The Bible Online: The Video Game!

For all you online gamers, I’ve heard of a new MMO (massively mulitplayer online game) that’s going to be up and running soon.  If you like Role-Playing Games and other games like Age of Empires and the like, then check it out at The Bible Online.

The game is being developed by FiAA, based in Germany, and is rumored to be open to the public in early September.  “The Bible Online is developed for players of all ages to easily get closer to the Bible, while enjoying the game,” said FiAA president Dr. Alan Kim.

What is the Heart of Christianity?

I usually check the news online once or twice a day to keep informed about what’s going on in our world.  Today on CNN there was a link to an article named “New York’s Bloomberg: We are all Muslims.”  The title caught my attention, so I read it (it’s short).  Towards the end of the article, the author quotes Mayor Bloomberg saying,

“At an interfaith memorial service for the martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, Imam Rauf said, ‘If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind, and soul: Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad; Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.'”

Bloomberg uses the quote to drive home the need for equality.  I agree with his call to treat each other as equals, however there’s something in Imam Rauf’s quote that caught my attention.  Imam Rauf is actually correct about the “heart of Christianity” being the Great Commandment (Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself), but he (a Muslim Imam) claims to fulfill this command of Jesus.

Clearly, he believes that he is obeying God to the fullest of his abilities, however as a Christian reading this proclamation I get upset and frustrated because “being a Christian” is a unique thing.  I would not claim to be Muslim if I prayed five times a day, I would not claim to be a Jew if I celebrated the Passover (which I have done in a Temple).  Worshipping God in your own way does not mean that you are “Loving the Lord your God.”

The Christian truth is that we are incapable of loving God without loving Jesus Christ and worshipping Him.  Christianity boldly proclaims that you cannot worship God without worshipping Him as the Triune God (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit).  You cannot please God in worship while neglecting what He has revealed about Himself in order to bring about reconciliation between Himself and you (namely, that God became a man in Jesus Christ, that Jesus lived a sinless life and died on the cross as our substitute, that he physically rose from the dead on the third day, and ascended into Heaven as our advocate to the Father, and that we have access to the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit).

Christians, be discerning listeners.  How closely do you listen not only to the point of what’s being said, but also to the argument that is being used to convey the point?  I could easily imagine a non-discerning Christian reading this article or hearing this speech and saying, “Yeah, he’s got a point… maybe he’s right!”  Again, I know that Bloomberg and Imam Rauf’s point was one directed towards unity and equality, but we must be careful in HOW we make our points.  As Christians, we must be discerning listeners.  If someone has a valid point to make, it is their responsibility to make a valid argument to support their claim.

Let us all Love the Lord our God (through Jesus Christ) with all our heart, MIND, and soul… and that means we need to think carefully and discerningly about what we read and hear.  As we do that, may we already remember to love our neighbor as ourself in the process.

Is Youth Ministry Missing the Mark?

USA Today recently ran an article entitled “‘Forget the Pizza Parties’ Teens Tell Churches” which has gotten significant buzz since it came out last week.  The best response I have come across so far is Bill Nance’s “Not so Fast, My Friends.”

The article begins this way:

“Bye-bye church. We’re busy.” That’s the message teens are giving churches today.”

“Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school-year youth groups kick in.”

However, as Bill Nance points out, the statistics that are cited in this article don’t seem to be entirely honest.  The Barna Group’s report actually shows that youth group attendance among teens is about the same as it’s been since 1997.  If anything, what the chart below tells me is that personal Bible reading is on the upswing over the past few years… and that’s a great thing!

I also don’t want to overreact to the message of this article.  I agree that if you’re a youth pastor (which I am) and you’re trying to attract teenagers to your program simply by offering pizza then you’re wasting your time.  But I don’t know any youth pastors who count on pizza parties to sustain their youth ministry.  Do we eat pizza at some youth group events, of course (it’s good, and it’s fairly cheap), but the goal and the attraction is not the pizza.

Teenagers want to be challenged, not just fed.  Teens are not “children” who are too young and uneducated to wrestle with difficult questions.  If we are canceling camp and other programs because attendance is lower then we need to begin asking some hard questions (“Am I making an idol out of attendance?” “Why are we doing this program, is it still fruitful with half the people there?” “Is this program connecting youth with Christ, is that why they’ve stopped coming?” etc.).  I give the youth pastor in the article the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume that there’s more behind his decision to cancel camp that we’re unaware of.

We also ought to be careful in blaming parents.  While it’s generally true to say that “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” sometimes it does.  I know parents who are very devoted to Christ who have “prodigal” children who have wandered far from Christ; I also know many people who have grown in their faith far beyond the faith (0r lack of faith) of their parents.  That being said, parents do set the example for their children, and when a mom or dad is apathetic about his/her faith, it’s no wonder why their children wander from the Church and Christ.

We should be more intentional in taking a two-pronged approach to addressing this crucial dilemma: We should be disicipling parents to disciple their sons and daughters, and We should be primarily committed to mentoring students who have a hunger to grow in their faith rather than being primarily committed to running programs.

A New School-Year’s Coming… (sorry)

Yup, it’s almost here…

Older siblings and friends are heading off to college.  You’re starting your senior year and are stressed about what you’re going to do after graduation (and what will happen to your friendships).  Maybe you’re switching schools and are nervous (or excited!) about starting fresh and needing to find a new group of friends.  Perhaps you’re entering Junior High or High School and you have no idea what to expect.

My advice: PRAY.  And start praying for your school-year now, while it’s still a few weeks away.

  • Pray for God to give you boldness this year to live for him and to not be conformed to the world around you (Romans 12:2).
  • Pray that God would help you to relax and truly enjoy the next few weeks before the busyness of school starts up.
  • Pray that what you learned and experienced at summer camp or on a missions trip would stick with you and that they wouldn’t just become “summer memories.”

Here’s a link to a site with some good, short prayers to pray about the beginning of school.

Toronto Team Update #6: LIFE Skills

We gained some “LIFE Skills” today: Living In Faith Everyday.  The goal of LIFE Skills is to demonstrate to teams how they can bring some of the lessons they’ve learned home with them.  LIFE Skills stands for “Living In Christ Everyday.”  We broke our team into three small groups to walk around an area where there is a high concentration of people experiencing homelessness.  Each team spent time in prayer, service, and storytelling.

We were encouraged to devote time to pray for each other, for us to apply the lessons we’ve learned this week when we get home, and to pray for those in need around us.  After praying for opportunities to serve in Christ’s name we walked around with our eyes open, looking for opportunities that lay before us.  One group bought a $10 McDonald’s card and chose a man to give it away to; upon receiving it he immediately went to the McDonald’s on the corner to buy something to eat.  That same group and another group also met and talked with a man named Joe.  Rather than panhandling for money, Joe “sells” jokes each day as a way to get money. Joe has a college degree from an American university, was married for 20 years and had a solid job for many years.  The other group saw a group of people in the park with bicycles and folding chairs and it was clear they lived on the street.  The group approached them to ask if they could buy them food at McDonalds, and our group was surprised that the men only asked for a hamburger and a coke.  The woman asked for a Filet of Fish and said “I haven’t had one for so long, that would be so good!”  She didn’t ask for anything else.  Encounters reinforced that stereotypes like “Homeless people are lazy and stupid” just aren’t true.  Many of them are well educated people for whom, one way or another, life began to somehow unravel.

The group I was a part of went to St. Michael’s Cathedral (which was right across from the park) to spend some time in prayer in their sanctuary, which was open to the public.  The sanctuary was beautiful and filled with stained-glass windows telling the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.  The cathedral was so filled with images of the Gospel, and yet it was also lined in candles which were lit in order to get loved ones out of purgatory quicker.  There’s just something about entering a sanctuary which is set aside for prayer and worship which is ornately decorated in a way to intentionally draw your attention to the glory of Christ.  How I wish the Protestant Church could learn to adopt some of the strengths of Catholic Church.  (enough of that soap-box…)

I just love the contrast between the graffiti wall and the skyscrapers in the background. This was taken close to the heart of where many of those experiencing homelessness sleep.

We then ate our sandwiches and drove to the park to meet our kids and their families!  We were so excited and saw some of them waiting for us as soon as we pulled into High Park.  We threw the frisbee around for a while and then organized a three-team soccer tournament with our team members paired up with their tutoring kids while the girls made pictures with sidewalk chalk and played other games together.  It was a blast, we all had so much fun!  After the soccer tournament was over we walked to a small zoo within the park grounds and then made our way to the most amazing playground I’ve ever seen.  

Playing soccer with the kids at High Park (I took this picture while playing goalie, hence why everyone's facing away from me except Keith)

After saying goodbye to our tutoring families we drove to a Japanese Sushi restaurant for dinner.  Half the team like the sushi, half the team didn’t, but everyone tried it – Craig’s face when he had his first taste of wasabi is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget!  The rest of the meal was a bento box with teriyaki chicken, rice, tempura fried veggies and a salad.  Again, the food was a highlight of my day (although even I was glad to have the salad, as we’ve all been feeling a bit heavy this week and aching for some veggies and healthier food).

When we returned to the church we went to the park next door (where we had the Praise & Worship Night on Wed.) and spent some time debriefing on the day and on the week.  We each drew pictures with sidewalk chalk representing something we had learned or been challenged by this week that we wanted to take home with us as a life-lesson.  Honestly, I was overwhelmed by the depth of insight everyone in the group displayed.  Later on we also circled up again to share verbally one practical change we want to implement when we get home.  We also broke into groups of 4-5 to rehearse our 30-second answer to the question “How was Toronto” (which we’ll get asked A LOT in the next few weeks).  Here are some common themes I’ve observed:

  • Stereotypes of “Homelessness” are not even close to being accurate.  Yes, many are addicted to drugs and alcohol and turn to theft in order to get by – but for most people experiencing homelessness those addictions are the result of poverty and homelessness, not the cause of it.  And many of them are educated people who were hard workers, but they simply lost their jobs and couldn’t find a new job before losing everything they had.
  • We take what we have for granted so much.  Rather than being thankful, we complain when we don’t have the latest and greatest instead of being grateful to God for blessing us so much.
  • We are so blessed by serving and want to do it way more often.
  • It doesn’t take much to be a blessing to someone in need.  I can’t change that person’s world or give them a job or a house, but I can give them respect and listen to their story.
  • There are so many more ways to serve the homeless and needy than simply giving them food or money.  Just look at the previous posts this week if you need evidence that there are many great ways to be involved in ministry to the needy aside from giving them a sandwich or money.
  • God’s love is far greater than we usually recognize it to be.  While we are judgmental towards those who are “less fortunate” than us, God doesn’t judge us by our bank accounts.  How can we grow God’s eyes to look around where we are today (home, work, school, church, etc.) and see the needs in people’s lives around us… and do something about it!

Prayer Requests:

  • We are hoping to be on the road around 6:45 am on Saturday.  (Parents, that means your kids will be home earlier than we originally told you – you’ll be getting phone calls once we get into the States again).  Pray for Van and Lynn and Mike to be alert and safe as they share the driving duties for the two vans we drove out here.
  • Clarity, wisdom, and boldness as we come home and answer the question “How was Toronto?” about 100 times in the next two weeks.  Pray that we would really think through how to talk about our experience with friends and family in a way that is Christ-exalting, eye-opening, and honest.
  • Pray for those in need and the ministry partners that CSM partners with.  This is the final week of trips CSM has scheduled for the summer, so that means the stream of volunteers they have been deploying over the past few weeks is now over.  Pray that the work these many organizations do would continue to flourish and bear fruit as they continue year-round.
  • Pray that we would have left a godly and humble witness with the families we spent time with through Iskaashiga Minisntries.  Most families have had a few different tutors over the course of the month (all of the tutors have been Christians), pray that collectively we have welcomes these foreign families and have represented Jesus Christ well to them so that they will increasingly grow interested in learning about and following Christ.

Toronto Update 5: What a Windfall!

After breakfast today we started off our day serving at Windfall, an organization which receives overstocked or returned clothing and accessories from distributers in order to give them to those in need.  As their website states, “WINDFALL acquires new clothing and other basic-needs items and distributes these items to social service agencies for the purpose of alleviating poverty and fostering human dignity. Consequently, Windfall raises awareness of poverty as a social issue.”  Windfall is a part of a contest for small charities in Canada to win $20,000 by people voting for them on www.winavote.com, please click this link and vote fore Windfall.

At windfall we helped price wedding gowns, sort two large bins full of donations from clothing stores H&M, Levi’s, and Hugo Boss.  The woman who directed our group told us how her cousin was recently looking for a wedding gown.  She told her cousin how Windfall had a very large collection of brand new, name-brand wedding gowns for sale for only a fraction of the cost you’d find in the stores (Keith found a Vera Wang gown Windfall was selling for $200 which goes for over $5,000 in the stores; He also found an $1800 dress at Windfall that we were told could go for $30,000 in the stores because of all the intricate work and fabric quality!).  Two weeks after her cousin paid $20,000 for her gown and alterations Windfall received the same exact dress from a the manufacturer and was selling it for $400!  We were told that many of the dresses Windfall receives are brand new from stores where they are overstocked or they receive them as tax-exempt donations from the manufacturers.  Windfall will be opening a bridal boutique where they will sell their dresses to help finance their important ministry.

The team with our spiffy new sunglasses at Windfall.
Working hard at solving the world's problems.

After leaving Windfall we drove to a park to enjoy our lunches and to have some discussion about lessons we’ve learned this week before going to tutor our kids.  We were given a sheet of paper, markers, and colored pencils and instructed to draw a picture signifying what we’ve learned this week.  Some of the common drawings were:

  • The Sandwich Run we did on Monday night
  • Different aspects of the Simulated Poverty Immersion we did on Tuesday night
  • Images of homelessness
  • Books, representing the kids we’re tutoring

Today was our last day of official “tutoring” since tomorrow we will be meeting our kids and their families at High Park in Toronto for a picnic and games.  We’re not all sure how much progress we’ve made (at least I’m not) in terms of teaching English to the kids who still have a long way to go, but we’re all going to really miss the kids we’ve been paired up with.

Tonight was our “night off” where we could choose to do whatever we wanted.  After asking many people from the area and looking through the AAA Tour Guide for Toronto the other leaders and I still could not settle on any particular activity since they all seemed to either cost too much or be activities we could easily do at home (shoppping, paintball, etc.).  We settled on going to China Town in Toronto and eating at a Vietnamese restaurant called Ahn-do.  The food was amazing, although none of the girls (or Scott) seemed to particularly enjoy it.  The portions were huge and the food was great, but it was a little spicy for those who have more “gentle” paletts (the fact that we walked by Dairy Queen on our way to the restaurant and I told them we could stop there after dinner probably didn’t help motivate them to eat the food in front of them!).

We ate Vietnamese food tonight. It was fun watching some people try to figure out how to use chopsticks (in case you're wondering, Andrew's joking around in this picture, not actually trying to use chopsticks like that!)

Prayer Requests:

  • We’ve taken in a TON of information this week.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to cause the lessons He has for us to stick in our minds and our hearts long after we leave Toronto.
  • It is always a challenge to know how to actually implement what you’ve learned and experienced when you get back home – that is going to be what much of tomorrow is directed towards helping us discern.  Pray that we would know what to do, and that we would have the commitment, followthrough, and passion to do it.
  • We are all very excited about playing in the park with our kids and their families tomorrow.  Pray for safety and for fun (especially since there are multiple cultures represented) and that we would all keep safe and injury-free.  May we have a Gospel-bearing ministry to these families.  Pray for clear open doors to talk about Christ with the kids and/or the parents.

Some Thoughts on the Church and Social Justice

This week has been really powerful already, getting a taste of homelessness and tragedies experienced by so many (both here in Toronto and around the globe).  I was talking with Craig tonight about my struggle thinking through how to really help these people beyond just giving them food or money.  Sure feeding them and giving them stuff is great, but how can I (how can we!) actually help them get back on their feet, find a job, and fight through the hopeless situation they’re living in.

At the Praise & Worship service tonight, the CSM staff provided a “Poverty and Justice Bible” with all the verses mentioning poverty & justice were highlighted.  I opened to the Gospel of Matthew and read Mt. 26:6-13, which spurred many of these thoughts and ramblings.

Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.  When Jesus was questioned about the wasteful stewardship (and there was probably some non-spoken accusation of “spiritual showboating” too), Jesus’ answer cuts right to the heart of why the Church exists.

Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”  Jesus explains the beautiful thing Mary had done by preparing him for his burial… Jesus points to the cross.  The cross and resurrection are the absolute focal point of the Gospel Message; if we do not focus on the cross and resurrection then we are not teaching the Gospel.

Later on in Acts 6:1-7 we see the Apostles appointing Deacons to oversee the ministry to the poor and needy.  They appointed Deacons so that they could continue to focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word (which I take to point to both Evangelism and Discipleship).  They did not believe it was right for them to change the Church’s identity as a Gospel-obsessed group of people into a social justice organization; and yet they very intentionally made sure that the poor and needy were being taken care of.

Many Christians today are working to re-instill a commitment to social justice within the Evangelical Church in America.  This movement makes me very excited, but it also makes me a little bit nervous.  This is a huge gap in many of today’s evangelical churches and the need for it is so great, especially in these economically difficult times.  Yet, we must be sure to keep Jesus’ death and resurrection as the absolute center of our mission and purpose for existing.

It’s wonderful to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked and to visit the prisoner in his time of distress – but if we do not keep the Gospel Message at the core of what we do, then people’s quality of life may improve, but their souls are still lost and without eternal hope.  We may have helped many, but we have not helped the most we could have because we have put the “needy” in the central role that Jesus Christ ought to have in our Church.

The Church must be a place where these people are loved.  But rather than seeking to welcome them in and waiting for them to come, I’m beginning to wonder how we ought to be equipped to go out to them.  We can be famously welcoming, but if we don’t go to them then they won’t come to us.  Why should they if they don’t know they’re welcome (and a welcome mat out front of the church’s door isn’t enough).

The reality is exactly as Jesus says, “You will always have the poor with you.”  Rather than giving into pessimism and thinking that this is a hopeless fight, let us strengthen our commitment to keep the Gospel Message at our core – and let that core absolutely motivate and equip us to go out and radically engage with the needy around us through both ‘official’ social justice ministries (like soup kitchens and political renewal) and through little and simple ways that remain unstructured and fluid (buying someone lunch who’s in need of food and getting to know them “just because”).

Above all, may we be so changed by the Gospel that our lives are transformed in order that we might resemble Jesus Christ more and more each day.  Social justice is the calling of every Christian, but we must remember that the Gospel is our life; if we lose the Gospel-focus in the midst of doing social justice we will eventually find that we have forfeited the souls of the lives we have worked to save.