Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Challenge

A Challenge

Last night in Wednesday Night Live, I took a leap of faith (of sorts) by sharing with my students that 2014 was a particularly difficult year for me in terms of my faith because of doubts that seemed to resurface often and assail what had been to that point an unchallenged belief in God's existence and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some might find such a confession to be unwise, but I feel like it was actually the scriptural thing to do. Indeed, a hallmark of incarnational ministry - especially to teens - is living one's life with the highest level of vulnerability and honesty because these qualities help those being led to trust and identify with their leader and understand that, like them, he is flesh and blood, quite imperfect and has to wade through the same mires and wildernesses that they do - maybe even more. Additionally, a consistent indictment against the Church (and one that is quite justified) is that Christians mask their doubts/struggles with smiles and "positive thinking" rather than actually dealing with them in the context of their belief. I don't want that quality to characterize the Branch. To me, that isn't faith; it's fear. Christians should not be satisfied with a life devoid of the divine experience. In fact, lack of experiencing God produces a lack of faith, which makes one wonder exactly what people who lack the divine experience actually believe in (Pascal's Wager just won't do!). Saint Augustine himself said, "Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe." Scripture is brimming with exhortations to know, experience and love the living God - a real, live person. These verbs strongly indicate that faith is an act that begets reciprocity, and to live/think any other way is to fall short of a standard for experiencing God that the Bible itself establishes.

So on to the challenge. In the wake of these frequent moments when I've struggled with resurfacing doubts, I've found it helpful to recall past moments where I felt like I had a particularly strong experience or encounter that adequately displayed not only God's existence, but His love toward me. Consequently, these moments confirmed what I believed to be true about God. So how is it then that, after my faith has been confirmed by these powerful moments, doubt resurfaces? I think that that can honestly be chalked up to a very human tendency to live life so presently that we forget to think on those past moments that have made us who we are - good or bad. But isn't it interesting that it's much easier to be defined by negative past events, but forget positive ones? I digress. What has become increasingly clear to me now is that, in light of my forgetfulness, I should begin recording moments when I've had a particularly powerful instance of the divine experience. And then, when the days of doubt come, I can refer back to those moments and perhaps reflect more sharply on why I believe (and whether I still should).

My challenge to you, then, is two-fold:

1) Begin to journal down or record somehow the moments in which you've experienced God in a particularly powerful way, especially if they seem to be beyond coincidence or reproach (though this isn't always possible). Then, when you go through a rough patch that really tests your faith, read what you recorded and reflect on why you believe what you believe.

2) Share. I mean that specifically and generally. Specifically, I'd love it if you shared a story right here on this blog post in the comments section. But in general, we strengthen and encourage each others faith whenever we share our testimonies. So perhaps we should learn to cultivate the practice of sharing with others stories in which we've had a particularly meaningful instance of the divine experience.

Grace & Peace


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Change We Can Believe In

Actions Speak Louder: the Book of James
Week 1: Introduction and Overview

You probably recognized the title of this blog as the 2008 campaign slogan of Barack Obama.  In reality, however, it's a principle that we find continuously throughout the book of James, this idea that real change in thought and words results in real change in our actions.  In fact, to James, faith without works is....dead.  

Yesterday in WNL, we jumped into our fall 2014 series Actions Speak Louder: the Book of James.  For twelve weeks, we'll dive into James verse by verse and pull out theology that we can apply to our lives.  I'm pretty excited.  This first week we just covered some background and I gave the students an overview of the book's main principles.  Next week, we'll hit the ground running.  If you like, you can take a look at the sermon schedule and my first week's outline here.

Just a few minutes ago, I posted the following paragraph to the blog that the students read (the one on the app):
  • Contemporary Christians:
    • Focus on thoughts and words instead of actions.
    • Use grace as an excuse to remain complacent and unfruitful.
    • End up being way less fruitful than they have the potential to be.  
So - that's pretty much us, right?  We love to talk the talk, but not walk the talk, as we used to say back on the day.  Sad, right? Think about all that potential that never really gets realized.  It kind of reminds me of presidential elections every four years.  These candidates spend MILLIONS of bucks convincing America that they are the men for the job.  They even have these awesome slogans.  Obama's 2008 campaign slogan was "Yes We Can" and "Change We Can Believe In".  George Bush's 2004 campaign slogan was "A Safer World and a More Hopeful America".  Clinton's 1996 slogan was "Building a Bridge to the 21st Century".  Heck, by the time these guys finish giving speeches and making promises, and everyone's cheering, we've all bought into the hype, convinced that great days are coming.  Then, bang - life.  I feel like that's how we can be as Christians.  We get emotional and excited about the potential of our faith (and we should), make a bunch of promises to God and each other (meh), then, bang - return to the same old life with no lasting change (tragic).  So what do we do?

My primary goal for this series is to show our students that the decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior isn't merely something that stays in your head.  No, it descends into the heart, then the hands and feet.  In other words, faith without works is dead.  The proof of what we believe is confirmed by the change that happens in us!  So here are some questions that will help you get dialogue started with your kiddos:
  • How do you think modern Christians do when it comes to actually practicing their faith?
  • Do you think that we as a family do a good job of living out what we believe?  Give some examples for why or why not?
  • What can we do to become better at letting our belief evolve into action?
I hope that you have a great weekend!


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Christianity 101: Theology for Teens

Branch Parents

We have begun our spring series Christianity 101: Theology for Teens in Wednesday Night Live. It was exciting to begin a series that will be mostly academic in the sense that there will be a lot of information for students and families to learn, contemplate and act on.  It isn't, however, my desire that we have a bunch of pundits walking around the youth floor waxing philosophical on theological issues day and night (boy, wouldn't that be a chance).  What I do want to see is families who begin to think critically about truth and - more importantly - who let affects their lives, renew the minds, and change their hearts.   

The first session - Introduction to Theology - was last night and focused on five questions:

1) What is theology?
2) How do I form theology?
3) What affects the formation of theology?
4) Why should I be aware of my worldview?
5) What's the point of Christianity 101?

If you would like to see the full outline for last night, click here.  We hashed out all of these questions in detail, but the big thing that we really focused on last night was how our individual worldviews can greatly influence how we form theology and what theology we end up forming.  For example, if I highly value tolerance and compassion in my worldview, I'm going to really have a hard time with a passage like 1 Samuel 15:2-3, where God commands Israel to destroy the Amalekites - men, women, children, infants, cattle, goats - everything!  See, the difficulty that I have reconciling my worldview with an apparent characteristic of God (namely, that he visits His wrath on people sometimes) might affect how I form a theological belief about God's wrath as well as what belief I form. 

Accordingly, the thing that we really have to ask ourselves is "What presuppositions am I bringing to the table?".  And at the end of the day, I need to ask myself, "Is my theology actually a reflection of biblical truth? Or is it merely a reflection of my worldview and personal opinions?". Here are some questions that will help you follow up with your teen:

1) What are some of the things that influence the development of your worldview?
2) What values and beliefs are part of your worldview?  
3) Are there any parts of your worldview that seem incompatible with scripture?
4) How do you reconcile times when scripture really challenges something that is an important part of your worldview?
5) What part should God play in determining your worldview?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Back to the Basics
Week 3: The Habit of Meditation 

The students did a pretty good job of applying this last week's habit - reading scripture.  Only one, however, could say that he actually applied the habit daily.  Most were somewhere around three or four days out of seven.  I reminded the students that we all made a commitment to each other - but more importantly to God - to truly seek God's face.  I encourage you parents to really encourage your children to apply the steps we're taking as a youth ministry to grow closer to God.  Let us remember the words of James 4:8 - "Come near to God, and He will come near to you...".  Hopefully, we'll see better effort this next week. 

This past week in WNL, we tackled the habit of meditation (sermon outline here).  As usual, I began by giving students a biblical foundation of the habit, then developed why it's important to practice the habit.  Take a look at the sermon outline.  Here's how we'll apply this week's habit:

  • Begin by finding a place away from visual, auditory, and olfactory distractions.  No phone, iPod, no nothing.  Just you and God.
  • Sit down in a chair and sit up straight with your feet firmly placed on the ground.  Put your hands on your legs with your palms facing upward.
  • Begin taking slow, deep breaths by inhaling through your nose and exhaling out of your mouth.  Continue this for several minutes.
  • Ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate your mind as you seek to hear God's voice.
  • Begin reflecting on God's love for you.
    • Recall times where you've experienced God's presence in a powerful way (ie. camp, retreats, life, etc.) and replay those experiences in your mind, all the while trying to remember how you felt then.
    • Make a mental list of all the good things in your life.  Reflect on each thing on the list, thinking about how your life would be if that thing were taken away. 
    • Imagine yourself as a bystander at Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.  Even if it's graphic, recall in your mind how difficult the experience is to watch, especially knowing you're part of the reason Christ is there in the first place.  Let that anguish increase your awareness of how much God must love you in order to subject Christ to that on your behalf.
  • Conclude your meditation with a short prayer thanking God for speaking to you through your thoughts, as well as for giving you strength to react appropriately in reciprocal love.
All the best!



Monday, April 22, 2013

Back to the Basics
Week 2: The Habit of Reading Scripture

This past week in WNL (April 17), we talked about the idea of reading scripture as a habit that shows us who God is and how he interacts with humanity.  Remember that the whole point of the Back to the Basics series is establishing habits that help us grow in our relationship with God.  It is the Bible, then, that is the the highest and most trustworthy authority when it comes to what we need to know about God (and humanity).  

One of the things that I really tried to get across to students is that we tend to understand God in ways that are really erroneous.  Unfortunately, most people (perhaps even most Christians) don't think of God in terms of a person.  He think of him more like an active force, almost devoid of personality or feelings.  But God is a person.  He thinks.  He feels.  He loves.  He relates.  And He lives, just like you and me.  How do we know this?  Because we possess all these things, and the Bible says we were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), not to mention the scores of scripture that give us a clear picture of God's character and personality.  So - when we read about Him in scripture, we're reading about someone who is real and can be experienced in personal relationship that is just as present as what we can experience with one another.  And this is just what we've been invited to do.

Each week, after giving the kids a biblical foundation for the habit, we also provide them with a practical plan for putting the habit into practice over the next several days.  The students have committed to this, but they need your help and encouragement!  

  1. Ask the Holy Spirit to be with you, illuminate the passage to you, and show you how you can apply it to your life.
  2. Slowly read the passage to yourself two times.
  3. Slowly read the passage out loud once.
  4. Close your eyes for a moment and sit in silence.
  5. Answer these questions on a separate sheet of paper or in a journal.
    1. Through whom did God write this?
    2. What would the passage have meant to the original audience?
    3. Is this a stand-alone passage or is it part of a larger story?
    4. What things do you notice about the passage?
    5. What does this passage reveal about God?
    6. What is the main idea of this passage?
    7. Considering the previous two questions, what is one way you can apply this passage practically in your life?
  6. Slowly read the passage out loud one final time.
  7. Ask God to continually help you apply this passage in your life.
Parents, remember.  Walk through this with them and encourage (even compel) them to carry it out.  Holler at me if you have any questions.  If you'd like to see the entire sermon outline, click here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Back to the Basics: Week 1

Back to the Basics
Week 1: The Goal of the Gospel


We began the Back to the Basics series yesterday.  The point of this series is to encourage and help students to establish biblical habits that will bring them closer to God.  Here is the series outline:
  • April 17 - Knowing God: The Habit of Reading Scripture
  • April 24 - Hearing God : The Habit of Meditation
  • May 1 - Talking w/ God: The Habit of Prayer
  • May 8 - Christian Home Week - No Mid-Week Services at WBC
  • May 15 - Serving God: The Habit of Service
  • May 22 - Worshiping God: The Habit of Praise
  • May 29 - Spreading God: The Habit of Discipleship 
Each week, students will receive both a biblical justification for each habit and practical instructions on how to implement each habit daily in an accessible and engaging way.  So here's the question: why is it important to establish these habits?  Well, to answer that question, allow me to ask you another.   

What is the Goal of the Gospel?

Why did God send Christ to die on the cross for us?  Why did Christ rise from the grave?  To redeem for us from our sinfulness, right?  Right.  Easy.  But once we're redeemed from our sins, then what?  What are we redeemed for?  So then we can live however we want?  So we can go to church twice a week?  So we can read our Bibles?  No.  

God redeemed us from our sins so that we could fulfill the original purpose for which we were created in the first place.  And what is that purpose?  The 1647 Westminster Shorter Catechism says it best:

What is the chief end of man?  Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.   

In other words, we created to experience the fullness of God in reciprocating, loving relationship.  Unfortunately, few of us even realize that this is the whole point of our faith - knowing and loving God.  Even fewer actually take consistent advantage of this incredible, gracious offer to be redeemed by God so that we can come to be in dynamic, passionate relationship with Him.

What do we do instead?  Basically, we use our redemption as an opportunity to define happiness/holiness on our own terms, live the lives we want to live, and convince ourselves that we're okay with God because we go to church and fulfill other religious duties.  And I hope that doesn't come off judgmentally - because I'm just as guilty of it as you are.  Indeed, we've traded in dynamic relationship for stagnant religion....and then we wonder why we have no desire to get up for church on Sunday mornings or read the Bible....long story short: we were created to love God and be loved by God in active relationship.  To do anything else is to fall sadly short of our purpose.   So let me caution you here: these habits are only going to work for the person who has truly made the decision in his or her heart to pursue and love God above all other things.  If you put these into practice but aren't really interested in growing in the knowledge and love of God, then they will only serve as burdens in your life.  In fact, I've found that religious duty (apart from a heart that seeks to love God) tends to make one resent God - not love Him (think of the older brother in the Prodigal Son story).

Accordingly, in WNL last night, we actually did the music last because I wanted to really give the students a time of reflection to really decide whether or not they would commit to this - that is, the place one has to be in heart before setting out on this kind of journey  I'm happy to say that almost all the students did.

So as parents, what can you do to help your children really get the most out of this?  

Keep Them Accountable To Their "Homework"
Each week, I will give the students practical instructions to follow in order to implement that week's respective habit.  I will provide a copy for you as well.  Please ask them daily about it.  Help them find the time.  Be on them like you'd be on them about homework or studying for an upcoming test.  

Set The Example
Why not walk through this with them?  Isn't is easier to say, "Do as I do" rather than "Do as I say"?  We all find it easier to follow people who practice what they preach.  Is it any different for teenagers?  Let's walk through this together as a youth family.

Pray For Your Children
I realize that you probably do this anyway, but please keep your children in prayer as they embark on what could become the foundation for knowing and loving God passionately for years to come.

Ask Them About Their Progress / Share Your Wisdom 
From time to time, ask your children about what they've learned or how they've experienced God throughout the series as they're implementing habits.  "Recognizing" God and how we live in relationship with Him is really only something that comes with consistent practice (like any other relationship).  Share your wisdom and experience with your children (ie. times where you've experienced God's presence or love in an especially intimate and special way) so that they don't get discouraged if they feel like God is being silent.

I'm praying for you, Branch Family.  I'm excited about this journey.  I hope you are, too.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Torn Apart: Week 3 (I John 2:1-6)

Branch Parents

I hope that this week's blog post finds you each doing well.  We are continuing the really wonderful trend of having great attendance in WNL as we're averaging about 45 students per week now.  Holy cow, that's pretty incredible considering that the average hovered around 20 when I first came to Westbury.  In addition to that, we have 58 students signed up for the Fall Retreat in November!  God is blessing this ministry and seemingly adding to our number every week.  Amen.

Before I launch into the Word for this week, I just want to tell you that I think your children are phenomenal.  Here's why: I've watched the videos for the past two weeks of WNL and have come to notice that I'm pretty long-winded (surprised?).  Both sermons have been around 53 or so minutes...whew!  However, some of this is due to the fact that my sermons are composed of dialogue and not merely monologue.  In any case, I said that to say this: your students do a wonderful job of staying engaged and focused - much better than I would have done at their age.  They are forming the valuable character trait of being able to remain focused on something without needing a lot of bells and whistles.  And as a youth minister who is serious about the Word, that makes me very happy.  Great job, parents.  Here is the link to Branch's video page, where you'll find this past week's sermon and outline:

Branch Youth Ministry Video Page

These are the primary truths that I wanted your students to take home with them after WNL:
  • Christ took on Himself the punishment that our sins deserved so that we could be free to experience the fullness of God.
  • Christians should not be comfortable with sin; it doesn't make since to be saved from sin in order to return to it.
  • Forgiveness of sin is only the first step in a Christian's salvation; God then works through our obedience to make us more like Christ.
  • Our love for God is perfected by our obedience.
 Here are some questions for discussion and reflection:
  • Other than simply not going to Heaven, what would happen if Jesus didn't die on the cross for our sins?
  • What causes Christians to be comfortable with sin?
  • How can we work to not be comfortable with sin?
  • Do you show that you trust and love God through continual obedience or empty, short-lived promises.
  • If God changes our hearts through our continued obedience, then what happens when we don't obey?
  • Why do you think most Christians feel like, once they've been "saved", there isn't much more to the Christian except to die and go to Heaven?
  • Was your salvation about you or about God?
  • Do you think that God intends for our relationship with Him to be boring? Obligational?
  • Do you enjoy God?  I mean for real...
Alright parents, good luck.  I don't know about you, but I think these questions are great not only for discussion with your knuckleheads, but for self-reflection too.  God's Word is a double-edged sword, and I have a few deep lacerations in my hands right now!