The Gospel-Shaped Life: Reflections on the TGCNE ’12 Conference

The Gospel Coalition: New England held their inaugural conference this past weekend in Boston with Tim Keller, John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Stephen Um speaking at the plenary sessions. If I said that I was looking forward to this conference that would be a drastic understatement (it’s been on my calendar literally since the day it was announced). There were so many highlights its hard to narrow them down, but I’ll attempt to do so (I missed the closing plenary by Carson for sake of my family, so I missed that one and am looking forward to listening to it when it’s uploaded online).

The Gospel is news, not advice.
This was hammered on by every speaker throughout the weekend.  Keller emphasized that advice is counsel about what I want you to do while news is a report of what has been done.  He went on to explain there are two forms of “Christian advice giving”: Legalism (“You need to do these things and if you’re not then you can’t be a Christian.”) and the more subtle form that says “Church is a new community you join in order to renew the world. Now we need to be loving and seek justice and feed the poor.” (note: these aren’t quotes from Keller, but my attempt to capture what he said).  If we have received the Good News of the Gospel, we will be transformed.

We contextualize all the time, the question is whether or not we’re doing it well.
This is what I’ve been most challenged by.  As a youth pastor, I see lots of over-contextualization (teenagers do this, so we should too in order to reach them with the Gospel).  Keller’s emphasis is that we need a biblical/theological grid by which we interpret and understand our culture so we don’t find ourselves simply falling into cultural forms only to realize down the road that we’ve either changed our message or conformed so much to the world that we aren’t any different.

We need to think like missionaries.
This isn’t really a new thought, but a great point we all need to remember.  People used to seek out the church for life-stage events (weddings, funerals, sicknesses, etc.), and they used to have enough of a background to understand the message they would hear.  Now, however, we live in a post-Christian world where people do not have a biblical background enough to understand the Gospel when they hear it.  We cannot minister in a post-Christian world the same way, assuming we can start with the Gospel and people will understand it.  We need to think like missionaries, learn what their assumptions and desires are, and then listen carefully enough to lead them to an understanding of the Gospel.

 

The mind is meant to stoke the heart’s affection for God.
Piper’s message on Friday night was worth the entire weekend for me for very personal reasons.  I needed to hear it.  I needed to be reminded that the “Gospel-Shaped Mind” is supposed to serve the heart in order that we might grow “hotter” in our affection for God.  As a theologically-minded guy, it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in ideas and thoughts about God.  I tend to be more critical than I probably need to be.

While focusing on the all-sufficient goodness of God and our love for him, Piper said something along the lines of, “Our affection for God ought to be so great that there’s nothing more the world could give us, and nothing worse it could take away.”  Wow, I’ve been chewing on that for days… and hopefully will continue to.

Here are a few quotes from Piper on this topic:

  • “The mind is set free in order that it might continually throw kindling into the heart for love of God.”
  • “God created you with a mind and a heart.  The mind, when it’s rightly serving the heart, causes the heart to be aflame with Christ as its treasure.  Spare no effort to think rightly, especially by the Word.  You will be throwing fuel into the heart to grow a white hot affection for God.”
  • “Right thinking is the servant of right feeling for God.  Doctrine exists for delight.  Knowing truth is meant to be the basis for admiring truth.  For this to happen, the Gospel needs to shape both heart and mind.”
  • Why Piper kept talking about “white hot affection” for God… “Because it’s as from from lukewarm as I can get, and I don’t want you to get spit out!”

Gospel-Shaped church’s witness will be tied to being a Gospel-Shaped community
I don’t even know where to begin here, because this was such a huge issue that everyone addressed (and Stephen Um’s message was focused on it), but for sake of clarity, let me outline what Keller shared from Leslie Newbigin about Gospel-Shaped Community – The Church must be a:

  1. Contrast Community.  We should be different from the world.  If we’re no different from the world… well, we aren’t any different from the world!  If we’re the same, why should they listen?
  2. Servant Community.  They have to see us as not living just for ourselves.  If they think we’re only here to evangelize, then we’re just another power-broker trying to get bigger and stronger.  Being a servant is part of being a witness, but we should make sure to guard against becoming a service agency.
  3. Non-Divisive Unifying Community.  When our society was all Christianized the way we justified our existence was by saying “We’re not like them” (the Baptists, or the Catholics, or whoever else we “aren’t like.”).  Now we need to define ourselves by saying we’re not like the world and pull together over the things we are united over.  This will play itself out differently, and obviously there are some things we simply won’t be able to partner in, but we need to be committed to unity rather than division.
  4. Lay-Launching Community.  In the previous generations it was the lay people, the typical congregation member, who carried out the work of the ministry.  In our individualistic society, people cannot come to church as ministry-consumers, they need to come in order to be equipped and sent out.  Because of secularism, globalization and diversity, the average Christian today needs to be more theologically astute today than was necessary 50 years ago.
  5. Suffering Community.  In the non-Western church, the suffering of the church is one of the greatest gospel-witnesses in their community.  We need to learn to embrace suffering in such a way as to demonstrate faith in the all-sufficient goodness and power of God when others would expect us to be falling apart.
  6. Prophetic Community.  We need to be centered on the Word of God.  We need to understand the Word and our world in such a way that we are able and willing to prophetically speak in such a way that will point people to the treasure of the Gospel.

I’m really excited about what God seems to be doing in New England.  I’m truly thankful that God has seen fit to establish ministries like The Gospel Coalition where churches throughout our area of the country can be unified, built up, and encouraged to continue faithful proclamation of the Gospel.

 

D.Min. Update & A Passion for Parent-Teen Discipleship

The following was written in as part of a letter to the Pastors and Deacons at EBC as an update on my Doctor of Ministry program before I leave for the second Residency next week.  I’m posting it here because I think my blog readers would recognize that many of these themes have been popping up in recent posts (and can anticipate similar themes being further developing in forthcoming posts).  

Dear Leaders of Emmanuel,

As I continue to prepare for my upcoming Doctor of Ministry residency at GCTS, I’m filled with a number of emotions.  I’m thankful and overwhelmed by my family’s sacrifice and support, making this opportunity even possible.  I’m anxious to finish remaining class work and to make sure I’m well prepared.  I’m excited to discuss what I’ve been learning and challenged by with my fellow students and program mentors.  I’m greatly blessed by how I have been stretched and challenged to continue growing in ministry.  Here is the description from the syllabus for this year’s residency:

The two-week residency will focus on the cultural context of ministry to the emerging generations including children, youth, and college students/young adults. Week one will focus on developing a Christian theology of culture, including examination of the definitions of culture and the functions of culture. Cross-cultural mission principle and theory, contextualization, and multicultural issues will be explored. Week two will focus on the role culture plays in shaping the worldviews, experiences and lives of the emerging generations. In addition you will learn principles of cultural exegesis and analysis. (The third residency will focus on ministry praxis.) 

As I study and read (I have at least read 22 books, totaling over 5000 pages this year, in addition to writing many papers), I am constantly wrestling through the impact my studies could have on my ministry at Emmanuel.  In addition to the required readings for class I have done research regarding the “Formative Influences” that shape and mold adolescents: Physical and hormonal changes, Postmodernism, the Role of Media, Peers, Family systems, and others.  Alongside my reading and studies I have provided three seminars for parents to attend as well as launching the Faith at Home Forum as a way to integrate what I’m learning into the ministry at EBC.  I have also done a fair amount of reading on the practice of Catechesis, which has largely been abandoned by Baptists and is considered a “Catholic” or “Presbyterian” thing to do.  I am more and more convinced that developing a biblical and contextual Catechesis program would disciple both parents and their families.

My “Project 1” paper is entitled “Foundations for Parent-Teen Discipleship: Helping Parents Understand the Formative Influences on their Teenager,” which focuses on laying a Biblical/Theological Foundation for my final thesis.  I am currently anticipating a final thesis which will seek to develop a strategy whereby churches can grow more obedient to their calling in discipling parents to disciple their children, particularly their teenagers. This thesis would integrate parental responsibility and the church’s duty in discipling the next generation.  This would be done through: first, understanding our biblical calling to disciple the next generation; second, understanding today’s adolescents; and third, by understanding what is most important for adolescents to be taught regarding the Gospel and how parents and churches can partner together to effectively hold out the Gospel to the next generation.

During the Christian Education hour (9:30-10:30am) on Sunday, January 29th I will be presenting an overview of what I’ve been studying and how I see that impacting Emmanuel Baptist Church’s ministry to children and teenagers.  I hope you can attend, I look forward to receiving your input on how to move forward with this vision for partnering with parents for the sake of discipling the next generation!

In Christ,
Pastor Mike

Reflections on Blogging: Does My Blog Reflect Who I Am?

I’ve been wrestling with my blog lately.  But really, the wrestle has been against myself:

  • Why do I seem so negative?
  • Why can’t I be more positive and encouraging?
  • Do I really think that I know more than everyone else who like this song or movie or Christmas light display? Who are you to judge?
  • You think about yourself as an approachable and gracious guy, but your blog doesn’t really reflect that –  so is your blog wrong about how it portrays you… or are you wrong in how you think about yourself?

And this just makes me wrestle.  Writing is hard work, but it can also be mindless and easy to simply let your fingers start typing without really thinking about what you’re putting out there on the internet for everyone to read.  I want to write thoughtfully.  Blogging has been one of the most fruitful disciplines I’ve cultivated over the last two years because it has forced me to think through a number of issues more intentionally thank I would have if I wasn’t going to write about it.

Part of the reason I blog is because I learn best by writing: I Write to Understand.  So much of what my readers find up here is a blog full of “half-baked” thoughts, not fully thought-through and well researched posts that are ready to be sent to a publisher.  I stand behind what I’ve written on this blog, but there are a number of posts I wish I had spent more time on crafting a better and more gracious way to communicate my message (and I just don’t have time to go through all my blog posts and edit them, sorry).

I’m not really a fan of “New Years Resolutions,” so I’m not making one of those.  But I want to commit to my readers that I want to be more intentional in making my blog posts sound more like “Mike” and less like “Partially thought-through reflections from Mike’s brain.”

I hope that this blog will continue to serve as a forum where I can write blog posts that are helpful to teenagers, parents, and youth workers where they are encouraged to think through various issues, primarily: Living for Christ in today’s culture, Issues adolescents face, Parenting teenagers, and Ministering to today’s teenagers.

Until I get a better grip on becoming a better blogger I’m left with the honest (and humbling) admission that I need to personally take ownership for what I’ve written and combat pride and judgmentalism and simply hold onto God’s Word as the Holy Spirit continues to make me more and more like Jesus.

I’m aware that a number of my friends on Facebook who are not connected to my ministry at EBC read what I write up here, and for the times when these posts have unintentionally made you second guess what kind of person/Christian I am, I hope you’ll give me some grace and keep on reading.  

PS: In case you’re wondering, this post isn’t the result of anything in particular and I haven’t received complaints from people.  This is simply the result my desire to better reflect the grace and humility I hope to give in person, and I’m not so sure it’s been doing that very well.

Sermon Summary: From Enemies to Family

The following is a summary of the sermon I preached at Emmanuel Baptist Church on 11/13/11.  Audio CD’s can be requested by contacted the church office.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be call sons of God” (Mt. 5:9).  As children of God, we should be people who build peace where there used to be conflict – Peace with God, and Peace with others.  God made peace with us through the Gospel and He sends us out as Ministers of Reconciliation.  The Gospel has turned us from enemies into family… and we are called to do likewise.

In 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 the Apostle Paul instructs Christians that they are ambassadors for Christ who must go out to proclaim to others, “Be reconciled to God!”   Reconciliation literally means, “To rejoin what has been separated.”  Jesus Christ took our sin upon himself, canceling our debt, and reconciling to the Father.  We have been reconciled to God, adopted as children of God through faith in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.  This is the message of reconciliation we are instructed to share.

How can we plead with others to be reconciled to God if we ourselves leave a trail of conflict behind us?  The Gospel isn’t merely a pattern to follow or a good example to learn from; the Gospel is life.  Even if you could live at peace with everyone you know, there would still be “something” missing in your life… and you’d know it.  We need to be reconciled to God, and that is only possible through faith in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the foundation for peace-making; meanwhile, peace-making is a fruit of the Gospel.

Bitterness and an unforgiving heart are directly opposed to the Christian’s calling.  We will never desire peace any more than we desire humility.  Are you willing to learn from Christ and make the necessary sacrifices in order to bring about peace and reconciliation?

“The peace that God secures is never cheap peace, but always costly. He is indeed the world’s preeminent peacemaker, but when he determined on reconciliation with us, his “enemies” who had rebelled against him, he “made peace” through the blood of Christ’s cross (Col 1:20). …We have no right to expect, therefore, that we will be able to engage in conciliation work at no cost to ourselves….” (John Stott, in The Cross of Christ)

One helpful reminder is the difference between Forgiveness and Reconciliation.  Forgiveness is one-sided: I’m responsible for it and I can do this without you doing it in return.  Reconciliation, however, is a two-way road: I can’t force you to be reconciled to me, it must be mutual.   While I can’t force reconciliation, I need to do everything I can to make it possible.

Jesus prayed, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sinned against us.”  Are we really willing to do that, or it is just something we say in church?  When we refuse to forgive and pursue peace with others then we need to remember how much we have been forgiven by God through the Gospel.

Please visit PeaceMaker Ministries’ website for the “Seven A’s of Confession” I shared in the sermon are listed on the website along with many other wonderful resources here: Foundational Principles in PeaceMaking.

A simple way to determine whom you need to pursue reconciliation with is to ask yourself this question: “Who makes you roll your eyes?”  God made peace with us through the Gospel, and He sends us out as Ministers of Reconciliation.  Do you bring peace where there is conflict – Peace with God, and Peace with others?

About two years ago I used PeaceMaker Ministries’ resources to teach a series in Youth Group called “Conflicted?” below are the links to those lesson summaries:

  1. The Gospel of Peace.
  2. Healthy Responses to Conflict
  3. How do you Resolve Conflict
  4. How Should we Resolve Conflict Christianly?

Longevity in Youth Ministry: Rare Indeed

One of the blogs I enjoy reading is Andy Blanks’ from YM360.  Today they featured a great post titled, “Youth Ministry Essentials: To Stick Around? Or to Jump Ship.”  In the post, Andy shares some great insights about why the turn-around rate among youth pastors is so high (proverbially, the average stay of a youth pastor is currently 2-3 years).

Andy points to (and I’m greatly summarizing his post here, so I encourage you to click the link above and read it firsthand): Culture’s Influence (most people today work for a number of companies throughout their working years, as opposed to those of a generation ago who would work for the same company their entire life until retirement), Seeing Obstacles as Exit Signs (not having the tenacity and determination to work through challenges), and “The Lone Wolf Syndrome” (working your way “up” to being a speaker/writer/consultant for other churches and ministries).

I think Andy’s insights here are really helpful, but since I’ve been asked this question a few times I have a few thoughts of my own (some of which certainly overlap with the post above):

  1. Lack of Preparation: The doesn’t necessarily mean you need a degree in youth ministry or biblical studies to be a lasting and effective youth pastor, but you do need to be equipped (schooling, conferences, seminars, mentors, and lots of reading up on ministry & theology & biblical studies).
  2. A “Fairy Tale” view of Youth Ministry: Isn’t youth ministry all about eating pizza and playing games?  There’s so much more administration and busy work to ministry than people expect that can suck up all your time and kill your passion for seeing teens grow in Christ.
  3. Money: The reality is there’s no one lower in the ministry totem-pole than a youth worker (or a children’s pastor, if your church is big enough to have one).  One of my good friends is the best youth pastor I know, his heart truly desires to serve long-term at a church, but he’s not been able to financially support his family at the churches he’s served in – this is a total tragedy for those churches.
  4. Unsupportive Churches: One of my Youth Ministry mentors/professors taught us to ask the following question as a gauge to determine how youth-friendly a church is: “How big of a deal would it be for a light or a window to get broken during a youth event?”  One of the best ways to get worn down and sucked dry is to serve in a church that claims to support youth ministry but doesn’t actually know what that means.
  5. Burnout: This can take so many different forms I think I’ll just leave this one there to hang…
  6. Lack of Tenacity: If you’re in ministry, you’re going to get criticized… and that’s a GOOD thing.  If you’re hearing from parents that they want you to do X, Y, and Z, maybe that means that they’re looking out for their kid and want what’s best for them (and that’s a great thing!).  We need to be strong enough and confident enough to help our critics understand where we’re coming from, why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how they can get involved in such a way that they’ll see what we’re seeing (WAAAY easier to write this than actually do it).
  7. Disobedience: This can work both ways.  They could have been disobedient to get into full-time youth work (and then I suppose the church would have been wrong to hire them, but that’s way deeper than I want to go here); or they could simply be disobedient to be leaving their current ministry.  People sin, pastors sin, it’s a reality.
  8. It’s simply a bad fit: Some churches and youth pastors simply don’t work together as well as it seemed they would.
  9. Spiritual Immaturity: Ministry can be a great blessing, but it can (sadly and ironically) do a number on your spiritual life.
  10. Their “Call” has been completed: Maybe someone was called in to serve for only a short time?  We can’t assume that everyone who leaves after a short stay is being disobedient or narrow-sighted.  I think this has WAY more merit than many people realize.
When I graduated from seminary one of the professors said something I’ll never forget: “Stay somewhere long enough to make a difference.”  Funny thing is, the guy who said it wasn’t even one of the professors I enjoyed taking classes with… but this nugget was just so full of wisdom it will always stay with me.  I’ve been the youth pastor at Emmanuel Baptist for almost six years now and will be watching my first cycle of students graduate in a month and a half.  I’m going to be a mess and can barely imagine youth group without them there!  Obviously, there have been moments when I’ve considered looking elsewhere for a few different reasons, but thinking about my students is what has always broken right through my frustrations and reminded me of my call to serve right where I’m at.  My church isn’t perfect and if a window broke during a youth event I’d come in the next morning with my tail between my legs, but it’s a great place to serve and I don’t want to go anywhere anytime soon.

LWAYG: Prayers of Thankfulness

When do you struggle most with being thankful?  Most of us have a difficult time being thankful when things don’t go “our way” (getting what we want, when we want it, how we want it).  It’s difficult to be thankful for something that is difficult and painful.

While it’s easy to say “We’re usually thankful when our life is happy and blessed” – I wonder whether or not we actually ARE thankful in those times, or if we simply take them for granted.  Honestly, I usually take them for granted and neglect offering prayers of thankfulness to God for blessing me in the ways he has chosen.  It’s pretty obvious that we should give thanks to God for the good things in our lives, so I chose not to focus on this in Youth Group and I’ll choose not to focus on that aspect of thankfulness here again.  Instead I want to focus on giving thanks when it’s really difficult for us to do that.

In Psalm 13:6 David writes, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.”  We probably expect that he would write this while everything is going really well in his life, maybe after one of his great victories and when the royal treasury is overflowing.  But that’s not the case.  Take a look at how Psalm 13 starts off: “How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?  How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

Even when David is feeling completely forgotten about by God, he ends up saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.”  I don’t know about you, but I think there are times when feeling completely forgotten about is even worse than when people wrong you… at least they’re acknowledging your existence by doing something to you!  David feels completely forgotten about, and yet he doesn’t rely on his feelings and emotions, he relies on his faith.

I think one of the great reasons that God desires for us to offer prayers of thankfulness is for us to remember His faithfulness to us and all the ways we take Him for granted.  When we fail to be thankful we tend to strengthen our feelings of entitlement (as if God “owes” us something) rather than deepening our joy (recognizing that our value/identity/pleasure is found in God, not in temporary things that will pass away and change).

When I am wrestling to be thankful for a million different reasons, it’s so refreshing to think through all the things I take for granted and all the ways God has proven his faithfulness to me.  If God has shown himself faithful time and time again, what makes this any different?

As you are challenged to lift up more prayers of thankfulness, I want to encourage you to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What are you taking for granted?
  2. What are you really thankful for?  
  3. What are you NOT thankful for?  How could God be using those to be teaching you something?
Because I don’t want to sound trite and shallow, allow me to offer a brief but personal example of one really difficult thing in my life that I give thanks to God for.  My parents separated when I was 11 and then later divorced.  This obviously was an extremely difficult and painful experience for me… I don’t look back and say, “God, thanks for my parents getting divorced, that was really great.”  It was difficult and painful for all of us.  But God did some amazing things through it.  I am able to identify with people who have broken families and difficult family issues in ways that I would not otherwise be able to, and I can share how the hope and love of Jesus Christ has transformed my life even through such difficulty.  I’m not sure if I would be in full-time ministry if my parents hadn’t gotten divorced.  I pray, “God, thank you for proving yourself faithful and gracious to me through my parents’ divorce.  It was difficult and painful, but I know that you walked me through it and used it to make me into the man I am today.  For those things I give you thanks.”

The Pastor’s Struggle With Grace & Truth

One of the greatest struggles I encounter as a pastor is the tension between grace and truth.  I can’t speak for all other pastors, but I suspect I’m not alone.  Generally speaking, pastors are social people who want to be liked by others.  Biblically speaking, one of the requirements of being a Pastor/Elder is that he “must have a good reputation with outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:7).  Yet, we are also people who are so convinced and passionate about what we read in Scripture (more importantly, we’re committed to the Author of Scripture) that we feel like Jeremiah when he writes “But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).

We must live in the uneasy tension that we want to be gracious, gentle, compassionate and loving towards all people – especially towards those who disagree with us.  As Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that” (Matthew 5:46).  We are called to embody the grace that we have received, and if we don’t do that then we are declaring by our lifestyles that we a) haven’t really received the grace we claim, or b) are so immature in our faith that our inconsistency (or hypocrisy) contradicts and invalidates the reality of God’s grace.  We are Ambassadors of God, our actions reflect on Jesus Christ.  This is all true of every Christian, but is especially true of leaders in Christ’s Church.

We also live under submission to Scripture, because we believe the Bible isn’t simply another book, but is truly and completely the Word of God.  That’s why most education for pastors includes training in Hebrew & Greek, Ancient Near Eastern culture and history, and theology – so that we can get ourselves as close to the actual meaning of the text as possible.  We love people, but we love our Creator and Savior more, and we’re often amazed (at least we should be) that God would chose us to serve Him because we know how unworthy we really are.  There are times when it would be the greatest comfort to tell people what they want to hear rather than tell people what we are convinced God has revealed to us through Scripture.  As the quote from Jeremiah above says, if we do not speak the truth we are convinced of then it’s like a fire burning in our heart that will consume us.  We should speak the truth with grace, but we must be true to Scripture.

It’s not easy to tell people you really love and care about hard things that you know could hurt them and sever your relationship.  We must speak both grace and truth, remembering that the Gospel of Jesus Christ really is the GOOD NEWS.  But we speak the Good News because there’s bad news… really bad news: we’re all sinners and the only thing we’ve earned from God is judgment because we have both knowingly and unknowingly joined the rebellion against his Kingship over what He’s created.

One thing I was told years ago was to always make sure I follow us hard things by emphasizing the hope we have because of God’s love and grace.  I try to remember this, but I wish I did a better job at following that advice consistently.

As I write this, I recognize this is a struggle many Christians (not just pastors) work through, and I hope that this post will help you to know that you are not alone and that your pastor(s) also struggle with living in the tension between grace and truth.  There are a number of things right now that have made me wrestle through this personally and why I feel this might be helpful to share, but here’s a little bit of insight into one of the struggles I am confident many pastors wrestle with.

Ultimately, I think the most important thing here is to recognize that this “tension” isn’t a battle as if the two are at war against each other.  God is full of grace, if He isn’t then we’re all without hope!  God wants us to be gracious towards others, just as He was gracious towards us.  This means that we will point to Scripture in order to “correct, rebuke, and encourage” the people around us.  The conflict between grace and truth enters this discussion when sin leads us to resist what God has to say.  Those are the moments when this tension becomes more tense.

I’ll end my thoughts here by referring those who are interested in this tension to the best book I’ve encountered on this issue: Randy Alcorn’s The Grace and Truth Paradox, it’s a short and easy read… and well worth the effort!