Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What is a “Funk and Wagnall’s”?

A couple of my friends (family) have brought up the Orthodox and Roman traditions of following the “church calendar.” This something I truly admire. Unlike many Protestants, it is something of which I am starkly aware. If you have no idea what I am talking about you can research it here. Not just everyone in a local congregation follows it. The whole church, all over the world, follows it. It’s brilliant, really.

However, as much as I like this part, it is a practice that doesn’t go far enough for me and for two reasons. From what I have learned, this is a new generation that is unlike any before it. And they are filled with contradictions. First, they are a fatherless generation, so they are very leery of patriarchal systems. But secondly, in what seems to be a contradiction, they so badly need to be heard. Perhaps it is a direct consequence of such a paternal deficiency that they need to be heard.

Let’s unpack this seeming contradiction. First of all, they are known as a “fatherless” generation. This is arguably the distinguishing characteristic of the kids who are growing up in today’s world. Now stack that on top of the fact that they have more information and input at their fingertips than any previous peoples. Social networks, search engines, and even their favorite bloggers have more impact on their lives and their beliefs than strangers who claim to be “experts” ever will.

They display their lives online—at least the part they want you to see. They count on Wikipedia but have no idea what a Funk & Wagnall’s is, or was. The vast majority of them (90%+) have uploaded data, videos, and/or photos onto the internet. This generation was “born” online. That is why those born since 1990 are referred to as the iY Generation.

Dr. Tim Elmore wrote the book Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future. In his promotional video for the book he says, “When I look at students today and schools (read churches) today, I see a gap. Students today are primarily right brain thinkers; schools (churches) are primarily left brain delivery. Students want to upload their own thoughts; schools (churches) insist on downloading information. And this chasm has led to a disconnect between adults and this emerging generation of kids.”

With so much peer influence, available data, plus paternal rejection, why would they seek out a pastor, a priest, or even a heavenly Father for exclusive input on matters of faith?

If you really want to do some research on this you could read this or this. If you don’t want to understand Generation iY, then you have the answer as to why we are having problems reaching them—indifference and a lack of understanding by the older generations. If you want to go even deeper you should read Elmore’s book.

But secondly, besides being dubious of single source authority, this generation, like no other before it, needs to be heard. Elsewhere on this blog, I have quoted author and former director of Alpha USA Todd Hunter. He says, “It used to be that people primarily listened their way into Christian faith. That made the Christian role talking: defending the faith, explaining the faith, doing apologetics, preaching, writing tracts, etc. While that reality is not entirely gone, these days outsiders are increasingly talking and observing their way into faith. They need to tell their story and see if Christianity is real. This major shift is difficult, because right when seekers are looking instead of listening, the church is at a high mark of un-Christian living. Transformation into Christlikeness has always been the goal of Christianity. Now it is utterly strategic—the future of the faith in the USA, humanly speaking, depends upon it.”

This makes our job listening and living it—two things we don’t do very well. What can the church do? Well, can we rethink our delivery? If not, we may need to prepare ourselves to lose an entire generation. How about simply changing our approach from, “Here’s the truth and you had better believe it and act this way!” to, “Here’s what Jesus said! Here’s my experience. Now, how do you think we’re supposed to live that out?” And then we shut up and listen to them. Not just one Sunday or one Wednesday, but every time we come together. Then that “format” becomes our liturgy.

That’s what happens every time we meet at Agora. Maybe you have a better suggestion. I’m wide open. Our community has evolved and hopefully is still evolving. I say all the time that we don’t think we have it nailed. In fact, I think the idea that we think we need to have “it” nailed is a major deficiency in the universal church today. (“It” meaning message and method.)

Here’s the thing. Could we possibly have enough trust in God and faith in our kids that they could hear from the Holy Spirit for themselves, beginning at a fairly young age? And that between them and us, we could work things out? That sounds like community to me. In our experience, it feels like a community too—wrestling with the questions, the words, the works, the faith, the doubts, the struggles, and the successes.

Finally, we must find a way to allow the kids to play a major role in the conversation. Not just around the Sunday lunch table, but where it matters most—around the Lord’s Table.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sunday Lunch

As to some new ideas to stop the bleeding, first of all I would like to recommend family devotions. From the earliest times in the lives of your children, awaken your whole family around 4:30 am, and put together an hour long presentation of scripture, sharing, prayer requests, and prayer. Everyone should share, and sleeping is absolutely forbidden…

Okay, not really.

Look, I don’t want to diss anyone. Seriously, if family devotions were a part of your upbringing and it was meaningful and life-altering, I honor you and especially your parents for what they were able to do. Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as they might be, it is not the experience of most people, including parents and their children that devotions accomplished what was intended. More often than not they were forced, dreaded by everyone, too long (no matter how short), ineffective, and generally… uh…hated.

The intentions of family devotions are so good. But is there a way to engage your family in meaningful conversations about your faith and about the things that count? And can we find a way to make that happen naturally and spontaneously?

An idea came to me as I walked through my own home one afternoon. I was picking up papers, crafts, worksheets, coloring pages, loose cotton balls, and some multicolored pipe-cleaners that were all over the house that day. And it occurred to me that this represented just one week in the church life of my daughter. This pile was a collection of work that she had been given beginning with Sunday School on Sunday morning, Children’s Church after that, Sunday night worksheets, Wednesday night choir, and followed by her age-appropriate missions program. Wow!

Talk about drinking from a fire hose! She had at least five different lessons from five different teachers about five different subjects with five different scripture verses to memorize. But then, she would be doing that all over again starting the next Sunday morning. Five more of everything. I started looking through the pile and realized that none of what she had heard that week matched any of the three sermons I had heard in the same time frame.

Then a thought hit me. If the church wanted to help facilitate my being the point man in my daughter’s spiritual formation, why couldn’t they plan it out to where all the pastors were using their creativity to coordinate lesson plans? Wait, hear me out. It would have really helped if my daughter and I were learning the same things, you, know, at our own levels, but the same concepts, maybe even the same scriptures at the same time. That might actually spark some authentic and unforced conversation between us.

Then I thought about Sunday lunch. The Sunday afternoon meal after church has always been a family thing for us. How cool would it be if the conversation around the table at lunch time on Sunday afternoon was to eventually come around to the subject matter of the day? What would it do for our kids if they were to become involved in, included in the deep issues discussed at table on Sunday afternoon? Not compulsory, not strained, but naturally included, encouraged. What if their opinions actually mattered? (I’ll go here next.)

This is something with which we have experimented, and we can see real potential for the future as we grow into having just such a creative planning team. Some object lessons work for all ages. Videos, movie clips, and larger metaphors can bridge or can be made age-appropriate. Whatever tools we have at our disposal. Shouldn’t we be the most creative people on earth?

Just my first idea. What do you think?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Strapping on the Feed Bag

Some of you who are as frustrated as I am sincerely want to know how we fix this. And some of you who are upset with me want to say, “Okay, Mr. Smarty Pants, if you think it’s broken—and I’m not saying it is—how are you going to fix it?” To both of you I would say, “I don’t know. Do you have any suggestions?”

With that being said, I do have a couple of ideas that we might try, as well as some kudos for the good things we do.

Let’s start with the kudos. Although I am not a big fan of short term missions trips (I will elaborate on that elsewhere), I do think that any exposure our kids get outside the walls of our churches is a plus. Whether it’s across town or half way around the globe, the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of the homeless man or the third world child is life-changing.

I do think that it is important to try and replicate and repeatedly perform these kinds of activities on a regular basis right here at home. For fledgling faith, mission trips are often like trying to drink from a fire hose. No wonder our kids come back from such outings all fired up! Unfortunately that furor fades quickly when nothing back home commands their attention and demands their hard work like being “on mission.”

Secondly, there is no doubt that our kids, of all ages, are given excellent instruction. If a kid will pay attention, he or she will learn so much about the Bible and about God from the strong teaching that they receive. Knowledge is a very good thing. Unfortunately, unlike knowledge, discipleship is not learned in a classroom or a church sanctuary. Discipleship comes from doing life together. We will save that discussion for later also.

Now, before I enumerate any ideas of my own, let me state that I think it is important that we first consider something. If we believe this, then the church should both teach and equip parents to be the primary source in the spiritual formation of their own children. And, I believe that in addition to teaching youth pastors how to be relevant to kids, our universities and Bible schools should be strategizing as to the methods to end the exsanguination of our young adults. But that must begin when they are young and proceed throughout their school years.

However, for any changes to work it would take a complete paradigm shift from the lead pastor to the parents to the earliest children’s workers. It would have to be taught from the “pulpit” and bought into by Mom and Dad. And first of all, Mom and Dad would have to buy into the idea of taking responsibility for their own discipleship, let alone for the discipleship of their kids. If you have ever heard anyone leave a church saying, “We just aren’t being fed,” then you know why we are in trouble.

I guess it’s weird that I started feeding myself as a toddler. What’s ever weirder is that I started in my teen years to question everything I had ever been taught. I tried to dig it out of the Bible for myself. But for some people, I guess their view of church is strolling in and strapping on the old feed bag.

Next we will examine some new ideas for accomplishing our purposes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Child Ownership Fail (Nice Car!)

Once upon a time, a father bought his one and only newborn daughter a shiny new car. Cars were his passion. And since she was his only child, he wanted her to share his zeal for automobiles. He knew that she wouldn’t be driving it for some time, but he wanted her to be exposed to it from the very first week of her life. He was determined to have her to take ownership and drive it when the time came, but in the meantime he would keep it clean and ready for the day she would take it over.

From the time she was able to read, she didn’t go to regular schools; he took her to schools where they taught her all about cars. She took classes on driving, traffic laws, safety, and car maintenance. By the time she was twelve years old, she had memorized the interstate system, nationwide. She could take apart a transmission, replace the worn parts, and put it all back together again. And she could tell you everything there was to know about Henry Ford and the history of auto manufacturing in the United States.

When she turned 16, her school sponsors took her to Japan and South Korea to help her understand the durability and reliability of the well-made cars there. The next year they took her to Germany and all over Europe to meet the engineers and to see the great automobile plants of such legendary cars as Mercedes, BMW, Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bugatti, and several others you have never heard of.

In all this time, Dad kept the car clean and ready, but she had never driven it once.

On the morning of her eighteenth birthday, the day finally arrived. She had spent her whole life preparing for this day. She knew everything there was to know about cars. Today, she would get to drive one for the first time. After breakfast, her dad handed her the keys and said, “Now you are ready.”

Perhaps you can anticipate what is about to happen. Before she got out of town, she was killed in a tragic auto accident. She had studied her whole life, but she had never once been given the opportunity to drive. She knew everything about cars, but she had never been behind the wheel.

This is the story of the American church and its children. We have given them knowledge, instruction, and pizza by the ton, but we have not let them get behind the wheel. We have failed our kids by withholding ownership of the gospel. Instead we have kept it clean and shiny for them and just out of reach. Instead of handing them the keys as early as possible and sitting next to them for the wild ride, we have kept the keys in our pocket.

We have tried so hard to keep them in the insulated church bubble and isolated from the real world, because we feared they might fail. We just couldn’t let them doubt or question or find their own answers. That was too dangerous. We can’t bring ourselves to let them go there; not on our watch. And by refusing to let them fail, we have also kept them from taking faith deep into their souls.

And here’s some real irony. If they did fail in spite of our efforts, we did not know what to do with them. We did not know how to show them love, forgiveness, and compassion without making it appear that we condone their actions. God will gladly take them back, but we won’t. Our church culture doesn’t allow it.

So instead of admitting that the failure of the best people in the scriptures as well as in real life is as common as rain, we have to pretend to be appalled and disappointed. And if they are leaders in the group, instead of finding ways to restore them and make them examples of God’s forgiveness and love, we make them examples of shame and humility, and we set them aside to show the other kids where sin will get you.

Thirdly, we have failed our kids by withholding the keys to ownership of the faith entrusted to us. And in so doing we can predict the car wreck that inevitably comes when they finally come face-to-face with the real world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Church Fail (Nanny State)

Instead of finding ways to facilitate the vitally important role of spiritual formation in the lives of their children, we (the church) have taken it from the uneasy parents willingly—no, anxiously. Regrettably, the church is more than ready to play nanny, taking undue ownership of their spiritual formation. Even worse, very often the church professionals unintentionally give the impression that parents shouldn’t try this at home. (Like those vapid reality shows that start with the disclaimer: “These stunts are performed by trained professionals; do not try this at home!”)

In other words, we give the impression to parents that they should leave it to the experts.

How did it get this way? (Again, just my observations.) It appears to me that the multi-staffed, mega-church model became a strategy of the church growth movement—which is all about consumerism and competition. The reason the church took the “cradle to grave,” nanny-state position in the first place is because it has become expected. Parents imply, if not state unequivocally, that if we won’t do it, they will take their business (their own children’s welfare) down the road to another church which will be more than happy to do it.

I think “bigger and better” has come at expense of our kids. I think giving parents what they want in order to keep their tithes coming “into the storehouse” is ill-advised and is costing us our children’s faith and future. Maybe I’m wrong.

Want an example?

I know of several churches (personal knowledge, not “I heard about…”) who struggle with or have given up altogether on reaching children and/or youth in their communities because of the growing number of parents who have complained about the unruly, unholy, and undisciplined masses of kids “who don’t know the first thing about how to act in church” (actual parent words).

Parents aren’t just relinquishing their kids’ discipleship; they also want to make sure that their priceless progeny remain inside the safe church bubble. And those “heathens” threaten to burst it. Instead of allowing someone to train the “church kids” how to befriend, disciple, and lead the “un-churched kids,” parents want to make sure “their kids don’t get lost in the shuffle” (yep—actual parent words).

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a mess. I know what it looks like, what it feels like. It feels out of control. It feels like the inmates have taken over the asylum. It’s like… like… “Jesus, send these people home so they can eat. They’re starting to look at us like we’re supper or something.” (Mark 6:30-44)

But Jesus said, “Feed them.”

For the disciples this was a perfect opportunity to learn how to serve these unruly Jesus groupies. And Jesus wasn’t about to let the chance slip away. In fact, it was one of the first opportunities they had to take ownership of passing on what Jesus had been living out in front of them. But the disciples were worn out on the whole multitudes thing. They were ready to send them packing so they could get a little more personal face time with Jesus.

Same thing with the church kids, their parents, and those pesky “outsiders.” They look a little rough. They don’t know how to dress. They’re loud. And the things they say and the words they use! We are so afraid that our babies might actually hear things in church that they hear every day at school. We don’t talk that way. Not here. Not in “God’s House.” (Don’t get me started.)

This kind of prejudice against outsiders is not new to the church, not by a long shot. My dad used to joke about the old “clothesline preachers” saying, “We don’t drink or smoke or chew or run around with girls who do.” Maybe we don’t. But Jesus did. (Didn’t you know that Mary Magdalene and several of the people at one of the parties Jesus attended had a smokeless tobacco addiction?)

While I’m here, I might as well just “shell down the corn and tell the God’s open truth.” If you aren’t mad already, you will be. Some parents of these sheltered church kids, specifically the parents of white daughters, became afraid that one of their young ladies might fall for a young man of color. Heaven forbid. As a man who has three (white) daughters and a best friend who is “chocolate” (his word), this kind of prejudice anywhere, but especially in the church, really ticks me off.

So secondly, the church has failed our kids in reference to our taking ownership of their spiritual formation by cheerfully replacing the parents in their most critical role. And we have done it as a part of our “church growth” strategy.

Next we observe what a failure of ownership means with regard to the kids themselves.

Parental Fail

I think everyone will agree philosophically that parents are primarily responsible for the spiritual formation in the lives of their own children. I don’t know many people inside the church who would argue with that. But if you ask the parents what they are doing in that regard, most would hem and haw and conclude with, “I insist on them going to church.” Instead of owning that responsibility, parents have abdicated their duty and willingly handed it over to the church. How do I know that?

What’s the first question a “church shopper” will ask? After they decide that the music is tolerable and the preacher doesn’t stink. The most common question is, “What do you have for my children?” Unfortunately, often what they mean is, “Will you disciple my children for me so I don’t have to?” I realize that is a strong accusation and a really broad and unfair generalization. However, if the truth were known, it would not be to far a field.

Why is that so important?

As parents we feel… inadequate, out of touch, sometimes even fearful. We don’t know how to do it ourselves. And the church’s position strongly reinforces that fear (but that’s for the next entry). So, rather than risk saying or doing the wrong thing we take them to the experts. We’re counting on the professionals to guarantee our kids’ success in following Jesus. Thus, our fear and a lack of adequate skills oblige us to hand them over to a program that seems better equipped to wow them, win them, and keep them.

Unfortunately, this is not what they need. First, as harsh as it sounds, we have failed our children as parents by not owning our responsibility to be the primary purveyor of their spiritual formation. But what about the church?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Epic Fail

If you ask me, there are explanations for the predicament in which we find ourselves. Given the circumstances, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that we have failed our kids. Not because we didn’t do enough, but because we did the wrong thing.

How would you describe the last 25 years of youth and kids’ ministry? I’d call it massive. We did bigger and better everything: bigger and better facilities, better and more educated workers, the latest video games, brighter light shows, bigger screens, and higher definitions. So much so that I used to think our kids were so exceedingly entertained and so accustomed to extraordinary, age-appropriate instruction as well as a multitude of fluff that they would never be able to assimilate into “big church.” But I don’t believe that any more. Everybody grows up.

No, if age-appropriate ministry was to blame, the churches would be empty. We have professional specialists for every age group and department: Preschool, Elementary, Junior High, High School, College, Young Adult, Boomers, Seniors, Geriatric, Pastoral Care, Music Ministers for each of those, as well as Ministers of Recreation, Wedding Coordinators, Reception and Funeral Dinner Planners. And you have already thought of some title I have left out.

As my friend Dave Zinck once said about the broad specialties of the church today, “From diapers to Depends, we’ve got you covered!” (sic) (Wouldn’t that make a great church mission statement! *Please, don’t!*)

These days even the main Sunday worship service comes in small, medium, large, traditional, contemporary, and high church one after the other in the same location with the same pastors. I’m fine with that. And, more importantly, I think God is cool with all our varied expressions.

Seriously, I’m certain that God is good with “Cowboy Church” and “Biker Church” and “Goth” or “Punk” or “Rave” churches, or any other kind of church expression that relates one’s real life to the real-life God. Aren’t you? Some of you aren’t sure. But it’s not our forms and structures that have let down our children.

Where we have failed the kids is in the realm of ownership—parental, church, and child.