Parents, Stop Sunday Schooling your Kids out of Church
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This will be the first installment of a two-part series. Tim Wright here and Jonathan Aigner here have significant ideas which are worth our attention in thinking through our “theology of the church” with respect to the participation of children and students in the life of the church. 

Tim Wright notes the shift the western church has made over the last 40 years to enculturate kids with their own programs. Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences of this increasingly ubiquitous model of the church in North America is that many young people are losing — and have forever lost — any meaningful touch points with the rest of the congregation. He argues that by segregating our kids out of worship, we never fully assimilated them into the life of the congregation: “They had no touch points.  They had no experience. They had no connection with the main worship service—its liturgy, its music, its space, its environment, and its adults. It was a foreign place to them.”[1] 

Not coincidentally, once kids finished with the children or student ministries departments of the church….many simply left the church as young adults.  Former youth group kids, now in their 20s and 30s, figured, “Hey, my parents dropped me off at sports. My parents dropped me off at piano.  My parents dropped me off at church.”

But now?  Young adults can easily connect the dots:  “Now, I don’t play sports; now, I don’t play piano. I guess church was in the same category – a passing fancy of my childhood, an age-appropriate activity to eventually out-grow.” 

Over the last 40 years, children and students have enjoyed tailor-made programs suited to engage them, persuade them, and woo (and wow) them to become Christians. Yet we didn’t raise them, teach them, show them, or disciple them to become Churched Christians. Perhaps that reason, in part, is why so few of the next generation attend church today; they’ve graduated out of the church we gave them.  As Tim Wright expresses it, “We’ve essentially ‘Sunday-Schooled’ them out of church—because we never assimilated them into church.  We never ‘church-broke’ them.”

 Five Guiding Thoughts for Parents

(1)   A Foreign Language of Worship?  If “worship services” are a foreign language to our kids by the time they turn 12 (and even more so by 18)…“Houston, we have a problem”.  Kids are more likely never to come back to participate meaningfully in a congregation if their discipleship is forever and only “age appropriate”.    

(2)   Discipleship Untethered to Congregational Life?  In trying to raise disciples of Christ, we must remember that disciples untethered to congregational life is an oxymoron both scripturally (as we read the Old & New Testaments) and historically (as we look back on the history of the church).  In fact, I’d argue that any Christian who is growing in his love of Jesus, will also be growing in his love for the body of Christ (for whom Christ died). 

(3)   What’s the Real Problem?  The main problem why children or teens fight their parents about church is not the church, nor the preaching, nor the style of music, nor the architecture.  Nor is it helpful for the parent to shift the blame onto the institutional church (i.e. “the church doesn’t meet our children or teenagers where they are”).  The real problem is a combination of: 

  • (a)   the foolishness and hardness of heart of our children or teenagers.  Simply put, many are not mature enough to recognize what they really need spiritually.  In this sense, children and teenagers are like all of us – rebellious sinners in need of grace.  AND/OR

  • (b)  our parenting which capitulates to the desires and whims of our children.  Parents often (too easily) give up the fight which occurs in the heart of the family for producing mature disciples of Jesus Christ.  AND/OR

  • (c)   parents effectively communicate through their actions that church is marginal to life.  Often, the church becomes a secondary or tertiary “thing we do” after football or soccer, band or scouts.  Parents effectively communicate to their children: everything else is more important for your life – school, homework, sports, instruments – than you attending both the worship service (1 hour) with your family and receiving age-appropriate teaching in Sunday school (1 hour) on a Sunday morning.   

 (4)   Disciplined Faithfulness Reaps Great Rewards:  What if kids and parents attended church together 40 times over the course of the next year?  (Think:  200 times from ages 8 – 12.)

As a parent, you’d have frequent congregational touch-points to talk about faith in the home.  Your kids would frequently see the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the ordination of elders, the welcome of new members, and the laying on of hands (in prayer).  They would pray for the health of the sick and comfort for families experiencing loss. Their ears would tingle at the exciting missionary reports from India or Africa about the growth of the Gospel. Slowly, they’d begin to develop a theological and spiritual vocabulary consisting of words like Trinity and Tithing, Grace and Gospel, Sacraments and Salvation.

These experiences of worship intersect in vital ways in the home. Precious points of doctrine can be explained. “Congregational memories” can be imprinted on the soul of your child. Slowly, your child’s congregational muscles begin to be formed — muscles which, when fully grown and developed — are some of the strongest muscles in our body for establishing and anchoring our life of discipleship.

By God’s grace, your child just might develop the attitude that participating in congregational worship is simply “something that we always do as a family,” which just might yield fruit into young adulthood and beyond. 

(5) Good Things are often Hard Things (at first).  In high school, I did not much enjoy reading Shakespeare or Homer, but I did so because it was good for me.  It forced me to stretch my imagination, my poetry, my reading level, and my general appreciation and enjoyment of literature. But now? I’d love an afternoon at the beach reading Shakespeare if such a time were gifted to me!

I also remember pounding my fists in anger on our family’s piano countless times growing up when I was age 8, 10, and 12 when my mom “forced” me to play piano.  But now?  I often sit down and play the piano for 45 minutes just for fun.

What if we parents had the same resolve for church that we did for soccer, drama, school, and music? We give countless hours to sports or music, but often fail to display the same resolve or commitment to church. It would be profitable for us, as parents, to simply ask: Why? (While…gulp…remembering that eternity is at stake.)

Final Story

I remember when our oldest son Kenyon was seven years old.  One day, after the worship service in Edinburgh, he remarked:  “Why does the pastor talk about ‘The Gospel’ all the time?”  (I was a student at the University of Edinburgh and not a pastor at this time.)  He didn’t understand everything from the church service at his young age, but that day (and many more like it) were moments that we had to shepherd our child’s heart, explain Christian truths, and bring the truths of Christ further into our home.  Congregational life was reinforcing home life in a way that was deepening and awakening spiritual truths in our young boy.

Is this challenging?  You bet.  Is it hard?  Sometimes.  Is it worth it?  You bet!  (Are these hard words for a pastor to write? Yes!)

In the next installment, I promise to do more encouraging — by delving into the ways your church wants to come alongside you to equip you on this hard road of parenting and its intersection with discipleship in the life of your child.

As your pastor, let me encourage you to continue to fight the good fight that exists in the home to form disciples of Jesus Christ. Go get ‘em!

How do I practically work this out? What does all this mean for my family in our congregation? We’ll delve into the practicalities in Part 2 of the series…

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[1] See Tim Wright, “Sunday Schooling our Kids out of Church”, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/searchingfortomsawyer/2014/08/sunday-schooling-our-kids-out-of-church/.

Jason Carter
When to Speak Out? A Pastor's Engagement with Current Issues
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For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . .a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7)

A pastoral colleague recently bemoaned, “It feels like I get hammered if I do, and hammered if I don’t.”  He was referring to the constant pull of our culture these days to “make a statement” about the current “hot topic” trending on the 24-hour news cycle or on social media.  The pull to “use your platform” from the pulpit to the blogosphere is an interesting dance for the contemporary pastor because there exists some inherent tensions in pastoral ministry in shepherding the flock, teaching the gospel of grace and truth, and modeling winsome cultural engagement in an increasingly fragmented world.

On the Value of Statements 

I was initially ordained in a mainline church which, for several decades, felt comfortable occupying space near the center of American culture.[1]  For most of my lifetime, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate has been a Presbyterian (from 1969 to 2003).  The ethos of Presbyterian cultural engagement for several decades seemed to carry an attitude best portrayed by the famous TV commercials in the 1970s and 1980s with the line:  “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”  In the commercials, the entire room would stop – in silence – and lean in closely to hear whatever E.F. Hutton had to say.  The luxury of Christian cultural engagement 40-50 years ago was that people listened to the church.

That time has passed.  Case in point:

  • Only a few years ago, my former denomination, the PC(USA), spent time and energy outlining a peace resolution for Israel—Palestine.  Oh the hubris of it all!  Was the world (or even the Middle East) really listening and paying attention to a bunch of (predominately white) American Presbyterians thousands of miles away?  What was the value of all that time and energy spent on statements about Israel-Palestine by a bunch of American Presbyterians? 

  • A short time ago, a prominent blogger was calling for Christians to “walk out of their churches” en masse if the priest or pastor didn’t speak out against the separation of children from their families at the US-Mexico border.  I personally wonder whether such vitriol reflects an ache and a longing to restore the primacy of Christendom’s authority.  Surely the culture is listening to the church….right? 

Yet, as the church has been pushed from the center to the periphery of American culture, its cultural engagement radically (and necessarily) changes in tenor and tone.  Recognizing the massive shift from a Christendom mentality to a post-Christian era mindset is indispensable for guiding pastoral discernment for wading into cultural engagement in the contemporary world. 

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt coined the term, US Presidents have been known to use their “bully pulpit” to trump up favorable public opinion for high-profile initiatives.  A hot-button topic will arise in the country, and the president will inevitably begin communicating far-and-wide about the issue in hopes of swaying public opinion. 

Yet George C. Edwards III, the presidential historian at Texas A & M, after conducting a massive study on the “bully pulpit” over the last six decades of American history suggests that the steady stream of statements from US Presidents have almost always failed to move the needle of public opinion or translate into significant legislative victories for presidential policies in Congress. 

"It is true for all presidents. They virtually never move public opinion in their direction," Edwards tells National Journal. "It happened for Ronald Reagan. It happened for FDR. It happens all the time. You should anticipate failure if you're trying to change people's minds. The data is overwhelming.”[2]

A Biblical Tension Built into Pastoral Ministry

It was the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper who famously declared, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”  The Kingdom has already come in Christ.  As a Reformed pastor, this knowledge leads me to believe that Jesus cares deeply about the racism of our society, the treatment of immigrant families, the character of our political discourse, and the integrity of those who govern.  This is not how it’s supposed to be.  Christ wants to cry “mine” over the injustices of our day, just as he prophetically decried the injustice of his day.    

Yet Herman Ridderbos (another Dutch Reformed theologian) reminded us of “the coming of the kingdom”.  The kingdom is not yet.  There is an eschatological tension inherent in the proclamation of Christ’s kingdom.  One day there will be a reckoning.  Martin Luther once said there are only two days: “today” and “that day”.  The Kingdom of Christ also cries “wait” – because on that day “there will be no more mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). 

So how does a contemporary pastor shepherd the flock within this tension? 

A Few Guiding Thoughts

1.     Nobody is listening in today’s world.  So maybe the most radical prophetic posture for a pastor to take is to…listen.  Listen to the congregation: for their hurts, for their scars, for their aspirations. Is there a kind of prophetic listening that contemporary pastors can develop which actually precedes speaking?  Might prophetic listening actually be more effective than prophetic speaking in many cases in our divided and broken world?  I believe that deep listening begets strong wisdom.  We need contemporary pastors to listen to the myriad of ways congregations have been spiritually de-formed over the years in order to shepherd effectively in today’s divided world.

2.     I’m convinced that people who chide pastoral leadership for “not weighing in” are typically asking for a “bully pulpit” rather than a “prophetic witness”.  A bully pulpit is typically aimed “at the other guy” who sits “across the aisle”. Most of what passes for prophetic statements today are really just regurgitated “hot takes” from political pundits. A true prophetic witness is likely to have all of us on our knees asking for repentance.

3.     Prophetic statements without prophetic action can be meaningless.  Not always.  And not in every case.  But our human condition is all-too-easily deceived into smug self-righteousness just because we share a carefully worded statement decrying the latest injustice in our world.  Be careful: one’s righteousness does not depend on what you are against (or whether you use your “platform” – which everyone erroneously thinks they have in today’s social medial world – to weigh in on current events).

4.     The way of wisdom may be silence.  I know very few people whose expertise or vocation qualifies them to speak with proper nuance on every contemporary issue of the day.  Pastors, like most people, only have a limited amount of time to get properly informed; by the time one has researched the issue carefully, the current “crisis” has probably moved onto something else.  Humility and wisdom are often displayed in not weighing in on every controversial issue.  

5.     Dialogue or Statements?  Furthermore, nagging contemporary issues are often addressed in the church most effectively through conversational dialogue rather than pulpit pronouncements.  Again, not always.  And not in every case.  Yet, often these issues are best tackled through the slow discipleship of individuals within the flock.    

6.     Pastoral ministry is guided by the Word of God.  There is a temptation to let the 24-hour news cycle set the agenda for pastoral ministry.  Yes, there is a place for winsome cultural engagement. Yes, the church should not be afraid to address “what people are talking about” in our culture.  Yet the culture doesn’t set the agenda for pastoral ministry.  In fact, I firmly believe that many souls are being distracted spiritually (or even lost entirely) by an inordinate amount of attention paid to the 24-hour news cycle.  We’ve reached a tipping point in American evangelicalism wherein even we in the church are more fascinated with the Mueller Report than we are with the reports of Matthew and Mark.

Pastoral ministry, in this sense, is counter-cultural and prophetic in its insistence that people encounter the Word of God.  As people are “rooted and built up” in Christ and “strengthened in the faith” (Col. 2:7), pastoral ministry unleashes an equipped body of believers to be salt and light and carry a biblical worldview out into the world to make more of a difference than any “bully pulpit” could ever hope to achieve. 

—————

[1] Perhaps it was the case that the mainline church was always just a mirror that reflected the moral “center” of the nation.

[2] See George E. Condon Jr. and National Journal, “The Myth of the Bully Pulpit: Presidents can talk all they want (and they do), but it won’t get results”, The Atlantic, April 4, 2013: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/04/the-myth-of-the-bully-pulpit/443067/.

 

Jason Carter
Slow is Necessary
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I still remember the conversation.

Walking along a gravel path in the woods of eastern Kansas over 20 years ago, I first heard a truth that makes more sense the older I get:

Busyness is a serious obstacle, if not one of the main obstacles, to Christian growth and spiritual maturity.”

To be honest, I was surprised to hear it at the time. Surely, I thought, there were more temptations to the Christian life than…busyness.

It’s interesting that if the church still talks about sin at any great length, it usually harps on the social sins – those outward behaviors which can easily distinguish those who belong (us) from those who don’t belong (them), the righteous (us) from the unrighteous (them), the saints (us) from the sinners (them).

Yet if the DNA of sin could be seen under a microscope, I wonder if we’d see two dominant threads of genes, especially as it characterizes the western church – selfishness and busyness.

If sin, by its very nature, is anti-social, then it stands to reason that selfishness (the very epitome of being anti-social) makes up quite a large portion of sin’s DNA. (Conversely, it’s not by chance that the essence of Christianity is relational — love God and love others.) Selfishness is as ancient as Genesis, so it really comes as no surprise that sin and selfishness are such good buddies.

What is more surprising – and more recent — is the Western church’s capitulation to modern culture’s hectic pace. Busyness is laying waste to the church both corporately and individually. All of us are being swept down the fast-moving current of busyness and we usually never recognize how far down the river we are until it is too late. And, by “far down the river”, I mean how disconnected we are relationally — both from God and others. If the church is serious about relational Christianity and spiritual growth, we need to address both of these dominant strands of sin’s DNA, one ancient and one more recent.

Personally, I need to look selfishness in the face and own up to it. (The ancients used to call it repentance.) Likewise, I need to have a healthy relationship with my calendar which means it takes orders from me -- not the other way around. A healthy relationship with my calendar means, quite simply, that I am the boss.

Slow is good for the soul. Slow is good for relationships. There is a basic contemplative “posture” to the Christian life that I am increasingly being led to believe is simply part and parcel of spiritual growth which is only nurtured by slowness (rather than through a hectic pace) and by embracing (rather than denying) one’s limits.

I have come to the realization that “slow is necessary” for the spiritual life. It didn’t come without a fight. “Fast-ness” still rears its ugly head. If I never recognize the battle, I lose every time. But, the good news is that the more I recognize the battle (and the importance of the battle), the more likely I am to gain the upper hand.

Slow is necessary. Soul-food is difficult to swallow at the drive-thru.

See also:  "Slow is Beautiful".

Jason Carter
Slow is Beautiful
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Spiritually-speaking, I want to grow. Growing implies movement. Movement implies progress. Progress can be measured. Progress means success.

If only the spiritual life were so easy.

The spiritual life is slow. I don’t do slow well. In fact, I hate slow.

The spiritual life is like mile 23 of a marathon: you can’t see the finish line, two people just passed you, and you begin to wonder “now…what am I doing this for”? (Take my word on it if you haven’t had the “privilege” of running a marathon.)

I’ve been struck lately about the slowness of the spiritual life. The never-arriving-part of the spiritual life. The I-wish-I-was-more _____ (wise, faithful, prayerful, generous…) part of the spiritual life. The-I-know-that-I-should-focus-on-Christ but it’s-so-easy-to-focus-on-self part of the spiritual life.

I want spiritual jumper-cables at hand at a moment’s notice to automatically put a spark in my life whenever the spark (seems) to fade away. I want to grow. And I want to do it yesterday. And I want to have learned that lesson already. And I want to have read those books three years ago. And I want to have said my prayers more intensely, more contemplatively, more faithfully, more articulately, more meaningfully.

I want to grow.

Yet, what if, in addition to using the word grow, we used words like rest and abide, celebrate and dance, commune and soak, serve and listen? What if the spiritual life isn’t about how high the tree grows but how strong the roots are? What if the spiritual life isn’t about how fast the tree grows but how many years it endures? What if the spiritual life isn’t about how beautiful the tree is but how many birds can find rest in its branches? (And maybe just 1-2 birds finding rest there is enough.)

Rest, abide, celebrate, dance, commune, soak, serve, and listen.

Maybe I’m thinking about growth all wrong.

Jason Carter
Holy Week Blogosphere Reflections
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Here are three blog posts worth sharing during Holy Week. Christ lived, Christ died, Christ rose again — We Enjoy So Great a Salvation!!!

J.I. Packer on the 6 Things You Should Tell Yourself Every Day

  1. I am a child of God.

  2. God is my Father.

  3. Heaven is my home.

  4. Every day is one day nearer.

  5. My Savior is my brother.

  6. Every Christian is my brother too.

J.I. Packer suggests that if we want to focus the New Testament message in three words, he would choose ADOPTION THROUGH PROPITIATION.

Kevin DeYoung’s post on Salvation by Propitiation

We are always in desperate need to more fully understand the depth of our salvation in Christ.

Kevin DeYoung: There are many biblical ways to describe Christian salvation.

Salvation can be understood ritually as a sacrifice, as the expiation of guilt through the death of Christ on the cross.

Salvation can be understood commercially as redemption, as a payment made through the blood of Christ for the debt we owe because of sin.

Salvation can be understood relationally as reconciliation, as the coming together of estranged parties by means of Christ’s at-one-ment.

Salvation can be understood legally as justification, as the declaration that sins have been forgiven and that the sinner stands blameless before God because of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

3 Reasons I changed My Mind about Penal Substitution

Penal substitution cannot be tossed out as simplistic. Modern-day rants against the cross being a “form of cosmic child abuse” from a vengeful Father against an innocent Son cannot be sustained by a careful exegesis of scripture nor bear the weight of Trinitarian theology nor reflect the church’s historic witness of what truly transpired on Good Friday. So YES — we still glorify God during Holy Week because Christ lived the life I could never live and died the death that I deserved.

Daniel Hames: Yet as I began to read Scripture more deeply, I came to see these texts in the light of Scripture’s great themes and typologies. I could see no other way to interpret them—the animal skins in Genesis 3, the ram in Genesis 22, the Passover lamb and the firstborn sons, the darkness of judgment the night of the exodus from Egypt and the darkness that fell as Jesus died, all the undeniable language of propitiation and the blood on the mercy seat, and so much more.

Actually reading the Scriptures in their cohesive entirety, and seeing the Old Testament repeatedly preview the gospel, showed me that Jesus bearing our sin and its penalty is central—not peripheral, and not artificially imposed—to the story’s vast sweep.

Jason Carter
Salt & Light at TWC
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Trinity Wellsprings Church,

Almost every week, I hear of risk-taking missional advances our church family is taking as we endeavor to become a true “Community Overflowing”.  I’ve heard of a new attender opening her home for a “Soup Night” (after getting the idea from a sermon illustration) while another family decided that “Taco Night” better suited their barrio/neighborhood.  We already have 18 sign-ups of Covenant Partners who will host Neighborhood Easter Egg Hunts.  Bravo!

One Covenant Partner shared with staff that “Kingdom Meals with neighbors has resulted in a small home Bible Study at our house”. 

As a Session, we were talking again about our short-term vision in 2019 of being “Salt & Light” by practicing Radical Hospitality and sharing Gospel Encounters.

To give you a reminder, here’s the vision again: 

Radical Hospitality – What is a Kingdom Meal?  Hosting or eating a meal with folks who do not (yet!) have a church family. 

  • Goal for 2019:  Every Covenant Partner of TWC hosts two “Kingdom Meals” this calendar year to practice Radical Hospitality.

  • What to doPut a “Salt and Light stake” in the ground outside the main doors of the sanctuary. 

Gospel Encounter – What are Gospel Encounters?  Intentionally speaking the Good News of the Gospel, inviting people to serve our community with us, or inviting neighbors/friends we love to our church campus. 

  • Goal for 2019:  Every covenant Partner endeavors to have three “Gospel Encounters” for people in our community.

  • What to do:  Place a Gospel Encounter sticker on the wave display in the main lobby.

As a church family, we want to begin to share what is happening on the “Salt & Light” front in different pockets of our church family with the entire congregation! To that end, let me encourage you to fill out the Salt & Light testimonial card that appears in the pew backs this week or even drop me an email.

Remember: The Father loves you.  He’s crazy about you.  Now go get ‘em!

Pastor Jason Carter

Jason Carter