Thursday, April 28, 2016

Impacting Today's Increasingly Secular Culture

God has put a growing burden on my heart about the idea of Christians impacting contemporary culture.

I’ve been reading the “horror stories” about our post-Christian and post-church culture. I get it that young adults are dropping out of church in droves - and that the “nones” (the “religiously unaffiliated”) are the fastest growing people group in this country.

Reading about these trends can lead one to believe that the church, and even Christianity itself, is in deep trouble in today’s culture. It would be easy to come to the conclusion that the church is failing, and that Christians or Christ-followers have lost our influence. However, I would like to take this opportunity to state that I unequivocally disagree!

Christ Himself made it abundantly clear that believers ARE “light” and ARE “salt” (see Matthew 5:13-16) and that we ARE radically different from the world around us. Just as salt thwarts decay, and light shines in darkness, Christ-followers will impact culture. This has been true since Jesus declared it in the Gospels. It was true in Jerusalem with the early church (the book of Acts). It was true in the cross-cultural city of Ephesus. It was true in Metropolitan Rome – and it was also true in the immorality-infected city of Corinth. God’s people, God’s Word, and God’s work (via the church) WILL impact culture.

So, what is going on today? Why are present-day authors and speakers seemingly saying that today’s culture is influencing Christians more than we are impacting culture? Christ Himself has already assured us that His work will last (see Matthew 16:18, “…I will build My church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”) His church does “work” – and we must realize that it is the Lord’s plan, and His only plan for accomplishing His mission (see Matthew 28:18-20 and Ephesians 4:11-16.)

Genuine Christ-followers certainly have the ability to significantly impact today’s culture; perhaps just not with the methods or techniques we used before. The days of sharing a memorized evangelistic outline are probably long gone. My guess is that approach went the way of the two-week evangelistic crusade.

So, how can believers today reach out in an increasingly post-modern, pluralistic and often hostile society?

I am convinced that effective outreach in today’s culture will usually center around 4 basic priorities:

1. The clear, complete, and creative presentation of the Gospel. 

We must never forget that it is still the Word of God that changes people’s lives, (Romans 10:17), and that the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) is still the “good news”! It is becoming quite apparent that today’s churches must stick to a strategy of the consistent exposition of Scripture . Taking principles or thoughts out of their full Biblical context may lead to confusion and even criticism from nonbelievers. It is imperative today for us to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:1-5). The “clear, complete, and creative” exposition of Scripture has maybe never been as important as it is in today’s culture. 

2. Building genuine relationships within your community.

Perhaps more than ever before, today’s believers will need to build caring, authentic, and lasting relationships with others in order to effectively share our faith. Of course, the Lord can still bring people across our paths in airplanes or in other opportunities for brief conversations – and yes, Christians must be “ready always” (1 Peter 3:15) to share the Gospel. However, this so-called post-Christian generation wants to see our “genuine faith” (2 Timothy 1:5) lived out day-to-day. Living and demonstrating an “unfeigned”, or “un-faked” faith is likely to be a growing necessity for effective evangelism. I understand that the concept of “lifestyle evangelism” has been around for a long time, but it has become fairly imperative for believers to develop authentic relationships out of which Gospel-conversations will naturally happen. 

3. Serving others with genuine humility.

Social justice has become a defining mantra for Millennials (today’s young adults). This is a generation that is deeply committed to causes, action steps, and making a difference in the world. From Steph Curry’s donations to “Nothing But Nets” for every 3-point basket he makes, to Toms Shoes’ support of needy children; today’s culture is driven by a desire to do something that is important – something that matters. This push for action must be more than a wish to do something good – it needs to be galvanized by a motivation to share the Gospel. More and more churches are developing outreach strategies that include meeting the needs of the communities in which they are located. Serving others out of genuine humility is becoming more and more important as a catalyst for real evangelism. 

4. Looking for opportunities to have a voice within the “public sphere”.

I also believe that Christians will need to look for creative ways to have a voice today’s secular culture. Let’s face it, our world is certainly becoming increasingly secular and anti-Christian. However, there may be growing opportunities for Christians today to impact culture by taking an active role in arenas within the “public sphere.” I’m talking here about Christians becoming intentionally involved in their communities through sports, the arts, media, schools, and other public venues. I think there are very tangible opportunities here for Christ followers to make a significant or profound impact. This approach is much like what the Apostle Paul did in Acts 17:17, “…he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the Gentile worshippers, and in the marketplace daily…” He took opportunities to publically share his faith in key places where people gathered. 

We may be living in a culture that views today’s Christians as “irrelevant” and “extreme” – or even dangerous. However, it is still within our grasp to make a difference and to boldly share our faith. I’ll state it again, God’s people, God’s Word, and God’s work (via the church) WILL impact culture!


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.