Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Should I Teach My Youth?

When I first entered youth ministry five years ago, I was working on my B.A. in Biblical Studies. At that time I was taking a class on John's gospel and teaching a Sunday school class on....*drum roll please*....John. Go figure. I absorbed all of the information I learned in that class and tried to teach the students the same thing.

It didn't really work.

Later, when I was actually a youth pastor (not just volunteering), I thought I would astound my students with my brilliance and teach them everything I knew about 1 John. I would talk about the Greek and would talk about the context of Gnosticism and what the Gnostics believed...

I think they were asleep about twenty minutes in.

Eventually, I went to work at a great youth ministry called Alabaster in Greenville, SC. There, I was simply one teacher among three and all of us were pretty solid in our theology. It was here that I learned to practice application and bring the text down to more manageable levels for students.

However, my burden for teaching deep things from the text remained. Eventually, I moved into a head teaching role and I started teaching exegetically through different books of the N.T. We got into some pretty deep stuff too but the students really seemed to enjoy it. I tried to let the students talk and discuss stuff more and I humbled myself by asking God to teach me through the students.

My time at Alabaster taught me something very important: you can teach extremely deep material to students if you package it the right way. I would argue that you can teach on near college or seminary level to students if you think of creative ways of packaging the message. This isn't an easy task, but it is an important one.

It is important because if you preach for the obvious message and the easy application, when the students get to college they will have no real foundation. This is why, I believe, so many students walk away from the faith. The sad fact is that many youth pastors don't provide anything of substance. That is a tragedy.

Over time I have realized that youth need to have a strong foundation in a few areas. I want to address a few issues I have taught my youth on and I think have been very beneficial.

1. 6th-8th need to learn about a theology of the cross and the storyline of the Bible. Truthfully, I think that they need to have the storyline down before 6th grade but that seldom happens. You absolutely have to provide this foundation. If not, it is impossible to exegetically responsible and understandable when you want to go deeper.

I realized the importance of this a few weeks back when I made reference to Paul saying we were not bound by the law. A few of my very mature students responded, "So it's ok that we speed?" I had been using the term Law and they thought I was talking about our governments law. Oops. This makes whole sections of the Bible largely impossible to understand if you don't get it. This is why THEY HAVE to learn the storyline of the Bible.

2. Teach your youth hermeneutics.
If you blow it here, you blow it. It is that simple. Your students need to learn about context. They need to learn not to rip passages out of context. They need to learn how to use commentaries and how to conduct word studies. They need to learn about genre. Why? Because if they don't they will get hammered at college when professors rip apart their precious "life verses."

3. Teach your 10th-12th graders textual transmission and how we have our Bible.I remember when I stumbled across the fact that the first part of John 8 was not original to John. It absolutely rocked my belief. I thought the Bible was inerrant. I thought it had no mistakes! It was until later that I learned that we believe that the original manuscripts are inerrant. Now, this posed a problem to me but it really shouldn't have. I just didn't know how we got our Bible and how we received our text. If someone had walked through these issues with me, I would have avoided many months of searching out what it really meant that the Bible was inerrant. So teach your youth basics like this. It will save them pain when a secular professor points it out later.

4. Point out to your students difficulties in the Bible and provide an apologetic for those issues. Don't hide the fact that the Bible has tricky passages. It is truly tough to reconcile the different accounts of the resurrection. Don't hide that but offer solutions. Their teachers won't hide the fact that there are difficulties but they will NOT offer solutions. We shouldn't hide either but we need to instil confidence in students as well. Turning a blind eye to these issues doesn't help.

Tell them that there are people who don't accept Pauline authorship of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus and then tell them why. THEN, tell them why YOU DO accept it. Believe it or not, your youth ARE interested in this. Tell them about the controversies and then get them to weigh in on what they think! They truly do want to share!

Tell them about the JEDP theory. You don't need to go into every detail but be broad enough so they get it. Then tell them why you reject it! Have fun with it! Make a game show out of it.

5. Teach them heresies and theological terms. Kids love drama. Theology is full of drama. Teach them the heresies and then have fun debating it with them. My students genuinely had fun talking about the various heresies of the Trinity. Give them modern day examples of heretics. Teach them theological terms like Christology, Soteriology, Eschatology, pneumatology...and have fun with it.  Have them sound it out in fun ways. Have them model different theologies using their bodies as the diagrams.

In other words, be crazy and use that craziness to teach youth incredible amounts of depth. You will be glad you did.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Over-realized Eschatology and the Danger of Over-dreaming

Tonight I am preaching to our youth on 1 Timothy and the call to full-time ministry. As I have been doing some study, I stumbled across some background information on 1 Timothy I didn't know before. It would seem that Paul was encouraging Timothy to guard against those who had an over-realized eschatology (that is just a big phrase meaning that they saw that the end of time was already taking place at that moment).

For instance, Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:18, "They have left the path of truth, claiming that the resurrection of the dead has already occurred; in this way they have turned some people away from the faith." It would seem that this thinking impacted their actions in God's world. Scholar Greg A. Couser states, "A central effect of this shift resulted in illegitimately putting God's saving work over against his present purposes in creation (cf. 1 Tim. 2:13-15; 4:3-5; 5: 3,14)." (From the book Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul's Theology in the Pastoral Epistles, p.108).

Stop and think about that for a moment--these people were focusing on what was going to happen and were neglecting what was happening at that moment. Worse still, it had the appearance of godliness because it was focused on salvation. Yet it ignored completely what God was doing in the community and in the church. God did not say, "Ignore everyone because my coming is soon." Rather, he says "Take care of the orphans and the widows. Make sure you keep procreating. Make sure you keep living holy and Godly lives."

The church forgot God's immediate desire because they were looking too much at God's future desire.

We do that too, don't we?

I am so guilty of looking ahead to my future. Where will I go to school again? Am I going to earn a Ph.D? What is the next book I am going to read? What is the next event I am going to plan? What if we end up with tons of students coming? Where will I end up living? What do the next ten years hold?

These aren't bad things to imagine. In fact, vision requires that we think ahead.

The danger is when we allow the future to impact our present. I have caught myself turning down good things now, because I expected something better in the future. I have noticed guys do this when thinking about girls. They have this future dream girl in their mind (who is always hott and a perfect ten).

So these really awesome girls show up in their lives but they don't meet the "criteria." These girls get shot down because the guy is already in a "relationship" with a woman that doesn't exist. The present gets shut down by the future. God's good plans for us now are put on hold for our own futures.

When that happens, we have become to over-dream.

...and we become guilty of something very similar to the church Timothy served at.

So what to do?

First, we must be humble. We must realize that everything about our future is contingent on God's ultimate plan. James 4:13-17 reminds us of this. Our plans are subservient to God's plan. We are to be humble.

Second, we are to be aware. God is constantly doing things around us. He is on the move. Our calling is partner with God wherever he is working

Third, we are to live expectantly. We must be careful not to fall into the other side of the trap which pushes all future plans and eschatological hopes as irrelevant. We are called to live expectantly, waiting for Christ's return. We are to labor hard. The same goes with our dreams. We are to live expectantly, trusting that our future is held securely by God. This gives us freedom to serve now with total devotion.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"The Bible Made Impossible" Book Review

Christian Smith, a sociologist, has been long concerned with matters of faith writing really good books such as Soul Searching. Now Smith has turned his attention to what we mean when we talk about Sola Scriptura and issues of faith. Interestingly, this book coincides with Smith's own shift from Protestantism to Catholicism.

Smith sets out to prove one central point: that biblicism (which he defines as "a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal meaning [p. viii].") is untenable. The main argument he uses against biblicism is that pervasive interpretative pluralism (PIP for short) exists and undermines the theory that the Bible is clear, self-sufficient, self-evident and has universal meaning."

Smith points out that "in a crucial sense it simply does not matter whether the Bible is everything that biblicists claim theoretically concerning its authority, infallibility, inner consistency, perspicuity and so on, since in actual functioning the Bible produces a pluralism of interpretations [17]."  In Smith's opinion, "...increasingly insistent declarations of biblicist beliefs about the inerrancy, reliability, harmony, and perspicuity of the Bible actually address the fact and problem of pervasive interpretative pluralism concerning scripture, which is a major problem [17]."

Smith sees that biblicists might respond to his charge in six ways. First, some might argue that truly sincere and honest students of God's Word can come to a single truth of Scripture but often don't. Second, they might argue that the theory of biblicism really only applies to the original autographs of scripture. Third, biblicists may state that because of sin, no interpreter can fully realize what the Bible teaches but only get glimpses of each truth. Fourth, some biblicists might say that only the elect or chosen few can truly interpret the Bible correctly and God has predestined others to not interpret it rightly. Fifth, some might say that the Bible is so vast and complex that all views are actually contained in the Bible--even if they seem contradictory. Sixth and finally, some might say that God has purposely made the Bible ambiguous to cause division in order that a greater good might come about [38-39].

Interestingly, I have heard almost all of these arguments used before. Far before this book was ever written, during a discussion with a Calvinist friend of mine (with whom I disagreed), I asked him simply, "Did God predestine me not to believe the way you do?" Ironically (and unwittingly), I was striking at the very heart of what Christian Smith has stated so clearly in this book.

He addresses each of those responses by biblicist clearly and concisely and shows each one as inadequate. In fact, the first four chapters of the book take aim and literally decimate Biblicism (as Smith understands it). Here is my confession: this section of his book was devastating. It was both realistic and potent. Smith did a great job with the first four chapters…too good, almost.

When someone does such a thorough job tearing down an idea that has long been held, there really are two possibilities. One, there is a genuine flaw in the idea or two, the argument the person is fighting against is a straw-man that no one really believes.

Several reviewers believe that what Smith labels as Biblicism, only the most fundamentalist of Christians hold to. “Sure, Smith is right to an extent—but no one really holds to what he tears down.” However, I find myself in the first camp. You see, I know that despite what we evangelicals claim, we really do hold to such views of Scripture. You can see it in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message where Baptists claim that the Bible is a “handbook” for life. We claim it is clear. We claim that the Bible can be understood by all without too many problems. We teach hermeneutic classes so that people can learn how to study the Bible and come to “correct interpretations.”

This isn’t to say that correct interpretations don’t exist. Smith believes they do (and so do I). He is no postmodernist that denies absolute truth. But he does encourage realism when studying the text. In the second half of his book, Smith turns his attention to how we ought to read Scripture.

It is here that Smith’s training as a sociologist and not as a theologian becomes clear. Part II is yawn inducing. Why? Because if you have been in on the conversation about how to interpret the Bible for any length of time in evangelicalism, you know where Smith is going. We need to interpret the Bible through the lens of Christ. All Scripture points to Christ. If each of our lenses is flawed, Smith argues we might as well adopt the Jesus lens.

None of this is revolutionary. Goldsworthy has been saying this for years. All that Smith is proposing is that this is the best way to interpret the Bible to minimize errors. Further, he says church history and creeds are important dialogue partners (which most Evangelicals would agree with). The only real difference is that I think Smith would say that they are equally important dialogue partners where most Evangelicals say that the Bible is the primary partner in the conversation. Part II isn’t bad though—just not new.

I personally found Smith’s book outstanding. It completely disrupted my paradigm and put into words what I have been trying to articulate but couldn’t. Buy the book. It is not an attack on inerrancy (he argues that it is largely irrelevant) or the Bible’s authority. Rather, it is a challenge to interpretative communities. It is a challenge for us to think afresh what the Bible really is. Smith issues this challenge with style.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Jesus + Nothing = Everything Book Review"

In the midst of the growing  number of books about the Gospel, Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, has written Jesus + Nothing = Everything--a book that really separates itself from the crowd.

Tullian has written a book about what it really looks like for believers to live a Gospel driven lifestyle where Jesus is everything. Having gone through a particularly excruciating situation when he first took over Coral Ridge, the author is certainly qualified at giving unique insight to what it means to let Jesus reign in our lives. Tullian walks us through the book of Colossians, giving constant reminders that our justification, sanctification and glorification is all because of Christ's finished work. As a result, our acceptance with God is not based on our works but on God's grace.

He walks us through these truths in five distinct sections that works the equation Jesus + nothing = everything backwards and then forwards ("Everything," "Nothing," "Jesus," "Nothing," "Everything"). While at times it feels as if each chapter is just a random collections of ideas related to the Gospel, I never felt as if the book was painful to get through. It feels as if Tullian balances the right mix of autobiography and exegesis throughout. Further, the book is immensely practical, constantly reminding the reader what it means to rely on Jesus fully for every area of our faith.

Although I wouldn't call Jesus + Nothing = Everything a must read, I think it is a good read. I think it is a helpful read. I would even say that considering the state of the church currently, it is a needed read. I think those who have read quite a bit of the recent material on the Gospel can probably bypass this book. However, if you can get a good price on the book, pick it up. It is worth your time.

*Thanks to Crossway Publishing for providing a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review*

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Innovators, Renovators, Maintainers and Destroyers (Part II)

A few months back I blogged about the four types of people you will meet in the church. I started off by discussing innovators. This post will be about renovators and the strengths and weaknesses of this group of people...

Renovators are...
Renovators are those that can step into a ministry, analyze its problems and give it a facelift. These normally are not the guys who are going to storm the gates with brand new, never-been-done, ideas. These are the guys who are going to say, "Why don't we retool this problem and try a different tactic." They will see the glaring holes and be able to work around them or create ministry solutions that fix the problem entirely. Very seldom will you hear these guys say, "Let's scrap the whole thing." Most of the time they will say, "Ok, we can use this and make it better."

The strength of the renovator lies in his God-given ability to fix problems as they come up. He also can work within a given structure pretty well. Renovators are pretty flexible and can keep a ministry going, even when it looks like the ministry is doomed. They tend to breathe fresh life into each program and implement changes quite well. Most of the time they are administratively gifted. They can also help out your church budget because they are not the ones saying, "Let's scrap the whole thing!" Rather, they are the ones that say let's work with what we've got.

Your ministry needs a bunch of renovators. They can balance innovators by reminding them that they do not need a new ministry every time you turn around. Sometimes, all you really need is a different perspective. Renovators can also work well in groups or by themselves. If you put a bunch of renovators in a room together, that particular ministry could really end up looking great by the end of the day because each renovator will bring his or her own unique "tweak."

Renovators can stall your ministries if you are not careful. Sometimes you simply need to innovate. Renovators can say, "Wait a minute...let's see if we can tweak it some more." When that happens, a ministry past its prime may be simply on a respirator. Constantly ask renovators if all of this renovation is simply beating a dead horse.

Renovators can also become too focused on ascetics. If the ministry looks good, then sometimes renovators mistakenly consider that renovation. All that really is, however, is putting lipstick on a pig. At the end of the day, now matter how "gussied up" that hog is, it is still a hog.

Renovators can become too flexible. They can indiscriminately introduce bad curriculum seamlessly into the church. Since they are flexible, almost any idea can be pumped into the existing structure. Make sure your renovators stay within the theological vision of the church.

Renovators are not the most creative guys. They can be technical and analytical but often lack true vision. Often these guys adopt others visions without really wrestling with their own creativity. Constantly push them to think outside the box of existing structures.