God’s Not Dead and the Myth of the Militant College Professor

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Let me qualify everything I’m about to say by first saying that I have not seen the movie God’s Not Dead yet. This is not a movie review nor is it meant to discourage anyone from going to see it. From talking to some friends who have seen it, I understand there are some redeeming things about the movie and the story it presents. Amongst them is the fact that the main character is willing to stand up for what he believes in and takes the time to research and find answers to difficult questions posed by the antagonistic philosophy professor. I find it interesting that Focus on the Family’s movie review website, Plugged In, had this to say as the negative elements of the movie “Pretty much everyone who’s not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they’re being punished for their attitudes.” As much as that bothers me and could be topic in and of itself or a blog—the portrayal of non-Christians in Christian movies—that is not the issue I have with this movie.

Surely there are professors that are antagonistic towards Christianity and organized religion in general. Many of them have published works that provide their explanations of why they think faith in a deity is intellectual suicide. I don’t doubt that many of them don’t shy away from sharing their antagonistic attitude in class. That being said, they are still professional. In any philosophy class you are not tested and assessed the same way you are in a math or even a science class. The field of philosophy does not require that you subscribe to the worldview of your professor. It does however require you give a rational support and or explanation of the worldview you’ve chosen. Thus the premise presented in the movie of a professor demanding that students deny God or gods completely at the outset of the semester is extremely far-fetched. Still that is not what bothers me the most.

For a number of years we’ve been warned that philosophy and professors of the sciences pose a major threat to Christian college students. We’ve been told that these cunning men and women are the main ones responsible for the often quoted statistic of somewhere between sixty to seventy percent of young Christians leave the church by their second year of college, a third of which never return. Yet in all my years of doing youth ministry—as a student, volunteer, and a pastor—I’ve yet to know of anyone who walked away from following Jesus Christ because of what they learned in a college philosophy or science course. On the other hand, I know a multitude of persons who have walked away from Christianity, all of whom walked away for one of three reasons.

The first is that they went away to college and eventually the guilt and shame from having premarital sex and or getting involved in alcohol and drug abuse became too overwhelming and thus it was easier to abandon faith than deal with their junk. Many of them feared being left out of all the fun everyone else was having and wanted to belong with their peers. They had been handed a faith that was primarily about behavioral modification and proved to be shallow and without roots. Some quite simply can be described by John 3:19 in that they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”

The second reason is that they encountered some sort of tragedy or crisis, often the divorce of their parents or death of a loved one, and became either disillusioned with by God’s seeming disregard for their troubles or angry with him. It became easier to walk away than wrestle with what the Bible says about the present age and the age to come, namely the paradoxical reign of Christ on earth (the paradox of Jesus reigning on earth while there is still evil and suffering in the world) while yearning for the overflowing reign of Christ on earth where pain and suffering will be no more, and death will be defeated. Often times they’ve been handed a faith that says you suffer because you’ve been bad and God is punishing you. Ironically enough, this is where some adopt the Anosticism which says, “if there is a God who created the earth he or she is now totally uninvolved in the affairs of the earth”.

My point in bringing this to the table is this… Let’s stop blaming liberal college professors for the failures of the church, youth ministries, and parents. Nancy Pearcey in her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity summarizes the problem quite well, “it remains true that most churches are strong on teaching about conversion, but weak on teaching about how to live after conversion.” If anything college, or more to the point independence, is the testing ground of faith and the gospel message young people have been taught to believe. A gospel that primarily teaches you to modify your behavior is usually heavy on guilt and light on grace. A gospel that primarily teaches you that Jesus came to make your life better is light on hope for a world that is perishing and the cost of discipleship. A youth ministry primarily focused on having fun is going to yield young adults in search of more fun and entertainment. Sermons on how you’re blessed or claiming your blessing are light on telling the story of how God set out to bless the entire world and why it needed to be blessed in the first place. Parenting driven by fear of what could go wrong is light on talking about how the world went wrong and what God does about it in the past present and future.

We need to present our young people with a robust gospel that fosters disciples instead of converts and well-behaved kids. We need to own our failures instead of blaming them on people and institutions that weren’t around for the formational period of young adults lives. Otherwise, God’s Not Dead will be wholly accurate in their depiction of a young adult who has to go search for answers to tough questions in isolation, instead of in loving community, or abandon their faith all together.

Why Do We Perceive Sex As So Gross?

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“Why do we perceive sex as so gross? Most people think its gross.”

That is one of the questions I received last week from one of my students anonymously on a 3×5 card. Last week we talked about myths and lies about sex from culture. Ironically enough we will be addressing the question this week when we talk about myths and lies about sex from the church. It is actually the third on my list of church myths under the title of, “Bodies and sex are gross, dirty, or just plain unimportant.” However, if we’re being fair the lie of sex being gross is perpetuated by both the church and culture at large (I feel I should clarify that when I refer to the church in this case I’m referring to the Christian subculture as a whole in America. It’s not just a generalization of local church bodies but also Christian pop-culture of books, movies, and bible study curriculum).

I believe the reason why so many, probably not a majority, but a sizable amount of people, thinks sex is gross is because of the fear tactics meant to discourage us from having sex when we’re young. One of the buzzwords of our sex talk is ‘formational’. There are so many aspects of our culture that is formative in how we think about our bodies and sex. Given some of the messages we receive early on about sex from what is said and also what isn’t said has a way of teaching us that sex is gross.

Given how sex saturated the culture at large is some I assume many disagree that it actually uses fear tactics to scare us out of having sex when we’re young. I would point out that most of my students were apprehensive about having a sex talk to begin with because the sex talk they would have gotten at school was extremely awkward. Think back to the sex-Ed portion of your middle and high school health class curriculum. If you remember nothing else you probably recall being shown pictures of genitalia with rashes or worse due to sexually transmitted diseases, and video clips of a childbirth. Why would our culture, which tends to be fairly reckless with their depiction of sex on the opposite end of the spectrum use fear tactics to discourage young people from having sex? Above all else our American Western culture values individual autonomy. One sure fire way to threaten your autonomy before you even reach adulthood is to get pregnant, get someone pregnant, or get an STD. More to the heart of the issue if any of those things happen before you reach adulthood you’ve sent a shot across the bow of your parent or guardian’s autonomy (and their insurance premium). So if scaring you doesn’t work they’ll gladly teach and instruct you in the proper use of birth control and contraceptives. Also I think we would be amiss if we didn’t give some credit to the pervasiveness of hardcore porn to the belief that sex is gross. Most pornography is completely and utterly dehumanizing.

As for the church its uses fear tactics to try and scare you into obedience to God. Often the unintended overwhelming message from the church in regards to sex is that it is not allowed. Well that is until you get married. In the church premarital sin is treated like the unforgivable sin. I’ve read books and heard talks from Christian sources that would have you convinced that if you have premarital sex, you’ll be haunted by ghosts of your sexual past for the rest of your life, that you are used and soiled goods. Whereas the Bible teaches that purity is as much about sex as it is how we treat widows, orphans, and foreigners, the church has created an entire market around sex being the be all end all of purity from purity rings to the “True Love Waits” campaign. One of the most egregious examples of the church using fear tactics about sex, is Kay Arthur’s book The Truth About Sex where she likens sex to a can of Drano. That’s right, she likens sex to a toxic cleaning chemical engineered to clear out a clogged bog. She highlights the cautions and warning labels where it says “May be fatal or cause permanent damage if swallowed. Causes severe burns to eyes and skin.” I get what she’s trying to communicate. Being reckless with you sex life and misusing sex can put you at risk. However, what are the chances that a few teenagers hearing or reading that illustration is ever going to want to have sex even when they get married? In extreme cases they’ll only ever want to have sex in order to procreate or occasionally begrudgingly appease their spouse.

It is likely that both the culture and the church is to blame for why so many parents feel inept to talk to their kids about sex. Sex either becomes part of a child’s null-curriculum leading to curiosity suspicion and at time the assumption that it is wrong to talk about. Some parents feel awkward using technical terms when talking about sex and create code words for body parts and intercourse. Not only does this have the possibility of teaching kids at an early age that sex is always naughty, but it could have even more devastating consequences. I spoke with a psychologist once who told me they and many of their colleagues were witness to failed child abuse cases because the defense attorney seized on the fact that the child referred to their body parts with code words they learned from parents like “flower” and “butterfly” instead of an anatomically correct term.

At the end of the day the fear tactics from both camps fail because sex is good. Sex is designed for us, and in our sinful brokenness we have turned it into something it is not. Despite all the ridiculous illustrations and disgusting pictures of STDs people keep having sex because sex is a tremendous gift that God has given to his image bearers to experience the peak of companionship and oneness. And as with any great gift some people just can’t wait to open it. As with any great gift it can be misused and abused. None of that changes the fact that it is good.

 

If You’re In a Committed Relationship But Not Married Why Is It Bad to Have Sex?

Two weeks ago we started our Sex Talk with middle school students. At the end of this first part I did some Q&A with them. The following is one of the questions they asked anonymously on a 3×5 card that I thought would be a great one to attempt to answer and post on the blog.

As these posts have the potential to gain a relatively large audience I recognize that not all who read it share my faith and worldview. If you are an outsider to the Christian faith reading this chances are you won’t agree on principle with my answer. Even so I hope you may find it a well thought out answer.

Question: “If you’re in a committed relationship but are not married why is it bad to have sex?”

Answer: What makes a relationship committed? Is it simply two people agreeing that they won’t date another? Is it two people agreeing that they won’t be emotionally, physically, and sexually intimate with someone else? Committed is defined as, “being bound or obligated, as under a pledge to a particular cause, action, or attitude.” In marriage you are binding and pledging everything. Property, assets, name, and of course bodies, all legally lawfully bound together. Committed relationships, particularly those of teenagers, are in no way binding except for the fact that they spend a lot of time together, and are therefore exclusive with one another. There isn’t anything keeping them together beyond their affections. Should their affections change they can de-commit by simply, “breaking up”. There is no need to hire lawyers, divide property and assets, or change names back to what they were. Not that committed relationships are bad and should be done away with, but they were never meant to be the Junior Varsity to the Varsity Team that is marriage. Committed relationships are more like tryouts. No one receives nor gets to wear the uniform until the make the team. Sexual intercourse has the potential to bind you to someone in ways that can’t so easily be undone by walking away. The contraceptive industry makes the bulk of their millions by assisting people in a “committed relationship” to prevent being bound to one another via babies and STD’s. The false dichotomy of “casual sex” is built upon the exercise of divorcing your heart and mind from sex as to avoid being bound to someone with your thoughts and feelings. Likewise there is a false dichotomy of “sex within a committed relationship”. A committed relationship is for the purpose of deciding whether or not you want to commit to binding yourself to another for life. Sex then within a committed relationship is to begin binding a big part of yourself to someone while still having the option to “break up” at a significantly lower cost, before you’ve actually decided you want to commit to be bound to only them for life.

What makes sex sex? The Bible teaches that sex is way more than just two bodies joining together for the purpose of experiencing sensual pleasure (even though it doesn’t shy away from that aspect of it). So often the writers of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament writers, referred to sexual intercourse by saying “and they knew one another”. What are the scripture writers saying about what sex is when they refer to it as “knowing” another person?

When I was about 19 years old unmarried and a virgin, a sexually active non-Christian female told me, “If a girl ever tells you she wants you she doesn’t know what it is she’s asking for.” Admittedly I wasn’t quite sure what she meant but I know she, a sexually active unmarried non-Christian was provoking me to think of sex as much more than a physical act and thus something not to tread lightly upon. Honestly I think she was urging and encouraging me not to have sex outside of marriage. Think of the colloquialisms we have for sex today; ‘doing it’, ‘doing the nasty’, ‘afternoon delight’, the list goes on and on, but you’d be hard pressed to find any that capture the fact that when you become “one flesh” with someone there is the potential for something transcendent to happen that leaves you very vulnerable and exposed to the person you’re having sex with. I think that’s what she was trying to tell me. There is a power in sex to help heal our brokenness, to affirm our humanity and therefore it also has power to shame and destroy our humanity as well. There is a huge investment being made when we connect with someone sexually. The promises pledge and complete joining together of marriage is meant to provide the security of pledge and promise that frees us to experience it with our whole being without fear, without holding back any part of our humanness.

What is marriage? Contrary to what popular culture often tells us marriage is not shackles that imprison us to another but the safe confines to not have to keep parts of our self, the parts of us that can’t be quantified in limbs curves and skin, hidden from the person we are giving ourselves to and receiving them in return. Marriage is meant to be the confines within which you can be free to reveal and share all of who you are. That’s not to say that people in committed relationships can’t experience these things. It’s just that the cost to walk away doesn’t match nor correlate with the investment that sex dictates whether you want it to or not. We typically don’t tell engaged couples this when they are nearing the altar but the truth is they can still walk away without it costing them much. Sure the money spent on the wedding has gone down the drain, but they don’t have to divide up property and assets, they don’t have to change their name on legal documents and credit cards, and unless they have children they don’t have to be as concerned with who else it will have a lasting affect on. The reality is that some grown adults have chosen to join every aspect of their lives together as a functionally married couple without the formal and legal ceremony binding them together because so many married people have trudged into and out of marriage as though it were just another committed relationship.

How many committed relationships can one person have? Sometimes I wish I had dated more before I got married. I was slow on the pick up on how much a friendship with a woman and a “committed relationship” with a woman is not apples to apples. However, on the flip side if I had had a number of “committed relationships” how might they have formed me for marriage to my wife in ways that would be counter productive to our binding relationship? I can’t say for certain but she and I would have to take the good with the bad and everything in between. Say I had been sexually intimate in some of those hypothetical “committed relationships” I would have to unlearn, and undo the unique ways I had formed myself with those other women sexually, or bring all those things with me to be bound together with my wife. We often refer to all those things as baggage.

Why is it bad? At the end of the day you can do what you want. Even if you want to soften God’s commands into advisory precautions from the one who created human bodies, sex, and gifted them with this complex thing called intimacy, it’s not hard to see why sex outside of the binding pledge and promise of marriage is risky business. Encouraging young people, still dependent on their parents and under their authority, in particular to go ahead and have sex as long as it is within a committed relationship is as fraught with danger as encouraging the same young people to go to the bank and open a joint bank account. We would discourage teenagers from binding to one another financially no matter how much they thought they were in love or felt that the time was right. Likewise there is great wisdom in discouraging two people, especially teenagers, who aren’t joined and bound together by pledge and law from becoming sexual intimate.

One final thought… I have friends who aren’t Christians who have bound themselves to one another in most ways that married couples do. They have share exclusively with one another their bodies, their home, their property and assets. They are exclusively sharing their life and all of who they are with one another. In all likelihood they will never marry, but their hope is to grow old together. While I don’t approve of unmarried couples living together I treat them as a married couple. Given neither or them are Christians thus not holding the same view of marriage as me I want to encourage them to remain committed to one another for the long haul because that is their expressed desire. While I prefer they eventually make their relationship legally binding at this point I would hate for them to break the bonds they’ve formed together. In some ways based upon my view of how God designed humanity and sex they’ve gone too far in sharing their lives with one another exclusively that I’d hate to see them split and start the process over with someone else. If anything their decision not to marry is largely in response to how marriage is so often treated as a committed relationship. Too many married people don’t honor and value marriage for what it truly is. They see it as a means to be happy, and not as a means to bind them self to another person, and be fully known by them. Many people will end a marriage because they are no longer happy or don’t feel the way the once did. Many people who have pledged themselves to another in good times and bad, for better for worse, in sickness and health no matter what may come, in the sight of witnesses and God, only to leave when their marriage no longer suits them. They aren’t happy, they aren’t satisfied, the marriage is not what they thought it would be and so they break the pledge, the promise and the bond. Could it be that committed relationships while training us in some good ways also forms us to ignore, suppress, and break all the ways we have become bound to another person and muster up the ability to walk away because we’re no longer happy? Imagine how much easier it would be to suppress, ignore and break all bonds if you had done it even a few times since you were a teenager? Sex outside of marriage is not only not the best way to live it is a risky personal investment to make. Why is it bad to have unmarried sex in a committed relationship? Sex outside of marriage is potentially very bad for you.

Four Strategies For Being Chaste

If we are truly to have a gospel centered conversation on sex and bodies with adolescents then we must encourage and equip young people with strategies for how to live chastely going forward. It’s not enough for them to be talked to about it. Ultimately we want them to be about it. Many Christ Followers know and want to do what is right in regards to sex, but have no strategy that helps them remain chaste for the long haul, and thus their resolve is eroded over time. The following is four strategies for practicing chastity.

Be Chaste in Community With Others: Isolating yourself will only make the familiar slogan, “Everybody is doing it” seem all the more true. Christ Followers need to be committed to one another and live life with one another in a way that encourages each one to live the new life to which they’ve been called. Whether it is a small group or accountability group we need to find people we can trust and feel safe with the details of our sex lives and the decision and boundaries we’ve chosen. Personally some of the greatest encouragement I received to remain chaste in my early twenties was from people who were decidedly not chaste and practicing just the opposite. Accountability groups need to have an emphasis on humility and sanctity. Too often accountability has a way of becoming a performance stable where we become full of pride or shame depending on how we measure up others in the group. Humility because ultimately our sexuality is about being restored humanity due to the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sanctity because none of us are perfect and moments of rebellion don’t have to become patterns of rebellious behavior.

  • Encouragement to live chastely
  • Support to live chastely
  • Full disclosure
  • Humility and Sanctity versus Pride and Shame

Be Decidedly Stubborn: Deciding to be chaste is virtually meaningless without making decisions about boundaries for our self and others when it comes to sexual behavior. Boundaries need to be established before a choice has to be made. You don’t want to find yourself in a potentially compromising situation that forces you to have to create a boundary, you need to have the boundary already in place which leads to the next strategy point…

Seek Wisdom: Biblical wisdom places a large emphasis on what the heart is set on, or what it treasures. It would be wise to know your heart and to not underestimate the power of your fleshly desires, because as stated earlier internal pressure is often greater than peer pressure. Secondly, Biblical wisdom emphasizes avoiding situations and scenarios where you may be tempted to compromise your boundaries. Lastly, Biblical wisdom emphasizes having fleeing from situations and scenarios where you might be compromised.

  • Know your heart and your flesh for “you are your greatest enemy”
  • Don’t put yourself in compromising situations
  • Have an exit strategy; think through “what would you do if?” scenarios, so that you can be prepared to do what is right and wise.

Abide In Christ: Ultimately a gospel-centered conversation on sex and bodies is not so much about sex and bodies as it is about being raised with Christ to new life. The new life that we have been raised to and reborn in is not a life that we have to wait for some moment in the future to experience. It is a life that we can begin experiencing now as a foretaste of what is to come. If there is no desire for Christ, no love for Christ, and no practice of Christ, then efforts t be chaste are utterly in vain.

  • Take off the old self (Colossians 3.5)
  • Put on the new self (Colossians 3.10)
  • Practice Christian disciplines
    • Confession and repentance: chastity is not a “pass fail” endeavor, it is a forward calling no matter what has happened in the past.
    • Preach the gospel to yourself regularly so that you can be reminded the truth about sex and bodies, and thus counter the false messages we hear everywhere else.

The Mystery Of His Will Made Known

God’s will has been made known to us in and through Christ. He has redeemed all of creation to himself and his will is to “in the fullness of time, gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1.10). So why has God’s will seemed to remain such a mystery to us? A problem to solve. A code to decipher. As we have often done the message of the gospel has been hijacked and meshed together with the messages and slogans of our culture and led to confusion and misdirection on what exactly it is that God is up to. Our society is all about self and individualism thus the prevailing gospel message of God’s plan of salvation and redemption of all of creation has been replaced with a message of self-help, self-improvement, personal faith and relationship with God. Our gospel message has narrowed from a view of what God is doing in the entire cosmos to what God can do for you as an individual. It is the Jesus for me Jesus. Thus when we try to discern God’s will even the way we go about it is shaped by this subtle misunderstanding.

God has always made his will known to mankind. We are not left in the dark. We are insiders when it comes to what God is up to. The problem is we so often want the details of how it all works. And we want specific instructions on what we are to do the choices to make, the right decision to be made. The mystery has never been an issue of what. It has always been an issue of how. When God made Adam and Eve he made them in his likeness. They were content to figure out what that looked like until they were deceived into thinking that there was another way of how, by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to be like God. Likewise we get distracted from the “what “ of God’s will, wisdom and understanding, and become obsessed with “how” we can get him to reveal it to us. When we do this we fail to realize that Jesus himself is the mystery revealed. When Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us God’s will was no longer a mystery. His will for us is to abide in and know him. When the mystery of God’s will becomes a personal thing that involves predestined fixed plot points of our story that require moral adherence or practice of disciplines to be revealed then we fail to recognize that Jesus is the way the truth and life as opposed to specific life events, ‘divine’ appointments, choices, or life decisions.

Seven Years Later: Thoughts on Longevity in Youth Ministry at One Place

Last month marked me being the Middle School Pastor at Church At Charlotte for seven years. I remember hearing a statistic, while studying youth ministry in undergrad, that the average length of tenure in one church for a local youth pastor is 18 months (which ironically is exactly the amount of time I was at the first church I was employed at). Moreover, the average length of time a pastor does youth ministry, regardless of the church is eight years. It’s kind of scary to think that by August I could be considered a youth ministry veteran. There are plenty of factors for why pastors leave youth ministry for “bigger” and “better” things, and plenty of articles written on the matter. Well I would like to give a couple of factors, reasons, and observations I have after doing youth ministry for seven years in one church, and why I hope to do many more right where I am. If you are a youth pastor, aspiring youth pastor, or questioning your calling into youth ministry I hope you find them enlightening and encouraging.

1. It’s Not All Fun and Games… My approach to student ministry is that I’m preparing adolescents for adulthood shaped by Christ. Developmentally as they are transitioning from abstract to concrete thinking they need to be pushed to help encourage that cognitive development. For the most part I approach teaching young teens like I would adults. I imagine this helps curb any desire to do ministry to adults, for feeling unchallenged by teaching in elementary ways.

2. Parents Are Your Greatest Advocates… Parents who have witnessed the positive affect you’ve had on the life of their children become your greatest advocates in the church, especially to young families, even after their children have moved on.

3. Trust and Respect is Key… The quickest way to sabotage the trust of parents and the respect of teens is to try and be one of the student’s friends. You can be their friend later, like when they graduate. In the meanwhile students want to feel safe with you. They feel safe when you look after their safety by having clearly explained boundaries, and steps of discipline that are executed when those boundaries are broken. Students respect you when you’re willing to tell them what they need to hear even if its not what they want to hear. They’re more likely to desire to connect with you as an adult if they respect you as a teen.

4. More Than Just A Pastor to Youth… My youth ministry professor Vince Beresford always used to say, “Your title may say youth pastor but you must know and operate as a pastor to youth and their family.” Becoming more intentional about being a pastor and resource to parents has resulted in some parents seeing me as the primary pastor to their family as a whole. Even by starting this blog and writing posts aimed specifically at parents has resulted in parents seeking my counsel in person more often than ever before.

5. Everybody Knows Your Name… Being intentional about getting involved with some of the other ministries not my own in the church has helped me feel like a part of the life of the church. I’ve taught at Children’s ministry’s VBS and Camp. I’ve been in a Men’s ministry small group. I’ve crashed the Omega’s dinner. I’ve even taken part in a Women’s ministry event. All of those things have given me an opportunity to get to know people who have no connection to the youth ministry.

6. Have Thick Skin… Sometimes being a youth pastor, especially of middle school, means you get treated or at least viewed as being junior varsity. Get over it, and do things in such a way that even if people naturally look down at teenagers they don’t look down on you.

7. The Best Part… The best part of having been at one place for seven years and counting is that all of my former students know where to find me. Moreover, the best part of doing middle school ministry is that even after students move on from your ministry they are still around. Your relationship with them changes, but they know they can still come to you cause you were interested in them at a time in their lives that they were amidst significant change and shrouded in awkwardness.

Conclude

I was fortunate enough to have a youth pastor that did youth ministry for 39 years, the last 21 at one place. The same place that I first started volunteering fourteen years ago. I’m sure his influence has played a large role in me being shaped in such a way that I’ve lasted this long. Hopefully I’ll get to see a few students follow in my footsteps too!