Putting the “apology” in apologetics

Ever read something that almost instantly strikes you as strange?

I read an article today by Christianity Today (read it here) that claims that apologetic teaching (a field of study that aims to provide logical arguments in favor of Christianity) has come back en vogue for teenagers and youth ministry.

Now, I want to be clear. I personally enjoy good apologetic discussion. I like to use my brain in conjunction with my faith and wish more Christians would as well. I think logical reasons for trust in Christ can be useful in proper context and that student ministry curriculum should include some of these elements. However, this article raised all kinds of red flags and questions for me:

Are apologetics really the hot new trend for teenagers?

Are today’s students really lined up outside the door to hear William Lane Craig argue creationism and God’s existence against his nemesis, Christopher Hitchens?

Can mental arguments for religion inspire today’s students to live like Christ?

Does the religious “I-can-prove-I’m-right” candy of modernity really taste that sweet to the children of postmodernity?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Almost every study available on this generation suggests that in fact the opposite is true; that apologetic classes are in fact not en vogue. And my personal experience with teenagers seems to agree. Even Christian studies by George Barna, David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Thom Rainer, and others show time and again that young people today are turned off by logical arguments for faith alone.

That’s not to say that kids today don’t want to think about evidence for their faith. They do. They desire some rational answers to religion. However, they don’t perceive these discussions as having real value unless they are embodied in experiential Christ-like living. If you don’t live it, they don’t care whether it is intellectually believable.

The primary question that the majority of young people (both in the church and outside of it) are asking today is not, “Do I believe what you believe?”

The big question is: “Do I want to be like you?”

If I don’t like who you are as a person, if you’re not kind, generous, loving and accepting, then I’m not interested in what you believe. Because, clearly, neither are you.

In an environment where truth has become relative, apologetics has just become your spin on how you see truth. It matters, but not universally. It matters to me, but not necessarily to you. It’s important, but limited.

What does matter is your actual experience.

The question has moved from “is Jesus who He says he is?” to “do I really see Jesus living in you like you say He does.”

Some have called this an embodied apologetic; rational answers given credibility by how we actually live and treat others.

The questions of apologetics, then, aren’t unimportant to young people, it’s just that the answers are meaningless unless they have context of actual life transformation.

The famous quote: “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument,” is completely understood and valued by this generation. And actually, I think it is mostly admirable and honest.

With this well documented cultural mindset as a backdrop, I find it very hard to believe that arming students with arguments is or will be any time soon the new youth ministry fad.

With one exception…

One of the great problems with American Christianity today is it’s insistence on winning the so-called “culture wars”. There is a strong feeling in many church circles that the prevailing culture has lost it’s moral compass (which is mostly true) and that it is the church’s job to legislate, argue and demand a return to Judeo-Christian moral principles (which is mostly untrue).

This “Us vs. Them” mindset is being played out on our political stage on a daily basis. There are Red-States and Blue-States. Conservatives and Liberals. Bumper stickers and talking heads have replaced actual conversation. As of today, the President and House Republicans can’t even agree on what day he should give his “jobs speech”.

We are a very divided country and this culture war mindset is deeply entrenched in many of our churches.

And don’t think this doesn’t rub off on our children. There are, I believe, an increasing amount of children of culture-war soldiers that have been told they must know the arguments to “defend their faith & country” from demise.

It is these students (and perhaps more accurately their parents) that have started this niche trend toward apologetics. And while apologetics is a great field of study, I believe any resurgence in it’s popularity for students and youth group is born out of this more fear-based rhetoric then actual interest in youth culture more broadly. It is localized in the Christian subculture and certainly not a trend for young people generally.

I’m encouraged that this field of study is being included in youth ministry curriculum, but I pray that youth leaders across the country will have the wisdom not to cave into this small minded view of “my god is better than your god” spiritual war mongering. I pray we will not only teach students what we believe to be true about God, but that we’d spend even more time modeling how we actually live like Him.

If we don’t we’ll have a lot of churches full of answers with no one who wants to hear them.

And, we may end up doing a lot of apologizing for all our apologetics.

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Holy Sheet!

I found a valuable treasure in our linen closet the other day. Old bed sheets. We don’t use them on our bed anymore, but my three-year-old daughter repurposed them (we’re a green, recycling family) for a new cause.

You know the old saying, “one man’s garbage is another toddler’s treasure.”

Turns out old bed sheets are the perfect building material for a kid’s bedroom fort. They are large enough (if they are queen size or larger) to span long distances. And they are light enough (not like grandma’s quilt which is big too but heavy) that they don’t sag too much in the middle, a crucial concern for good fort creation.

Three bedsheets, 15 minutes, two dresser drawers closed on corners, one stereo placed on top to hold an edge, and three pillows for stability later and my daughter no longer had a bedroom but a wild west trading post. Although, she preferred to think of it as a “princess fort”.

It was the perfect place to hide in, play with dolls and pretend to be in a castle.

Turns out, it was also the perfect place for a three-year-old to want to spend the night.

“Daddy, can we have a sleep over in the fort tonight?”

And so, long after Paytyn had been tucked into her sleeping bag and fallen asleep, I crept in to my sleeping bag under the fort to “sleep over” as well.

It was not a comfortable night. Sleeping on the floor when I was three was easy. Now it just makes my whole body hurt. But, I could have dealt with that if it wasn’t for the constant karate kicks that my sleeping daughter hurled my way all night long. Have you ever slept next to a toddler? They literally never stop moving. Even when they sleep.

Sore and exhausted, I woke up the next morning to a bright-eyed girl, her face right up in mine, staring at me from three-inches away.

“Good morning, daddy! We did a sleep over!” she beamed with joy.

That we did. It was just one night. We took the fort down later that morning. But the joy my daughter experienced lasted for weeks.

And in the effort to win my daughter’s heart I hope to have a few more sleepless nights on the floor.

God’s that way, you know.

Sometimes we think of Him as inaccessible or standoffish or too good for the likes of us. In fact, there are many of us who have grown up not liking this God that sits up in His comfortable digs in heaven judging us down here doing our best in this mess of a world.

We’ve assumed the only terms He’s willing to meet us on involve stuffy religious ceremonies and boring church services. Which for many of us has made him seem un-relatable and elitist at best.

But, no matter what you’ve assumed about God or maybe how churches or Christians have portrayed Him to you, Jesus shows us that God is more like a fort-building dad than a cold and distant tyrant.

So the Word (God) became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. No one has ever seen God. But the unique One (Jesus), who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
(John 1:14,18 NLT)

He made is home among us. The words there literally mean, “he pitched his tent with us.” Or maybe a three-year-old might translate it: “he built a fort and lay down on the hard ground in his sleeping bag too.”

And maybe that’s the best picture of God.

Loyd Family 2011

Maybe we’ve had some assumptions about God that don’t match up to how God has defined himself in the way he actually chooses to act toward us.

The God that Jesus puts on display isn’t too good to experience a sleepless night. He isn’t too holy to break out the old bedsheets and slum it up on the floor.

This God will go to any length to win the hearts of the people he has made. It’s the foundational belief of Jesus’ followers: that God is in fact good, relatable, willing to live with us and do whatever it takes bring us ultimate joy and fulfillment.

In that case, it could be that something other than some old bedsheets need repurposed. Maybe our view of God could use a little retooling too.

The Pastor’s Pastor

Skyscrapers of book boxes teetered nervously in a maze around the cluttered new office; each box grunting under the weight of the heavy reading.  I was grunting too, flopped down in my chair at the desk.

Why do I have so many books?  I ask myself this question every time I have to move them.  And why is my office on the 3rd floor?

First day at a new job.  A new church body.  And my first task is to haul these long-time companions to their new shelves.  My head dropped to the desk just thinking about unpacking them all.

And that’s when I felt the hands on my shoulders.  Big hands.  Broad hands.

Startled, I lifted my head off the desk.  It was my pastor.

No, not the senior pastor.  Not the executive pastor.  Not an associate of men’s ministry or small groups.

It was “Big Al”.  The janitor.

And he was big.  He stood towering over me with a broad build and bald head.  Like a real life Mr. Clean, without the earring. I was pretty sure his hands could crush me and he probably wouldn’t have even noticed.

“Hey, is this your first day?”  he asked.

“Yea, just getting all my books in the door.”

Big Al looks around and smiles, “Has anyone prayed for you yet?”

“Uh no, I guess not.”

“Great then, let me do it right now.”  And before I can even agree, “Big Al” is praying for me to have courage, lead boldly, proclaim Christ clearly, to have passion in my spiritual journey and for my family to be strong and blessed by God.

That’s how I met my pastor.  On my first day as the new youth pastor, he stepped into my office to empty the garbage.  But he wouldn’t leave until he’d made sure my soul wasn’t in the same condition.

I like people like Al.  People who see themselves as part of God’s divine plan to breathe life into every situation.  Even while taking out the trash.

And now several years later, from time to time, Big Al will come strolling into my office to empty the garbage.  And sometimes he’ll stop and look at me.  And ask me a question.

“How are you doing with your relationship with God right now?  Are you feeling passionate or is it becoming just a job for you?”

Yikes!  How about “Hey, Nick.  Nice weather we’ve been having, huh?”  I mean, that’s pretty heavy for first thing Monday morning.

Except almost every time he asks me those questions, they’ve been questions that need to be asked.  Sometimes I can answer that I’m doing really well and other times not.  But, it’s always been a pastoral reminder to me to care more about the relationship I have with God than the job I think I do for him.

And it occurs to me that I can be honest with Al.  As people who are usually looked at to have all the right answers and constantly be the epitome of godliness, it is often hard for pastors to have real discussions of their own spiritual walk.  Those authentic moments of deep honesty are rare.  And even more rare the people that ask it of us.

But the older I get and the longer I’m involved in professional ministry, the more I find it essential to find those rare individuals who will ask the real questions.  It’s too easy to fake it.  Too easy to miss it, while talking lots about it.

After all, it’s often my own soul that needs the most work.  It is my wandering that needs a shepherd. I need a pastor too.

Whoever he or she is, your pastor does too.

Big Al isn’t a janitor.  He’s a pastor that takes out my garbage sometimes.

And the fact that he knows that has made all the difference for me.

So may you see your true identity today. May you remember that you never need a title to fulfill your ministry.  May you discover the people to pastor all around you that you could never have blessed in any other role.  May you find your divine calling in the middle of the moments you label “ordinary.”

And may you be so fortunate as to come across your own Big Al.  Title or not, every pastor needs a pastor.  And he’s about the best there is.

Predestined to Hate Rob Bell

Weeks before Rob Bell’s newest book was released the claims of heresy started swirling.  People like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Justin Taylor had condemned him while only reading select excerpts or in some cases nothing at all.

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John Piper famously tweeted:  “Farewell, Rob Bell,” apparently insinuating that he was no longer considering him to be a fellow Christian.

And truly, I don’t blame him.  I don’t hold them responsible for this reckless criticism.  How could I?  They were predestined to do it.  It’s not as though they had a choice.  From the beginning of the world, they were fated to do this very thing.  It’s almost as if the words were typed into Twitter on their own.

Love Wins

I just finished reading “Love Wins” for myself yesterday.  And as I read it, I was struck by how orthodox it was.  Having watched the blog and twitter world for the last two weeks I expected to find the reincarnation of Buddha or the Wiccan “Rule of Three” being proclaimed by Rob Bell.

Turns out though, he still believes and follows Jesus.  He believes in His divinity.  And His humanity.  He thinks His sacrifice was the crucial point in human history that reconciled us to God, set us free from sin and defeats evil. He believes He died and came back to life.  He believes only through Christ can we experience true life, healing, salvation and wholeness, and that through him all things hold together.   He believes that what we do on this planet has real consequences, either for good or bad.  He states his belief in the “already-not yet” paradoxical components of heaven and hell.

And he believes in free-will.

Which is actually where I think the real problem lies.

Over and over in the book, Bell asserts that “real love” requires the capacity to deny or reject that love.  Love that is compelled is not truly love.

Much of his theology is based on the rules of this love.  Rules that God himself chooses to play by in order to allow our decisions the reality of significance.  And though he acknowledges our ability to deny it, Bell believes that God will never stop His divine attempts to woo, pursue, and offer us His incredible love.

Rob Bell, author of "Love Wins"

It is the topic of choice then that is on trial for many.  Does Rob Bell believe in hell?  Yes, both in the sense that it exists now and in the age to come.  But he believes God doesn’t SEND people there.  He believes people choose to live in hell now and presumably in the future as well.

What is on trial is not the existence of hell, but the parameters of human freedom and choice.

And by the way, this is not new.  Nor is it universalism.  And I’m sorry to ruin the hype, but it isn’t heresy by a long shot.

This book is controversial because there are many people who do not share the ‘free-will” or “open” view of the human condition.

We live in a time that is currently marked by a significant “resurgence” of the Reformed theology/Calvinists that believe that all things are determined in advance by God.  Or if you prefer to think of it in building terms, that God has a divine blueprint that shows every decision every person will make.  And not only does he know that decision, but that we are in fact created to make that decision.  It isn’t really a “decision” at all, just the appearance of one.

And if you read the reviews closely, I think you’ll find people coming down on this book mostly along those lines:  free-will or determinist.

Heretic! Heretic!

Though the “heretic” rhetoric is flying around more carelessly than radioactivity spewing out of a nuclear meltdown, this isn’t a new battle for these tribes.  This is an age-old disagreement clothed in different garments.

So don’t buy the hype.  Rob Bell isn’t tearing down Christianity or saying that any path you take will lead to eternal life.  He’s not a universalist or a heretic or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.  He’s just another guy contributing his voice to a long conversation of well intentioned followers of Jesus trying to make sense of the Divine.

And also, don’t be too hard on the Piper/Driscoll/Taylor clan.  It’s not their fault.  They were predestined to dislike Rob Bell.

Top-10 Things Your Youth Pastor Would Like to Say

Shingles. Anxiety. Sleepless nights. High blood pressure. Gun-shy decision-making. Significant loss in self-esteem & confidence. Unhealthy eating habits. Depression. A meager spiritual life.

I’d experienced all of these by my 5th year in youth ministry.

Now, I know many people think youth ministry is just organizing a fun game of dodgeball or sardines. I mean, how hard can it be? But it turns out, it’s pretty tough not just physically or mentally, but on the soul.

Consider the all the roles your youth pastor is expected to be completely proficient in:

– creative event/party planner,
– engaging, funny, and deep teacher/communicator,
– successful publicist,
– charismatic personality,
– bible-knowledge expert,
– teen-culture expert,
– consistent parent liaison,
– media and technology guru,
– data-entry and records keeping professional,
– team-manager and volunteer director,
– student mentor and leadership developer,
– social-media master,
– spiritual and family relationship counselor,
– conflict negotiator in teenage relationship struggles,
– and janitor (cause lets face it, we all know who gets to clean up that messy game from last Wednesday).

Add to these expectations (and more) the countless hours spent hanging-out with students at football games, Starbucks, Denny’s, musicals, and coaching girl’s basketball and you’ve got a pretty full schedule. And while many youth pastors have the ability to delegate some of these responsibilities, most will tell you that they are under-resourced with personal capability, adult personnel, and money to make many of these roles successful.

The expectations are high. The desire is authentic. The reality is slim.

Any given Sunday, there are a bunch of youth pastors on the verge of mental and spiritual breakdown.

Now as I’ve gotten older, I’ve personally found healthier ways to deal with the difficulties of the job, and healthier contexts to do it in.  But today there are many young youth pastors who find themselves where I was a few years ago.  If you aren’t involved in career ministry, it might come as a surprise that the spiritual leaders that care for your students at church are struggling in this way.  And maybe it’s worth a look into the thoughts I’ve heard youth pastors say to each other but rarely to anyone else.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that are being kept inside. These might not all apply to all youth leaders, but chances are they’ve all thought them at some point or another. And it’s worth a look into the real struggles of these committed leaders.

The TOP-10 things your youth pastor would like to say but is usually too scared to:


1) “I’m a normal person, please treat me like one.”

I know I’m the leader of an important ministry, but I’m also a person. When I get a vicious email or nasty criticism, it hurts. Many times I feel like the criticism comes from strangers rather than brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, I’m often amazed at the harsh criticism I receive from people I don’t really know. If you’ve got concerns, could you please let me know while remembering I’m a real person with real feelings.

2) “I’m doing the best I can, please cut me some slack.”

I’m overworked and have a lot of students and their problems on my mind. There are lots of things I’d like to get done in better organization of our group, but the tyranny of what has to get done today and the sudden crisis that pop up in students’ lives rob me of time to deal with it all. I’m doing my best. Please give me some grace. I’ll get the parent newsletter out as soon as I can.

3) “I don’t know all the answers, and neither do you.”

Maybe I didn’t teach something last week that covered everything you’d like. Maybe I asked too many questions and didn’t give enough answers. But, I don’t always know what is going to get through to students. I have to try things. I’m trying to earn their trust and break through their apathy. And most likely, you don’t know what will work either or you’d be doing it yourself instead of expecting me to do it.  Please work with me to find out what works and what doesn’t.

4) “I’m not responsible for your student’s spiritual growth, I’m responsible for mine.”

I know you think that it’s your job to drop your kid off at our program and my job to make sure they grow up “Christian,” but the truth is I’m only responsible for my own spiritual growth. I can encourage, equip and inspire your student to follow Jesus, but parents have more influence in how that practically works out and ultimately it is something each student must choose for himself/herself. If you want more depth for your student, dig deeper with them. Don’t just expect me to do it.

5) “I need more help, not more criticism.”

I realize that youth ministry will always be a lightning rod for criticism. We play messy games, ask disturbing questions and employ controversial strategies all in an effort to reach students for Jesus. And I know you don’t like them all, but you should know that sharp criticism makes me want to engage in these activities more not less. I know I’m not doing everything right, but it’s hard for me to hear “disengaged criticism.” Get involved and start fighting in the trenches with me and I’ll be much more inclined to hear your “suggestive correction.”

6) “I invest in a lot of relationships, but very few invest in me.”

My life is a constant out-pouring of time and energy into people around me. I invite them to coffee, I go to their performances or do any number of other things that aren’t what I’d prefer to do at the moment. Many times I have to risk awkwardness and rejection to try and build relationships. But, almost no one does this for me. I’ve been invited over for lunch or dinner (without an agenda) only a few times. And rarely does anyone check-in on how I’m doing spiritually. I’m constantly giving of myself and very rarely receiving anything back. I feel very alone. I need someone to befriend me and pour into me.

7) “If I really had freedom, I’d probably do this ministry totally different.”

You probably don’t know this, but most of how we do youth ministry today is from the 1950’s and I’m not married to it. In fact, if it was totally up to me, I’d probably blow the whole thing up and re-dream it entirely to fit a new generation. But you have to understand I’m under a lot of pressure from leaders above me to keep a status quo and not “rock the boat too much.” I understand this thing isn’t doing all we hope it will do, but I’m making the most of what I’ve been commissioned to do.

8) “My family is making a huge sacrifice for me to do this, please honor them.”

This job is not for bankers. I don’t work 9-to-5 on Monday through Friday. I work almost every day of the week, doing things you might not consider “hard work” but which nevertheless take me away from my family. A youth retreat is not a vacation for me. It’s a 100-hour work weekend away from my family. Please help me take care of my family. Offer to babysit. Send my wife and I on marriage renewal weekends. Or just check in on my family while I’m gone and see if they need anything. They pay a big price for my interaction with students, so honor them for it.

9) “I’m not a ‘real-pastor’ in training, what I do is already important.”

My job is not a senior-pastor-in-training position. In fact, as hard as this is to believe, I might not ever want to be a senior-pastor. I do what I do because I value students. I’m not trying to climb a corporate church ladder. I care about the teenagers I see each week and I desperately want them to see the reality of the kingdom of God that exists around them. This job is the job I want when I grow up. I just hope I don’t grow up, so I can do this job forever.

10) “I’m the least-paid in my field, with possibly the toughest assignment.”

It’s no surprise that youth pastors are among the least paid on a church staff. I probably get paid half of what your senior-pastor makes, but you should know that it’s one of the most difficult tasks in church. Trust me, no senior-pastor or executive-pastor (as tough as their job is) wants to figure out how to simultaneously entertain, teach and emotionally grab a room full of 16-year-olds. In fact, most are scared to death just thinking about it. It’s a tough job, and we lose more good youth pastors every year because we don’t value what they do enough and they need more to live on.

Is that a tough glimpse into what many youth pastors are feeling? Possibly. But I think it articulates what many have communicated to me or in certain cases what I myself have experienced.

Of course, youth pastors will be quick to tell you, there are a bunch of great benefits to working within the body of Christ. Seeing young people make decisions that change their life, watching leaders grow and become all they can be, and living in the middle of human brokenness and seeing God bring healing is incredibly rewarding.  And most of them find the drawbacks worth the incredible joy of working with students; I know I do.

But giving these hidden struggles a voice is good.  Too many young, good leaders are drowning in them because they don’t want to sound “whiny” or “ungrateful” or “incapable” of doing their job.  And while we care for young people, we should also care about the people-caring-about-young-people.

So next time you see your youth pastor in the church hall, give her a hug or take him to dinner. I promise you that most of them can identify with many of the statements above. And they might be better off if they know you do too.

The Right to be a Jerk

 

NYT Article, 3/2/11

 

The Supreme Court ruled today that people have the right to be a jerk.  And sadly, it was the most consistent decision they could have made. (Read the article here)

The Westboro Baptist group has been picketing military funerals and spreading the message that God hates humanity for a long time.  And today, their right to be a jerk was protected.

Now, I detest the message and communication of this group of hate proponents, but as I read my paper today I was struck by the incredible patience and restraint our society has with such mean-spirited and hate-filled people.

And if the secular court has such tolerance for such un-tolerant people, I wonder if the mainstream church has fallen victim to over-hype when it worries about it’s own censorship in the postmodern future.

Fear. It drives a lot of church rhetoric these days.  I’m pretty sure it influences a good deal of church strategy as well.

And for what it’s worth, I think I understand it.  Culture has changed.  The Christian narrative is no longer the dominate influence that it once was in this country.  Space for other religious persuasions and even anti-religious perspectives have been created in the arena of our American culture like never before.  And while I personally don’t see this change as traumatic or bad, I can see where it causes some Christians concern.

Growing up my whole life in church and now having worked within the church for the past 10 years or so, I have seen this fear first hand.  Maybe you have too.

I lose count of the amount of times that I have heard statements from other pastors bemoaning the loss of influence of their religion and fearing what the future may hold.

There is fear that the church will lose it’s tax exempt status.  Fear that the church will one day be forced to perform gay marriage.  Fear that the church will be forced to preach universalism.  Fear that the culture is moving in such an “inclusive” direction that churches will lose their basic freedom of speech rights and be persecuted.  And that’s just the tip of the fear iceberg.

Well, I suppose all that could happen.  But, then I read stories like the one that I stumbled on in the New York Times today.

The Westboro Baptist group represents about the worst that church has to offer.  Not only to humanity as a whole, but specifically irritating to an “inclusive” society like our postmodern America.

And yet, the courts upheld their rights to speak… even though it is hate speech.

Now, I hope no church I’m ever a part of is known for what the Westboro group is known for today.  But if the secular courts are willing to protect the “freedom of speech” for such a hateful, anti-humanity, anti-Christian religious group like that, should we really be concerned about losing the same privilege of speech?

Maybe our Christian culture of protectionist fear is more unfounded than some think. Maybe allowing other people’s voices to be heard isn’t the same thing as a plan to eliminate ours.  Maybe the secular culture we love to criticize will in the end protect our right to speak even if they hate what we say or how we treat them.

Maybe it’s time we stop living in fear of how the culture wants to silence us and start engaging the culture, pointing out the beauty that exists in it and changing the ugly parts not with our whining, but with our community action and sacrifice.

If we do, we might just find our society listening and interested in what we have to say rather than just gritting their teeth and defending our right to say it.