Tuesday, December 15, 2015

CHRISTMAS: When the Lord Shatters Our Daily Routine

Imagine the boredom of watching sheep - at night. Luke 2:8 puts it this way, “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” It must have been mind-numbingly monotonous; “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” The shepherds’ daily routine of watching sheep had to be something like watching corn grow.
Certainly there are Biblical accounts of a lost sheep from time-to-time, and a random bear or lion stealing a lamb or two. But, on most nights the utter monotony of their regular routine must have been quite agonizing. What do sheep “do” anyway – especially at night? It’s no wonder that shepherd boys in Biblical times had the time on their hands to practice playing the harp and to develop their skills with a slingshot.

Then one cold, still night the excruciatingly boring routine of watching sheep on the Palestine hillside was shattered by the voice of an angel joined by a “multitude of the heavenly host.” The shepherds’ lives would never be the same. They abandoned their flocks, their staffs, and their routine to go with “haste” to see the baby Jesus. That opportunity to meet the Lord Jesus Christ changed their lives forever. Suddenly their daily routine was over. They walked away from their lives to see Jesus. The entire universe had changed and these lowly shepherds would never be the same.
The human birth of Christ changed the world – and our new birth in Christ has totally changed our lives as well. It must not be the same old routine of life. Our lives are different – and our lifestyles must reflect that.
The Christmas holiday in our culture changes things as well. The daily routine is over. We have time off of ministry, work, or school. We travel to see relatives or the family travels to see us. We shop for presents for others and open gifts from family members and friends. We consume a volume of things we never eat all year and, of course, we have to dutifully watch the obligatory “The Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We all know that Christmas should never be life as usual.
So, it makes sense that Christmas and especially the birth of Christ should totally change things. It’s not routine and it’s not the normal fare. Christ changes things. May our lives never be the “same old thing” ever again!

There are several significant observations one can make in the familiar Christmas story in Luke 2. However, for our purposes here, notice especially the response of the shepherds in verse 17, “Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” They couldn’t help it. Jesus changed their lives and they had to tell others. Shouldn’t that be our natural response as well? They saw Christ and then couldn’t help but share that marvel and wonder with others.
Also notice the shepherd’s response in Luke 2:20, “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen…” It’s important to notice that the shepherds “returned”. At some point they went back home – back to the fields, back to the sheep, and back to the routine. We’re not sure exactly what happened to those particular shepherds over the long haul. The text is silent in regards to that particular detail, but they did go back. The shepherds returned – “glorifying and praising God.”
We’ll have to go back to our own routines when Christmas is over, too. After the wrapping paper is picked up, after the gifts are returned, after the leftovers are eaten, and after the relatives go home – life will kick back in. At some point the daily routine of life will begin all over again. But, if Christmas teaches us anything, it must be that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has totally shattered the routine of life. At some point, we must “return” to our lives as well, but it must be with an attitude of “glorifying and praising God” as well – and it must be with a desire to share our marvel and wonder with others.

When all is said and done; life, like Christmas, must be all about Christ! Let’s make that commitment in our lives and ministries.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Has “The Family” Left the Building?

According to no less of an authority than a recent Google search, the phrase “Elvis has left the building” has become a cultural catchphrase meaning the concert or event is over; it’s time to disperse or leave. In that vein, I’m wondering if “The Family” has left today’s church. As a follow-up to my book Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for The Church, I’ve been wondering if today’s church structure is actually hurting the family unit. Let me share our family’s story:

When our children were young I would lament the idea of age-segregated Sunday School classes and church-time children's programs that seemed to divide our family. My wife and I have three children who are each two years apart. So, for their growing up years in the church, our kids were in different children's or youth departments based upon their respective ages. For instance, our daughter would be in the junior high class, our oldest son in the junior department, and our youngest son would be in the primary department.
During those years we lived in Michigan, Iowa, and Pennsylvania where each church we attended was characterized by age-specific children's programming. Making matters more interesting for our family was the fact that during that same time frame my wife and I actually served in different departments as well. Our family literally said goodbye to each other each week in the church parking lot and then greeted each other again the parking lot after the church services were over.
That scenario led us to finally say, "Enough is enough." It was time to get out of that rat race. Our children may have been learning at their own educational level of understanding and may have developed positive relationships with their peers; but we believed that it was hurting our family - and it had to stop.
Ultimately we decided to have our 3 kids sit in the church services with us instead of participating in the children's church program. We didn’t make that decision hastily and we certainly didn’t want to hurt our churches’ educational programs for children. It’s just that we wanted our family – as a unit – to experience church together. We realized that we were making a commitment. We knew that discipline could be an issue and we knew that it was our responsibility, not the church’s, to do everything we could to make that experience a positive and constructive time for our family, especially for our children. We didn’t want them to think that church services were boring, irrelevant, or designed just for adults. And we realized that it was our responsibility to craft their experience in the church services.
Please don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that the church is defined by Sunday morning services as the only gathering or serving place. (In fact, I will speak about family units serving as a team in future posts.) However, it became increasingly important to us for our family to attend church, to worship the Lord, and to hear His Word proclaimed TOGETHER. At least for our family, we came to the conclusion that we wanted a shared church experience for our family. Our family’s Sunday morning schedule looked like this: we continued to attend our churches’ Sunday School classes and then kept our family together during the worship services.
As I mentioned, we made it a commitment. My wife and I developed ways for our children to participate in the worship. We looked for ways to introduce the same musical styles and songs into our home life via (in those days) albums and then cassette tapes. We also looked for interactive means for our children to hear and then to apply some of the basic Biblical principles from our pastors’ messages. In our family that took the form of all of us taking simple notes – either identifying the outline or writing out meaningful quotations from the messages. So, we made sure that each child brought and used their own Bible and we provided paper and pens/pencils (sometimes even crayons) for all of us to take notes.
I want to make this clear – our children are not perfect, and neither are their parents! There were times when we needed to discipline them by taking them out of a service or by communicating our displeasure following the service. But again, we came to the conclusion that a shared church experience was important for our family – for all of us. We wanted our children to value inter-generational corporate worship and we wanted them to learn the importance of the preaching of God’s Word.
Thanks for reading this very personal post about our family. At least for our family, we wanted us to be in “the building” worshiping and studying God’s Word - together.

Friday, August 7, 2015

A NEW GENERATION IS IMPACTING OUR CULTURE & OUR MINISTRIES: An Initial Look at “The Plurals”, America’s Newest Generation

“Of the sons of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times,
to know what Israel ought to do…”  1 Chronicles 12:32

One of the hallmarks of visionary leadership is the ability to anticipate the future. I’m not talking here about some bizarre prophetic utterance. I’m referring to the capacity to take a look at the generational trends facing today’s young people and then make intentional decisions that are based on genuine cultural developments.
I am absolutely convinced that ministry leaders must look at emerging generations to identify their common characteristics as part of the leaders’ strategy to set the direction for the future of their ministries. For example, I have often recommended Dr. Christian Smith’s books (Soul Searching, Souls in Transition, and Lost in Translation) to ministry leaders that are interested in reaching Millennials. I have also found Thom Rainer’s book The Millennials to be a classic for church leaders on ministering to that generation.
It is this simple – ministry leaders must get to know young people! The future effectiveness of our ministries is at stake.

A new generation is already here. The Millennials (probably this country’s largest generation ever) are headed to college and are entering adulthood. Church youth pastors and children’s workers are now experiencing a whole new generation of young people – and it is a generation that will certainly alter the future landscape of our culture and our ministries just as the Millennials did before them. That’s what happens when generations change.

Meet The Plurals
               We are presently living through a major generational shift, so says one of America’s leading experts in demographics. The Baby Boomers are nearing retirement, Gen X’ers are at the height of their social leadership, the last of the Millennials are leaving high school – and the entire youth population in this country will be comprised of a new generation. It’s time to meet the first generation of the 21st century.
                Historically, generations change every 15 to 20 years based upon discernible demographic shifts, specific historical events that are mutually shared across a similar stage of life, and changing mindsets that separate one generation from another.
(You can read more about this topic in the Magid Generational Strategies’ free report An Introduction to The Pluralist Generation at http://magid.com/sites/default/files/pdf/MagidPluralistGenerationWhitepaper.pdf.)

“The Plurals” (named after the pervasive philosophy of “pluralism” – the attitude that roughly says everyone can do what they want, that diversity will rule the day, and that most authority structures can’t be trusted), or “The Homeland Generation” (named as the generation that came into existence after 9/11 with a sense that the “homeland” was no longer safe) are today’s youth. Specifically, they were born after 2000, and currently boast of over 28 million members. Based upon current birth rates, this new generation will crest at about 50 million people, give-or-take a few million depending upon immigration numbers. (See http://www.multpl.com/united-states-population/table.) 
(Note: It usually takes a few years for a generational moniker to become widely accepted. However, the leading voices referring to this new generation as “The Plurals” are researchers and bloggers such as Michael Hais & Morley Winograd; while perhaps the leading advocate of the term “Homeland Generation” is generational expert, Neil Howe. You can Google these authors to see what they are writing about this new generation.)

As time goes on the distinctive characteristics of this new generation will grow clearer and will become more and more obvious. Yet, I believe the following characteristics of “The Plurals” will prove to be ministry game-changers. I am making my overly-simplistic observations based upon recent speaking opportunities to teenagers and after reading what several other writers are saying about this next generation.

1.       Plurals are ethnically diverse.
Prognosticators are reporting that this will be America’s last generation with a Caucasian majority. One report put it this way, “The proportion of Caucasians in America will continue to diminish, creating a pluralistic society, one in which there isn’t a majority ethnicity of race.”
This generation grew up with a mixed-race president - and are more likely than any other US generation before them to have a social circle that includes mixed-race, Muslin, Hispanic, and Asian people groups. Race is a non-issue for Plurals.
2.       Plurals will be cautious financially.
Today’s young people came of age during the period of highest economic pressure since the Great Depression. All they have ever known is a world that is experiencing great financial strain. They are watching Baby Boomers postpone retirement due to financial concerns, and are experiencing their Gen-X parents struggling to pay off college debt, while making short-term decisions on major fiscal decisions such as renting instead of buying a house. Many Plurals will undoubtedly prove to be very cautious about their futures as they live through the economic uncertainty of today’s global society.
3.       Plurals are the most protected generation ever – yet are quite fearful.
The mindset of this generation of children and teenagers will largely be shaped by the child-rearing style of their parents. These are the offspring of the celebrated “Helicopter Parents” or even “Stealth-Bomber Parents”. Don’t forget that these kids will have no personal memory of the horrors of 9/11, but that they were raised by parents who have vivid memories of the Twin Towers being attacked, the mass shootings in school and theaters, and the global Ebola scare. Plurals may indeed be the most protected and fearful generation in a long, long time.
I have personally noticed a huge dichotomy within the parents of today’s young people, which I think will greatly impact ministry leaders. Plurals will either be from hands-on, often over-protective homes – or they will have experienced a hands-off, almost disinterested parenting style. Either way, their family issues are a big deal for this generation.
4.       Plurals are tolerant – especially concerning the definition of the family unit.
The most-cited buzzword for the Plural generation has been “tolerance”. That one word is the defining catchphrase for this entire cohort. One of the most significant influences upon young people today will prove to be the recent US Supreme Court decision concerning the definition of marriage. They have been raised in a time where sexual orientation issues have dominated the public conversation – and the dialogue is not going away soon. The “typical” family unit no longer exists for Plurals. Many of them will not even know anyone from what was once considered a traditional or “nuclear” family.
5.       Plurals will be the most connected generation in history.
Like the Millennials before them, the Plurals are a native digital generation. They’ve always had the Internet – and it’s always been in their pocket, not necessarily on their desktops. Social media rules the day for this age group. They are always online. They have never known a time when people could not immediately and instantaneously connect with each other. They also have a confidence in their own ability to learn anything on their own that comes from being Internet-connected their entire lives.
It will be interesting to see if there is a long-term fallout in the Plurals future ability to communicate within a physical community of people. In other words, will online connections ultimately and considerably hurt face-to-face conversations?

There will undoubtedly be some interesting ministry ramifications from these trends. Every generational shift demands a methodological change from the church. We must we sensitive to the changes in culture from one generation to another while not ever abandoning the mandates and principles of Scripture. It will be fascinating to watch this new generation grow up.