Monday, December 30, 2013

How To Survive a Cultural Crisis

Public opinion appears to be changing about same-sex marriage, as are the nation's laws. Of course this change is just one in a larger constellation. America's views on family, love, sexuality generally, tolerance, God, and so much more seems to be pushing in directions that put Bible-believing Christians on the defensive.

It's easy to feel like we've become the new "moral outlaws," to use Al Mohler's phrase. Standing up for historic Christian principles will increasingly get you in trouble socially and maybe economically, perhaps one day also criminally. It's ironic that Christians are told not to impose their views on others, even as the threat of job loss or other penalties loom over Christians for not toeing the new party line.

In all this, Christians are tempted to become panicked or to speak as alarmists. But to the extent we do, to that same extent we show we've embraced an unbiblical and nominal Christianity.

Here, then, are seven principles for surviving the very real cultural shifts we're presently enduring.

1. Remember that churches exist to work for supernatural change.
The whole Christian faith is based on the idea that God takes people who are spiritually dead and gives them new life. Whenever we evangelize, we are evangelizing the cemetery.
There's never been a time or a culture when it was natural to repent of your sins. That culture doesn't exist, it hasn't existed, it never will exist. Christians, churches, and pastors especially must know deep in their bones that we've always been about a work that's supernatural.

From that standpoint, recent cultural changes have made our job zero percent harder. 

2. Understand that persecution is normal.  
In the last few months I've been preaching through John's Gospel, and a number of people have thanked me for bringing out the theme of persecution. But I'm not convinced my preaching has changed; I think people's ears have changed. Recent events in the public square have caused people to become concerned about what's ahead for Christians. But if you were to go back and listen to my old sermons—say, a series preached in the 1990s on 1 Peter— you'd discover that ordinary biblical exposition means raising the topic of persecution again and again.

Persecution is what Christians face in this fallen world. It's what Jesus promised us (e.g., John 16).

Now, it may be that in God's providence some Christians find themselves in settings where, even if they devote their lives to obeying Jesus, they won't encounter insult and persecution. But don't be fooled by the nice buildings in which so many churches meet. This Jesus we follow was executed as a state criminal.

One of my fellow pastors recently observed that, in the history of Christian persecution, it's often secondary issues—not the gospel—that elicit persecution. Persecutors don't say, "You believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ; I'm going to persecute you now." Rather, some belief or practice we maintain as Christians contradicts what people want or threatens their way of seeing the world. And so they oppose us.

Again, to the extent we respond to changes in our culture either with panic or alarmism, to that same extent we contradict the Bible's teaching about ordinary Christian discipleship. It shows we've traded on the normalcy of nominalism.

Pastors especially should set the example in teaching their congregations not to play the victim. We should salt into our regular preaching and praying the normalcy of persecution. It's the leader's work to prepare churches for how we can follow Jesus, even if it means social criticism, or loss of privilege, or financial penalties, or criminal prosecution. 

3. Eschew utopianism.
Christians should be a people of love and justice, and that means we should always strive to make our little corner of the globe a bit nicer than how we found it, whether that's a kindergarten classroom or a kingdom. But even as we work for the sake of love and justice, we must remember we're not going to transform this world into the kingdom of our Christ.

God hasn't commissioned us to make this world perfect; he's commissioned us chiefly to point to the One who will one day make it perfect, even as we spend our lives loving and doing good. If you're tempted to utopianism, please observe that Scripture doesn't allow it, and that the history of utopianism has a track record of distracting and deceiving even some of Christ's most zealous followers.

It's good to feel sadness over the growing approval given to sin in our day. But one of the reasons many Christians in America feel disillusionment over current cultural changes is that we've been somewhat utopian in our hopes. Again, to the extent you think and speak as an alarmist, to that same extent you demonstrate that utopian assumptions may have been motivating you all along. 

4. Make use of our democratic stewardship.
I would be sad if anyone concluded from my comments that it doesn't matter what Christians do publicly or with the state. Paul tells us to submit to the state. But in our democratic context, part of submitting to the state means sharing in its authority. And if we have a share in its authority, we just might have, to some extent, a share in its tyranny. To neglect the democratic process, so long as it's in our hands, is to neglect a stewardship.

We cannot create Utopia, but that doesn't mean we cannot be good stewards of what we have, or that we cannot use the democratic processes to bless others. For the sake of love and justice, we should make use of our democratic stewardship. 

5. Trust the Lord, not human circumstances.
There's never been a set of circumstances Christians cannot trust God through. Jesus beautifully trusted the Father through the cross "for the joy set before him" (Heb. 12:2). Nothing you and I will face will amount to what our King had to suffer.
We can trust him. He will prove trustworthy through everything we might have to endure. And as we trust him, we will bear a beautiful testimony of God's goodness and power, and we will bring him glory.

6. Remember that everything we have is God's grace.

We must remember anything we receive less than hell is dancing time for Christians. Right? Everything a Christian has is all of grace. We need to keep that perspective so that we aren't tempted to become too sour toward our employers, our friends, our family members, and our government when they oppose us.

How was Paul able to sing in prison? He knew that of which he'd been forgiven. He knew the glory that awaited him. He perceived and prized these greater realities.

7. Rest in the certainty of Christ's victory.

The gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. We need not fear and tremble as if Satan has finally, after all these millennia, gained the upper hand in his opposition to God through the same-sex marriage lobby.

"Oh, we might finally lose it here!" No, not a chance.

People around the world now and throughout history have suffered far more than Christians in America presently do. And we don't assume Satan had the upper hand there, do we?
Each nation and age has a unique way to express its depravity, to attack God. But none will succeed any more than the crucifixion succeeded in defeating Jesus. Yes, he died. But three days later he got up from the dead.

Christ's kingdom is in no danger of failing. Again, Christians, churches, and especially pastors must know this deeply in our bones. D-Day has happened. Now it's cleanup time. Not one person God has elected to save will fail to be saved because the secular agenda is "winning" in our time and place. There shouldn't be anxiety or desperation in us.

We may not be able to out-argue others. They may not be persuaded by our books and articles. But we can love them with the supernatural love God has shown to us in Christ. And we can make his Word known today—with humility, with confidence, and with joy.

Mark Dever is pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and the author of numerous books, including Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. You can learn more about him at 9Marks or follow him on Twitter.

Get Your Bearings for the New Year

Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions. Some of us might even keep them. Others routinely see
them fail or fade. Others don’t even bother with the ritual. But the beginning of any new year or a new season in our lives can focus us on our priorities and commitments, especially to think about our relationship with the Lord and with others. Don Whitney has written some questions below that can help us to take stock, get our bearings and move further and deeper into what is really important.
  1. What's one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?
  2. What's the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?
  3. What's the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?
  4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?
  5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?
  6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?
  7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?
  8. What's the most important way you will, by God's grace, try to make this year different from last year?
  9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?
  10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why Classrooms Are Terrible Places for Boys

American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Christina Hoff Sommers is best known for her notable—and controversial—books about feminism and American culture. A new and revised edition of her 2001 book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men, came out in August. Below she is interviewed Marvin Olasky, Publisher of World Magazine, December 13, 2013

You wrote last year about your granddaughter receiving a toy train, placing it in a baby carriage, and covering it with a blanket so it could get some sleep. What does that tell you?
That boys and girls are different. There are exceptions, but as a rule a little girl’s choice of play, at the earliest age, involves a lot of theatrical, imaginative, turn-taking games. As they get a little older, they love to exchange confidences with a best friend. Boys tend not to do this. The theatrical, imaginative games: not so much. Exchanging confidences with a best friend: haven’t seen it. 

Boys prefer ...
Rough-and-tumble play: a lot of running around, mock fighting, usually with sound effects, and the boys tend to be very happy—but many parents and teachers have confused such play with violence. When children are violent, there’s a lot of unhappiness and they part as enemies. Violent children are usually not popular. It’s just the opposite with “rough-and-tumble” play: Children are happy and boys who are good at it will tend to be popular. They’re building critical social skills.

What happens if we clamp down on that?
In some cases little boys are suspended for their drawings, or for playing cops and robbers or imaginative superhero play. If the earliest experience a little boy has is disapproval, we threaten his social development and make him unhappy with school. This may be in part an explanation of why boys are so far behind in reading and writing.

What happened when Hasbro, the toy makers, hoped to market a doll playhouse and a toy baby carriage to both boys and girls?
Hasbro brought in children to interact with this playhouse, which they hoped to market to both boys and girls—not because they were egalitarian feminists, but because you double your profits if you come up with a toy that interests boys as much as girls. Girls came in, put the baby in the carriage, played with the toy stove and refrigerator. The boys catapulted the miniature baby carriage from the roof of the toy house. 

Why can’t some academics accept the obvious?

On college campuses it is now an article of faith that we are all born to be bisexual. One feminist put it dramatically, saying, “We are transformed into male- and female-gendered human beings, one to command, the other to obey.”

If we understood these differences, how would schools be different than they are now?
First, teachers would learn in teachers’ colleges what they’re not learning today, that girls are readier for school. A 5-year-old girl is a more mature being than a 5-year-old boy: It is very hard for him to sit still. We’d have two different styles of classrooms. A school superintendent once acknowledged that all our classrooms are very comfortable places for girls, with flowers and snowflakes. They’re pretty. I told him, “Maybe you should put in something boys like—dangerous insects, or rockets.” A lot of teachers are uncomfortable with that.

What would the school day look like?
Lots of recess. Different classroom settings, not just one style that is sedentary, competition-free, and risk-averse.

Most of the students here at Patrick Henry College are from homeschooling backgrounds. How should the differences between boys and girls affect home school curricula?
It’s going to be easier to get your daughter to read: She’s probably more verbal and probably started talking earlier. Typically, boys have better visuals and are better at finding a way out of a maze. Girls are better at remembering everything they saw along the way. You may have a bookish boy who’s quiet and automatically loves poetry and things, but chances are you will not. He feels like a caged animal and wants to get out. So, be aware of that and work with it.

Let’s keep going on this: What difference would a better understanding have on high school?
Oh boy. There are exceptions, but boys and girls, on average, find different sorts of books interesting. Airport bookstores don’t have signs saying “Men’s magazines” or “Women’s magazines,” but we know they’re there. The women’s magazines typically show faces and all sorts of human interest and fashion. The men’s magazines are usually about stuff. Ninety percent of people who subscribe to Popular Mechanics are males. 

High schools should accommodate
Popular Mechanics people.
Not everybody is going to college. Our colleges are 57 percent female, and 62 percent of master’s degrees last year and the year before went to females. Women have surpassed men now even in getting Ph.Ds. To survive in the new economy you need education beyond high school, so we should keep up with the Europeans: They’re offering in their high schools career and technical training. 

Aviation High School in Queens, New York, is doing some things right.
It has more than 2,000 kids in this gritty part of Queens. I thought, “This can’t be a high school because it looks like a factory.” I went inside and thought I was in the wrong place because it was so quiet: These kids weren’t merely interested, they were enthralled. They have academics half the day, and they have to get through those classes to spend the other half of the day tinkering with an airplane that’s parked out in the parking lot, or taking courses in aviation. 

Overwhelmingly boys, I suspect.

The school’s 87 percent male. I met some girls there: They’re fabulous, and they know they’re different. Many of the kids come from struggling, urban communities, mostly Hispanic, black, and Asian. It has one of the highest graduation and college matriculation rates. They move on to fantastic careers. This should be a model for other parts of the country, and it’s not just me saying this. At a recent Harvard University graduate school conference called “Pathways to Prosperity,” educational leaders from all over the world agreed that our high schools should be partly career training that offers pathways into good jobs.

But young men and women might have different job desires.
The girls tend to go into early childhood education. Cosmetology is popular, as well as various medical professions. The boys are in welding, automotive repair, and computer technology disproportionately. Some women’s groups in Washington consider it inequitable that not as many girls show up for welding and refrigeration and trucking. I try to introduce a little common sense. Yes, introduce the girls to these fields, because you will make more money if you’re a metallurgist or an aviation mechanic than you will as an early childhood educator. Let the young women know that, but don’t have a quota system.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Quest for Joy

Have you ever known true joy? Do you have this joy in your life right now? If you are longing for fulfillment, for true joy, please read on.

1. God Created Us For His Glory
“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth… whom I created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:6-7).

God made us to magnify his greatness—the way telescopes magnify stars. He created us to put his goodness and truth and beauty and wisdom and justice on display. The greatest display of God’s glory comes from deep delight in all that he is. This means that God gets the praise and we get the pleasure. God created us so that he is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

2. Every Human Should Live For God’s Glory
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

If God made us for his glory, clearly we should live for his glory. Our duty comes from his design. So our first obligation is to show God’s value by being satisfied with all that he is for us. This is the essence of loving God (Matthew 22:37) and trusting him (1 John 5:3-4) and being thankful to him (Psalm 100:2-4). It is the root of all true obedience, especially loving others (Colossians 1:4-5).

3. All of Us Have Failed To Glorify God As We Should
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

What does it mean to “fall short of the glory of God?” It means that none of us has trusted and treasured God the way we should. We have not been satisfied with his greatness and walked in his ways. We have sought our satisfaction in other things and have treated them as more valuable than God, which is the essence of idolatry (Romans 1:21-23). Since sin came into the world, we have all been deeply resistant to having God as our all-satisfying treasure (Ephesians 2:3). This is an appalling offense to the greatness of God (Jeremiah 2:12-13).

4. All Of Us Are Subject To God’s Just Condemnation
“For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23)
We have all belittled the glory of God. How? By preferring other things above him. By our ingratitude, distrust, and disobedience. So God is just in shutting us out from the enjoyment of his glory forever. “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

The word “hell” is used in the New Testament twelve times—eleven times by Jesus himself. It is not a myth created by dismal and angry preachers. It is a solemn warning from the Son of God who died to deliver sinners from its curse. We ignore it at great risk.

If the Bible stopped here in its analysis of the human condition, we would be doomed to a hopeless future. However, this is not where it stops…

5. God Sent His Only Son Jesus To Provide Eternal Life And Joy
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15).

The good news is that Christ died for sinners like us. And he rose physically from the dead to validate the saving power of his death and to open the gates of eternal life and joy (1 Corinthians 15:20). This means God can acquit guilty sinners and still be just (Romans 3:25-26). “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Coming home to God is where all deep and lasting satisfaction is found.

6. The Benefits Purchased By The Death Of Christ Belong To Those Who Repent And Trust Him
“Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

“Repent” means to turn from all the deceitful promises of sin. “Faith” means being satisfied with all that God promised to be for us in Jesus. “Whoever believes in me,” Jesus says, “shall never thirst” (John 6:35). We do not earn our salvation. We cannot merit it (Romans 4:4-5). It is by grace through faith that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is a free gift (Romans 3:24).

We will have it if we cherish it enough to receive it and treasure it above all things (Matthew 13:44). When we do that, God’s aim in creation is accomplished: He is glorified in us and we are satisfied in him—forever.

Does This Make Sense To You?
Do you desire the kind of gladness that comes from being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus? If so, then God is at work in your life.

What Should You Do?
Turn from the deceitful promises of sin. Call upon Jesus to save you from the guilt and punishment and bondage. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Start banking your hope on all that God is for you in Jesus. You can break the power of sin’s promises by putting your faith in the superior satisfaction of God’s promises. Begin reading the Bible to find his precious and very great promises, which can set you free (2 Peter 1:3-4). Find a Bible-believing church, and begin to worship and grow together with other people who treasure Christ above all things (Philippians 3:7).

by John Piper, who has been Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis MN for 33 years.

BONUS: Click HERE for a Free Advent Devotional by Dr. Piper

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Forgotten Man of Christmas

I played a cow in my first-grade Christmas pageant, and I had more lines than the kid who played
Joseph. He was a prop, or so it seemed, for Mary, the plastic doll in the manger, and the rest of us. We were just following the script. There’s rarely much room in the inn of the contemporary Christian imagination for Joseph, especially among conservative Protestants like me. His only role, it seems, is an usher—to get Mary to the stable in Bethlehem in the first place and then to get her back to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to find the wandering 12-year-old Jesus.

But there’s much more to the Joseph figure.

Real Father

When we talk about Joseph at all, we spend most of our time talking about what he was not. We believe (rightly) with the apostles that Jesus was conceived in a virgin’s womb. Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father; not a trace of Joseph’s sperm was involved in the formation of the embryo Christ. No amount of Joseph’s DNA could be found in the dried blood of Jesus peeled from the wood of Golgotha’s cross. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit completely apart from the will or exertion of any man.

That noted, though, we need to be careful that we don’t reduce Joseph simply to a truthful first-century Bill Clinton: “He did not have sexual relations with that woman.” There’s much more to be said. Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, but he is his real father. In his adoption of Jesus, Joseph is rightly identified by the Spirit speak­ing through the Scriptures as Jesus’ father (Luke 2:41, 48).

Jesus would have said “Abba” first to Joseph. Jesus’ obedience to his father and mother, obedience essential to his law-keeping on our behalf, is directed toward Joseph (Luke 2:51). Jesus does not share Joseph’s bloodline, but he claims him as his father, obeying Joseph perfectly and even following in his voca­tion. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he cites the words of Deuteronomy to counter “the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16). Think about it for a moment—Jesus almost certainly learned those Hebrew Scriptures from Joseph as he listened to him at the woodworking table or stood beside him in the synagogue.

Difficult Deed

Our contemporary cartoonish, two-dimensional picture of Joseph too easily ignores how difficult it was for him to do what he did. Imagine for a minute that one of the teenagers in your church were to stand up behind the pulpit to give her testimony. She’s eight months pregnant and unmarried. After a few minutes of talking about God’s working in her life and about how excited she is to be a mother, she starts talking about how thankful she is that she’s remained sexually pure, kept all the “True Love Waits” commitments she made in her youth group Bible study. You’d immediately conclude that the girl’s either delusional or lying.

When contemporary biblical revisionists scoff at the virgin birth of Jesus and other miracles, they often tell us we’re now beyond such “myths” since we live in a post-Enlightenment, scientifically progressive information age. What such critics miss is the fact that virgin conceptions have always seemed ridiculous. People in first-century Palestine knew how babies were conceived. The implausibility of the whole thing is evident in the biblical text itself. When Mary tells Joseph she is pregnant, his first reaction isn’t a cheery “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” No, he assumes what any of us would conclude was going on, and he sets out to end their betrothal.
But then God enters the scene.

When God speaks in a dream to Joseph about the identity of Jesus, Joseph, like everyone else who follows Christ, recognizes the voice and goes forward (Matt. 1:21-24). Joseph’s adoption and protection of Jesus is simply the outworking of that belief.

Same Faith

In believing God, Joseph probably walked away from his reputation. The wags in his hometown would probably always whisper about how “poor Joseph was hoodwinked by that girl” or how “old Joseph got himself in trouble with that girl.” As the stakes grew higher, Joseph certainly sacrificed his economic security. In first-century Galilee, after all, one doesn’t simply move to Egypt, the way one might today decide to move to New York or London. Joseph surrendered a household economy, a vocation probably built up over generations, handed down to him, one would suppose, by his father.

Again, Joseph was unique in one sense. None of us will ever be called to be father to God. But in another very real sense, Joseph’s faith was exactly the same as ours. The letter of James, for instance, speaks of the definition of faith in this way: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27). James is the one who tells us further that faith is not mere intellectual belief, the faith of demons (2:19), but is instead a faith that works.

James shows us that Abraham’s belief is seen in his offering up Isaac, knowing God would keep his promise and raise him from the dead (2:21-23). We know Rahab has faith not simply because she raises her hand in agreement with the Hebrew spies but because in hiding them from the enemy she is showing she trusts God to save her (2:25). James tells us that genuine faith shelters the orphan.

What gives even more weight to these words is the identity of the human author. This letter is written by James of the Jerusalem church, the brother of our Lord Jesus. How much of this “pure and undefiled religion” did James see first in the life of his own earthly father? Did the image of Joseph linger in James’s mind as he inscribed the words of an orphan-protecting, living faith?

It’s a shame that Joseph is so neglected in our thoughts and affections, even at Christmastime. If we pay attention to him, though, we just might see a model for a new generation of Christians. We might see how to live as the presence of Christ in a culture of death. We might see how to image a protective Father, how to preach a life-affirming gospel, even in a culture captivated by the spirit of Herod.

by Russell D. Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns.

Dr. Moore earned a B.S. in history and political science from the University of Southern Mississippi. He also received the M.Div. in biblical studies from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Ph.D. in systematic theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition Blog on December 15, 2011, under the title, “Father to God, Model for Us.”

Friday, November 1, 2013

Perspectives on Thanksgiving Day

So maybe you know that Abraham Lincoln issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in October 1863, when the outcome of the Civil War and his re-election remained very much in doubt. Whether or not you know the official origins of the Thanksgiving holiday, take a minute to appreciate this selection from Lincoln's vivid words:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.
However, you probably know less than you think about the true origins of Thanksgiving, whether celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans or codified by presidential proclamation. For example, do you know that Thanksgiving was not formally connected to the Pilgrims until the 1930s? President Herbert Hoover said, "We approach the season when, according to custom dating from the garnering of the first harvest by our forefathers in the New World, a day is set apart to give thanks even amid hardships to Almighty God for our temporal and spiritual blessings."

And today we often lament the commercialization of Thanksgiving, especially as Black Friday specials creep back into Thursday. But did you know that in the middle of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt temporarily moved Thanksgiving forward one week to make the Christmas shopping season longer and bolster the nation's struggling retailers? Turns out consumerism is a durable American tradition, too.

by Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Finding Our Lost Boys: Up to 90 percent of boys will leave the church. What can a congregation do?

The church today faces one of the greatest challenges in Christian history: the mass exodus of boys (and men) from the church. Seventy to ninety percent of all boys will leave the church. Most won't come back. That exit is part of a larger cultural story about our boys.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, many parents and educators grew increasingly frustrated with the gap between boys and girls in school. Boys excelled in almost every area over girls. Because more boys attended college than girls, it gave them an advantage over women in the workplace.

In response to that crisis, the U.S. Government invested over 100 million dollars to give girls equal
opportunities and extra attention in schools. In the span of a generation, concerned parents, educators, and the government collectively changed the storyline of girls (and women) in our culture. Though there's still work to be done, a tremendous amount has been accomplished. Girls and women have excelled in areas of life once seen as the exclusive domain of men. As the father of a focused, career-minded, want-to-change-the-world daughter who has a master's degree from London and a law degree from the University of Minnesota, I'm grateful for that change!

But now we face a different challenge. Our boys have been left in the dust. They now lag significantly behind girls in many areas of education, economics, and career. Many boys have no clear idea of what it means to be a man in this new world of equality. While we are able to tell girls a better story about themselves, now it's the guys who are confused about their place in the world. The result is that we're raising a generation of "lost boys," many of whom have no idea what it means to be a man in the church or in culture.

The quest for boys

I have two children: my firstborn, a daughter, and my second, a son. I am also a grandfather of a granddaughter and two grandsons (so far). I have some experience raising both boys and girls. In raising my two children, I recognized their differences not only as a female and a male but also as two unique personalities. It wasn't until recently, however, that I began to understand and appreciate the inherent differences between the sexes. Looking beyond the egalitarian/complementarian conversation (so loaded these days), there are real differences apparent in childrearing—of hormones, interests, and views of the world. Boys and girls are different.

I've been a pastor since 1984. Like the overwhelming majority of church leaders, I used the discipleship tools available through Christian publishing companies for our youth. Most of them did not cater specifically to boys or to girls but offered mixed-gender programs. I didn't think twice about it. I did subconsciously recognize the differences in the ways boys and girls learned when I taught confirmation to seventh graders for the first time as a student pastor. But other than that, I never gave any thought to the differences between boys and girls and what that might mean for their discipleship.

In 2005, I read David Murrow's book Why Men Hate Going to Church. It was a no-holds-barred look at how the church has skewed ministry to the way many women learn and respond, but that as a result, men are staying away en masse. David argues correctly that while men still fill most pulpits, women overwhelmingly fill the pews. Subtly and not so subtly, we have positioned the gospel to speak to the learning and worship styles of women, but we've lost our men.

David's book forced me to look at my own ministry. And I saw a lot of things, obvious and not so obvious, that favored the stereotypical woman over the stereotypical man. For example, the vision statement I had written for our congregation used lots of relationship and community language versus action language/images, which often appeals more to women in our culture. So I rewrote our mission statement, making it action centered: "The mission of Community of Grace is to follow Jesus on the bold, daring, reckless adventure of bringing grace to the world."

We reviewed the worship choruses we were using and nixed those that sounded like Top 40 love songs to Jesus. (I actually liked many of these songs because I understood what they were saying. But when I looked at the lyrics from the perspective of a man who perhaps had little or no Christian background, the words made me cringe: "Hold me close, let your arms surround me," "I am so in love with you," "Beauty that made my heart adore you," and "You're altogether lovely." Men don't generally speak, let alone sing, like this to other men. As David writes, imagine the mental gymnastics men have to go through while singing those songs to Jesus.) I rethought the way I talked about Jesus and moved away from a "Jesus wants a relationship with us" type message to include "Jesus calls us to follow him" language.

David spoke at a worship service early in our congregation's history. In eight minutes—because testosterone-charged men aren't wired to sit for long sermons—he talked about how Sunday school tends to be stacked against boys. Sunday school usually demands sitting still for long periods of time, which boys are not usually inclined to do. It involves reading out loud, which boy brains don't do as well as girl brains at young ages. Boys have difficulty reading in front of the class and therefore find themselves embarrassed if the girls laugh at them. Girls excel in that environment, and boys know it. Before long, boys see Sunday school as girly. It's little wonder that they end up leaving the church as soon as they can.

I immediately met with our Sunday school leaders. We separated the third through sixth grade boys from the girls of the same age, and I began writing the lessons for the boys, which included lots of activity and action-based learning. We saw an almost immediate impact in three areas:

1. Men, who are often reluctant to get involved in children's ministry, volunteered to teach the Sunday school boys—and enjoyed it.

2. Boys started attending Sunday school again (at one point we had more boys than girls). And they enjoyed it.

3. Boys and girls benefitted as they felt freer to talk about their "stuff" without the other sex present to bug or embarrass them.

Inspired by the results, I kept learning. I began to read books about how boys and girls learn, which led me to Michael Gurian, the New York Times best-selling author of books like The Wonder of Boys; The Minds of Boys; The Purpose of Boys; and Boys and Girls Learn Differently. Michael uses brain science research to enable us to better understand how boys and girls learn. His Gurian Institute has helped teachers and school districts around the country transform the way they teach boys and girls. I sent him an e-mail one day to see if he might be willing to do for our congregation what he had been doing for schools. He responded almost immediately, and we formed a friendship and partnership.

Michael comes from a Jewish background and knows from personal experience the power of rites of passage, like the Jewish bar mitzvah. At that point, our congregation had no confirmation-type program. In over 28 years of ministry, I had never found a confirmation program that I felt really discipled the students. Confirmation tends to pour theology, church history, and church polity into the students. But calling students to follow Jesus into noble manhood or dynamic womanhood and equipping them with the practical skills to do so didn't exist in any of the programs.

So Michael and I did something bold. We created a Christian rite of passage for junior high boys based on brain science research, rites of passage insights, mentoring (done primarily by the dads, and using the program to disciple dads as well), and the call of Jesus to follow him. Again, we saw an immediate impact.

It caught on in a big way. The boys were engaged. Each week the dads told me their sons loved coming. How often do we hear boys excited about church? The dads were learning along with their sons about what it means to be a man who follows Jesus (because many of these dads were never strategically called into Christian manhood), and dads were given the tools and opportunities to mentor their sons. So far, I've lead four groups of dads and sons through the rite of passage program, and each time I've been amazed at the impact. Boys and dads long to be heroic men.

A new movement led by the church

At the end of our rite of passage, we honor each boy in front of the congregation. We only honor one boy per service to make it memorable for him. As a part of the ceremony, we pray for him, bless him, and give him a Bible. As a symbol of manhood and faith being passed from one generation to the next, I hand the Bible to dad who then hands it to his son.

One Sunday, I had the privilege of presenting a set of twins to the congregation. Near the end of their ceremony I handed a Bible to their great grandfather, who passed it to his son (their grandfather), who passed it to his son (their dad), who passed it to his sons. I then said to the congregation: "I present to you Danny and Nate, men of God!"

That's a picture of what it looks like when parents, families, and congregations partner together to stop the exodus of boys from church and forge them into men. Imagine congregations across the country equipping their boys to follow Jesus into heroic manhood. We can change the storyline of our boys. We can change the world. Let's do it.

Reclaiming Boys: 5 Things Your Congregation Can Do

What might it look like for your congregation to stop the exodus of boys?

1. Learn all you can about boys. Commit to becoming boy experts—experts in how God has created them in the male side of his image, experts in how their brains work, experts in how they speak and learn.

2. Call out the hero in your boys. Boys in puberty surge with testosterone, find it difficult to stay put, but are excited to tackle challenges. Create a challenging, but secure environment where your boys can learn that they are God's beloved sons, and that he is fully pleased with them.

3. Give your boys a compelling vision for manhood. Jesus sets the stage for this vision by calling boys to follow him.

4. Strategically raise your boys into men. Since the beginning of time, cultures have understood the need for the men of the tribe to lead the boys through a rite-of-passage experience. We need to reclaim that strategic experience for our boys, and mark when they pass from boyhood to manhood.

5. Call and equip your men to mentor boys. Men make boys into men.

From Leadership Journal by Tim Wright, pastor of Community of Grace in Peoria, Arizona. He is the author of Searching for Tom Sawyer: How Parents and Congregations Can Stop the Exodus of Boys from Church (WestBow Press) and is the co-author, along with Michael Gurian, of two rites of passage programs: Following Jesus: A Heroic Quest for Boys and Following Jesus: A Journey of Wisdom for Girls.,,