I’m seeing more and more pronouncements in Christian media that begin with the words: “The Church needs to be more accepting of…” Now, I’m used to the anti-Christian voices judging the Church of Jesus Christ for being judgmental or hateful or intolerant of many types of people or behaviors. That has always been, and will always be the case. But I’m getting more concerned with professed believers who are talking about “the church” in a way that is not helpful, not thoughtful, not edifying–and in a way that distances themselves from the body of Christ. After all, any Christian who criticizes “the church” is criticizing himself!
Here’s a statement circulating around Christian outlets that particularly frustrates me as a Biblical Counselor and Christian Education Director: “The Church needs to be more accepting of…those with mental illness.” At one level, we can always say that the church needs to improve on how it loves other people. As the body of Christ, we are to always strive to show the love of Christ to anyone and everyone. And some local churches do it better than others. So if that is all that statement means, then I heartily agree.
But, I’m afraid there’s much more to that statement, centering on the word ACCEPTING. What is the underlying accusation against Christians when it is said that they need to be more accepting of those with mental illness? Here are some questions to expose what this sentiment means:
- The opposite of accepting is REJECTING, So, generally speaking, do Christians and local churches reject those struggling with a mental illness? Do we ban them? Do we treat them as outcasts? Do we shun them? Do we believe that they have no place in the church?
- Or, by ACCEPTING people with mental illness, is it more about accepting modern psychology’s descriptions and solutions of those problems? (I think this is the case) Are we only truly accepting if we believe that mental illnesses are one hundred percent physiological and therefore the person with a mental illness is one hundred percent not responsible for that particular problem?
- Building on that, are we REJECTING people with mental illness if we offer hope for Biblical change? If we believe the Bible gives us principles and the Spirit gives us power to overcome those problems categorized and mental illness, are we rejecting rather than accepting?
- Finally, are we defining ACCEPTING as: making no value judgment or saying a certain behavior or problem is right or wrong, sinful or not sinful? Is it possible to accept someone and yet love him or her enough to listen, understand, and offer the hope of the gospel for change?
In my mind, the church is the best and the only place with its arms open wide to offer love and grace and mercy. Why? Because Christ offers it, and we are His BODY! Christ Himself says to all of us, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). The Church historically and the Church universal has always and will always be the place which receives and accepts sinners because Christ receives and accepts sinners. Yes, humans are sinners and we certainly fail to loves as we ought. But statements like “The Church needs to more accepting of…” implies that non-Christians or human organizations are actually more accepting of people than Christians are. That is simply not the case. Unless, as demonstrated by the above questions, one has a different definition of ACCEPTING.
So, let’s briefly address a few more examples that are commonly suggested in this statement:
- The Church needs to be more accepting of…homosexuals. Yes, we must receive them, love them, and yet Biblically confront and help them in their sin. They can change by the power of the Word and the Spirit.
- The Church needs to be more accepting of…people with disabilities. Yes, we must always make the church more accessible! We must counsel people who struggle with problems that can be solved, and accommodate those with limitations and weaknesses.
- The Church needs to be more accepting of…people of other faiths. Yes, all are welcome in the Church of Jesus Christ, but all come the same way. Only when we shed ourselves of our human religions and believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life can we come to the Father!
- The Church needs to be more accepting of…people of other ethnic backgrounds. Yes,the Church of Jesus Christ is universal, transcending all nationalities and colors. We all are the body of Christ when we profess the same Jesus as Lord and Savior!
The Church (all Christians) can always work on our out-reaching to all sorts of people in this world. But the Church is also called to stand against the forces that seek to change Christianity into some human organization which simply accepts people without the receiving standards of God’s Word. The Church is accepting of all who turn from their sins and rest on Jesus Christ alone for their salvation. Praise be to God alone for receiving us in Christ!
Our national anthem proclaims that America is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” While it’s tempting to question the first part of that pronouncement, the last part has also fallen on hard times. Certainly, we still see many individual acts of bravery and courage every day, such as in the riveting story of Louis Zamperini in the last century, to the work of sniper Chris Kyle more recently. But what about our bravery as a culture and a nation overall? And, more importantly, what sort of legacy regarding courage are we passing on to our children? It seems to me that more and more adults are parenting by fear and leading their children to become more fearful than brave.
This point is made brilliantly in a recent article in The Economist entitled “Home of the Unbrave.” Written from the vantage point of “risk and litigation” in America, the author discusses how more and more towns and cities are outlawing sledding in the winter. Yes, you read that right: the childhood joy of sledding! There is just too much risk to allow children to barrel down snow-covered hills on pieces of plastic anymore. Here’s one of his great quotes about this trend:
This crackdown on unregulated sledding seems of a piece with the recent American tendency to curb marginally perilous childhood pleasures, such as tricycling without body armour or venturing alone into the back garden without a Mossad-trained security detail.
While this conjures up hilarious images, it really is quite embarrassing. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that more and more parents are driven by the need to protect their children from all possible harm, way past the point of wise responsibility. Just ask parents to send their children almost anywhere alone without a cell phone and fear will strike deep in their hearts. I saw it in myself last week, when I was told that my two boys (age 11 and 9) had biked alone to the library. “How could you let them do that,” I asked fearfully? Yet, at their age (and younger) I would ride my bike alone every single day of the week–sometimes miles and miles to a friend’s house in another state!
Then there’s this convicting quote from “Home of the Unbrave”:
It’s just that the risk, as small as it is, now looms larger in the imagination, becoming too great for the no-longer-bold American spirit to bear. Shutting down sledding hills is inspired by the same sort of simpering caution that keeps Americans shoeless in airport security and, closer to home, keeps parents from letting their kids walk a few blocks to school alone, despite the fact that America today is as safe as the longed-for “Leave It to Beaver” golden age.
Yes, America, we are just as safe–if not more safe–than the America of the 1950’s. So why do we act in so much fear when it comes to the safety of our children? Is sledding really going to dismember our kids? Are there really more child molesters and predators out there than ever before? Will our children be abducted if we aren’t in constant cell phone contact with them? Now, depending on where you live, you may be saying: YES, it’s very dangerous out there–and maybe we are wiser than our parents and grandparents were! But does that automatically mean we can and should parent out of fear, and end up producing fearful children?
More importantly, what does this all mean for Christian parents? According to II Timothy 1:7, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Christians alone, because of the love and power of God, have no reason to live in fear and worry. That truth certainly must translate to parenting out of faith and trust in the LORD, rather than out of the fear of man, Satan, or this world. We are to raise brave and courageous children–not so they can go sledding without fear or ride their bike to the library–but so they can be a bold witness for Christ. How will they be the next generation of missionaries, ministers, and heralds for Christ if they grow up in a secure bubble, taught to be worried about everyone around them? It’s imperative that we resist the cultural (and sinful) impulse to fear for our children, and wisely call them to trust in the Lord Jesus and grow to be warriors in the army of God!
As a Children’s Ministry Director, my favorite week of the church calendar is Vacation Bible School week. But a close second is going on this week at my church–Missions Festival week. It seems to always come at the right time, to give me a necessary attitude adjustment and a re-focusing of my priorities. I (and my family) need to remember what our Missions Festival theme reminds us: that we all must “answer our missionary calling.”
The opening sermon by Dr. Ed Hartman was especially profound. He applied the theme from John 13:1-17, the passage where Jesus shocks the disciples by washing their feet. Our Lord gives us an example of service to follow–not just for one aspect of our lives, but for life in totality. But here’s the principle that is life-transforming: Christians are to live their lives as HOSTS in this world, rather than GUESTS. That’s exactly what Jesus did! He set aside His deserved status as esteemed guest at the supper in order to serve as the host of the meal. This particular event was actually a parable or picture of His entire life on earth–coming to His lost people not to be served, but to serve. So, as Christians, Jesus serves us, giving us the power to serve as HOSTS to a lost world.
In the first place, I NEEDED TO HEAR THIS! I am far from the sort of Christ-empowered host to my wife, my children, and other people. I would rather be served than to serve. So I pray that this truth penetrates my heart and changes me in very practical ways this year.
Yet this Biblical principle is also essential for our children. As sinners, they are born into this world demanding to be served. Of course, as dependent beings, they must be served in order to survive! But as they grow up, it’s tempting for them to just keep on exercising permanent “guest mentality” rather than learning to serve others. And without Christ, they will only continue to be self-serving in their approach to life–always thinking they deserve more than what they really deserve!
Unfortunately, parents often add to this pervasive heart problem of our children. We are in an unprecedented time of mothers and fathers who act as if they exist to serve all of their children’s wants and desires. American children are especially indulged with material excesses–with rare times of self-denial. Added to that, there is often little expectation to serve others, especially their parents and siblings. We, as parents, can act like children will just learn to be servants some time later in life. But when? As teenagers? Young adults? Senior citizens?
To make the bad news even worse, our children also have the world against them. Our culture only teaches us that we are constant guests, and that we are the center of the universe. We are used to being served when we go to a restaurant, the doctor’s office, and the auto shop. With the modern changes in our educational system, it can also be perceived that teachers exist to serve students rather than the other way around. Even the church can appear to somehow have been created to serve our needs rather than as a community which exists to serve Jesus. Our extreme self-esteem focused culture makes everyone a guest, and no one a host. So, if we all deserve to be served, who will ever serve others, except by compulsion?
With all that being said, it’s essential to NOT turn this into a compartmentalized program for children. This is not about requiring a few “community service” hours for school or just coming up with mission opportunities at church. While that can be a start, these efforts may also send the wrong message that service is just what you do once in a while–a way to “give back” because we have been given so much. Jesus teaches that our entire lives must be lived as HOSTS not GUESTS. Living in Christ means living this life to serve, rather than to be served.
So, parents, I give you Dr. Ed Hartman’s (and the Lord Jesus’) call: Train your children to be hosts in this fallen world! Don’t just make service something they do for academic credit, a gold star, or a resume enhancer. Depending on the power of Christ, make service a lifestyle–training a host mentality rather than a guest mentality. How the Kingdom of God would advance in this world if it had an army of hosts seeking to serve the lost, the hurting, and the needy!
Last month, I dealt with the temptation to pull our children out of youth group due to the influence of non-Christian peers [Help! There are Pagans in my Youth Group!]. Thankfully, in a Biblically sound youth ministry, there are also many of our covenant children, growing in grace as young Christians. These young people are tasked with the challenge of being godly influences to those who are rebelling against Christ and those who are struggling with unbelief.
Yet, there are other teens lurking in your youth group who also desperately need the gospel: Little self-righteous, legalistic Pharisees. These are young people who have trouble seeing their own sinful hearts, and are stuck in works-righteousness. Now, this probably won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me, but I was a teenage Pharisee! After enjoying junior high youth group, I dropped out of high school youth group for over three years. I thought I was better than my peers, even in my Christian high school. I was a moralist, a rule keeper–performance-based to the core. I thought I knew the Bible as well as any adult, so our youth ministry had nothing to offer me. Somehow, my parents even allowed me to sit in the family car and read the Sunday newspaper while the rest of my family attended Sunday School. Oh, the beautiful irony that God would call someone like me to be a Christian Education Director!
So, as parents, covenant parents, and youth workers, how do we deal with burgeoning Pharisees in our youth groups? Here are just a few thoughts:
- Don’t let them drop out of youth group. They need this “laboratory of relationships” to confront their pride, unbiblical thinking, and unloving attitudes. Just like with other sinful patterns, Pharisees would rather be with other Pharisees than with the unwashed Gentiles. So if we enable our legalistic youngsters to only hang around others of their ilk, how will they see their sinful hearts? Additionally, we must challenge their faulty belief that they already know the Bible and they are above what is being taught in Sunday School and youth group. Those who have a tendency towards works-righteousness need to hear the gospel just like the rebellious pagan.
- Give them a high view of the law and Biblical understanding of sin. Even though it may appear that the Pharisee thinks highly of God’s law, he actually has a low view of it. Legalism seeks to make the law much easier to keep, so particular rules are cherry-picked and others are ignored. That’s the only way we can deceive ourselves to think we are doing a good job at law-keeping! So, a teenage Pharisee may be avoiding foul language, yet engage in gossip regularly. He or she may not be doing drugs, but that abstinence leads him or her to have a proud heart. Bad movies and TV shows may be shunned, yet a lack of love and compassion for sinners may also be absent. Our young Pharisees need to learn that the law is impossible to keep, and their sin is much deeper than they think!
- Show them their hearts on a daily basis. It’s easy to show a pagan his heart–his sin is always before us! But the well-mannered, externally-behaved Pharisee can be tougher to diagnose and to expose. After all, it’s wonderful to have rule keepers in the youth group! They are often our leaders and examples to the rest. And they can be easily self-deceived to believe that they have it all together. So take extra care to point out their pride and self-satisfaction, which is often connected to sinful fear and anxiety. They need heart change just like the rest of the youth!
- Teach them the grace of God and grace for others. Even though the Pharisee typically won’t verbalize it, he doesn’t really see the need for the grace of God. After all, he is one of the “well” not one of the “sick;” the “older brother” and not the “prodigal son.” So the legalist doesn’t truly enjoy the depths of the mercy and grace of God–other than as a theological concept. Because of this, our young Pharisees often struggle to show grace and mercy to others who need it!
- Help them to become Biblically self-focused. Instead of being preoccupied with the behavior and attitudes of others, we need to help our Pharisees be properly self-focused. They need to be asked what they learned from the lesson, how they were challenged at the retreat, and how God’s Word spoke to their hearts. This will help them turn aside from gossip and tale-bearing, and thereby take responsibility for their own actions, reactions, words, and attitudes.
How important it is for all of our covenant children to have a youth ministry that teaches God’s Word faithfully, provides relevant application to their our youth, and helps them to work it out in the community of the local church. By God’s saving grace in Christ, there is hope for our teenage pagans AND teenage Pharisees alike!
Our children learn a whole lot about life during the Christmas season. They learn how to indulge themselves. They learn how to be demanding and self-centered. They learn works-righteousness from Santa (Good=presents; Bad=lump of coal). They learn that getting new stuff equals happiness. They learn the secret of discontentment. They learn that our American economy is totally dependent on holiday consumer retail sales (okay, maybe only a few sharp ones…). They are learning these lessons every year thanks to their own sinful hearts, Satan, and the world.
So that means Christian parents must be aggressive, winsome, and purposeful in the education of their children during the holidays. By words and example, it is our duty as parents to train children to think rightly about God, the world, and ourselves. So here’s my list of the “Twelve Truths of Christmas” for children (you may put them to music if you like…”On the first day of Christmas, my dear Savior gave to me, a heart of…”):
- Contentment. We’ll start with possibly the hardest of all lessons: How do we fight against rampant discontentment in our children? It’s taught primarily by what parents REFUSE to do–indulge their child’s every whim throughout the year. If your children are getting whatever they want whenever they want it, then the sinful virus of discontentment will be at fever level at Christmas.
- Compassion. Not just for all the poor children who don’t get presents at Christmas. More importantly, teach your children to have true pity on all who make Christmas meaningless by removing Christ. Our children should grieve for and pray for all their friends and family members who have rejected the Christ of Christmas.
- Joy. Presents bring happiness–usually very temporary happiness for our children. Teach them that their joy can only be found in the Lord!
- Identity. Even though Christmas is a fairly universal holiday, it is one that should only be enjoyed by Christians. After all, what meaning has Jesus taking on human flesh unless you identify yourself with Christ? Your children will either identify with the world or identify with their Savior every Christmas and all through the year.
- Sin. Talking about sin on Christmas is borderline heresy! But your children really need to have their sinful hearts poked during this time of year. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to show them how they are thinking more about themselves than about Jesus or others.
- Grace. Santa Claus teaches what our sinful hearts want to hear–that good people get good stuff and bad people get bad stuff. It’s not good enough to teach your children that Santa isn’t real; you must debunk the lie that we can be good and that we deserve good things. Show them Jesus, and teach them undeserved grace!
- Giving. Yes, teach your children to give to others this Christmas. And, yes, teach them how much better it is to give than receive. Yet you must teach them how God so loved the world that HE GAVE His Son…or your children will become self-righteous in their giving. We don’t want our children to think highly of their own benevolence when it is God who is the true Giver.
- Receiving. Christianity is first about receiving (on our side of things)–we receive grace, forgiveness, and salvation because of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. Children love to receive–it’s adults who are often too proud to receive well. When your children receive a gift, train them to have hearts of gratitude towards all who give to them–because it is a reflection of how they receive Christ.
- Peace. The angels announced that the birth of Christ brings peace on earth. The world defines peace as lack of war, conflict, or trouble. True peace is a lack of hostility between God and man. This is only possible in Christ, and it gives rest in even the most difficult of holidays.
- Love. This one’s obvious, right? But does Christmas just naturally bring love out of our hearts? While our children may not have to be taught affection for their family and friends, they need to learn how to love God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves. This is only learned when the love of God dwells in their hearts.
- Faith. We pray that God gives our children the grace of saving faith so they can put their trust in Christ. Christmas can be a missed opportunity to talk with them about the nature of faith. It’s not about being “good for goodness sake,” but rather resting in Christ alone for salvation.
- Life. The world offers life in all the wrong places and through all the wrong things. Christ is the giver or life. Jesus was born in order to die for our eternal life. Teach it over and over again to your children!
So even though your youngsters are out of school for Christmas break, remember that the School of Jesus never takes a holiday!
When my oldest daughter was ready to enter our church youth group, I found myself in a series of discussions with members who had decided to not allow their children to attend. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but this caught me off-guard. Was it because they disagreed with what was being taught in our youth ministry? No. Was it a distrust of our youth leadership. No. Was it a rejection of the whole idea of youth ministry? Partially. But for the most part, it was the fear of negative peer influence on their children. There were clearly “bad kids” in the youth group that could unduly impact their child’s spirituality. This made the church youth group a dangerous place.
Since that time, I have talked with other parents who have chosen this particular viewpoint. And still others have committed to the youth group for a time, then pulled out their children after they experience some un-Christian behaviors among their church peers. While I can understand and respect the responsibility to protect our children from bad influences, bullying, or the making of corrupt friendships, I can’t support the abandonment of a church youth ministry. So, let me offer some random thoughts on this point of disagreement:
- Should we be surprised there are pagans in our youth groups? Yes, I’m talking about non-Christian youth who come from Christian homes. They’re teenagers! No, I don’t espouse the view that all teens have to go through some sort of rebellious phase. And, no, not all teens experiment with drugs, sex, and ungodly rock-and-roll. But it’s unrealistic and idealistic to believe that your youth group is filled with Christians who are passionate about serving Jesus. Even those teens who profess Christ are often immature and foolish.
- So maybe we should enact church discipline and bar the “bad kids” from the youth group. But aren’t these the very teens who need to be sitting under the teaching of the Word and the ministry or godly youth staff? On the other hand, they clearly aren’t listening, or even attending youth group with the desire to learn God’s Word. Now, I’m not opposed to elders being involved with families to address particular public sins of their teenagers. This is most appropriate. But even this will not eliminate the potential for bad behavior in the youth group.
- Just an observation: Most of these same parents allow their teenagers to participate on a sports team, or in community activities, or even in public schools. I’m guessing there are pagans in those places as well. So, what’s the difference? Is it that we expect “worldly” organizations to be unsafe places and the church to be a safe place? Personally, I can see the need for more protection from groups that are not led by, or claim to be, “Christian” than the local church of Jesus Christ–even with sinners in her midst.
- What about positive peer pressure? Is there such a thing? Last time I checked, the New Testament is filled with truths about how light overcomes darkness, and the Kingdom of God prevails against the Kingdom of darkness. Do we believe this is operative in the church youth group? It seems to me that if we are training our children in our homes to live as followers of Christ, then a necessary part of their training is for them to learn how to stand strong against negative peer pressure. But many of these parents treat their children as if their commitment to Christ is a fragile thing, easily destroyed by sinful peers. If this is a true concern, then it seems that more work needs to be done at home to educate, train, and discipline.
- All of this raises a bigger question in my mind: Are we raising a generation of spiritual weaklings? Are we so concerned with protecting our children from suffering, hearing bad words, seeing bad things etc., that we aren’t building strength of character in them? I’m not suggesting that we ship our teens off into the bowels of evil, surrounded by wicked peers. This is church youth group! If they can’t handle the pagans in the youth group now, how will they handle them in college, the workplace, and the world?
Just to be crystal clear: All of these thoughts rest on the foundation that your youth group has godly, mature leadership, is teaching sound doctrine, and is wisely supervising youth activities. If these are true, then to keep your teen out of youth group is depriving them of essential opportunities to grow in character and mature in Christ!
[Note: You will want to read my last post on “Ordinary Children’s Ministry” here to give these next thoughts some essential context.] As a parent, my deepest desire is to see my eight children become Christians–and more than that, ORDINARY Christians. Yes, this goes against the grain of what my sinful heart would rather see in them–academic, athletic, and career achievements. To be ordinary is to be NORMAL. It’s what’s commonplace or STANDARD. It is regular, routine, habitual, and day-to-day. Ordinary may sound average, mediocre, plain, and boring–but it’s quite the opposite. If only we had more ordinary Christians in this world, there would be extraordinary expansion of the Kingdom of God.
Let me begin to explain what I mean with a simple comparison. My desire for my children to be ordinary Christians is akin to my desire for ordinary customer service when I’m purchasing something or needing technical assistance. For those of you older than thirty-five, you will remember a time when real, live, caring and concerned people actually helped and served you when you needed it. This was an ordinary, normal, regular part of any shopping experience. Today, to actually have a good customer service experience seems extra-ordinary and shocking! We have moved so far away from truly serving customers in the retail world that it is no longer part of day-to-day life. In the same way, I would suggest that an “ordinary Christian” seems so extraordinary because we don’t see them often enough, nor are we training our young people to be one.
So what is an ordinary Christian? Why should I want my child to be “just” ordinary? Here’s are the beginnings of my list:
- An ordinary Christian believes the historic GOSPEL. Not some new, improved, more exciting version of the gospel that adds something (health, wealth, prosperity) to Jesus. The ordinary Christian knows his salvation is by grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone.
- An ordinary Christian is filled with JOY–and his joy is in the Lord. His circumstances don’t determine his moods and his fulfillment in this life.
- An ordinary Christian is CONTENT. He is not restless, driven by his own selfish ambition. Whatever his lot in life, he trusts in the Lord’s provision for him.
- An ordinary Christian SEEKS God’s Kingdom first. He’s not seeking to make his own name or put his stamp on the world. He’s not looking to build his own kingdom and his own legacy.
- An ordinary Christian LOVES God and other people. He is not a lover of self, or stuck in ongoing self-satisfaction or self-exaltation.
- An ordinary Christian is WISE. He’s mature, discerning, and not swayed by the lies of this world. His decisions are made on the basis of the Word of God.
- An ordinary Christian wants to DECREASE so Christ will increase. Less of me, more of Christ is his cry! He wants other people to make more of Christ rather than more of him.
Get the idea? If you are a parent, is this the list you want to describe your child? Or does it sound to mundane, too average, just too ordinary? The truth is that this goes against nearly everything our children hear and observe in this world. We live in a culture of celebrity, where everyone is seeking his fifteen minutes of fame. Athletics are no longer recreation, but the most essential part of childhood (in order to achieve future stardom). We tell our children they can be whatever they want to be–with the real objective being the search for money, power, and glory. The role models of most kids are superheroes, actors, and athletes–someone “bigger” than what’s ordinary. Even Christian parents seem to find their most pride and joy in the achievements of their children, trumpeting them throughout social media on a regular basis.
I like what Bill Cosby had to say on this subject at a 2012 graduation commencement (quoted by Michael Horton in his book Ordinary):
You’re not going to change the world, so don’t try. The best thing you can do is to live each day with integrity and responsibility. Stop being narcissistic about your ‘dream,’ getting everyone else to fit into it. You’ve got plenty of time, but don’t dream through it. Wake up!
But my favorite comedian of all time has it just a bit wrong. If our young people lived Christian, quiet, ordinary, responsible, lives of integrity, they would change the world. Ordinary Christian lives are used by God to do extraordinary things! And, if more Christian parents had this ordinary goal in mind and devoted themselves to the “ordinary” teaching, training, disciplining and praying for thing children, just think of the results. By God’s grace, we would have children who show the world our glorious Jesus Christ. What’s more extraordinary than that?