When I was a kid we had a gang that ran around together. We were the “downtown kids” and we had a club. You could join if you could handle the initiation. We played football against the uptown kids and did all kinds of things together. We spent most of our summer days on the Dairy Field, a field comprised entirely of coal dirt about a block from my house. We played baseball, we dared each other to do stupid things and we fought with each other. It was great. To this day the movie Sandlot reminds me of those days. But, not everything we did was innocent. Some of it was really dangerous and some of it was harmful in ways we wouldn’t understand until later. We used to break into the wrecked cars parked behind the Chevy dealer to see what we could find. We found partially smoked cigarettes and we finished them. Sometimes we’d find porn. Mostly we found Playboy magazines and we’d take them to our clubhouse along Black Creek (we had another less gentle name for it) and keep them there. Then we started breaking into houses that had burned down and searching for whatever we could find. It was fun because it had some danger to it (although, our undeveloped minds had no idea how much!). Our porn stash grew. My first exposure to porn came when I was eight years old. I was sleeping over at a friends house. His dad was one of our teachers and he gave us his box of “special magazines” to look through. I told my parents the next morning and they were mortified. But it was too late. I was hooked. Through high school and college I had an on and off relationship with porn. Even after marrying the girl of my dreams I would occasionally look where I shouldn’t look. That is until one day in the 90′s, when I was a father of three small children and God strongly convicted me of my occasional use of porn. I confessed to Bren, I repented, I developed accountability structures that remain to this day. I’m free by God’s grace. And, I’m grateful for that.
About eight years ago I was on a Junior High football bus. I was the only coach on this bus and we had a no cell phone rule. We were coming home from a game in Williamsport. I saw a group of boys staring at a smart phone. They didn’t even notice me going back to them. It was porn. They told me about sharing porn in the lunch room. They told me about sending photos to each other in text messages. They acted like it was normal, and the scary thing is, it is. Porn has become normal.
I’m not going to take any space here to describe the layers of damage that porn does. I’m assuming you already agree that porn is damaging. I’m assuming you want to have a strong strategy for helping those entrusted to your care deal with it. And its not just a male thing any more. The fastest growing segment of porn consumers are female. First exposure to porn for most kids in our culture is around 8 years old.
The church’s response to the porn issue has been atrocious. First we ignored it while ostracizing the participants. Then we hammered people to just stay away from it. The problem is you can’t just stay away from porn. Sooner or later porn is going to find you. It might be on cable television, it might be on Youtube, or a pop up on your browser. Porn will find you and it will find your children. Here is what I think you should do about it.
First, talk to your kids about sex before they’re out of elementary school. And, talk in detail. You’re kids are going to learn about sex from other kids, or from porn or from you. If you feel uncomfortable do it anyway. I remember well the three walks I took with my boys before middle school. I talked about everything, all of it. I taught them slang words they’d be hearing if they hadn’t already. We talked about how “boobs” make them feel and how their bodies would respond. I told them what originally caught my eye about their mother. All of it. They each responded differently. But they were all relieved to have the information. Bren and I still chuckle about those conversations. God loves sex and he wants us to love sex and the only way to do that is to get in front of the culture and manage it for your kids.
Second, give your kids a strategy for dealing with porn. In our house it was simple. Secrets = Sickness. If you have to hide it; avoid it, then share it with me. You need to give your kids a clear plan for what to do when porn presents itself. Help them know what to say if a friend brings something on a smart phone to show them. Tell them exactly what to do on their computer if an image pops up that feels wrong. I’m guessing your kids know what to do if an intruder comes into your home. They probably have a plan if the house catches on fire. They need to have a plan in place for when porn enters the picture because if they try to make a good decision in the midst of those chemicals being released in their brain it won’t happen.
Third, display appropriate affection in front of your kids. Sure they’ll tell you to get a room. Tell them that’s a great idea! Hug your spouse, kiss… kiss long. Be affectionate so your kids have an idea what appropriate relationship looks like.
You can’t protect your kids from porn, but porn doesn’t have to win. You can help your kids successfully navigate the world they’re growing up in.
You might remember that I had Lasik surgery on my eyes in December. The results were not quite what I had hoped for so the doctors have been searching for a solution. It was decided that part of my problem is that my right eyelid (and perhaps my left) is “loose” and not effectively cleaning my eye when I blink. So I have a film over my eye that is hard to see through and I get a lot of “stuff” kind of leaking out. So, now that I’ve grossed you out, the doctors decided to cut a chunk of my eyelid out to make it tighter on my eyeball. That procedure happened this week. All went well, but I look like I lost a UFC fight. I can’t see much of anything out of my right eye. During these few days of recovery I’m being reminded of the essentials of moving forward when you can’t see. Some of you are there right now. You have to make a decision, but you’re struggling. The future is cloudy. You’re trying to discern God’s will for your next steps but you’re stuck. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Do what you can to see clearly. My doctor told me to keep an ice pack on my eye for 20 minutes of every hour for the first three days. I failed. I just can’t do that and take care of some of my other responsibilities. But I can keep ice on my most of the time. The ice will cause the swelling to go down and lessen the pain. It’s the same for you. You probably can’t create an ideal circumstance to make your decision, but you can ask for wisdom (James 1:5). You can search God’s Word for insight. You can gather all the information you can that will inform your decision. We move forward best when we’re intentional.
Accept help. The evening of my little procedure I had some pain and I couldn’t see much of anything. I had to ask Bren to help me with some things that I’d normally do for myself. I don’t like that. But it was cool. She was more than happy to help and we got to laugh through some stuff together. Now we have another little shared experience together that is a part of our life. Jesus followers live in community. There is no room for solo Christianity. When you have to move forward and you can’t see what you need to see get some help. Ask for some perspective from believers you respect. Let your small group help you process your thoughts. A burden shared is a burden made lighter.
Remember its no more than a season. About two weeks from now my eye should be completely normal again. This is a minor inconvenience for a brief period of time. It’s the same for you when you have to move forward without all the data you’d like to have. It’s a season and it’s not going to make or break you. There is nothing that really matters about you on the line because everything that matters is already decided by God. If you’re in Christ, the rest really is just details. Relax in that and enjoy God’s protection for you.
We’re making the point at the beginning of our new series, Big Stuff, that God is most passionate about his own glory. He created the world and us, he pursues us with outrageous love of another kind, he gives us new life with Him, all for his glory. God’s glory (his “spectacularness”) is the blazing center of all that exists.
But if God is most passionate about his own glory doesn’t that make him selfish? No. In fact, God is the only being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the ultimately loving act. The reason for that is because the one thing that satisfies my human heart more than anything else is the glory and beauty of God. God upholds, defends and preserves his glory because without his glory no one could be satisfied.
Think of it this way; the one thing I need more than anything else in any second of any day is mercy. I desperately need to be freed from what I deserve in my sin. I need to escape from the just results of my own decisions because my own decisions (my sin) require swift and severe punishment from God. Because God is holy, His wrath against sin is fierce. But God chooses to give me mercy, not because I deserve (it wouldn’t be mercy in that case) but because he is merciful. What God does for me is because of who he is, not because of who I am. That’s why Romans 15:9 says that the reason Jesus came into the world was “in order that the Gentiles would glorify God for his mercy.”
So when God chooses to give me what I desperately need (mercy) and what I desperately crave (grace) his glory is magnified because both mercy and grace are gifts that come from who God is. It is the most loving thing in the universe for God to preserve and protect his own glory because in doing so he gives us what desperately need. Something to think about as we begin Big Stuff!
The elders and I went on a field trip this past Sunday. We traveled up to Wilkes Barre to attend Restored Church. It’s a new church plant in center city Wilkes Barre. In a few weeks we’ll be traveling south to LCBC Branch Creek, the newest campus of Lives Changed By Christ a church from whom we’ve been learning for several years. I regularly meet with other pastors to share what we’re learning and to learn from them.
After 30 years of ministry, much of it watching various churches and organizations try to go it alone, I’ve come to the conclusion that no church or organization can magnify the glory of God well without collaboration. In the same way that Jesus followers can’t grow without community, neither can organizations.
In fact, I’m ashamed, and have repented, of the more separatist thinking of my earliest days. Obviously collaboration has to be limited to those who embrace the same core truths that we embrace, but we have much to learn from those on mission with God who may be using other methods or reaching other places. We also have much to learn from those who are doing essentially the same thing we are. Collaboration helps us avoid mistakes made by other ministries and to learn from their successes.
The need for collaboration is hard wired into us as image bearers of God. God exists in relationship with himself, he collaborates with himself. In Genesis 1 and 3 God even refers to himself in the plural.
In Exodus 18 Moses gets some great advice from his father-in-law when he tries to bear the load of leadership alone. Jethro tells Moses; “This is not good.” And he was right.
Even the launch of the most powerful force on the planet was infused with collaboration. As the church launched and God used different people and gifts to accomplish different things in different ways the Apostles and others collaborated regularly to learn from one another and to hold one another accountable (Acts 11). As the church matured these times of collaboration were called councils (Acts 15).
The public letters (epistles) written to the church, which have been preserved for us in the New Testament are fraught with references to collaboration between leaders.
The reasons some of us don’t collaborate, if we’re honest, are rooted in pride and arrogance. An isolated church or organization, just like an isolated Jesus follower is going to become increasingly ineffective and dysfunctional (usually marked by bitterness and being judgmental).
Collaboration will play an increasing role in the life of ebc as we continue to pursue the mission that God has entrusted to our care. Our best days are yet ahead, and I’m pretty excited about that.
There are times (this will surprise some of you) when my bride, with whom I am deeply in love, and I disagree about things. We’re different people with different skills and perspectives and we see things differently. Sometimes those disagreements get heated and feelings are hurt and we feel alienated from each other. Over the years we’ve become much better at disagreeing well. We’re to the point now where many times our disagreements are springboards for a deeper relationships because of what we learn about each other through them. These lessons don’t only work in marital conflict, but any kind of conflict. Try em and watch your relationship improve.
Agree on understanding before disagreeing on assumptions. James 1:19 says it this way; be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. In practical terms that means that we’re not ready to disagree, or I’m not ready to criticize until I can state her position in a way with which she’d agree. Until I can say what she means the way she’d say it I have nothing to disagree with because I don’t really know her position, I only know the position I’ve assumed she has taken. My guess is that at least 75% of our disagreements would be alleviated if we used this simple rule.
As a pastor of a church like ebc I receive a lot of criticism. In some cases the person criticizing has constructed an emotional radical perspective that I don’t hold, but they assign it to me based on their interpretation of something they heard or read and then criticize it. Sometimes I’m a sloppy communicator and open the door to misunderstanding, sometimes folks read into what I say, either way, those issues could be easily resolved with a simple “is this what you meant to say?”
Recognize that being correct isn’t the most important thing. This is a tough one for most of us. Everyone agrees with themselves, so everyone thinks their perspective is the correct one. But here’s the thing, in most cases, unity is more important than being right (1 Cor. 1:10; 1 Pet. 3:8; Phil 2:2-3, 1:27; Col. 3:14; 2 Cor. 13:11; Rom 15:6, 14:19; Eph. 4:1-6). The Bible is abundantly clear about the priority of unity for sake of God’s glory. The problem is that most of us (myself included) are arrogant enough to believe that our perspectives are the ones that are so correct that they’re worth sacrificing unity for. Not true. We can hold our perspectives strongly and still be humble enough to come together for the sake of the bigger picture. One of the keys to the strength of my friendship with Bren at this stage of our partnership is simply that we concede things that just aren’t worth arguing over (even if we feel very strongly about them).
On what hills will you die? Think of the last relationship that died in your life. Was the hill you died on worth the cost? When you get right down to it there are very few things that are worth sacrificing relationships for. I don’t want to come to the end of my life and have a string of broken relationships because I was only willing to work and live with people who were just like me. In marriage, in parenting, at work, at church, what are the things over which you think Jesus would sever a relationship? Does your list match his?
The Bible tells us that we should do everything so that God’s awesomeness is magnified in us (1 Cor. 10:31). That includes the way we disagree with each other. Disagreements can be very healthy for relationships and organizations, but let’s disagree to the glory of God.
I get this membership question a lot, and its usually phrased this way; “Why should I join a church when there is no membership in the Bible? It’s a great question, one that I’ve wrestled with a lot personally. And, its true, there is no local church membership, at least the way we do it in our culture, in the Bible. However, neither does the Bible have any tax deductions for donations, or church’s that are registered corporations with the government that own real estate and employ a staff of people. The New Testament doesn’t exist in a culture where there are numerous expressions of the faith in each community. And, the New Testament isn’t written in a culture where there was a very real risk of civil litigation as a result of living out biblical community and discipline.
The New Testament assumes something that we can’t, and that is that those attending a local church already knew they were under the authority of the leadership of that family and accountable for community life within it (Romans 12:4-5; Hebrews 13:17). So, yes, I think church membership is important. But, there are a couple things to keep in mind.
Joining a church has nothing to do with how much God loves you or whether you’ll go to heaven. There are lots of folks who hold church membership that aren’t trusting Jesus to save them. Church membership is eternally useless to them. Membership doesn’t get you more points with God. At the moment you trust Christ to save you, you are adopted into God’s church. Your local church membership is simply an expression of affiliation with a local expression of that universal family.
Join a church where Jesus is the head, and not just in name. Jesus is the leader of the church. He’s the owner (Colossians 1:18). Lots of churches talk like Jesus is in charge, find a church where Jesus is central to the decision making. At ebc we just formalized the role of our elders. They do one thing… they “represent the interest of the owner (Jesus).” In every conversation their job is to make sure that whatever is proposed or under discussion is a reflection of what we believe Jesus would have us do, the way he would have us do it.
Join a church where the Bible is the final authority. Enough said.
Join a church where the mission and methods energize you. The Bible says precious little about how to do church. There are lots of good ways to do church and God uses those different methodologies and strategies to reach lots of different kinds of people. You need to find a church that fits what God is doing in you and get involved in serving others.
Embrace the mess. Church is messy because its full of people. The leaders will make mistakes, some of the sermons will stink, people will say stupid things, the music will be too (loud, soft, modern, old, etc.). Sooner or later you’re going to be offended. The church is led by fundamentally flawed people who are deeply wounded who lead fundamentally flawed people who are deeply wounded. Some people are easily offended and others offend easily. Don’t be surprised by it, expect it.
The church is the hope of the world. God uses the church to change people. We see it all the time. Marriages are healed, addictions managed, new life is granted by grace and people are changed. The church is God’s singular strategy for the world, there is no plan B. At the end of the day its so worth it. You have no better opportunity to be a part of something so much bigger than you that will never, ever die.
Do it. Find a church. Join it. Pitch in. Enjoy the process and results.
I’m giving this space away this week. In a world where life is reduced to 140 characters per tweet God is raising up some younger men and women who can communicate volumes in just moments. And besides…. this is the perfect introduction to what we’ll be talking about this weekend as we end our series “Uncommon Courage.” Hope to see you. It’s less than five minutes… His name is Clayton Jennings. Well said Clayton….
Our college students have returned home for the summer. High school graduations are only days away, elementary field trips are underway as teachers wind down their time with our kids. Summer presents a golden opportunity for parents to accomplish big work with their kids. Even if you have kids that are over programmed, over scheduled and over committed you should still have a more relaxed overall schedule to connect this summer. Unfortunately most parents will fail, not because they didn’t want to connect, not because they didn’t try to connect, but because they don’t really know how to connect with their kids. As parents we have a tendency to think that most communication has to go from us to them. We have things we want to tell them, values we want to impart, maturity we want to cultivate so we end up talking at them rather than connecting with them.
In the same way that Jesus came to us to live in our world and experience our struggles as we do, parents have to understand that connecting with our kids begins not where we are, but where they are. Connecting and communicating are different things. Communicating works best after a connection has been established but most parents aren’t patient enough to let the connection happen. The most we parents can do is create an environment where connections can be established. You have to find what works for your kids. It took me a long time to learn how to connect with my boys. I had to stop pushing. I had to stop asking questions that would set up the opportunity to say what I thought I needed to say. This will offend some of you, but what worked for me was building a camp fire and lighting up a couple stinky cigars and sitting and waiting. It has become a regular thing for my sons and I now. When we’re together we make a fire, and light up some stogies. Then I can listen, I learn what’s really happening in their lives. It’s a connection. From that connection I can encourage them, sometimes I can even give some advice (if they ask for it). The connection is what matters because you can’t do anything of value until you’ve connected.
This summer you have a rare and diminishing opportunity to really connect with your kids. Be intentional, go for it.
On my way to the office this morning I saw a farmer plowing a field. He knows exactly what it will take to turn that field from dirt to profit over the next several months. He will plant and water and do what it takes to grow food, and he’ll probably be successful. It’s part of my job to grow things too. I’m supposed to grow people. Church people call the process discipleship (From a Greek word which literally means “learner” and culturally means “imitator.”) or “spiritual formation.” It really means growing a faith that is deep and sturdy and defining.
There are lots of ways to try and grow people. Higher churches like most Catholic or Episcopal churches and others similar to them provide structures to follow. Prayers are to be recited, rituals observed. There can be much meaning in much of the structure, but over time it tends to create a person with a religious life and a secular life, which is a false dichotomy.
Some churches try to provide an emotional experience that is dependent on the supernatural display of things like healing or speaking in tongues. They tend to develop people with huge hearts but in their need for experience they can sort of manufacture an empty emotionalism that tends to not be sufficient for the bigger questions of life.
Other churches rely on strict teaching of the Bible from the front to the back, typically delivered with certain cultural and methodological expectations for both those in the church and those outside. Since this is more my background I see this one more clearly (and probably more emotionally) than the others. I’ve seen people with more Bible knowledge than I’ll ever have, people who immerse themselves in the Bible constantly, only to devour one another over incredibly silly, extra-biblical things. I’m still mystified how someone could be so full of the Bible and yet so empty of the fruit of the Spirit.
If the structure of high church doesn’t quite do it, and the emotionalism of low church doesn’t quite do it, and the teaching of fundamentalism doesn’t quite do it, what does it really take to grow sturdy, deep followers of Jesus, who actually look like Jesus would look in our culture? That’s the question that has driven me for the last 10 years.
Here’s what I’m learning.
Real growth is a God-thing. God is the one that saves us (Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:8; 2 Tim. 1:9), and it is God that grows us (Phil. 1:6, 1 Thess. 5:23-24). No amount of church ritual, no amount of manufactured emotionalism, no amount of Bible study and religious effort will cause growth. Growth happens when I cooperate with God as he leads me to my next step. Churches don’t grow people, God does. Churches create an environment where the growth, hopefully, can happen. Churches can also hinder growth, they can become counterproductive and they do that when they forget that church is a means to an end and the end is Jesus (not more church, or more Bible, or more experiences, or spiritual disciplines or whatever).
There are at least three catalytic events that seem to spur deepening faith. Years of research on hundreds of thousands of Christians reveals that there are three primary activities which are catalytic to more growth. They are mentoring relationships, pondering Scripture for personal application and serving. At ebc we try to create the opportunity for mentoring relationships to occur through small groups. Simply assigning mentors for people seems to not be effective because some people just don’t connect well. Small groups create the opportunity for those relationships to naturally occur. Application driven Bible study asks the question, “How will this change me?”, rather than “What does this teach me?” When knowledge is separated from application we miss the point of growing. Our knowledge then becomes a source of pride (1 Cor. 8:1-2) and distracts us from the mission for which we’re here (Titus 3:9; 2 Tim. 2:14,22-24; 1 Tim. 1:4, 4:7, 6:4-5).
Finally the point at which people report that Jesus becomes the single most important thing in their life is that time when they start to tell their story of how Jesus invaded their life and change them. The point is that genuine deepening faith results in more mission. Discipleship and mission can never be separated. When they are we get off track and miss the bigger picture, which is to pursue Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ way, out of love for Him. If you’re more passionate about the church, or the Bible, or a religious experience, or certain methods, than you are about Jesus you’ve gotten off track somewhere (2 Cor. 11:2-3).
So what about your own faith. Are you falling deeper in love with Jesus (Matt. 22:37-38), or are you just getting more off track?
Today is my youngest son’s 22nd birthday. A couple of things are running around in my mind as I let my mind settle on the fact that all three of my boys are grown men. First, I’m old. Second, while God has been overwhelmingly gracious to Bren and I with our boys I do have a couple regrets about my stint as a full time father. Maybe sharing them with you will help you.
I regret not realizing that the most important seasons of parenting occur while you’re anticipating the next season. Looking back I think we were always preparing for the next season rather than being fully invested in the season we were in. When our boys were pre-schoolers, which seems like just last month, we were thinking about getting them ready to be students. When they were in elementary and middle school we were looking ahead to high school. Before we knew it the seasons were over and I don’t think we ever really learned how to actually live in the season we were in at that time.
I regret the lapses into thinking parenting was about behavior management. Bren and I knew and agreed that behavior is never the issue. Behavior is always a symptom. We resolved to work at the source to shape the hearts of our sons knowing that behavior would take care of itself. The problem with that is that managing behavior is more expedient and there were times when, in my impatience, I regressed to managing behavior rather than shepherding the heart. As far as I know I have asked my sons to forgive me for each of those lapses and they’ve been very gracious to do that.
I regret using my sons performance to puff up my own ego. We all do it I guess, but its a trap. As soon as we count on our children to make us feel better about ourselves we are on the dangerous edge of manipulating them to be what we think we need them to be rather than releasing them to be all God created them to be.
I love being a dad. I love it. The journey has been everything I hoped it would be and so much more. All three of my sons know who they are to whom they belong and it just doesn’t get any better than that. I’m so grateful for God’s incredible grace in parenting. That same grace is yours too if you’re in Christ. Let’s remind each other that parenting is always about stewardship, never ownership. It’s about launching!
I keep telling Bren we should have more boys, but she looks at me like I’m from Mars and she’s from Venus when I say that…..