Thursday, December 31, 2009

Roll Tide!

So I'm counting down the days to what for me will be a "Football Nirvana." One week until I get to see my Crimson Tide play for National Championship -- a game, let's be honest here, I'm both lucky and blessed to be at. I can't wait. Knowing that I have the opportunity to witness something that most people only dream of means something. Let's count the year down, shall we?

  • Undefeated regular season
  • SEC Championship (#22)
  • Heisman Trophy
  • Go to a BCS Bowl
  • Go to THE BCS National Championship
  • Get tickets to watch Alabama play for a title
  • Actually see them win the BCS National Championship
So as you can see, I'm almost there! Should we actually win this game next week (and I take nothing for granted) it should go without saying that no other year will ever top this one in my mind and life. It's got everything you could possibly want. If something's better than this, please tell me because I want to know about it!

But there's still many a day between now and then to traverse. In the meantime, I'll bide my time and wait until 11am on January 7th, when I'll climb into my car, flags flying, and make the 45 minute trip into Pasadena, ready to spend a few hours with my Crimson brethren.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Where Are Our Kids? (Part II)

I ended my last diatribe with a question: "Are we sending our kids out into the world on solid ground, or are we sending them out with a serious case of the shakes?" It's the perfect segway into the next reason I believe kids are falling away from the church in such large numbers.

2. We don't do a good enough job of shepherding our kids. If there's one class of person that the Bible talks about a lot, it's the shepherd. One of these days maybe I'll get around to calculating exactly how many major players in the Bible were shepherds of some sort. For the sake of my argument, though, we're going to look at the most important shepherd that we can draw from, and that is Christ himself. The one which we as individuals, and churches, are commanded to model ourselves after.

Looking at shepherds, even now, there are two primary goals, or job requirements, or your typical shepherd.
  1. Shepherds lead and guide there sheep. Sheep really are quite stupid animals, and left to their own devices, will most likely get themselves into trouble. It's up to the shepherd to guide them into safe territory, where they can be cared for, be comfortable, and be given the sustenance and rest that they need. They won't naturally find it for themselves (what's best for them) and they need help to get there. Job #1 of the shepherd, which if you haven't figured out already, is point #1 of my blog here. Lead and guide so the sheep (our children) know where to go. And by the way, just so it's out there, we as adults need to be led, too. We do some pretty stupid things ourselves.
  2. The second job requirement of the shepherd (and this is the really big one in my mind, and the thrust of my second point -- the one that we really seem to fall woefully unprepared for) is in the protection of his sheep. You see, a lot of times it isn't enough to simply lead and guide the sheep, because like I said, they're really pretty dumb creatures, and almost assuredly if you are shepherding them one of two things will happen: either a wolf will wander in among the flock and try to snatch them and take them away, or, the sheep will wander astray of the main herd and right into the wolf's mouth.
Which of course begs the question here, "Are we (the church) doing all that we can to shepherd our flock?" And make no mistake about it, we are commanded to shepherd. It's the example set by Christ ("THE GREAT SHEPHERD"), and one that we're set up beautifully to follow. If we're doing our job, God will provide us with His sheep. It's what we do with them once we have them that seems to be the problem. Even if we have the "leading and guiding" thing down to a science and are using a method guaranteed to teach people on the straight and narrow, inevitably there will be some hazards along the way.

Children are, of course, a fantastic example of all of this. And hopefully, if you've read with me this far, you will understand, or at least agree, that as Christians that is exactly what we are, God's children and there are definite similarities between the two (it's no accident). Like it or not, the attitude we exhibit with God is oftentimes, I would have to believe, just as frustrating as the one our children give to us (for those of us who are parents), but I digress.

As the father of 3 little boys myself, I do my utmost to attempt to lead and guide them in the best way that I know how. It's not always easy, but I do my best. And for the most part, I do at least try to lead them with common sense. I rarely set out to tell them to do anything wrong. I teach them right from wrong. And although they don't always understand why, there's little doubt in my mind they they do understand what I am telling them. They learn "no" at a very early age, you know. So for the most part, I do a pretty good job of teaching. But what about #2? There have been times in my life when I have been truly terrified for my children. And those times are almost 100% of the times in direct correlation to when they have decided to break free from my "leading and guiding", and they have quite literally done their utmost to throw themselves to the wolves. One time in particular sticks in my mind, and though I won't go into all the details, I have never known such a feeling of terror as I did at that time when I feared for my son's life, and what could have happened had we not been able to protect him. The blessing in the situation was that I was in fact watching him well at the time; I was doing her shepherding job. So she saw him try to take off. But what of the kids who break away, and it goes completely unnoticed? Well, that's the stuff other blogs are made of (hint, hint!)...

You see, the world is a wolf. Or if you want to get all biblical about it, a Lion. Looking to devour. The Bible tells us that Satan is like a lion, on the prowl, looking for people to devour. Have you ever seen a lion devour, or prowl and attack something? It ain't pretty. And what the world, or Satan, wants to do to us, and our kids, ain't pretty, either! He wants us dead, plain and simple.

The fact of the matter is that within a church, I would venture to say, we are to a large part protected. The first part of the "protection" process is somewhat taken care of because we are placing ourselves in a protected environment. Very few wolves are going to be able to come into a church and begin to pick apart the flock, because at least in church we're "close to God" and can spot them easily. It's much easier for the wolves to just wait and watch, because the way we are set up, there's no way that as Christians we are not going to have to go out into the world. The wolves are smart. They're not going to come into our territory where they can see we are protected -- they're going to wait until we come into their territory and then they are going to attack. And there's no way to avoid going into their territory, unfortunately.

As churches, and as youth leaders, are we paying attention to the warning signs around us? Are we watching our kids well enough to notice when they're in trouble? Are we watching them well enough to notice when they begin to "sneak off"? And Heaven help us, when we notice they are in trouble, what are we doing about it? Are we tracking them down to beat off the wolves and bring them back?
You see, when my son ran off it wasn't enough for me as his protector to simply say, "Well, I told him right from wrong. I taught him his lessons, and he made the mistake. He'll have to deal with the consequences." No! I had to get off my duff and run him down before the wolves could get to him. It took action on my part! And I have to ask what actions we as churches are taking to protect? Are we teaching, or leading and guiding, and leaving a person to their own designs? "Make them deal with their consequences!" Is it even our job to go after them? Do we only protect them in house, or are we wiling to be true shepherds, and go after them when the world has sunk its teeth into them?

While many may disagree, I think we do have to go after them. And I think that as a church, we don't as often as we need to. And I think we have a wonderful example of that in the Bible. You see, as a people, we've spent literally thousands of years trying to flee the Shepherd. In spite of all of His attempts to lead and guide us in the right direction, for what ever reason, we do all that we can to escape His protection and go our own way (see the Bible, beginning in Genesis). And when we, as His people, had gotten so far away from Him that we couldn't protect ourselves anymore, and the wolves were closing in looking to destroy us forever, that He got up off of His Seat, and came to where we were, and snatched us away from the wolves and gave us the opportunity to come back with Him. God would have been well within His rights to leave us to the wolves, but as our parent, and someone who loved us as much as He did, He didn't. He opted to protect us. And it didn't involve just waiting for us to wander back to Him. He came to us. If you want to get perfectly frank about it, He came down and wandered into the wolves' den Himself, and said, "Let my sheep go, and take me instead." And that's exactly what happened... God chose to act to protect us.

So again, it begs the question. What are we as churches, as shepherds in our communities and the world around us,
doing to protect our children? What sacrifices are we making to ensure that our kids are brought, and hopefully kept, at home safe and sound?

Maybe next time, I'll go after my own throat a bit...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Where Are Our Kids?

I recently stumbled across a church group's website while I was poking around one of my other friend's Facebooks. While it was pretty much straightforward as far as that goes, one item in particular grabbed my attention. As one of their group discussion threads, the pastor of said church asked the following: "Why is it that kids (or teenagers), who grew up in church and were raised in the church, are leaving the church in such alarming numbers?"

As a youth leader in my own church, this is definitely a question I'm asking myself. And, as a teenager who for more than a decade "left the church" to a big degree, it's one that I've asked myself many, many times over the years. While I think that there are probably many different reasons why this could be so, I think that are two really big ones at play here. And to be quite frank, it's my opinion that if we were able to care for these two as well as we should, any others that might arise would probably be taken care of in fairly short order. So without further ado:

1. First, I think that we, as a church, need to do an infinitely better job of allowing, and enabling, our kids to grow up "owning their own faith". Not the faith that their parents have, or even the faith that their teachers or leaders have (not even the pastor!), but owning their own faith and relationship with Jesus Christ; one that is wholly theirs. The problem is this: entire generations of kids have grown up in the church, but they've never really grown in the church. Entire generations have (pick your own cliche here) been taken to church since they were barely able to breathe, were there every time the doors opened, and had parents who raised them in the church and saw them make decisions to accept and follow Christ at an early age, and yet something continues to go awry.

I recently took my first Theology class on my way to my master's degree in seminary, and on the first night of class the professor allowed us all time to share our testimonies (where we had come from, when we had made decisions, etc.). And while the rule wasn't steadfast across the board of course, one alarming trend stood out almost immediately if you were looking for it. Almost everyone said the exact same thing (only in different words): "I was raised in the church, I accepted Christ early on" and so forth, but almost all of that was followed with this: "But after awhile, for whatever reason, I fell away from God...". You can probably see where this is going. Raised in church, made decisions early in life, and yet they fell away. Why? Here's the next thing that seemed to show up as a trend in what they said. Almost each one said that it wasn't until they themselves decided it was time to come back, that something was missing, that they begin to make their way back to God. They finally, after all those years in church and hearing about God, decided to make their faith their own. It begs the question: Why did it take so long?

Put quite simply, I think that far too often we as a church, do a simply lousy job of helping our kids to grow. We don't do anything to instill in them an impetus to grow and make their relationship with God truly their own. It's almost as if we expect them to get it through osmosis or something. Simply by being there every time the doors are cracked, and always being in Bible Study, or youth group or whatever, and hearing sermons week after week, surely they will come to that faith all on their own. It's a natural part of the process. Put yourself there, and it will come. Right? Unfortunately, I think we know the answer to that.

We need to do a better job of challenging them to grow. We need to do a better job of allowing them to challenge themselves, and us, to grow. We need to encourage them to ask the tough questions that they need to ask, and not be afraid of what our answer might be, or worried if they don't agree with us on everything we say. We need to make them understand just how vitally important the Christian life is, and that it goes far beyond simply being in church for Sunday School and worship service and thinking that is all they need. We need to teach kids specifically to take what they are being taught, and apply those teaching to the way that they live. And quite honestly, teach them that if they are unwilling, or unable, to do so, there are going to be problems. Sunday School won't save you. Sermons won't save you. The only thing that will, is Jesus, and after that, truly beginning to live lives that are modeled after Him. Faith is not taught, it is lived and experienced. While we can teach the the fundamentals and the lessons that can be used to begin to live faith-filled lives, something is obviously not translating very well. It's like taking a history class in school. Learning the material for a test doesn't have an impact on your life, and the way you live it, unless it's personal in some way. And we need to do a better job of translating it into personal material.

Far too often we as churches do an excellent job of securing ourselves baby Christians, but don't do such a good job with ensuring that those same baby Christians ever grow. There are none so susceptible to disease and death as a baby, and it's not until they grow up that they begin to gain the immunities and other things they need to continue to grow and mature. The same can be said for those we are raising in the church. Are they being given the immunities (a true faith-based lifestyle) they need to battle the diseases (sins) that are out there? Are they being raised to cling to their faith with everything that they have so that a world that is out to destroy them can't do so?

The simple fact is this: The "world" is out to destroy people. The Bible tells us as much. It's not a pretty place, and it is looking for people to gobble up. I would go so far as to say that in the current times, it is looking especially for young people to gobble up. The world is an extremely shaky place. Are we doing what is necessary to put kids in the world who are on solid ground? Or are we sending them out with a serious case of the "shakes"?

Next time, reason #2...