How Long Should We Shield Teens From Evil? (Reflections on Teaching the OT)

This past Sunday I taught on Genesis 4 the story of Cain and Abel. After giving them a minute to read the chapter in its entirety before discussing it, I gave them an opportunity to share their thoughts. One of the observations that some of my students made was how violent of a story it was and how they were somewhat disturbed by the violent nature of this scriptural account. My response to their disturbance was little more than, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. That may seem like a dismissive response but seriously, it’s going to get really gruesome and disturbing as we move along in our journey through the Old Testament. Next week we’ll be on The Flood, which if you think about the implications there would have been hundreds if not thousands of rotting corpses of men and beast floating in the flood waters and lying on the ground when the flood waters subsided. By the time we get to Judges I may have to send a waiver form to parents to notify them of the content we’ll be covering (okay not really but you get the picture). All that to say it has spawned a question that I have been pondering this afternoon over a nice cup of coffee Reese’s Cups and message prep.

 

In our effort to shield our teens’ eyes and minds have we over sterilized them to the gruesome nature of the Old Testament? Is there a downside to trying keep our teens away completely from things that we have a moral objection to unless it’s presented in a highly stylized fictional and fantastical manner?

 

The dilemma I’m weighing is while I don’t want my students being desensitized to evil and wickedness I do think that at some point if you really understand the nature of men as scripture presents it you won’t be shocked by their evil and wickedness. Saddened and grieved? Absolutely. Shocked? I’m not certain that is a healthy response for an adult to have to the evil and wickedness of men. Obviously pre-teens and early adolescents aren’t adults yet, but they are getting closer to that destination than they are to being children. So how do we transition kids from the innocence of their childhood to the sober realizations of adulthood? My concern is that Christian students will grow into the kind of adults that avoid evil at costs even if it means never confronting evil in a manner that seeks to bring light life and healing to the darkest and most depraved corners of our society culture and world.

Ministry to Introverts: Trying to Figure it Out

This is something I have done a lot of thinking on lately, “How do you minister to introverts?” A few months ago I wrote a blog/article, “Is Youth Group Optional?”, where my opinion was fairly unequivocal.  My reply to whether or not youth group should be optional has not changed, however it must be said that making youth group involvement for a student who is an introvert by nature is a much more ominous task than it is for students who are not.

Extroverted kids typically want to come to youth group especially a youth group at a large church. They thrive in large group settings. They are energized by environments that are high energy, and high volume. They love being around people. Extroverts may well make up most of the population or at least that is the perception because… well… they are so easily noticed. Often because of that perception introverts are perceived as not being normal, and given an unfair rap.

Generally introverts are perceived to be socially awkward, too quiet, and sometimes not as smart as their louder, more gregarious, engaging, and charismatic counterparts. All that to say introverts are often thought of as having issues, and not normal.

I don’t want to swing the pendulum the opposite direction as some have done and suggest that it is actually the extroverts that have issues and are inferior. I simply want to point out a few things I’ve learned and observed as I am learning how I can better minister and facilitate life formation for introverted students whom I’ve observed are less likely to even want to come to youth group.

  1. Large Groups Are Exhausting. In the same way extroverts are energized by crowds, introverts become drained when in the company of a large group of people. It’s nothing personal against everyone else. It’s just the way they are wired (by God). In my youth ministry context this means that while these students may find Sunday School very intellectually stimulating they have to endure being in the company of 50+ plus people in a very social atmosphere for a good chunk of time before I even begin to teach. For some this means they are mentally exhausted before I even begin to teach. For some introverts this feeling of exhaustion is so profound and intense that they feel it well before they arrive in the large group setting at just the thought of going.
  2. Small Groups Must Be Small. It only makes sense that introverts would fair much better in a small group setting as they are less likely to become exhausted, or at least not as quickly. However, the issue becomes whether or not the small groups are truly small. For some even a group of 10-12 is too large whereas a group 6-8 could make all the difference between them being able to engage.
  3. Engagement Looks Different. Studies of introverts vs. extroverts have shown that extroverts tend to be more spontaneous whereas introverts are more deliberate. In other words they often think before they speak, make a decision, or act. This is a strength that can often be perceived as a weakness in a culture that values self-expression which often values mere expression over content and means of expression. Introverts need to be given the freedom and space to deliberate in their response and engagement because often times it results in something very profound and insightful being said and shared. Likely you know someone who says very little but when they speak everyone listens because every word is rich, because you know they always taken the time to really think about what they say before they say it.
  4. They Are Normal. I am becoming more and more convinced that the greatest need of a young teen is to know and feel normal. So much about them is changing and it creates an overwhelming sense that they are weird and that something is wrong with them. Whereas extroverts will tend to act out and seek attention when they feel uneasy about being normal, introverts will become even more reclusive.

Conclusion

I’m still trying to figure out what is the best way to minister to introverts. I’m not okay with the fact that many of the students who fall through the cracks in a large youth ministry contexts, like mine, are introverts. I understand that their involvement is going to look different even borderline nominal but I still desire that they would benefit from a ministry that is exists to minister to them too. I’m still trying to figure out what the best way is to accomplish that. For now the two best things I’ve found so far is to connect with them personally, acknowledge and affirm.

If I can connect with them or find someone to connect with them personally, it increases the likelihood of their future involvement. Introverted students whom I’ve acknowledge their introversion and how it can make youth group an exhausting environment for them, helps them feel understood and not quite as weird as they otherwise would. Lastly, the students whom I’ve had a chance to affirm their introversion as a gift, a strength, and just plain normal I’ve seen grow more comfortable and less exhausted by coming to youth group, because they know that I see them as being normal.

If you are an introvert or the parent of an introvert I’d love your thoughts and feed back.

Don’t Be Scared II: Parent’s Edition

A few weeks ago I gave an encouragement to my students to not be paralyzed by fear. “Fear not” is the most frequently given command in scripture. No surprise when you talk to people today and find out how much fear influences their decision and perspective of life.

This week I want to give the parents an encouragement in the same vein. Christian parents desire to play a significant role in the spiritual formation of their children. However, many are often hindered from fully asserting their influence, their authority, and exercising their responsibility as stewards of their children largely due to fear. So what is it that parents fear when it comes to the spiritual formation of their children? What fear prevents parents from using their authority to be intentional in steering their children towards life in Christ?

1. Want your kids to like you. If you primarily operate out of a desire to be liked by your kids you will inevitably make choices and compromises that doesn’t prepare and equip them for life lived in Christ. Parenting is a role of stewardship. A steward is temporarily given the authority to manage the property or affairs for someone else. When it comes to the stewarding of children they are the property of the God who created them, and his affairs is to be honored and glorified as King over all creation. Throughout scripture’s narrative we see God accomplishing his affairs by revealing himself in creation, to his creatures, and by making and fulfilling his promises. In a day and age where so many are “claiming the promises of God” as a way to declare and demand that God give them the life they want, I feel it is important to clarify what God’s promises in scripture are; God’s promises always point us toward his kingship, kingdom, and the glory of his name.

2. Fear of our kids being unhappy. As parents if we are primarily concerned with being liked by our children then we will ultimately make ourselves, and God, out to be about their happiness. Which if you look at the trends of parenting over the past few generations it makes sense. Up until the 1960s in America parents were concerned with their kids conforming to social mores. Parents would preach conformity even if it alienated their kids, because they feared their kids being outcasts or rebels. In the 1970s a shift happened that leds us to today where parents want their kids to be happy and achieve their dreams. Thus parents today preach self-actualization and individuality even if it means, in the case of Christian parenting, not doing things that fosters a relationship with God.

3. Fear of pushing your kids away from God. The natural response to point two above is, “But I don’t want to push my kids away from God.” If we truly understand that everyone is born into sin, apart from God, then no one starts from a position of being with God. We are born with a predisposition of not honoring God as God, because we are separated from him. Therefore to not point them towards God because they may think we are being pushy and respond negatively toward God and us, only leaves them right where they are in the first place. Not to say that parents can’t be pushy about faith in Christ. I would argue that pushy Christian parents really aren’t pushing God at all. More often than not pushy parents are pushing spiritual disciplines, moral obedience to God, and allegiance to a doctrinal position. None of which is the same as pushing or pointing them towards relationship with God and Jesus. Your kids don’t know you primarily through the chores they do, the things you provide (food and shelter), and core values you promote. They know you because they spend time with you enjoying your presence. Point them towards God’s presence, and trust that God will show them who he is.

4. Fear of being a hypocrite? Many of us have sordid prodigal pasts, filled with wild days and nights that cause us to pause in a moment of self-abhorrence. I’ve heard many parents say that they would rather me talk to their kids about sex or other things because they “made a lot of mistakes in those areas as a teen”. Their fear is that if their child knew their teenage or young adult exploits it would instantly disqualify them from speaking into those realms of life. If that is the case then we should go through the Old Testament Thomas Jefferson style and eliminate/cross out everything written by King Solomon. King Solomon’s wisdom and perspective on life is shaped by a lifetime that was filled with righteous living for God’s glory, and extreme extravagant waywardness. Solomon’s wisdom is powerful, because he never celebrates his times of departure from God’s ways. Without going into vivid explicit detail Solomon is transparent enough to give us an authoritative warning to not walk down the wide way that leads to destruction.

Some fear that if they share their shameful exploits it will give their kids license to do the same. If that were to happen then they will be held to account for that by God not you. Not to mention when they are exhausted and empty from their days of wild living they know they can talk to you because you’ve been there. Don’t become a hypocrite because you fear being a hypocrite; be responsibly transparent with your children.You will be able to testify to God’s grace and goodness and the emptiness of pursuing pleasure and fulfillment apart from God.

Conclude—The story of Samuel in the Old Testament is a very interesting one particularly, I think, for parents looking for some wisdom or guidance in how to raise godly children. Samuel is one of three boys raised by Eli, the high priest of Israel at that time. All three of the boys grew up learning to minister to the Lord at the Tent of Meeting. In other words, Samuel, Hophni and Phinehas, were given more access to and rearing in the ways of the Lord than any child in all of Israel. Yet we are told very early on that Hophni and Phineas were “worthless men”, scoundrels who used their access to do evil to the people and sin against God.

So what was the least common denominator between Samuel and the other two? When God called Samuel he answered. God calls to all people, and he calls to your children as well. Do all that you can to raise your children to be people whose lives are shaped by God in Christ without fear. And when you pray for them don’t just simply pray that they would become Christians and be good people. Pray that they would hear God calling out to them and answer him. Fear not and trust that God is pursuing them for he desires to dwell with them.

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Dark Night… Evil Rises Again Will it End?

With yet another tragic, senseless, act of evil, the Dark Knight massacre has us reeling again. Once again we are grappling for some sense of understanding how and why things like this happen. We wonder what the appropriate answer or response should be. Not surprisingly the 2nd Amendment debate will spike for a time as the national wound of this lays bare (the irony being that conservatives are capitalizing on building fear on a privilege not an inalienable right, and liberals will never change that privilege because they would lose one of their rallying cries).  We are amazed that someone with “obvious intellectual capacity” is capable of such deranged evil, as if only intellectual limited people are capable of such evil because they are “stupid” and uneducated. As if education is the antidote to evil. At the end of the day there is twelve graves being dug, each one representing a collection of family and friends for whom none of this discussion helps, because evil has struck a fatal blow. There are at least 38 other people for whom just going to the movie theatre again may never happen. Not because it’s likely to be repeated, but because the replay of that dark night on July 20th, 2012 is all to painful and accessible for them.

It’s not the movies. Any good story has conflict in it Good stories involve problems that need a resolution. The great stories, and therefore great movies, go beyond the basic good versus evil plot, but deal with more systemic evil. Evil that is systemic is so huge, so all encompassing, that no simple resolution is going to put an end to evil. Blowing up the Death Star only solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil all together. Casting the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil for good. Defeating Lord Voldemort and learning to be cordial with Draco Malfoy solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, especially the latest and last installment, takes an honest look at systemic evil. Its subtle brilliance is in the way it juxtaposes proposed answers to the problem of evil. Dark Knight Rises demonstrates that even those with good intentions can and do get sucked into the vortex, and the evil that lies dormant inside them stirs, and often is unleashed. All they need is a little push. The complete body of work of Nolan’s Batman movies show us how just when you solve one problem more, and often greater, problems arise. The new problems are often greater in scope and magnitude than the one just resolved, but it’s the same evil. Too often those who seek to solve the problems of evil become an instrument of evil or provide temporary solutions that are themselves riddled with problems. Problems are only symptoms of something much darker, the presence of evil. Peace is only evil catching its breath, unless of course evil dies once and for all. Humanity with all our achievements, politics, progress, enlightenment, technology, philosophy, organized religion, and compassion must face the facts that we are only capable of treating symptoms. We will never have the means to end evil once and for all.

The Christian Story is ultimately a story of evil meeting its end never to rise again. It claims that God has the means to end evil once and for all, has been and is in the process of ending it, and will eventually once and for all end evil. Pastors and preachers often don’t highlight this enough as they make the Christian Story more about personal relationship, personal salvation, personal happiness, and personal help (self-help/behavioral modification).  Jesus on the other hand tells his disciples to “take up your cross daily and follow me” (Matthew 16.24-26)? One way or another humanity is destined for death, because ever since the fall evil resides in the heart of man (Romans 3.10-18), and evil must be dealt with. Though we may never, we are all capable of what this young man in Aurora, CO did, and deserve the exact same judgment from God as he (Romans 3.23). Because the only true way to end evil forever is to kill evil forever, every last drop. The Christian Story calls us to a point of decision, which has been communicated shorthand many ways. We can either die daily now, put on the new-self daily now, or we can die daily later. One kind of death leads to life, the other kind of death has no end. God has made a way for all to receive life by dying the first death, and desires that none experience the second kind.

Praying a prayer doesn’t end evil, avoiding bad behavior doesn’t end evil, adherence to a moral standard doesn’t evil, service projects, mission trips, church attendance, evangelism doesn’t end evil. All those things are good but they don’t end evil, only death does. But death is not end of the story, not for all. Those who choose to die with Christ now will rise again and enter a world where God’s reign is complete and evil can’t touch it (Revelation 21.1-8, 26-27)

Video Games a Tool of the Devil (So I Was Told)

Where’s the passage about video games?

A friend of mine used to have this saying that I’ve claimed for my own use like Bruce Wilkinson claiming the Prayer of Jabez, “The devil is being made real in my life”. For example, stubbing my toe, my first iPad sliding across the leather seats in my car straight onto the pavement thus cracking the screen, the innumerable amount of acorns in my front yard, and the cable going out in the middle of a big sporting event on a beautiful clear day, are examples of when the devil was being made real in my life (Okay not really but you get the point). It was a way of humorously putting things in perspective that we have little if any control over, which don’t have life altering significance, and yet could cause us to act very un-Christlike if we’re not mindful.

I recently heard a speaker declare emphatically, “Video games are a tool of the devil!” Which if it’s true then I can reasonably conclude that the devil has been a very real part of my life for nearly thirty years. If true, then the devil, or at least his tool –console, -station, -box has been a part of approximately 82% of my life. If true, then I must admit that I’ve had some very entertaining, fun, engaging, and bonding moments with others that the devil or at least his tool have been right in the middle and a cause of. This past weekend I was asked to speak to a group of parents about video games. I was the third speaker in three weeks who talked to them about technology. Prior to me they had been instructed unequivocally to get video game systems out of their house. The reasoning for this imperative is that video games are highly addictive and by having them you put your child at risk of becoming a monster.

In case you’ve heard something similar, wondering what you should do, or need convincing that video games are not inherently fraught with peril, I would like to share with you my perspective as someone who has been alive almost since the beginning of gaming. I am a recreational gamer, and spend a great amount of time with teenagers.

A Brief History [Note: if you really don’t care, don’t have time, skip to the next section]

Video games go back forty years or so when the first video game systems were, Colecovision, Intellivision, and Atari. It’s amazing to consider how these systems and the games for them still have a pop-culture appeal to them. Many of the games can be played on the most up to date systems in their original format. The iconic image of that era in gaming is the Atari game Pong; its one-dimensional plane, slim vertical rectangular bars that simply went up or down as the square depiction of a ping pong ball (that’s right they couldn’t get the graphics to depict anything close to a circle) was volleyed across the screen. The controller, a masterpiece of anti-ergonomics, was literally a box with one red button, with a joystick that resembled a church steeple protruding out of the top. Games were repetitious hand-eye coordination drills, containing simple objectives (get the frog across the street without being ran over, drowning, or eaten), and difficulty was increased by simply making everything move slightly faster than in the previous level. Two-player mode often consisted of taking turns, and trying to beat the other person’s score. Characters depicting people were a collection of boxes and rectangles lumped together to resemble the stick figures on road signs.

Fast forward to present day where the dominant gaming systems are the Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3, and Xbox-360. Hands down the iconic game is the Call of Duty Franchise (the fact that games are often referred to as franchises should indicate how much has changed over time). You are able to play in full 360-degree environments, that consist of entire worlds instead of nuanced levels. 3D gaming is an option if you have the necessary components. Characters are in the likeness, down to facial expressions, of the celebrity actors that voice them. By emailing a few profile mug shots of yourself to the game servers, you can be provided with an in game likeness of yourself for many of the sports games. Four people can play simultaneously on one system, and if you are online then it can be as many as 16 on gaming systems, and tens of thousands in PC Games like World of Warcraft. Controllers have a directional pad, two miniature joysticks that also serve as one of eight buttons, two triggers and up two four pads. If that is too confusing you can just get a sensor bar and be the controller. Once limited to a list of highest scores, game systems have enough memory to not only store an encyclopedia’s worth of data and information, but you can also fully customize or edit much of it. Online play allows you to see exactly where you rank compared to the rest of the world. The games themselves can be epic stories that involve numerous multi-faceted objectives and tasks that require nimble fingers and a sharp mind.

I could go on and on, but as it says above this is a brief summation of how much games and gaming has changed and progressed.

The Big Picture

Gaming is not just gaming anymore. It is a full-fledged community, where people have an opportunity to create, find community (make friends), be accepted, have belonging, and compete… all in the comfort of their home. And yet gaming is still what it has always been, recreational entertainment and escape. It is especially appealing to males as they relate and make friendships primarily by “doing” things. As a youth pastor gaming is one of the greatest tools for forming relationships with my boys. I can have a presence with them without physically being in their house. Equipped with headsets we can talk to one another about all kinds of things as we play games online.

One of the reasons I have a boys sleepover at the beginning of the year where we play video games all night is because I’ve seen how much they unite by simply gaming together. To put it in perspective this wouldn’t have worked a little over ten years ago. It would require eight TVs and eight game consoles for sixteen boys to play at once; eight pairs playing with or against one another. Now with only four TVs and four consoles, sixteen of us can play with and against one another in the exact same game at the simultaneously. At the end of the day I have a platform to talk to them about more significant and meaningful things because I’ve shown an interest in something they’re interested in.

Are They Addictive?

            There have been some extreme case stories being shared to support the argument that video games are inherently bad and fraught with danger.  A few extreme stories, while scary, do not make for an airtight case against them. That’s like concluding that you will never let your child get a driver’s license after hearing some testimonies from MAAD. Even the milder stories of kids “becoming overly competitive or aggressive because of playing video games”, is a really tough case to support. Some people, in particular boys are naturally overly competitive and aggressive. They’ll make anything into a competition, whether it’s athletics, or seeing who can tie their shoes faster. Surely we aren’t going to remove everything from their life that could bring out their competitive nature.

What’s A Parent to Do?

1.     Don’t Panic—How is gaming any different than reading a book getting into a book club, and watching the movie of the book and discussing that too? The only difference is that it can be done much faster and it’s foreign to you. Unless of course you read or knit or whatever as an escape too.

2.     Set Boundaries—Boundaries equal time constraints and doing first things first. I wouldn’t totally discourage gaming, but at the same time there are a few things I would keep my eyes on. Boundaries over time should be loosened in order to prepare them to self-mange when they become independent. You don’t want them going over the top when they go to college because they were never allowed to play before.

3.     Know the Games Story—Discovering what is blatantly morally objectionable or offensive is simple. Games have ratings and there are plenty of resources out there that will you inform why a game received the rating it did. Grand Theft Autohas made headlines for how morally corrupt and reprehensible the objectives of the game are as you play the character of a gang-banger. Even someone with a minimally tuned moral compass knows the objectives in the game do not translate to a life of honor in the real world. No correlation has ever been demonstrated that games of that nature increase the likelihood that a child will engage in criminal behavior. However, what often isn’t as blatant and overt is the worldview of the game. Most games involve a story and every story has a worldview (most any cultural artifact for that matter). What worldview is presented in the game they are playing? What are the values that the story of the game is presenting? What is the origin story, the problem and cause of evil, and what is the solution to the problem of evil? Does its depiction of dealing with the problem of evil delve into morally grey areas like utilitarianism, and other ethical conundrums (virtue ethics vs. pragmatic ethics)? If so these are great opportunities to have discussions with your teenager about the ethics presented in relation to real life problems.

4.     The Real Hook—Earlier I mentioned that the big picture change in gaming is that it is a place where, men in particular, find acceptance, belonging and community. As a youth pastor I desire that students find acceptance in Christ, belonging in Christ, and Christ-centered community to be a part of. I trust that the vast majority of Christian parents want the same. When we find all those things in Christ as we are designed to, gaming takes its proper place as a recreational activity.

5.     Give Them a Story to Live—If you’ve ever read anything by John Eldridge you know one of his tenets is that every boy and young man is looking for a great story to be a part of. Ultimately they want to be the hero in that story. Even Hollywood gets that as there is a movie coming later this year about a video game villain who aspires to live a better story. He ventures out of his game to find a game where he can be more than just a villain. He can be a hero! Donald Miller in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years talks about a friend who’s daughter was involved with the wrong kind of guy and making bad choices. When this dad gave his family a better story where they got to be a part of something real, that dealt with real life, real world problems, she turned her life around on her own because quite simply her dad had given her a better story to live than her boyfriend had.

Closing Thoughts

Video games, and most any cultural good, are not inherently bad. Matthew 15.18 quoting Jesus says, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person”. Could the same be said of gaming? How someone spends their free time, or does for recreation doesn’t disorder them. It’s not the value they give an activity that disorders a person. It’s the value they think the activity places on them that disorders a person.