Mitch Albom on NPR

This interview on NPR with Mitch Albom caught my eye. Not much time to write about it, but Albom’s quote connects in many ways with the beliefs of teenagers outlined in Soul Searching, which is a book born out of the National Study of Youth and Religion. This is a great example of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

Mr. ALBOM: Absolutely no doubt. And I think that this is one of the key principles of what “Have a Little Faith” is about, that at their cores most true faiths are pretty similar. Be good to one another, take care of those who are less fortunate, be cognizant of a force greater than you, pray.

Where’s the Line to See Santa

Interesting song:

How to Read a Book

This is from one of my seminary professors, Dr. Doug Groothuis. (Side note: he attends my mom’s church back in Denver, and when I see him, it feels really weird to call him Doug with everyone else instead of Dr. Groothuis.) One Doug’s important contributions to my life is his continual (and incessant) reminders to turn off the television and pick up a book. I would say that I read more as a result of his teaching. By the way, one book that is on my list to finally get to one day is of the same name, How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

As an owner of thousands of books and a reader of many of them, I offer a few pieces of advise on the art of reading a book. This is a lost art for many, given the dominance of image-oriented media today.

1. Read worthwhile books. These come in two categories: (A) Books that are in themselves worthwhile. (B) Books that are substandard but influential, nevertheless. I know nothing of “killing time” by reading. As Thoreau said, “You cannot kill time without wounding eternity.” Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as to what books you should read and when. I cannot separate my professional reading from my pleasure reading. However, I will not read books I profoundly disagree with on Sundays, since that is a day of rest (not torment).

2. Always read with a pen or pencil in your hand. Annotation is part of the art of reading. The book should become your own. I underline, make comments, and put notes in the front of the book pointing out important points. I also cross reference important points.

3. Write in the front of the book when you started reading it and when you finished it. This gives you a sense of intellectual history. (Don’t ask how many books I have not finished. Some do not deserve to be finished, though.)

4. Recommend books to others on as many topics as you can. Be a walking and talking annotated bibliography.

Does Satan Exist? (Features Mark Driscoll)

I’m watching an interesting program online from ABC’s Nightline called Face-Off. The episode I’m watching is a debate about the existence of Satan, featuring four people: Deepak Chopra, Carlton Pearson, Mark Driscoll, and Annie Lobert. (The link is here, but the interface is confusing, because it’s broken up into several separate videos, and many times it reverts back to the latest episode on infidelity in marriage, which also looks interesting. So, I haven’t yet made it through the whole thing.) I think that the fact this is being debated in such a public square is a great thing. It is also good for me to expose myself to ideas that are being considered in my culture that are contrary to biblical thought, so that I can think through the ideas, study them further, and provide sound, logical reasons as to why they are not true. One quote from Deepak Chopra was of interest to me:

Healthy people do not have any need for Satan. Healthy people need to confront their own issues, understand themselves, and move towards the direction of compassion, creativity, understanding, context, insight, inspiration, revelation, and understanding that we are part of an ineffable mystery. That the moment we label that mystery as good and evil, right and wrong, then we create conflict in the world, and that all the trouble in the world today is between religious ideologies. There are approximately 30 wars going on in the world, and they are mostly in the name of God. So I would say be done with Satan and confront your own issues.

The sentiment is, “Let’s be done with religious disagreements because they cause harm in the world.” I wrote a bit about pluralism yesterday, so I won’t revisit it here. However, two points: first, it’s interesting that Deepak Chopra is on national television debating a theological view he has (namely, that Satan does not exist), while in the same segment saying, in effect, “let’s just stop all these religious conflicts, because they cause trouble.” Second, I would like to point out to Carlton Pearson that orthodox Christianity does not believe that Satan is omnipresent and omniscient. Only God is. There are two dangers when studying and teaching about Satan: 1) we can ascribe to him too much power, making us so fearful of him that we doubt whether God really has authority over him; and 2) we can ascribe to him too little power (such as believing he doesn’t even exist) and unwittingly follow his way and not Jesus’ way. Okay, I said only two points, but here’s a third: it’s a good thing to label things right and wrong. I have spent time with students this week hearing about how they have been treated very, very wrongly, and that is sin. It’s okay to call something evil if it is in fact evil. In fact, that’s the really healthy thing to do.

Pew Forum: Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths

From Here:

The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories. A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination — even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizeable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.

Religiously mixed marriages are common in the United States, and the survey finds that the link between being in a religiously mixed union and attendance at multiple types of services is a complex one. Overall, people in religiously mixed marriages attend worship services less often than people married to someone of the same faith. But among those who attend religious services at least yearly, those in religiously mixed marriages attend multiple types of services at a higher rate than people married to someone of the same religion.

Here’s the main issue: in our culture, we generally see no problem with this, because we see spirituality as a private, personal taste. Just like not too many people are going to raise an eyebrow at my buffet choices from the local Country Buffet (unless I go Jim Gaffigan-style), not too many people raise an eyebrow when we select different items from the spirituality buffet. In fact, we praise creative choices. My wife once organized a conference for a denomination not known for having Bible-centered beliefs about Jesus on ministering in tourist and resort communities. One of the participants called herself a “Buddeo-Christian.” Somehow, we see this as cool: she’s a Christian who’s open to Eastern spirituality. The problem with this (at least the only one I’ll point out for now) is that Buddhism and historical Christianity are not compatible in their basic tenets. It’s important to teach the concept of absolute truth. That’s Truth with a capital T. I’m not saying that I as a teacher have the corner on truth, but I do know that the concept of absolute truth–at least on spiritual issues–is losing ground (for more on this, check out Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey). As youth workers, we try to present the claims found in Scripture about Jesus as truth. Many times, we need to back up and show that there is such a thing as absolute truth and to at least help teenagers think through what they believe.

Does what we believe matter?

I just read an article on CNN.com regarding Matt Romney and his Mormon faith. The general thrust was that it is a shame that some would not vote for him because he is a member in good standing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article piqued my interest because I live and serve in Utah, but what concerns me is the following:

Like many Republicans, I have many questions about Mitt Romney’s bid for party leadership. They all relate to his public record and his civic convictions. I don’t share his religious views. But is it not disturbing that in the United States in the 21st century a man of unquestioned personal rectitude should feel compelled to say, as Romney said in December 2007:

“If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

“There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers — I will be true to them and to my beliefs.”

I want to separate this post from specific questions about Mormonism and Christianity and focus on this truth: what we believe matters. Romney’s faith is a huge part of his worldview, and it gives shape to his views about humanity, justice, and how to best lead our country.

Allow me to give an illustration: if a candidate presented him or herself and it became clear that privately this person held to racist, sexist, or some other unjust set of beliefs, would we accept an explanation that “This person’s beliefs are private, and he or she will be fair in the public sector”? On the contrary, we would be suspicious. Whether or not I agree with a person’s religious beliefs, it is foolish to think that they should not have at least a small factor in whether we decide to vote for that person. Yes, voting record matters, yes, prior political involvement matter, and yes, a person’s stated platform matters. But let us not lose sight of this truth: how a person sees the world affects how he or she will govern. To what extent is up for debate, but we cannot say that it doesn’t matter. It is not unjust to examine a person’s stated and publicized personal beliefs and wonder whether those beliefs will help or hinder their ability to govern.

So how does this relate to youth ministry? We need to teach students that how they view the world matters. The civil rights movement in this country came to pass because courageous people believed as a part of their religious beliefs that all persons were created equal. Slavery was abolished in England because courageous people believed that slave trade was morally wrong according to their religious beliefs. What we believe about Jesus and the nature of humanity is not simply a private opinion, but rather an issue that should be thoroughly examined. The sentiment that spiritual matters are only significant in one’s private life is false. (For more on this, see Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, a great read on the subject.) We need to be diligent enough to pursue Truth, and courageous enough to act on it.

Evangelism: What do we need to rethink?

As I grow older and spend more time in youth ministry, I learn more and more that I have a lot to learn. I love to write, but you’ll notice that I spend a lot of time thinking about what others have written on this blog. I find that I feel like I’m at my best when I humble myself to learn from others rather than thinking I’ve got it all together. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about evangelism, and came across the following article from last year in the Journal of Student Ministries. Grant English writes about an experience he once had with his youth at a evangelism conference where he realized that he didn’t want his students equating handing out tracts with evangelism. Here are his thoughts:

Theological Collisions
I figured that studying Scripture would make Jesus easier to follow, easier to accept, and easier to explain. I seriously thought the more I knew about Jesus, the better I’d be able to explain the unexplainable and live the ultimate Christian life. I figured there’s no way my life wouldn’t get better and clearer.

I wish I knew who was responsible for filling my head with those assumptions—I’d have a few choice words for that individual.

Disturbing Reality #1
Jesus’ conversations with people in the Bible were disturbing. He talked in code with Nicodemus. He argued with the religious elites. He comforted the woman caught in adultery. He confronted personal issues with the rich young ruler and woman at the well. He told stories to the fishing communities and laborers and seekers.

In short, Jesus used no “method” when he evangelized. Rather, everywhere he went, he simply engaged people relationally—and on their level, with language they could understand. He never started out with set lines or a memorized pitch. If they needed healing, Jesus healed them. If they needed a listening ear, he listened. If they needed some strong rebuke or encouragement, he provided that, too.

Disturbing Reality #2
Grace trumps everything. To those who thought they had it all together, Jesus pointed out that they didn’t—not to hurt them, but to show them that they, too, needed grace. And to those who “knew” they were beyond redemption, Jesus showed them otherwise. Whenever Jesus engaged people, he led them from where they were to his grace.

Disturbing Reality #3
Jesus wasn’t in a hurry. He didn’t press people for commitments of faith. In fact, he was really comfortable letting them walk away. (Can you imagine that encouraged at an evangelism conference?) The terms Jesus used to invite people to “believe in him”—e.g., “follow me,” “pick up your cross,” “walk with me,” “put my yoke on,”—all pointed to the idea of a process or journey. Even in the Great Commission the command was to “make disciples”—i.e., learners and apprentices—not super-Christians-one-rung-from-perfection.

I believe part of the reason Jesus wasn’t in a hurry was because he knew that people didn’t need another system or method or “secret” to live life well. He knew they needed him.

In spite of all the academic, theological, and political questions and problems people faced, Jesus knew they needed more than answers to those questions.

Just him.

They needed him for the moment…and for eternity.

Disturbing Reality #4
Lastly, for those who chose to follow Jesus, life often got harder, not easier. Does Jesus redeem our messes? Yes. Does he heal? Absolutely. But none of those processes are necessarily pleasant or even easy.

To be fair, those who’ve gone through redemption and healing are typically happy when they come out the other side in better shape—but you’ve got to wonder if they had that same perspective in the middle of the process.

For me, the bottom line is this (I love that my senior pastor pushes this a lot): our example for evangelism is Jesus. Of course, we are not God, but we are to become more Christlike, not just in some areas of our lives, but in all of them. If we’re to become more like Christ, there’s no better example to look at than…Christ! That’s why I love Grant’s approach here: question what we’re doing as the Church, and look to Jesus to see if we need to change anything.

In fact, while I’m on the topic, that’s pretty much a good thing to do as ministry leaders and youth workers: question our habits and the way we normally do things, and look to Jesus to see if we need to change anything. Actually, that would be a great thing for me to do personally. Of course, that would ruin my life even more…something Jesus is great at doing!

Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church (And How To Fix It)

The title of this post is a book I’m currently reading by Thom and Joani Schultz. As the title suggests, the book is about education within the church. I’m enjoying it so far, and have a few things to think through after only one chapter. Some takeaways so far (in my own words):

  • It’s silly to teach without knowing the overall goal of teaching. We’re not talking just about the goal of a particular sermon, “talk” or lesson; we’re talking about teaching in general. If I picture teaching as a ministry as a machine of sorts, and if the input to this machine includes our time, effort, resources, etc., what do I hope to get out of the machine? What do I want the outcome to be? If I don’t know the answer to this question, I need to really think and pray about it before I teach another lesson or preach another sermon.
  • It has been shown that students do not learn best in primarily lecture-based format. So why is this format the “go-to” for most youth pastors? Time is one factor (it’s easier to simply talk), fear comes into play (what if I try something new and it bombs?) and some of it is just plain “We’ve always done it this way!” (insert your favorite denominational joke here).
  • What we’re doing isn’t working. Fewer and fewer students (according to studies) can articulate a biblical worldview or are impacted in a positive way by what they learn in church.

Good food for thought here. After thinking about this for a few minutes, here are my, “but what about…” thoughts:

  • So what should be our primary form of communication? I’m not ready to buy into the idea that since students watch a lot of T.V. and movies, we should totally embrace those media. Teaching in the form of a sermon seems to be a consistent form of teaching in the Church and was embraced by Jesus (although I doubt Peter and the other apostles were too worried about having three points or organizing their thoughts into easily remembered acrostics).
  • Okay, I agree that we shouldn’t focus on the memorization of facts as a benchmark for how well students are learning. I want to graduate faithful followers of Jesus who are passionate about being doers of the Word, and not mearly hearers. But don’t we need the building blocks of a decent understanding of Scripture, theology, church history, and other disciplines? At some point in time, hard work that might not be the most exciting is necessary. In athletics, sprints and strength drills aren’t always the most fun, but they provide for us the endurance and strength necessary to enjoy and be successful at the game.
  • How do I provide ways for a large group of students to really engage what we’re learning so that it sinks in? I know that not everyone I teach will totally dive right in to applying what I teach to their lives, but how do I provide tools for students “take the next step” and live out what they’ve heard? When I led a smaller congregation, I felt like it was easier to do this, because we could do more things as a group. So what’s the answer? Encourage my small group leaders to do this in their groups?

Well, here’s looking forward to a nice evening reading more of this book and holding my sweet girl Samantha…

Biblical Illiteracy

From Here:

The situation may have comic possibilities for Leno, but for preachers working to craft a biblically based sermon, the situation is confounding. If parishioners can’t follow references to significant people, places or things in the Bible, they may miss or misunderstand the whole message. Tony Campolo, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education and author most recently of Red Letter Christians: A Citizens Guide to Faith and Politics, recalls referring in class to the book of Proverbs and hearing a student ask, “Do we have that in our library?” Wallace Adams-Riley, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, says biblical illiteracy is such a big problem that a lot of ministers “don’t even know where to start.”

Much of my philosophy of ministry is based on Ephesians 4:11-13, and so in many ways I view being a coach as part of my role as a youth pastor. In a lot of ways, studying the Bible is like practice. It has fantastic merits in its own right and can often be really enjoyable. Some of my favorite memories in college soccer were having a great time working hard at practice (maybe the fact that my playing time was also very minimal contributes to this). However, practice requires discipline and sacrifice. How does a good coach get players to practice? By creating a culture where good practice is valued. Yes, many tools help, but in the long run, punishments (running extra sprints), rewards (also known as bribery), or other enforcers will fizzle out.

So, how do I create a culture of practice and discipline in youth ministry? I’m honestly not sure. I suppose by highly valuing it myself–one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever had ran every run and sprint with us. And by continually teaching students to value it. If I say I want students to learn how to be learners–especially of Scripture–but I don’t build our ministry to help them be successful in that endeavor, then anything I say up from up front about it is moot.