Monday, February 10, 2014

The Cool Factor

Early this year, Pastor Emmanuel announced that there would be a Wednesday Bible Study called "The Cool Factor: How To Get Your Teenager Excited About Faith". THEN - he asked me to teach it (HA!) What follows is my attempt to interpret that theme in my own way, while also completely undermining it. The actual Bible study was poorly attended, so I figured there was no harm in giving it to you again here, at your convenience. Enjoy!

Phone booth stuffing. Flagpole sitting. Goldfish swallowing. Bellbottoms. Pet Rocks. Cabbage Patch Kids. More recently - Planking. Tebow-ing. Owling.

At some point or another, all of the above listed things were considered "cool." They were the in-thing; the thing to do or have.

But, as illustrated by those silly fads, "cool" is fleeting. 
"Cool" is transient. 
"Cool" is a moving target. 
"Cool" is not necessarily something you want to hitch your wagon to, if you know what I mean. 
Not for the long-haul (see what I did there?) Not when it comes to matters of faith.
"Cool" is the house Jesus describes in Matthew 7:24-27 as being built upon sand instead of rock.

Which is why, as far as I am concerned:

When it comes to the discipleship and spiritual direction of our students:
COOL is not a FACTOR.

Consider the prophet Samuel and his relationship with young (and future king) David.
Samuel was not cool.
Samuel did not run with the same crowd of friends as David.
Samuel did not listen to the same kind of music as David ("You kids and your harps!")
Samuel did not wear the same clothes as David.
But in I Samuel 16:1-13, Samuel saw something in David that God saw- something David could not see- and he cultivated it. He put David in a situation where he couldn't help but live into the image of who God wanted him to be.
Samuel was not cool. And neither are you. And neither am I. And it's silly for us to try to be.
What our students need is not more "cool." What they need is a little "Samuel School" from the adults in their lives who can see in them what God sees that they can't.

I personally had an experience like this that shaped me.
One day during the summer after 8th grade, at the height of my teenage rebellion and the lowest depth of my depravity, I was hanging out in my Youth Minister's office waiting for my mom to finish up some work at the church (an ongoing theme of my childhood). After multiple attempts to call me to the car (to which I responded not at all) she came to the door of his office, exasperated, and mentioned how annoying and delinquent a kid I was, not just that day, but every day.
My youth guy responded with a smile, a twinkle in his eye, and a statement to this effect: "Don't worry about this one - he's going into the ministry."
My mother and I responded with the kind of laughter that makes you spit out whatever you're drinking. Neither of us could imagine such a far-fetched notion!
Yet here I am today, 22 years later, with a college degree in Religion, Seminary education and 13 years of experience in Student Ministry.

"Okay, genius, well what about the part where my kid gets excited about faith?"
I'm glad you asked! I have 2 things to say about that. And I'm not trying to be snarky about it - I honestly think it's time we get real about the harsh realities of discipleship. So let's be frank:

1.Your kid will be about as excited about faith as you are.
That is to say - your kid will likely never be excited about faith if you're not. Your kid will likely never make faith a priority in his/her life if they don't see you doing it. Your kid will never think theologically about life, or see the world through the lens of the Kingdom of God if you don't.
30 years of research tells us that a child’s mom, dad, grandma and grandpa are the FOUR people who influence his/her faith life the most. In order to have faithful kids, we have to pay attention to BEING faithful adults. Youth ministry is about intentionally passing on faith from generation to generation!

Here's that famous "Gumballs" video you've probably seen before. It's worth another look.

Behold, this very idea, outlined early on in Scripture:
Deuteronomy 4:9
"Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them."

Deuteronomy 6:4-9
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."

Deuteronomy 11:18-20
"Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates,"

Finally, a warning about what may happen if we fail to teach them...
Deuteronomy 28:15, 32, 41
"However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:
"Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.
"You will have sons and daughters but you will not keep them, because they will go into captivity."

Is there a better description of the weariness that can come with being a parent (especially of teenagers) than, "you will wear out your eyes watching for them... powerless to lift a hand"?

2. We have to write better stories with our lives.
By way of example, consider this story from Donald Miller's book A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, chapter nine about "How Jason Saved His Family" (pages 49-51).
(Go ahead and click through to that link and read it. It will be your favorite part of this blog post, I promise.)

"Well, what in the world do I need YOU for, baldy?"
Well, to begin with - I'm not sure I like your tone. But I'm glad you asked!
The truth is, in an ideal world - you wouldn't. For thousands of years professional student ministers didn't exist.
But we don't live in ideal world. We live in the real world.
And I hope my role will become one of coach, or equipment manager. I'm the guy who puts tools in your toolbox to help you be the Youth Pastor in your own home. The goal of our FamilyFaithLife website ( is to begin collecting and curating resources for parents to use in discipling their students. Some of those resources will be in the form of books or articles. Others will be online resources developed by others that we link to. Others will be live offline events like the Faith Together Workshops, or JOURNEY Bible Study, that you and the students in your house can attend. Anything we can think of or find to help each other out, we want to collect and disseminate to each other.
Truth be told - I ought to be spending more of my time and energy with YOU, rather than with the students. After all, it's YOU that they are taking their spiritual cues from. And this stuff is better caught than taught.
Let's partner together! And let me help you do what it takes to be your kid's spiritual hero.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: Lying by Sam Harris

In 2014, I have resolved to spend part of my Friday mornings reading - not only for my own pleasure and enlightenment, but so that I might be more prepared to share resources with those of you who are into that sort of thing.

I have just this minute finished reading Lying by author Sam Harris. I wanted to write and publish this quickly because I enjoyed it so thoroughly, and felt others would benefit from the recommendation.

Hardly any of us agrees in theory that Lying is a good thing. But too often, our practice undermines that particular ethic during the course of life. We tell little white lies, or polite lies all the time to avoid disharmony and discomfort. Harris proposes that there really isn't any good reason to lie, and he takes on all the little exceptions we try to make. More than just making a condemnation of lying - he extols the virtues of an honest life over and above the kind of life we arrive at through dishonesty.

The text of the book is exceptional and captivating, but one other thing interests me - it's brevity. Really a hardback booklet, the text itself is only 42 pages. I was able to finish it in approximately 2 hours, and in one sitting. In truth, I consider myself a pretty efficient reader, but I don't imagine it would be a long undertaking for anyone. This is a really refreshing thought. How many of us have started book after book, waded a couple of chapters in, but then started to feel like the author was trying to artificially expand the word or page count? (Of course there are plenty of great authors who don't do this.) In Lying, the author has something important, interesting and useful to say, but doesn't insist on lingering after he says it. I wish more authors would do this. I would read more books, be much better informed, and not feel guilty about leaving books half-finished.

I am vaguely aware of Sam Harris reputation of being antagonistic of faith (all religious faith, not just Christian), and his being identified with some in the latest movement of new atheism. I want to be clear: I found nothing here that is not entirely consistent with a Christian ethic of honesty, integrity, wholeness. What I found is the clearest, most concise and convicting explanation why a life lived in deceit is fruitless, and a life of honesty to be pursued at all times. I might go so far to say that Lying does a better job than most churches I have encountered at articulating the kind of honesty and integrity that I believe should be a hallmark of Jesus-followers. Not once in this book did I find his supposed antagonism toward faith on display.

As people of faith, if we want to love the truth, we must follow that truth wherever it leads. We must also acknowledge it and celebrate it wherever we find it, even (especially?) in the mouths of atheists . A former pastor friend used to say, "God can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick." And that is as true of you and me as it is of atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, Democrats, and Republicans. As a Christian, I am confident in saying that when it comes to Lying, I agree with Sam Harris. In fact, I would welcome his take on the subjects of Murder, Adultery, Stealing, Coveting, and other such commandments.

Many thanks to my good friend Alex Flick who insisted that I read it, and loaned me his pristine copy.
I must admit that the Rob Bell Tumblr posts I asked him to read as part of this deal amounted to more than 42 short pages - although they were significantly less dense. ;-)