made this a priority, will indeed see other people enter in.  A church which only merely pretends to be welcoming, but in reality is close-fisted will likely see a retention at best and a decline at worst.  And even though there is no one-size fits all method for growing a church and there may be exceptions to the norm, the truth is, for the most part, you cannot be faithful while also completely lacking in success.

A Truly Welcoming Church

One of the absolute best ways to determine whether or not your church is truly welcoming, is to look at the types of people who attend.

You may say that you are open to people with profound developmental disabilities and that you’d love to start a disability ministry.  But if you don’t have a single person with a disability in your church, they don’t feel welcomed there.

You might say you love single mothers the same way as nuclear families.  But if only traditional families are at your church, the others don’t truly feel welcomed there.

You might say you don’t care about someone’s socio-economic status, but if only rich or only poor people go to your church, there’s a reason.

You might say you don’t care about someone’s ethnic and racial background, but if you’re church is entirely white, it’s because people of colour can’t call it home.  (On this point, I will note that in several rural areas of Canada people are predominantly white because of lack of immigration.  However, your church should be a reflection of your geographic location.  If your church doesn’t reflect your city or town but only a small sub-section of it, think again.  You’re not as welcoming as you think).

There is something to be said about having strong morals and theological leanings.  Being a welcoming church doesn’t mean you have to ignore or get rid of those ideals, it simply means you don’t pounce on someone the minute they show up.  For example, being a church that values traditional marriage, sexual integrity before and within marriage, or abstaining from alcohol doesn’t mean you can’t be welcoming.  You might uphold these beliefs, but your job then is to mentor others and encourage them to adopt similar lifestyles.  Not to raise eyebrows and hit them over the head with a Bible the minute you find out they don’t share your values.  That’s why a church that is doing a good job may not approve of someone’s lifestyle but that person always will feel like that church values and approves of them as an INDIVIDUAL.

Being a welcoming church is a process.  It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes people who are truly willing to explore and seek out those who do not yet attend the church.  If you’re serious about being more welcoming, here are some things to ask yourself:

* If I were travelling through this town, would I want to stop at this church?  Would I even know that this church exists?

I will be shallow for a minute here, I’m not the most techie person out there, but I do value a good, clean, up-to-date website.  When I’m looking for a church the first place I look is online.  If I can’t find adequate information about where you’re located, what time your service is at, or approximately what you believe, I’m not going to bother.  People in general like to do the least amount of homework necessary, the easier you make it for them to find you, the better.   On the similar note, the same rule applies to church signage.  If you have a board outside, update it weekly.  A church that has a huge sign advertising a Christmas dinner in the middle of August is a church that quite honestly has proven they don’t really care.

People look at the little things.  Is the washroom neat and tidy?  Is the nursery area accessible?  Do people feel safe leaving their kids there?  Is your church well-staffed?  Do volunteers seem to know what they are doing?  People will care about all these things even before they sit through their first service and hear your theology.

* Is this church a good fit for my family?

Does the church appeal to a wide range of people with a variety of different options?  Is there only a Sunday morning service available, or are there also other alternatives throughout the week?

 

*What is the church’s attitude towards people with disabilities?  Homelessness? Poverty?

Are these individuals seen as “problems to be cured” or are they welcomed and embraced with open arms.  In my blog post entitled “Where’s the Justice in That?  The Social Exclusion of Adults with Learning Disabilities and What the Church Can Do to Fix It” (https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/wheres-the-justice-in-that-the-social-exclusion-of-adults-with-learning-disabilities-and-what-the-church-can-do-to-fix-it/) I make this outrageous claim: “Next time the service is completely quiet, make some noise…because an inclusive church is never truly silent.” Church should be messy and LOUD – screaming and crying babies, people shouting “amen”, people with disabilities making humming noises, people with hearing difficulties shouting “what was that again?”  I don’t think this takes away from the sacred meditative atmosphere at all.  In fact, I think it adds to it.

Well, those are my thoughts on what makes a church truly inclusive.  What do you think? I’d love to hear yours!

How to Share the Easter Story with Kids

Teaching-Your-Children-About-the-Real-Meaning-of-Easter-731x1024   This year my church asked me to do something I have never even heard of before – they asked me to plan and run a Good Friday service for our kids.  I admit that when this request first landed on my table, I was filled with a fair amount of anxiety.  Those of us who grew up in the church, know that the story of Easter is one of the most gruesome and violent tales in the entire Bible.  We also know that it is almost impossible to share the Gospel message while evading terms such as “death”, “sin” and “hell.”  Yet, how is it possible to bring across the main theme of the message without producing untold nightmare and endless streams of sadness, anger, and other appropriate emotions?

As I sat there in my office, turning over this very question for a few weeks, I thought about several scenarios.  My first thought was to simply Google a good YouTube clip.  I did find one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LgFZDCguR8E, and it portrayed the story of Jesus brilliantly without going into nasty details.  I ended up showing it to my kids, but I also knew that wasn’t enough.  As a children’s pastor, I’m expected to come up with my own ground-breaking ideas.  A YouTube clip, regardless of how good it is, simply isn’t going to cut it.

Eventually, I came upon a “Sweet Story.”  I told the story of Easter using candy and chocolates, and the kids absolutely loved it.  In fact, they were excited about it for a number of days when I announce that this would be happening.

Yet, even though I seem to have averted the problem (at least for this year) it did get me thinking about what is truly appropriate and beneficial to share with our kids.  Below, I’d like to offer a few suggestions:

#1: Focus on the Positive Aspects of the Story

The main theme of the Gospel message is LOVE.  Regardless of which atonement theory you fall into, nearly all Christians believe that God’s love exemplified through His Son Jesus is what sets our faith apart.  The fact that Jesus died for our sins, is important, but the reason He did that is because He wants to be our friends forever.  Don’t get stuck on the gruesome details.  Today when I shared this story with the kids, I mentioned people making fun of Jesus by placing a crown of sticks on His head.  I also mentioned that Peter pretended not to know Jesus and pretended like he wasn’t really friends with Him.  I even mentioned that the worst thing that happened to Jesus was that He had to be placed on a large piece of wood (called a Cross).  However, I don’t get into all of the violent ins and outs with the kids.  I would say less than 5% of time should be devoted to what actually happened on Good Friday.  95% should be focused on themes like redemption, love, reconciliation, and friendship.

As an aside, when I was in seminary, we sang the classic song “In Christ Alone.”  There is a line in the original which states “And on the Cross as Jesus died, the WRATH of God was satisfied.”  My professor urged us to collectively change the words to “the LOVE of God was magnified.”  There is a theological case to be made about God’s wrath, but I would never dream of bringing that side of God out to our kids.  Firstly, because I am not sure it’s theologically correct myself, and secondly, because the very thing I don’t want is for kids to be scared.  I want them to see God as a kindly Father figure, not as someone who is waiting for them to mess up and wants to punish them.  See, WRATH is scary, love is not.

#2: Now Is Not the Time to Get Into Theological Debates

Every denomination has a slightly different understanding of the crucifixion.  Now is not the time to talk about “hell” or what happens to those who don’t believe in your particular brand of Christianity.  Now is also not the time to get into a Calvinist or Arminian debate about only SOME people being God’s chosen children.  If your particular church holds to tenets like this, you will have plenty of time to instil them in your children once they hit adolescence.  For now, focus on God’s love as a possibility for EVERYONE.  Like the YouTube clip I shared with the kids states “God love me, and He loves you.  GOD LOVES EVERYBODY!”

#3: Keep It Simple

I have attended a few churches that do altar calls for children, and if that’s your tradition and style then I see nothing wrong with it.  However, the most important thing about sharing the Gospel, is to help the kids to understand it.  I did not do an altar call today, and in fact, I didn’t even teach the kid’s the “Sinner’s Prayer.”  I simply told them that if they believe the story I shared is true, all they need to do is tell God they love Him and that they want Him to be their friend.  As kids get older, their faith will mature and they will begin to understand more about what terms like “sin” and “salvation” truly mean.  But for now, if you mention words like that, you’ll lose them.  So focus on words that they use in their daily vocabulary and if you are bringing out Christian terms, make sure to explain them in a kid friendly way.

Terms to Avoid and Terms to Use

 

INSTEAD OF…. SAY:

Sin – We all think have bad stuff in our hearts OR We decided not to be God’s friends

Salvation – Friendship with God

Crucifixion – Explain what happened (in non-violent terms)

Judas’s Betrayal – Judas told people who didn’t like Jesus where He was (explain that Judas felt sad afterwards)

Peter’s Denial – Peter pretended like he didn’t know Jesus/wasn’t Jesus’s friend/didn’t really hang out with Jesus

Beaten, mocked, scorned – Bullied

Resurrected – Came back to life again

Disciples – Friends or best friends

Tomb – I do use this term, but I explain to them that it is like a grave.

Communion – A meal that Jesus had together with His friends (OR eating dinner together)

Evangelize – Tell your friends about who Jesus is

Hell – I would just drop the term entirely.  I think it does more damage than good for young children (however, if the kids are older than 10, you might be able to bring in this concept)

Heaven – I do use this term, but I explain that this is where Jesus lives, and that if we are friends with God one day we will go there.  I explain to them that heaven is so much better than anything we have here on earth.  I present the concept of heaven as something nice and delightful rather than as something scary.

Death – I do use the word death and I also believe that kids are much more prepared to deal with this than we give them credit for (for the most part).  However, I do not dwell for very long on that part of the story, except to say that Jesus died, but He promised His friends He wasn’t going to stay dead forever.

Elements in the Easter Story for Kids

 

#1: The Easter story really begins when God made the earth.  God wanted us to be friends with Him forever and to hang out with Him all of the time.  But because people, like us (boys and girls, moms and dads, brothers and sisters) had bad stuff in our hearts, we weren’t able to be friends with God.

#2: This made God sad, but God had a plan.  At Christmas time, Jesus was born in a manger.  Which is kind of like a farm. How many of you have ever been to a farm before? (Kids raise their hands). And in this farm there was hay (I show the kids Easter grass and put it down on the table.  I explain to them that Baby Jesus slept on the hay).

#3: Jesus grew up and did many things like we all do.  He went to school and He also had a lot of friends.  How many of you have friends?  All of you do!  Well, Jesus had 12 best friends, but He met people who didn’t want to be His friend because He said things they really didn’t like.

#4: One of Jesus’s best friends was named Judas.  Judas loved Jesus, but he loved something more than he loved Jesus – money.  One day, the people who weren’t friends with Jesus, offered Judas some money if he told them where Jesus was.  Judas said yes.  Let’s count out how much money they gave Judas (here I have 30 chocolate coins wrapped in aluminium foil – the kids help me count).  30 dollars!  How many of you think 30 dollars is a lot of money?  (Most of the kids raise their hands).  If you had 30 dollars what would you spend it on?  (Allow for responses) You’re right, 30 dollars is a lot of money – you could buy a lot of candy and toys with that.  But you know what? Judas actually felt really sad that he told them where Jesus was.  He actually offered to give back all that money if they didn’t hurt Jesus.  But the people said it was too late and they didn’t care.  For the rest of Judas’s life, he felt very sad that he did this. [Note: I think it’s important to stress that Judas knew he made a bad decision….however, I would leave out his suicide entirely.  It is too much for kids to take in and also too difficult to explain.  Also, I always tell the kids that Judas was a friend of Jesus and he did love Jesus, he just made a bad choice.  I do not enter into the theological conundrum of whether he was really a follower or not].

#5: But Judas was not the only friend that left Jesus when He needed them the most.  Jesus had another friend named Peter.  And Peter was one of Jesus’s BEST friends.  Peter even said that even if no one else wanted to be friends with Jesus, he still would.  But Jesus told Peter, that before (I take out a plush rooster) – what animal is this? (The kids should out – Rooster!) the rooster crows 3 times He was going to pretend like he didn’t know Jesus.  What sound does a rooster make (get the kids to make the “cock-a-doodle-doo” sound three times).  And the third time that Peter heard “cock-a-doodle-doo” he felt very sad that he pretended like he wasn’t friends with Jesus.

#6: The people who didn’t like Jesus, took Him away and they made a crown for Him.  When Jesus was alive, He told people that He was a King, and people wanted to make fun of Him.  So they didn’t give Him a tiara or even a Burger King crown, they actually made Him a crown of sticks and wood from the forest (have a dead twig or stick available).  (Show them an Easter basket) the crown would have looked something like this (Place Easter basket on top of head).

#7: But that isn’t the worst thing that happened to Jesus.  The people were very mean to Him and they even put Him on a Cross (which is kind of like a big piece of wood).  And that’s where Jesus died.

#8: Then they placed Him in a tomb, which is like a grave – where dead people go.  And they put a stone in front of it that looked kind of like this (use a plastic egg to illustrate).  And they had two guards on either side because when Jesus was alive He said He wasn’t going to stay dead forever, but He was going to come back to life.  We all know that when someone dies, they don’t come back to life, so the guards were worried that His friends might steal the body and pretend that He was still alive even when He wasn’t.

#9: However, Jesus was always very honest and He never told a single lie in His entire life.  And so, three days later, the tomb was empty (open up the plastic Easter egg to show that the tomb was hollow).

#10: Jesus did this because it was the only way to solve the problem of us not being friends with God.  Now, because of what Jesus did, we all can be God’s friend and hang out with Him whenever we want to!

#11: When we believe in Jesus, it means that one day we will go to heaven where God lives.  And the Bible tells us that heaven is very shiny (show them some foil coloured chocolate eggs).  In fact, the Bible even says that the streets are made of gold (show them a gold foiled egg).  Life in heaven is much better than you can ever imagine.  What are some things you really like?  (Kids give suggestions).  All of those things are great, but heaven is even better!

#12: Now what’s this (show them a candy bunny)?  (The kids yell out: BUNNY!)  In the springtime we see little bunnies hopping around everyone.  That’s because during winter, everything dies and there’s a lot of snow on the ground (show them the dead twig again), but at springtime everything comes back to life again – just like the Easter story!

#13: If you believe the story I just shared and you want Jesus to be your friend all you need to do is talk to God and tell Him you love Him and want Him to be your friend.  We call this prayer, but prayer just means talking to God about what we are thinking about and what’s important to us.  We talk to Him the same way we talk to our Moms and Dads, brothers and sisters.  And when you become friends with Jesus, He never leaves you.  He will be your friend forever!  In fact, it’s so cool because the Bible tells us that whenever someone becomes God’s friend there’s a little party happening in heaven just for them.  How many of you have been to a birthday party before?  Well that’s kind of like what happens when we become God’s friend!

#14: If you already believe in Jesus, there are things you can do to keep learning about Jesus.  First, Jesus gave us a special book called the Bible.  In this book, He tells us all about how we can be His friend and how much He also wants to be our friend.  This book also tells us how to live and treat other people if we love God.  Second, we can learn about God by spending time with our friends here at church.  Whenever you go to church, Sunday school, or our children’s programs you will learn more about God and how to be His best friend.  And then, when you know about God, you get to share this with others.  So you can tell your friends at school, your moms and dads, and even people you don’t even know yet about how much God loves them and wants to be their friends.

And that’s the story of Easter!

As the kids exit the Sunday School classroom, have the Easter basket ready for them to pick out a treat our two on their way out!

For additional reading, please see: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistparenting/2017/04/trouble-easter-not-talk-kids-easter/

The idea for the “Sweet Story” first came from this website: http://childrensministry.com/articles/easter-surprises/?utm_source=internal_children%27s_ministry_resource&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=

Book Review: Hand In Hand With God: Witnessing on the Way (By: Flora L. Williams)

410vyEVkMCL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_When Flora Williams suddenly found herself trapped in a Mexican tour bus, her sunny vacation plans turned to shock and horror within mere minutes.  What started out as a terrific getaway, soon resulted in months of hospital stays, doctor’s appointments, and a life-changing disability,  Flora, an independent and active woman involved in church ministry, professorship, and music, soon found herself having to adapt to her many hobbies and interests using only one arm.

Flora’s story is a testimony of God’s love and faithfulness even in the midst of trial and tragedy.  Despite some initial depression and questioning, Flora’s ability to see the bigger picture and maintain a strong faith in God is a great witness to many who find themselves in similar circumstances.

One of the highlights of Flora’s book for me from a purely disability theology angle is her chapter entitled “Journey Through the Land of People.”  In this section, Flora describes two different common response to her injury: paradox and paradise.  In the paradox stage, Flora discovers that people often choose to respond to someone “differently-abled” (to use her preferred terminology) with shock, pity, curiosity and uncertainty.  She also mentions that in this phase people consider her “super-human” or rush in to provide “service.”  Conversely, in paradise people act out of humility, love, and service.  Flora writes, “Along the way, I met people with a kindred spirit, accepting me as a whole person, simply, honestly, connect without judging, accepting me as I was.  They were seeing my internal spirit not my external loss.”  Although I have severed as a disability advocate for the past four years, Flora’s explanation is helpful in providing us with the invaluable perspective of someone differently abled.  This is a chapter I will refer to again and again in my own work in the field and would encourage other advocates to also become aware of.

Flora’s book is genuine and sincere.  It does not sugar-coat the harsh realities and difficulties facing people with disabilities (both from breaking away from societal norms and prejudices as well as the increased complications of more practical tasks).  However, it also provides hope and support for those with physical disabilities by encouraging us to learn new methods of adaptation.

Although Flora’s book is a wonderful personal story and a great witness to her faith in God, my only caution would be surrounding some of the more graphic details she shares about in her writing.  Flora describes in great detail the accident and accompanying medical appointments.  This is helpful in aiding her story by providing a greater context of her reality and helping us enter in to her struggles.  Nevertheless, for someone with a more sensitive disposition, the details can become quite unsettling and uncomfortable.  Therefore, this book should be read with caution and shared only with those who are willing to hear the truth for what it is.

I highly recommend Flora’s book both for individuals with disabilities as well as caregivers, friends, family members, and community activists.  It is a book I believe belongs in every church library and wherever the message of disability inclusion seeks to be shared widely.  Thank you, Flora, for allowing me to enter into your story and your life.

Flora’s book is available at: https://www.amazon.ca/Hand-God-Witnessing-Way/dp/1424121477  and at https://www.abebooks.com/9781424121472/Hand-God-Witnessing-Way-Williams-1424121477/plp

How to (Re)Start Doing Devotions

9010-devo-category-favorite-pastors.220w.tn I’ve been in conversation recently with a number of people who struggle with reading their Bibles or having daily devotionals/quiet times with God. I can certainly relate as it is something I struggled with for many years myself and on Sunday I shared with my small group that even though I don’t struggle with doing the actual devotions anymore because it’s become an ingrained habit, I still struggle at times to really apply what I am reading to my own life. Basically I’m saying there is a difference between READING the Bible and really meditating on it and marinating on it. I do the first quite well, the second is where I need improvement. If you are struggling with taking that extra time to reflect or if you don’t even know where to begin, here are a few quick ideas that I hope will help:

* Find a Bible that you like. I know this sounds cheesy, but I really think it’s important to find a version that you like. When I was a kid, I struggled with reading the Bible because I was trying to understand the King James. Now that I’m older, I love reading the Message and will reference it with the NIV, ESV, or NASB when I need to do more in-depth study on a passage.
* Find a place that you like. It doesn’t have to be special, but minimize as many distractions as possible. Although I read The Message from my phone, I do realize it’s a great distraction. It’s probably better to silence your phone and read an actual Bible so that you don’t venture onto Facebook or Instagram. Also, if you have young children, find a time when your house is relatively quiet. Other favourite places may include coffee shops or parks.
* Start with a small book. I’m an Old Testament scholar, but I will admit that the New Testament is far easier to read. If you haven’t read the Bible pick a small book like Mark or one of the Epistles. This will give you a sense of accomplishment because you’re far more likely to finish it in a week than if you tried Leviticus or 1 Chronicles (trust me, I’m reading the latter right now!)
* Be consistent. Growing up a lot of people tried to convince me that reading the Bible first thing in the morning is what Jesus would have wanted. That’s dumb. If you’re not a morning person, don’t read it in the morning, you won’t get anything from it. Consequently, don’t read it right before bed or you may find yourself the next morning with your head slumped over it.
* Don’t beat yourself up if you missed a day. Don’t try to read 10 chapters on a Saturday evening to make up for not reading all week. Be gracious with yourself. It’s not about legalism, but the Spirit behind the Law.
* Find an accountability partner. This works wonders. When I first tried to get back into reading the Bible (after years of having an inconsistent devotional life) I asked one of my friends if I could write to her weekly with a report. At first this was a necessary step and there were several weeks when I was tempted to skip, but because I didn’t want to disappoint her I went ahead. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need someone looking over my shoulder, but I still find it helpful to have people to discuss what I am learning with.
* Lastly, I realize that God gave me the incredible privilege of actually attending a Bible College. I know not many people have this opportunity, and therefore it might make certain passages confusing. What I would recommend is having some good study tools to use (many of which are online). I frequently will reference my Koine Greek or Hebrew Bible, but I also use commentaries, and study guides when needed. Don’t be ashamed if something makes absolutely no sense to you. Ask a pastor or strong Christian friend if they may have some resources they could lend to you or tell you about!

If you’d like to read more, check out this blog for some more hints and ideas: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/i-cant-do-it-on-why-losing-weight-and-bible-reading-are-two-of-the-hardest-activities-in-life/