Jesus First, Everything Else Second

Occasionally, I’ll be contacted by a parent or someone else in our church who is concerned that we are “losing our teenagers” because of the prevalence of evolution being taught in public schools, the passage of some same-sex marriage act in another state, or some other “hot button” secondary issue they are worried about. Usually, I’m asked about what our youth group is doing to keep students on track. In the past, I didn’t have a really good answer, probably because I was more intimidated about the issue (and the person talking to me) than anything else. Now, my response is usually simple: We’ll continue to make much of Jesus, because Jesus is in the business of transforming lives, not to mention changing hearts and minds.

There are some secondary issues that youth workers should include in their teaching rotation. However, it’s easy to feel like we have to address so many of those issues that Jesus gets pushed to the margin in our teaching times and in small groups. The unintentional (or perhaps intentional, in some cases) result is that we communicate to teenagers it’s more important to know what the Bible says about homosexuality, popular music, and other “hot button” issues than it is to know Jesus.

Understand me clearly: Helping teenagers embrace a Christ-centered, biblical worldview is important. Part of maturing in our relationship with Jesus is learning to take God’s lead as we navigate through some of the “hot-button” issues of our day.

But when you talk about those secondary issues more than you talk about Jesus, you’re missing the point.

Here’s why you shouldn’t make a bigger deal about secondary issues than you do about Jesus:

Students who don’t know Jesus don’t care about your secondary issues. Really. And if you do decide to harp on those issues, you’ll either just 1) Tell them something they already agree with or 2) Anger them to the point they never want to come back. Stick with Jesus, and you’ll tell them something that might actually transform their life.

Majoring on secondary issues creates followers of YOU rather than followers of Jesus. If you give our favorite secondary issues more airtime than Jesus, eventually you’ll just have a group of teenagers who agree with you.

Following Jesus isn’t about having all the right opinions. Following Jesus is about…following Jesus. I’ve followed Jesus now for fourteen years, and there have been certain opinions I’ve held that I had to change my mind about because I grew in my understanding of the Bible. I’m sure there are things I believe now about Jesus, our world, and the Bible that I will eventually realize is incorrect. And I’m absolutely sure that I’ve voted for at least one candidate that perhaps I shouldn’t have. But those things don’t make me any less a follower of Jesus.

You don’t have to believe the whole Bible to be saved by Jesus. Seriously. Does following Jesus mean that eventually we will learn how to think through cultural issues with the Bible as our guide? Absolutely. But there’s nothing in the Bible that says if you have to believe the whole thing before you’re allowed to follow Jesus. Even Jesus’ first followers didn’t always believe the right things about him. We need to stop making it seem to teenagers that they can’t follow Jesus if they don’t agree 100% with everything they hear in our messages.

Majoring on secondary issues communicates to teenagers that they have to fit in at your church to be accepted. When you freak out at a student who doesn’t share your opinion about homosexuality, drug use, or the origins of our universe, the message you send is, “You have to agree with us to belong here.” Those conversations have a place, but make sure you allow students the room to disagree. You might find that they are more open to hearing you talk about Jesus when you don’t judge them for their views on other topics.

Majoring on secondary issues makes church about Us-Versus-Them. When we make a huge deal out of secondary issues, we communicate (sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not) that “we” are on the right side of the issues, and “they” are on the wrong side. When this happens, Jesus gets lost in the mix, and teenagers lose.

Students will stop inviting their friends. When you make it feel like anyone who doesn’t agree with your secondary issues isn’t welcome, students will stop inviting their friends because they’re worried about how their friends who don’t hold the same views as your church will be treated.

What do you think? Should secondary and “hot button” issues receive more or less airplay in youth ministry?

Video of the Week: Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell – The God Debate

Comedians Jamie Kilstein and John Fugelsang square off in a pop debate about the existence of God. This video could be a really good discussion starter on apologetics, the existence of God, or simply popular views about Jesus and Christianity. Check it out:

Fun Video Opening for an Easter Lesson

Note: This is an opener that we’re going to use as an introduction to our Easter message in our student ministry this week (we’ll be teaching out of 1 Corinthians 15). Feel free to use it if you like it!

What would you do with $500,000? Buy a new house? Cruise around town in your dream car? Give it to someone or a cause that you know could use the money more than you? Whatever you would do with that money, I think it’s safe that things would be different–whether for you or whoever you share the money with–in some way, right?

With that in mind, watch this video:
Warning: there is a muffled but somewhat recognizable swear word at 0:15 of the video, but it’s during the introduction, which isn’t really crucial to the video itself. You’ll want to queue the video up the video at 0 minutes, 18 seconds, or edit the word out yourself. You can use this link to start the video right at 0:18 if you like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI7AUgp5fPI&t=0m18s

Question: Is that guy going to get the half million dollars? Of course not! Why? Because he didn’t actually make the shot. Now, he thought he made the shot. He was ecstatic! Of course, if there was a real contest and he had really made the blindfolded half court shot, his life would very likely change, depending on what he would do with the money. But he didn’t really make the shot, no matter how sincerely he thought he did.

Here’s the point: Easter Sunday is the day that Christians around the world celebrate the fact that Jesus rose again from the dead after dying on the cross a few days earlier. But here’s what we are going to focus on today: Either the event really happened, or it didn’t. If it didn’t happen, this whole Jesus thing is no more than a sham, right? But if it did happen–if Jesus really DID rise from the dead–it changes EVERYTHING.

Four Free Apologetics Teaching Resources (For Youth Workers Who Don’t Think They Can Teach on Apologetics)

I consider apologetics to be a necessary part of any youth pastor’s teaching rotation. Most teenagers are in a stage of development where they are coming to the realization that countless worldviews exist, yet they often aren’t equipped to think critically and investigate worldviews in a logical way. Teaching apologetics isn’t about winning an argument, but rather about helping teenagers to 1) Do some digging and investigate the evidence for a biblical worldview and 2) lovingly and intelligently interact with others who do not share their worldview. As Mack Stiles puts it in Speaking of Jesus (IVP, 1995), “No one was ever argued into the Kingdom; but no one ever entered the Kingdom without a reason.”

I wish all youth workers had a good handle on some basic apologetics topics, but I know that isn’t always the case. Many youth workers know that they should teach on apologetics, but they don’t because they don’t feel like they know enough about apologetics themselves. Everybody has to start somewhere, and a lack of confidence shouldn’t keep you from exposing the teenagers you serve to apologetics.

With that in mind, what follows a list of free resources that you can use to teach on apologetics in your youth ministry. However, let me first offer a few notes of warning:

  1. These resources aren’t meant to be a substitute for your own study of apologetics or an invitation to be lazy; they are simply meant to provide a starting point if you don’t know where to begin when it comes to teaching on apologetics.
  2. Most of these resources are best for students who will be engaged and motivated to learn in a small group setting. As much as I believe that apologetics should be at least introduced to all teenagers in your church, I wouldn’t just choose one of the resources below and hit the “play” button at your next youth group expecting that everyone will be engaged.
  3. Remember, these are free resources. There are also a lot of great apologetics resources out there that are for sale. I may post on those some time in the future, but the purpose of this post is to point to free resources that are a great first step.

The Veritas Forum (www.veritas.org)
The Veritas Forum hosts lectures, forums, and debates at college campuses, primarily in the United States. On their website, they state that “We host university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.” Hundreds (perhaps thousands at this point) of audio and video recordings of forums are archived on the Veritas website (www.veritas.org). Yes, the vast majority of the talks are over an hour, so you may need to make popcorn or show only part of a forum. However, the content is solid, and while it is very high level thinking, it’s accessible to high school students. If you’d like to look through some shorter clips as more of an illustration or teaching aid, check out their YouTube channel.

Sean McDowell (www.seanmcdowell.org)
There are several great apologetics videos on Sean McDowell’s site, but like the Veritas videos, most are over an hour long. However, it feels like Sean’s videos are more accessible to high school students, and it might be a great place to start.

Video of William Lane Craig Speaking to High Schoolers About Jesus’ Resurrection
William Lane Craig is probably my favorite apologist because of the clarity with which he speaks on complicated issues (not to mention he is from my dad’s home town of Keokuk, Iowa). This is a great introduction to the evidence for Jesus’ miraculous resurrection from the dead, a cornerstone of the Gospel. You can find the talk on YouTube here, but I’ll also embed it here:

BeThinking.org
This site is full of plenty of audio and video resources on various apologetics topics. One of my favorites (though it’s just audio and not video) is Tim Keller’s message on “How Can There Be Just One True Religion?” Not only is Tim Keller a great speaker, but the topic is one that I think most teenagers wrestle with.

Are there any FREE Resources you would add to the list?

Video of the Week: Promo for "Fresh Start" Course

This is a video to promo a course at our church we call “Fresh Start.” Though the course is designed in part for those who might be coming out of the “local religious culture” here in Utah, you’ll notice that specific terms and labels are avoided. A part of our philosophy of ministry is to avoid an “Us vs. Them” approach to evangelism, but instead to build bridges through loving relationships and teach biblical truth where we have the opportunity, as Judi does. From time to time I get questions about what it’s like to serve and minister in Utah, and perhaps Judi’s story might provide a small glimpse:

Judi Abdulla, Fresh Start from The Heights Community on Vimeo.

Five Apologetics Topics Youth Workers Need to Be Able to Address

Credit: Creative Commons (Ethan Lofton)

If you have worked with teenagers for any length of time, then you know that they ask some great questions. Occasionally, we’ll do a session or a series with the teenagers at our church where they are invited to ask questions they’d like to have addressed; we’ll often get more questions than we have students.

I believe that one of the ways that youth workers can equip teenagers in a meaningful way is to help them understand that faith in Jesus is not a blind faith that goes against all reason, but rather a logical response to evidence that supports the existence of the God of the Bible and the fact that Jesus really is who the Bible claims him to be. While we can’t expect to have all the answers to questions teenagers ask us about faith–“I don’t know” is an honest and commendable answer when we really don’t have an answer–we should at least have a good handle on some of the most common questions teenagers ask about Jesus and the Bible. Teenagers can be very smart, and if you can’t address some of the apologetics topics that often come up in youth ministry, they may think that there are no good responses to common objections to faith in Jesus.

You may have barely finished college, and philosophy and apologetics may not be your forté; that’s okay. But it doesn’t give you an excuse to neglect some of the most important questions teenagers in your church and community might be asking. Here are five apologetics topics youth workers should have a handle on (and how to study up on them at the bethinking.org website, one of my favorite apologetics resources):

Do all religions lead to the same place?
A common sentiment in our culture is that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, because all religions lead to the same goal or place (or just call God by a different name); it just matters that you believe sincerely. A very brief (i.e. five minutes) look at the basic tenets of some of the world’s major religions shows this not to be true. Check out this article by Josh McDowell on the topic.

Are Science and Christianity enemies?
Most high school students see Inherit the Wind in their school at some point in time during their education. It’s easy for many students to draw the conclusion from this movie that science and Christianity are inherently at odds with one another. It’s important for students to understand that some of the best evidence for a creator God comes directly from science. Here’s an article on the topic by Alister McGrath.

Can we trust the Bible?
This is a fundamental question, because the Bible forms the bulk of our teaching material as Christian youth workers. If you can’t explain where the Bible came from and why we can trust it (aside from “the Bible tells me so”; that would be circular reasoning), then students won’t devote themselves to their own study of the Word. Chris Knight has a great article on why we can trust the New Testament here. On the reliability of the Old Testament, K.A. Kitchen’s book is a resource I turn to time and again.

Was Jesus really God (and other related questions)?
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if Jesus wasn’t who the Bible claims him to be (and if he didn’t do what the Bible claims him to have, including his resurrection), there’s not much point in taking him seriously, let alone making him Lord of your life. Peter Kreeft offers some great insight on this topic here.

If God is real, why is there so much evil in the world (and in my life)?
In my experience, teenagers don’t always ask about the problem of evil because of what they see in the news; they often ask because of the evil they experience in their own lives. This is not just an intellectual issue for most teenagers? They need a good response to this question because they have been hurt, abused, lost loved ones, and seen far too much evil firsthand. This is by far the most difficult question on this list, and probably the one that’s closest to the hearts of the teenagers you serve. Josh McDowell has a great introductory article on the topic here.

QUESTION: Are there any apologetics topics you would add to this list?

Top Ten Posts of 2012

Credit: Stockerre (Creative Commons)

It’s been another fun year for me writing on this blog. Thanks so much to those of you who trust me with your time by allowing me to be a part of your reading list. As I enjoy a fun week off with family, here are the ten most-read posts of 2012:

10) (Guest Post by Christine Niles): “Twenty-One Ways Churches Can Support Adopting Parents” (April 14th)

9) “Youth Ministry Tools That Will Be Relics in Ten Years” (June 5th)

8) “Three Signs You Aren’t Preaching the Word in Youth Ministry” (August 14th)

7) “KONY 2012, Invisible Children’s Detractors, and Loving, Christ-Centered Discernment and Disagreement” (March 7th)

6) “Dear Youth Pastor (How do I know if I’m called to youth ministry?)” (April 19th)

5) “Dear Youth Pastor (My Students Like Another Youth Pastor)” (May 24th)

4) “How to Alienate and Burn Out a Pastor’s Wife” (January 11th)

3) “Questions From Teenagers on God, Faith, and Life in General” (February 29th)

2) “Great Apologetic Resources” (April 11th)

1) “Lesson On Loving Your Family From Jeff Hornacek” (March 12th)

Check back tomorrow for the top five videos from 2012!

Free ebook: "Puff or Pass: Should Christians Smoke Pot or Not?"

Credit: Creative Commons (Daniel Veley)

A topic that I’ve noticed has come up more and more frequently in conversations with teenagers and in messages I teach on drugs and alcohol is the morality of smoking pot. (Honestly, if you’re reaching the teenagers you should be reaching, at least a few of them smoke pot and have already asked you about this.) This issue will become more prevalent, I believe, as states continue to pass laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use, as Washington and Colorado recently have done.

Mark Driscoll has recently released a free ebook titled, Puff or Pass: Should Christians Smoke Pot or Not? I highly recommend it as a great resource for youth workers who want to thoughtfully and biblically work through this issue that is not going away anytime soon. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with Driscoll’s conclusion (I’ll let you read the book for that), he provides a solid framework for thinking through all the options available to followers of Jesus on the topic. It’s a great tool whether you’re just hanging out with teenagers in a coffee shop or doing a series on addiction. You can download the free ebook here, but here’s a quick excerpt from the Resurgence blog:

Today, my home state of Washington legalizes the recreational use of marijuana. This decision, of course, leads to a host of pastoral questions and issues.

I have been asked these questions for years, as Mars Hill Church has always reached out to a high (pun intended) percentage of single young guys living typical, irresponsible urban lives. These guys are generally not very theological, but curiously they tend to know at least two Bible verses:

  1. Genesis 1:29 (NIV): “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth.’”
  2. Luke 6:37, the catch-all, in-case-of-guilty-emergency-break-glass verse, (paraphrased): “Thou shall not judge.”

Over the years, my default answer has been Romans 13:1–7, which basically says that believers must submit to the laws of government as long as there is no conflict with the higher laws of God in Scripture. This was a simple way to say “no” to recreational pot smoking. But now that recreational marijuana use is no longer illegal (according to my state laws, at least), the guiding question is now twofold:
Is using marijuana sinful, or is it wise?

All that said, I hope this ebook helps Christians think through the matter of marijuana in an informed way. It is by no means meant to serve as a definitive word on the subject, but as I say in the conclusion, these thoughts are not meant to be comprehensive, or even unchangeable. I have a lot to learn and consider on these issues, and along with many fellow Christian leaders am seeking to develop thoughtful and helpful answers to these questions. I want to thank in advance those who will contribute to the conversation so that we can all become more informed and better counselors by God’s grace, for God’s glory, and for the good of God’s people.

Read it all.

Dr. Pepper, Evolution, and Engaging with Culture

Let’s say you’re on Facebook one idle evening, and you come across someone who has “shared” Dr. Pepper’s Facebook page, so you click on the link and check it out. When you get there, this is what you see:

Dr. Pepper/Facebook

Upon seeing and digesting the ad, do you…
1) Chuckle a bit to yourself at the cleverness of the ad?

2) Find yourself suddenly craving a Dr. Pepper and drive to the nearest 7-Eleven?

3) Immediately (and very smart-like) identify the underlying anti-God agenda within the advertisement and vow never to drink another Dr. Pepper again, thereby vanquishing once and for all the foe of evolutionary thought and those who believe evolution ought to be regarded as fact?

Several Facebook users opted for number three and left comments about the ad indicating so. These comments reveal a very disturbing trend of Christians responding to ideas that contradict a biblical worldview with unjustified anger, offensive one-liners, and sometimes even hate. Rather than engage with these ideas that are in the “marketplace of ideas” and therefore inevitable for us to encounter, many followers of Jesus instead opt to respond in varying degrees of unhelpfulness, from ridicule (if you were smart, you’d love Jesus!) to boycott (you’ll cry when you go out of business because you didn’t love Jesus!) to lawsuits (I’ll pretend to be persecuted by you, when really I’m just angry!).

The Dr. Pepper example is tragic because 1) Commenters who vowed to boycott Dr. Pepper immediately shut down any possible chance at conversation and gave those who think Christians are clowns just one more reason not to give Jesus a second look, and 2) The nature of many of the comments are just plain sinful, because of their antagonism and lack of love.

Instead, followers of Jesus need to learn how to lovingly and intelligently engage culture and foster conversation. There are plenty of people who would be interested in having a lengthy discussion about Intelligent Design and its implications on scientific thought if we would perhaps stop arguing with people on blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and be simply be willing to present our ideas and listen to others’ ideas. There is a time to stand together with righteous indignation when there are people who are being hurt, taken advantage of, or murdered. A Dr. Pepper ad with a funny take on evolution is not one of those times. We would do well to learn how to have kingdom-minded, God-honoring conversations with people about issues which–if resolved–might allow them to take another look at Jesus.