How Much Can You Disagree Theologically with Your Church and Still Work There?

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A topic that often comes up among youth workers is theological agreement (or disagreement) with the church that they serve at. Unfortunately, the topic usually comes up only after a youth pastor is already at a job at a church, either because the leadership of the church changes or because the youth pastor fails to ask some important questions regarding the views of the church he’s about to serve at. In addition, I don’t think it’s all that uncommon for a young youth pastor to take a position at a church and only later discover that he holds some theological views that differ from the leadership of the church. Some of these differences are minor, and others might make you feel like you are being dishonest by remaining in your position at that church when you feel so strongly about an issue. So when a you find that some of your theological views are at odds with the stated views of your church, what should you do? Here are some good questions to ask:

Is it really a theological disagreement? Some disagreements that seem to be theological are really philosophy of ministry or strategy issues. Philosophy of ministry issues are also important, but it’s unfair to disagree with your senior pastor’s strategy and call it a theological issue. To give a small example, I once served under a senior pastor who was very against guns due to some of his experiences doing inner-city ministry. This affected some of our youth events, because laser tag, paint ball, and even water guns were something he was against. While I disagreed with him, it was only a philosophy of ministry issue, and a small one at that–we simply did not play any games with fake guns. Don’t make a strategy issue into a theological issue.

Is it a primary theological issue? “Primary” theological issues are issues that are foundational to our faith in Jesus. Examples include the divinity of Jesus, the reality of his resurrection, and the inerrancy of the Bible. For example, whether or not the six days in Genesis 1 are literal 24-hour periods might be an important issue, but it is not a primary issue. Don’t make the mistake of turning every single theological issue into matter of primary importance.

Does it affect the way you teach? Are you able to teach from the Bible according to your conscience without contradicting with your church’s stated beliefs or the views of your church’s leadership in a major way? If the answer is “yes,” then in all likelihood the disagreement is fairly minor. If the answer is “no,” then you need to talk about that with your church leadership. There will always be minor theological disagreements among church staff members. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill and leave your church over a minor theological disagreement. (Side note: if there is 100% agreement on everything in your church, then you might belong to a cult.)

Does your church leadership welcome the disagreement? The disagreement might be something that your church leadership is well aware of…and okay with. For instance, I would identify “Pre-Tribulation/Post-Tribulation” as an issue that doesn’t require 100% agreement on a church staff. Of course, you might feel differently if it’s an issue that you feel very strongly about, but the point is that there are some secondary issues that your staff may have already decided to “agree to disagree” on. It’s not that they don’t feel those issues are important; it’s that they don’t feel that disagreement on those issues should keep them to from serving together on a church leadership team. That’s a different story than if the theological issue at hand is a part of your church’s statement of faith.

Does the theological disagreement make me feel like I can’t serve at this church? There may be instances when–in good conscience–you don’t feel like you can remain at your church, given the theological disagreement. This is not a decision to be made lightly or without a lot of wise counsel. But if you feel like you need to move on, be 100% honest and transparent with your church leadership, and leave well. Don’t go all Martin Luther on your church (“Here I stand; I can do no other”) over a secondary issue, but rather pave a road for someone else to take your mantle of leadership. If it really is a secondary theological issue, there is no reason you can’t leave well and pray that God would bless your church, even though you don’t feel like you can serve there anymore.

Do you have any advice for someone who might discover they have significant theological differences with the church he or she serves at?

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

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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.

Open Thread: What Are You Thankful For This Thanksgiving Day?

Happy Thanksgiving Day from the McVeigh family! Please take a minute and share in the comments what you’re thankful for today.

To help remind us to whom we ought to be thankful for our blessings, here’s a very appropriate hymn to listen to on this day: “All People That In Earth Do Dwell” – Set to the tune of the “Old One Hundredth.”

Important Thoughts on Grace from Mike Yaconelli

I re-read Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality this week, and these paragraphs just jumped out at me:

According to his critics, Jesus “did God” all wrong. He went to the wrong places, said the wrong things, and worst of all, let just anyone into the kingdom. Jesus scandalized an intimidating, elitist, country-club religion by opening membership in the spiritual life to those who had been denied it. What made people furious was Jesus’ “irresponsible” habit of throwing open the doors of his love to the whosoevers, the just-any-ones, and the not-a-chancers like you and me.

Nothing makes people in the church more angry than grace. It’s ironic: we stumble into a party we weren’t invited to and find the uninvited standing at the door making sure no other uninviteds get in. Then a strange phenomenon occurs: as soon as we are included in the party because of Jesus’ irresponsible love, we decide to make grace “more responsible” by becoming self-appointed Kingdom Monitors, guarding the kingdom of God, keeping the riffraff out, which, as I understand it, are who the kingdom of God is supposed to include).

Messy Spirituality, p 47 (bold emphasis mine)

I worry that Christians have a habit of making grace “more responsible.” I remember once when I served in a previous church, a teenager in our church brought her boyfriend to church on a Sunday morning. This young man may have never been to church, as far as I know, and I was glad he was there. Our church had two services, and we had a “fellowship hour” between services where we would all enjoy snacks together. While I was enjoying a snack that morning between services in the fellowship hall, a man (who was also on the church board) pulled me aside and sternly instructed me, “Tell that young man to take his hat off!” I was taken aback and explained that it was his first Sunday here, and that he was a guest. “I don’t care,” the board member huffed. “He needs to learn that you don’t wear a hat inside the church.”

The conversation ended when I informed the board member that I was glad the young man was even in church–hat or no hat–and that I was not going to ask him to remove his hat. The exchange still bristles against me years later, but it also makes me a little fearful. Sure, I held my ground about a simple hat, but I wonder: In what ways have I had a habit of making grace “more responsible”? As a youth pastor, do I allow teenagers to come to Jesus as they are, or do I stand at the door as a self-appointed Kingdom Monitor?

I’ve got a pretty sizable library of books on youth ministry, leadership, and philosophy of ministry. I read a lot of blogs, listen to a lot of podcasts and sermons, and I try to add my own voice to the mix. Much of the stuff I read (and write) has to do with how to run programs, how to counsel students, and how to be a ministry leader. But I have a growing hunch that none of those things really get to the center of where churches often fall short. If we could just learn that Jesus’ “irresponsible love” is open to anyone who would accept it–and really live that out–I believe that the programs we run, the way we “do” ministry would just be secondary and increasingly unimportant details. Wouldn’t it be great if our churches were so dripping with Jesus’ irresponsible love and prodigal grace that it wouldn’t matter how good our programs or worship were–people would just want to be a part of it because they had never heard of or experienced that kind of love before?

Just some thoughts for your Thursday morning.

Heaven, Hell, and Teenagers

As far as I know, there is only one sermon I have ever preached in which someone walked out of the service because of the content of my sermon. It happened to be a topical sermon in the doctrine of hell.

I wasn’t offended in the least by these folks’ departure from our sanctuary. In fact, I very much understand where they were coming from. For years after becoming a Christian, I searched the Bible for a way around hell (and around other biblical doctrines I wasn’t so wild about, too). Even when my searching and researching led me to conclude that to trust the Bible is to trust God that hell exists, I still find myself occasionally avoiding the topic where I can. In my most honest moments with teenagers, I share that one of the hardest parts of the Bible for me to come to grips with is the existence of hell. According to the Bible, hell is awful, hell is eternal, and hell is not empty. And I cannot read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce enough times to assuage my sadness that hell is not empty.

The topic of hell is perhaps the most common subject asked about whenever we have a “questions” day in our youth ministry where students are encouraged to text in their questions. And when I address the topic frankly and welcome dialogue, the room is often very tense. And it should be. Hell is a very weighty topic. If what the Bible says about hell is true, then it is no exaggeration that (humanly speaking) eternity hangs in the balance when someone is considering whether or not to accept Christ and follow him. If there is no such thing as hell (Far Side comics notwithstanding), then to teach that there is such a place as hell simply amounts to a cruel practice.

I do my best not to shy away from the topic of hell in youth ministry. And you shouldn’t, either. It doesn’t mean that we resort to fear tactics as youth workers. Too much damage has been done by those who preach hell and forget to talk about God’s grace. But to avoid the topic altogether would be simply dishonest.

This fall, a documentary is coming out called “Hellbound?” that will (or so it appears from the trailer) interview several pastors and scholars about hell and what they believe. From articles written by the film’s director Kevin Miller, my guess is that the movie tries to persuade viewers to entertain a view of hell that doesn’t line up with bible-centered theology. From a recent article on the documentary:

Miller, who attends an Anglican church in Canada, also believes that people have to face the consequences for their actions. But that doesn’t mean that they have to be punished forever.

“There has to be a day of reckoning,” he said. “But the consequences can be redemptive, not retributive.”

Of course, only a viewing of the film will let me know for sure, and I’m looking forward to it coming out on DVD (no DVD release date has been giving as of the writing of this post). And if the movie does do a good job presenting most of the popular views on hell, then I just might suggest it to our small groups as a discussion starter. Here’s the trailer:

Hellbound? Official Theatrical Trailer HD from Kevin Miller on Vimeo.

What about you? Is hell a topic that comes up in your youth ministry? How do you approach it?

Three Signs You Aren’t Preaching the Bible in Youth Ministry

James McDonald has a great post over at The Resurgence on “5 Things We Do Today Instead of Preach the Word.” As I read the list, it struck me that “preaching the Word” isn’t exactly something that youth ministry is known for. In fact, I’ve been guilty of every one of McDonald’s five points (Entertain, Share, Woo, Intellectualize, and Abbreviate) when speaking to the teenagers I serve.

So, what does it mean to “preach the Bible” as youth workers?

Does it mean we can’t be funny? I don’t think so; some of the best Bible-centric youth ministry speakers I’ve known have also been very, very funny. One mistake we can make as youth workers is to assume that hilarious stories, impactful movie clips used as illustrations, or even great drama means that we aren’t preaching out of the Bible. The problem is that we can allow these elements to replace the Bible in our “talks” or sermons. But where’s the line? What’s the difference between using a great illustration and allowing it to replace the Bible when we speak to teenagers? Using McDonald’s list as inspiration, here are three signs that the Bible–and therefore Jesus–isn’t front-and-center in your teaching:

1) Your sermon is more inspired by a movie clip (or other illustration) than a passage in the Bible. Let me confess that I have done this before, and am embarrassed by it. I’ve watched a movie that included a really meaningful scene and built a whole youth group around it. Hopefully, I tied it back to Jesus and the Bible, but I wasn’t teaching out of the Bible. There’s nothing wrong with a great clip as an illustration, but a good preacher preaches out of conviction from his or her own study of the Word, not because there’s a great movie clip that “the kids will love.”

2) When you teach on a particular topic, you come to a conclusion on the topic and find Bible passages to support your conclusion. I don’t see anything wrong with topical teaching (although just for fun, you should just try to walk verse-by-verse through a book in the Bible with your students for a few months or so). However, it’s easy when teaching topically to know before you sit down to prepare your lesson or sermon where you will end before you even open up the Bible. Even if it seems like a no-brainer, you shouldn’t short-change the Bible study portion of your preparation. Your conclusions on the topic might not change, but in your time digging into the Bible on that topic, the Holy Spirit might prompt you to touch on something you’ve never seen before, or perhaps give you more of a shepherd’s heart for the teenagers who are struggling with that particular issue.

3) You never teach on anything that comes out of your personal devotional study of the Bible. Many teachers and preachers fall into the trap of reading the Bible and only thinking of how they could teach that passage, and not how to apply it to their own life. But the other extreme is to never let the fire that God lights under you during your own devotional study to bleed over to your teaching. At least every now and again, you should read something in the Bible that hits you so hard, you just have to share it with the teenagers you speak to on a regular basis.

QUESTION: What would you add to this list?

Where is the Grace?

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The word grace (Greek: χάρις) is used so often in the New Testament (over 170 times, by most counts) that we ought to realize it’s a really, really important concept that deserves our attention. In addition, it’s used in such a variety of contexts by various authors that an exact, succinct definition is difficult to nail down. Some define it as unmerited favor, while others stress that undeserved mercy is at the heart of the word–as though mercy could ever be deserved. But what is certain about the word grace is that as it is overwhelmingly used in the New Testament, it indicates that God is giving us something that is really really amazing that we really, really don’t deserve. If I had to be pinned down to one definition, I would say that grace is undeserved goodness and mercy from God.

I have spent most of the last ten years with lots of lots of church people, and I am continually amazed that some people who have read the Bible and heard about Jesus their entire lives seem to have forgotten about grace. And it’s happened to me, too in the relatively short time I’ve been following Jesus. I am alarmed that there have been times when I exhibited a lack of regard for grace, as though I was entitled to God’s favor and the blessing of serving as a pastor in his Church. You might be a squeaky clean Christian who knows little of rebellion, but I can assure that is not my story. When I think of the total disregard I have had in my life for others’ lives, hearts, and well-being, not to mention the number of times I have shaken my fist in God’s face, I find it incredible that I have even been left alive long enough to write this post, let alone redeemed, reconciled to God, and called to be a pastor, a shepherd entrusted with the care of God’s sheep.

But the fact of the matter is that none of us are good little boys and girls, squeaky clean Christians, saved by Jesus at a young age before we could commit any terrible sins. Yet we go to great lengths to hide the fact that we are, in all actuality, desperately in need of God’s grace. We act as though we we are guests at some expensive party at an exclusive country club, nervously trying to fit in and play to part out of fear that someone might realize we don’t belong at the party after all and ask us to leave. So we claim to understand that are saved–and are upheld–only by grace, while we dress up our sins and hide our wound, lest someone discover unexpectedly that we are broken, depraved, and unable to take a single bumbling step without the help of our Father.

What is ironic about our misunderstanding–or avoidance–of grace is that in general, we (or at least those of us born in America) have been given so much just by the nature of our birth country, yet we do not grasp that our very life–both present and eternal–comes from God. Of course, a large part of the problem is that we feel as though we have earned and are entitled to our advanced medical care, central cooling systems, and houses so full of food we throw 14% of it away because we cannot eat it fast enough or are simply too full to finish our dinner. But no matter what the cause is, it is clear that we simply do not understand grace.

And that is a big problem. It’s also a ridiculous problem. For without grace, we are but preschool children claiming that nothing we have was given to us by our parents, but rather earned by our hard work and industriousness. And if you’re the parent of a preschooler, you realize how ridiculous that picture is. So when we forget about grace–about the fact that everything we have is unmerited–we forget that we are owed nothing yet given everything.

So if you’re a follower of Jesus, please don’t forget about grace the next time you teach, preach, or come into contact with another human being. Because without grace, you have nothing. And without grace, nothing about what Jesus said or did makes any sense whatsoever.

Hold Please…

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We’ll give the blog a rest while I’m off on a summer trip for a week with teenagers to Colorado, unless the wildfires change our plans. See you next week!

-Benjer

Praising God for Failure

I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that as a culture, we are obsessed with results. And that obsession, unsurprisingly, influences the way that we as ministry leaders view our calling, our programs, and our Sunday morning attendance. In fact, the obsession influences just about everything about the way we “do” church.

It is a constant tension in any kind of ministry leadership between desiring to see the fruits of our service (which is not a bad thing to desire) and trying to be faithful to our calling no matter what. We get discouraged when Sunday morning attendance dips. We wonder what we’re doing wrong when our youth group doesn’t grow as quickly as we think it should. And if we go down that road far enough, we will spend far more time and energy trying to create results than we will simply doing everything we can to be faithful. In case you’re wondering, that’s a bad place to be.

But aren’t numbers important?

Yes, numbers are important, because every number corresponds to real people God loves. For the record, I get a huge smile one my face when I hear of a ministry somewhere that sees an unbelievable number of people come to Jesus in one day. It would be ridiculous for a church or ministry to see lots of people come to Jesus, lots of lives transformed, yet not celebrate and praise God from the rooftops. I find it a curious thing that in the American church, we’re not really sure what to do with churches that seem to be making a big impact, numerically speaking. We speculate whether “it’s about the numbers” or not. We blog about it (you’re reading a post about it right now, aren’t you?). We hesitantly affirm the fact that God just might bring people to himself by the hundreds, or even the thousands. But we do so by saying, “Yes, but…” (and usually, it’s a BIG BUT).

We do just about everything with those big numbers, except for one thing: We rarely seem to simply praise God for those numbers.

But this post isn’t about the numbers.

It’s about failure. Or at least the perception of failure.

Many of us love to praise God when the numbers look good, but how much do we praise him when things don’t go the way we want them to?

Listen, I know it can be discouraging when attendance numbers dip. And what ministry leader hasn’t put a ton of work into an event or a service, only to have just a handful of people show up? One of my favorite pastors in our area often tells the story of his first trip to Utah. He came as a teenager on a mission trip. They met thousands of people over the course of a week, loved them, served them, and invited them to an event at the end of the week where the mission team would give a dramatic, life-changing, creative presentation of the Gospel.

The night of the event arrived, and no one came.

Not. One. Person.

He was so mad at God, he vowed never to come back to Utah again. Now, as a pastor of a thriving church (in Utah) that ministers to thousands of people that Jesus usually liked to hang out with at parties, he praises God for that experience.

When was the list time you praised God for a perceived failure?

Notice I’m careful to use the qualifier “perceived.” Because God does not fail. Christ is our victor, death has been beaten, and heaven is open to anyone who would simply say “yes” to Jesus.

And yet when we don’t get “enough” kids at youth group Wednesday night, we count it as a failure.

No one in the Bible was better at praising God for failure than Paul. I don’t know if he took in a little too much water during those shipwrecks, but in his letters, he seems to celebrate his failures like he just won the Super Bowl.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes the many things that have gone terrible wrong in his ministry. He’s been imprisoned, flogged, stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned again. You think a small dip in Sunday attendance is bad? You’ve obviously never been run out of town by the very people you were preaching to. Yet about all those things he says, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”

Here’s the point: When things don’t go the way you want them to, praise God for that. In fact, this week, when something goes wrong, just try it out and say, “God, thanks for this failure, and thanks for my weakness.” I don’t think that Paul was off his rocker for doing that. Paul knew that no failure could ever counteract God’s victory.

My prayer is that one day I could have that kind of relationship with God.

That I would experience failure and praise my Savior. That things would go terribly, terribly wrong, and that I would take it as a sign that God is simply using foolish, foolish people (like me!) to accomplish amazing things. That my weakness is something to boast about, because it’s just a sign that God’s power is being made perfect.

So the next time you think you’ve failed, the next time you see a program, a Sunday service, or an event go the exact opposite as you hoped it would, know that for God, it’s not a failure–it’s just one more victory in disguise.