Monday, January 31, 2011

Teens, Grace, and the Pursuit of Holiness

Some of you may have picked up on the cyber banter currently going on about the age-old charge of "Antinomian" against Reformation-minded theologians and preachers.  The debate comes back to one question: "How are lives changed?", a question we see as central to our role as "grace-driven" student ministers.  To catch you up: 

It all started with Jason Hood's article published last Monday on Christianity Today which charged followers of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who claimed "there was 'no better test' of gospel fidelity than an accusation of antinomianism", of falling into the beguiles of a law-allergic culture.  

Next came the rebuttal by Dane Ortlund on The Gospel Coalition blog.  Ortlund moves straight to "the real crux" of the debate, which is "how this radical obedience and personal holiness are to be encouraged".  Ortlund's answer follows: "The solution to immorality is the free grace of God—grace so free that it will be (mis)heard by some as a license to sin with impunity. The route by which the New Testament exhorts radical obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home all the more deeply."

It doesn't end there.  Hood responded Friday with a defense and his own response to Ortlund's proposed question. Hood argues that as New Creations, we now have the power to work alongside God as he sanctifies us, and that preaching should reflect that newfound power: "Let’s preach with Paul that believers in Christ have a new life, and new Holy Spirit power. They are graciously given a new identity and new capacity for good works, holiness, and righteousness (Eph 4:24ff). Then let’s preach lots of other radical indicatives and lots of radical imperatives, imitating Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans. Maybe even James!"

Ortlund came back yesterday with what seems to be the peace treaty, concluding, "You [Hood] want to call people to holiness, as the new creatures they are, and bring them into a deep awareness the gospel of grace. I want to call people to holiness, as the new creatures they are, by bringing them into deeper and deeper awareness of the gospel of grace. You believe “effort and action [are] central to sanctification.” I believe the gospel is central to sanctification, and that effort and action are neither central nor optional (optional = antinomianism) but integral."

What then?  How do we, as grace-centered student ministers, respond to this?  How do walk the fine line?  How do we call our students to holiness without falling into the heresy of antinomianism or the heresy of legalism?  

Stay tuned as we address these issues in our next series, "Teens, Grace, and the Pursuit of Holiness".

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Teaching to the Victim

Today was one of those days where I finished teaching Sunday School completely baffled at how grateful I am for the honor it is to share the grace of Jesus with students.
One of my dearest friends works for a sexual assault resource agency, and she and I have regular discussions about speaking to kids and relating to trauma with them.  One of the things her organization teaches their staff is to always treat a group they are addressing as if there is at least one victim present.  This helps them to be sensitive to how they share and convey information as well as present themselves (for they want to be approachable).  
In a similar manner, the need for the regular presentation of the gospel to our kids cannot be overemphasized; for there could always be an unexpected struggle or trauma one of them is currently experiencing.   
I’ve been to more than one sermon and far more than one lesson in churches where Jesus isn’t talked about.  In asking why this is so, I have often received the response that it is assumed the congregation/group ‘already knows the gospel’, therefore, other issues in Christianity are addressed.  I think we need to be seriously cautious about making these assumptions, and I don’t think there is a person alive who doesn’t regularly need the Word of Life (Jesus) offered to them.  As youth workers, we have the incredible honor of being able to do that, and my experience today was a sobering reminder.
After concluding the lesson, I sat down to talk with a new student* who hadn’t been to Sunday School before, as I noticed that he looked a little downcast.  He proceeded to show me his bandaged wrist and tell me a little about the debilitating depression which had led to him being sent home from boarding school just a few days prior.   He had attempted suicide and they ‘didn’t know what to do with him.’
There are few times when I have been as grateful to have just shared the gospel of Jesus with a group of people.  Five years ago, my teaching would have included much more of the ‘What it means to live as a Christian’ sorts of topics, and I’m not sure my lesson would have offered this kid anything of real Hope (which is found in Jesus alone).  Praise God, I believe He can and does use anything for His purposes and our good; therefore, He may have used whatever I taught.  But I never again want to overlook the opportunity to focus on sharing the reality of our Living God, Jesus.  We need the Word every day, and there are endless angles from which to approach the gospel.  This is not to say we never address the other issues of Christianity; but please, let us keep Jesus at the center.  He is our Hope- the Way, the Truth, the Life.  We can’t ever fully know where our kids are coming from.
*the details of this child have been changed to protect privacy

Monday, January 17, 2011

Underaged Drinking: Just Say YES! (Sort Of)

This is the final installment of our series, Grace, Law, and Underage Drinking.  Find the other articles here and here.

One of the most surprising revelations to me in my early youth ministry days relates to the real reason why teens drink. I remember in my legalist days as an adolescent, determining whether or not a girl was a “solid” enough Christian for me to date, based on whether she drank or not. If a girl abstained, then she measured up. If she partook of Miller High Life or vodka and cranberry juice, then she was cut. (I’m sure this sorely disappointed many a young lady. Hold your laughter.)
Very few of my friends drank, and I proudly abstained until the minute I turned twenty-one. My mentality, as is the thought pattern of many teen Christians, was that the reason people drank was because they were not serious enough about their commitment to Christ. Increasing the intensity of one’s commitment resulted in no underaged drinking.
I am embarrassed to say that I never gave deeper thought to underaged drinking until I started youth ministry. I became incredibly surprised to learn the real reason many underaged students drink had little or nothing to do with enjoying alcohol or getting drunk.
A refreshingly honest, recent conversation with a college student told a story on why students drink underaged. She said candidly to me, “In high school I did not have many friends, and nobody really noticed me. Now that I drink, I have a built in group of friends, who I have something to do with every weekend. It’s worth it for me to have some friends and to drink than to be so alone like I was in high school.”
Conversations about underaged drinking serve as an excellent place to teach students the second use of the Law. What I mean by “second use of the Law” is that the Law serves, not simply as a standard to live up to, but as a mirror by which we see how far we fall short of God and by which we discover our sinfulness. As Romans 3:20 says, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The hymn, Salvation Has Come to Us, illustrates this concept well, in these lines:

The Law is but a mirror bright To bring the inbred sin to light That lurks within our nature.
This knowledge of sin goes deeper than just realizing we are sinners: it also helps us get to the heart level of why we sin and to see what deep needs we are seeking to meet via sin.
Booze provides a gateway for friendship and community for many underaged kids. It’s something exciting to do. It’s something to look forward to. It’s guaranteed plans and inclusion on Friday night. Underneath their decision to drink is a need which must be filled. Telling students to “Just Say No” accomplishes nothing in meeting their need.
Consequently, youth ministers and parents need to help kids understand why they drink and point them to a “YES!” which meets their needs. The ultimate “YES!” is Jesus himself, from whom I life, companionship, and transcendence flows. Other “YES!”’s can be simple and practical, like friendships, hobbies, or counseling, if drinking is about maladaptive coping.
To leave students with a message of “Just Say No” abandons them and leaves their needs unmet.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Battle Within: Proverbs 24:1

This is the second installment in our series, Grace, Law and Underage Drinking.  You can read the first post here.

     There is an interesting proverb that aptly fits many students in our ministry; I would almost say it could be their theme verse. Proverbs 24.1 “Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them.”
I sat in my office with a student who is 19, loves Jesus and is doing much for the glory of Jesus in his own life. He said to me, “I wish Jesus would just take away the lust of my heart so I could live the rest of my life like Paul serving Jesus.” What this student was getting at is that in his heart he wants things that God has not allowed him to have. There is a battle going on inside his heart, one that is causing him to wrestle with these thoughts. This is a battle I am thankful for as a student minister.
Many of our students do the right thing. They are, for the most part, morally upright. Yet much like the student above, they wish they were somewhere else. So they may sit there in my group on Saturday night worshiping Jesus, singing songs to Him, reading about Him, yet they are envious of the men who are out drinking, partying or whatever it is. This is why our youth ministry must seek to address the idols of the heart. Merely just keeping students from drinking will do little to nothing, because their heart wants to do those things. Their desires are to be out with their friends partying, not serving Jesus. They would rather be having ‘fun,’ as defined by the world, than worshiping Jesus.

How do we address this? How do we approach the student who seems to have it all together, yet on the inside desires the things of this world? We must lead students to treasure Jesus above anything and everything that life can and will give them or death could take away from them. This means that Jesus is worth more than the pursuit of anything the world can offer them. He is more worthy of their praise. Our part is to make sure that we treasure Jesus and that our hearts are not envious of evil men. We must teach a Jesus that is to be treasured.
Passage to help us treasure Jesus -
Romans 11.36
Psalms 16.5-11
Jeremiah 9.23-24
Jeremiah 2.12-13
Isaiah 12.2
Luke 2.10
Matthew 13.44
Philippians 3.7-10
Philippians 4.4
These are just a few passages that can lead our hearts to treasure Jesus above the deeds that can and do look so tempting to us. May we be a people who love Jesus so much that He removes the desires for anything other than Him.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

To Drink or Not to Drink: Is That Really the Question?

Here’s the thing about drinking before you’re twenty-one in America: it’s illegal. There’s no two ways about it. We all know the effects alcohol can have on your system- and it’s incredibly concerning to think that teenagers use it the way they do. However, their use of it is no different than the rest of the world’s. They too use it as an escape, as medication, as a way to fit in or ‘just something to do.’ In addressing underage drinking in youth ministry, I think we’ve first got to remember that while it isn’t ok, we need to be cautious not to elevate it’s ‘badness’ above other things which are wrong, and we need to realize that we also make poor and wrong decisions pretty regularly.
I think it is essential to create an atmosphere in our youth ministries where kids feel free to talk about the issues they are facing in their lives- which are likely to include drinking or pressure to drink (or ‘party’). That atmosphere comes through Jesus’ presence, through grace, and through sharing about the reality of our sin and the power of God’s forgiveness through Jesus on the cross. As leaders in these kids’ lives, our honesty and vulnerability are absolutely essential. Obviously, the ‘just say no’ campaign isn’t quite cutting it. There isn’t power behind that (although identifying underage drinking as being wrong is a good thing). There is power in love, and in Jesus’ work through our relationships with these kids. Come along side them, listen to them, and share with them.
For me, one of the things I am likely to share with kids relates to my experience of not drinking in college. I came into college resolved not to drink until I was 21 so as to ‘set myself apart’ as a Christian. In my head, I wanted for people to see that there was something different about me; but really, I’m sure that my incredible stubbornness and pride were dual motivators. I didn’t avoid parties or condemn others for drinking, but unbeknownst to me, my identity as a Christian was becoming very wrapped up in what I was or wasn’t doing. We often lose sight of Jesus or of loving others when this becomes our reality. This is a serious risk for the way we approach ‘not drinking’ or ‘abstaining from sex ‘til marriage’ in our youth ministries.
Our identity as Christians is based on a God who came smack dab into the middle of our mess- our underage drinking, our misuse of alcohol, and our failure to love one another. It is based on His forgiveness, His atonement, and His resurrection. Why do we try to base it on ourselves so often?! We follow HimHe gives us life, the power to ‘say no’ when we really should, and the gift of repentance when we make mistakes. These mistakes have real consequences, yes - but we should not live in fear of our kids making them (and therefore preach simply ‘just say no!’). They will make mistakes, and so will you and I. We need Jesus. Preach Him. And do everything that you can to help your kids feel open to talk and pray with you about their struggles, questions, and mistakes.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Grace, Law and Underage Drinking

It's hard to strike the balance between Law and Grace when teaching youth about underage drinking. It's obviously sinful for kids to drink (see Romans 13:1-7 or any scripture about submitting to the law), and dangerous as well. For some teens, Christianity has become based on whether you party or not. Some ministries reinforce this by holding up underage drinking as the ultimate sin (second only to premarital sex). Others never talk about it in an attempt to combat the image of Christianity as pure moralism. Some kids feel that if they drink, they can't pursue a relationship with God, but if they don't drink, they won't have relationships with friends. Others argue that if they don't think it's wrong, or their parents don't think it's wrong, then it's not really wrong.

With the knowledge that all is grace, but that Jesus calls us to "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect", how do we teach our kids about underage drinking?

In an effort to create conversation about the topic, we will be running a series of posts over the next several weeks about how to create a Law-Grace balance when teaching our kids about underage drinking.  

Stay tuned!