Why Youth Ministry Needs Old People

Hipster couple talking and drinking coffee to go at university campus

Virtually every week, I’ll talk with potential volunteers for student ministry who will inform me with knocking knees and a frightened quiver in their voice: “I’m too old to work with students.”

And I just want to beat my head against the wall.

As an “old person” working in student ministry, it’s an issue with which I admittedly take personal umbrage. I was late bloomer in the field of student ministry … I entered Seminary at the ripe old age of 31. In case you don’t know, that’s the equivalent of Methuselah by student ministry standards. I didn’t have Rob Bell glasses and a hipster beard. I’ve never shopped at Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie. It’s hard to have a faux hawk with male pattern baldness. I didn’t even own a white belt for crying out loud. But God did give me giftedness and passion to work with students.

After completing my Mdiv degree as a rather ancient 34 year-old, I endured several months of church search committees lobbing thinly veiled insults about my “old age” for student ministry: “How do you plan on relating to kids soooooooooo much younger than you? … How do you stay current on what’s going on in youth culture? … Are you familiar with how to use the Internet? … What type of TV shows do you think our kids watch? … Have you considered becoming a senior pastor instead? … How are you going to ‘wow’ kids to Jesus?” And – no – I’m not making any of these questions up. When I interviewed with a major student camp program, the headhunters literally laughed me out of the room, branding me as older than Moses riding a dinosaur and unable to “relate” to kids.

Now I’m 41 … And I’m working with students. And I still don’t own a white belt.

So let’s ask the question: Should age or “relatability” be a disqualifying factor in working with youth? More importantly: What does Scripture say about the matter?

If you’re looking for a coherent model of student ministry in Scripture, one of the (very) few places that speaks of young persons and Christian education is Titus 2:1-8:

1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. 6 Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. 7 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.

What separates Titus 2 from other passages that speak about discipling young persons (i.e. Deuteronomy 6 or Ephesians 6:1-5) is the emphasis on the role of the church body pouring into the life of young people in its midst. And let’s get the exegesis right: This passage is about age (“older” and “younger”), and assumes that spiritual maturity generally comes with age (with emphasis on the word “generally”). So older men are to teach sound doctrine to younger men … Older women are to similarly disciple younger women. God has designed discipleship in the church to be intentionally cross-generational, which is the exact opposite of what exists in most churches.

Since the 1940s, our churches have largely mimicked successful para-church groups (Youth For Christ; Young Life; Inter Varsity), segregating kids into compartmentalized ministries tailored to their own interests led by specialized, expert ministers. In most larger churches (and even many smaller churches), the commonplace is that our youngest children spiritually germinate in a kids department with a separate kids worship service … And then eventually graduate to a youth department with a separate youth worship service … And then perfunctorily drop out of church upon graduation because they can’t figure out the whole “adulting in church” thing.

So somewhere along the way, we gleefully handed our kids and student ministries over to the “specialists.” The adults could finally attend a quiet and uninterrupted worship service while the kids of all age groups are being babysat by pastors in training. And adults no longer needed to get their hands dirty in the messy work of student discipleship. We humored ourselves in believing that kids would be magnetically transfixed to Christ by “relatable” young leaders with trendy gauges in their ears and handlebar mustaches. We pushed the “easy button.” We chose comfort of the recliner over the hard work of the plow. And created a bizarre hypocrisy in the church where we see quite elderly grandmothers accepted in the nursery changing dirty diapers but banned from the youth room discipling students.

Frankly, “relatability” is highly overrated in student ministry, and – more importantly – spoken nowhere in Scripture. You certainly don’t find it in Titus 2: “Let the older women use Snapchat and understand the terms ‘bae’ and ‘on fleek’ … Let the older men get Jesus tats, hipster beards and skinny jeans …” By nature, fads will ebb and flow over time, and have nothing to do with anyone’s calling to ministry. Any church that judges suitability of leaders for student ministry on whether they own TOMS instead of their walk with Christ is walking into a bear trap. Are we really willing to disqualify our strongest believers from student discipleship because they don’t know the Kardashians? I’m not saying that student ministry leaders should be frozen in time on the set of Happy Days … But I am saying that attempting to “relate” kids to Christ is a fools errand. On a transcendent level, the legit story of Gospel already relates to all peoples, all cultures and all life stages.

Please don’t translate this blog post into bashing young student ministers. I’m not. We shouldn’t look down upon young leaders setting a great example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity (Yes … I’ve read 1 Timothy 4:12 … Simmer down, Millennials). But I am saying that our churches cannot venerate youth or relatability in student ministry to the point of tossing out spiritual maturity into the garbage bin. We shouldn’t look down on the “old folks” in church either.

So to all the “old” people out there: Student ministry desperately needs you. Don’t let anyone – and I mean anyone – tell you that you’re “too old” to speak into the lives of kids.

We need your mom jeans, your hot flashes, your crock-pot casseroles and your inexplicable Starbucks obsessions.

We need your combovers, your NPR radio and your out-of-fashion dad shorts.

We need your awkward inability to figure out what an Instagram is and your frustration in figuring out how to text emojis.

We need to hear how Christ has walked with you through the valley of the shadow: Your cancer diagnosis … The death of your spouse … Your son’s addiction … Your marital problems.

We need every hand-written note, highlight and underline in your worn-out Bibles.

We need your unbridled joy and passion for potluck dinners, prayer meetings and the unmistakeable taste of overly-percolated church coffee.

We need the spiritual maturity and discipline that comes from a lifetime of following Christ.

More than anything, we desperately need you to speak the Gospel with beauty, clarity and conviction into the lives of our young people.

So let’s get to work.


When Our Kids Don’t Love God

A boy writes lines on the blackboard“Where did we go wrong?”

My friend asks me this question as we sit across a untouched bowl of chips and salsa at a local Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The hollow look of crushing disappointment is covering his face. Tears are welling up in his eyes. His family has done everything over the past 18 years to try to “train up their child” right: Home schooling … regular church attendance … family devotional time … restrictions on “secular media” … And – most importantly – no dating. And the end result is now a cascading, slow-motion disaster: Their child has engaged in a party-hopping and booze-fueling auto accident that has resulted in the loss of a decent and well-paying job. In the process, they have recently discovered that the same child is engaged in an overt sexual relationship with a significantly older (and jobless) loser. More than rage or anger, there is a resounding expression of parental guilt and depression: “Where did we go wrong?”

Throughout the course of my ministry, I have had this same deja vu conversation over and over with a variety of sincerely believing parents. After diligently raising their kids to Christian standards, their kids have precipitously fallen away from Christianity and made decisions that will wreck their lives for years to come: Kids who become so heavily addicted that they steal and pawn their parents possessions, wet the bed at night and go on the run across state lines from law enforcement … Kids who shack up with random guys they hardly know and come home with new grandchildren that need financial and emotional support … Kids who refuse to stop playing Call of Duty on Xbox all day to move out on their own … Kids who cut themselves on their inner thighs with razors and secretly contemplate suicide. And in every awful, soul-crushing horror story, there is a defeated parent who looks fondly back on baby pictures of a child they no longer recognize. There is a parent who waits longly by a cell phone, unsure whether a prodigal child or a police officer will come to the front door that night. And there is the overwhelming feeling of disappointment and blame that holds parents hostage by keeping them awake at night.

We feel like we’ve let God down.

Often, we bear the brunt of the responsibility for the failures of our children, because we take God’s call to spiritual discipleship seriously. For most Christian parents, our innermost desire is to please God by diligently teaching our kids about the ways of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:7). We try to bring our kids up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Under kicking and screaming protest, we drag our kids out of bed early for Sunday worship. We send our kids to VBS, church camp, D-Nows and lock-ins. We watch cheesy VeggieTales instead of Game of Thrones. We kiss dating goodbye, attend daddy-daughter dances and buy purity rings. We serve alongside our kids at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. And – ultimately – we desire for our kids to experience the same joy, hope and peace in Christ that we have found. Regardless of our methodology, that desire for our kids to have a relationship with Christ is healthy and good.

Here’s the problem: Unwittingly, most Christian parents also tend to engage in a unhealthy and false philosophy of parental determinism: Every victory and failure of our kids lives stems from our parenting decision-making. Our over-protective generation of helicopter moms overwhelmingly camp out on the side of “nurture” instead of “nature.” We believe that the smallest minutia of parental decision making – ranging from daycare choice to organic food to carseat safety – will have a drastic sea change of impact on our kids lives. When it comes to church, we are so deterministic that we genuinely believe whether we cut the crust off a PB&J sandwich will impact the eternal destiny of our child’s soul.

And our churches tend to unfairly reinforce this philosophy. Our pastors often teach that Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) is an unbreakable law instead of a piece of Godly wisdom. Even worse, our churches sometimes teach that the converse is true: When any teenager who becomes a raging agnostic who sleeps around, bad parenting surely must be at fault. Tell me that you haven’t heard parlor room gossip roll off the lips of genteel church ladies when a wayward teen enters the church sanctuary: “I can’t believe that Jack and Diane would allow that non-sense to happen under their roof! What are they thinking?” In church circles, the shame and guilt of a “bad kid” can hang around your neck like a scarlet letter.

Parenting is not a mathematical equation. Or a Food Network recipe: Take one child … Add Godly teaching … Add regular church attendance … Throw in loving home conditions … Pick the right schooling … And – presto! – you’ve got the certainty of a wonderful child that you’ll brag about to all your friends. Heck, you might even get a “proud of my kid” bumper sticker. Children usually don’t work out according to whatever dreams or plans we’ve got.

Here’s why: Your kid is a sinner. Your kids are not exempt from the “all have sinned” part of Romans 3:23. Every child comes from the lineage of Adam. Your kids are guaranteed to make horrible decisions that make you want to start heavy drinking as a hobby. And keeping your kid in a protective bubble their entire lives will never change that theological truth. Even after your kids come into a relationship with Christ, the influence of the flesh continues in the lives of our kids (Romans 8:1-11; Galatians 5:16-26). They will face a daily choice to walk in the Spirit or succumb to the flesh.

Proverbs 22:6 rarely plays out as a promise in the life of any Biblical figure. Even for the first parents recorded, there’s a Cain for every Abel or Seth. There’s a Ham for every Shem. There’s a Esau for every Jacob. Jacob had a litter of kids that killed newly circumcised men and sold their brother into slavery. Samson’s parents devoted him to be a Nazarite from birth, but Samson loved to chase Philistine skirts. David’s love child, Solomon, started out on track but was wooed away by a veritable army of ungodly women. Go through the royal lineage of 1 & 2 Kings: Bad kings producing good offspring … Good kings producing bad offspring.

Here’s the good news for parents: God does not love you less when your kids spectacularly fail. God’s grace is not dependent on our parenting prowess. Parents would do well to meditate on Romans 8:31-35 early and often:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

The answer to Paul’s rhetorical question in verse 35 is – of course – nothing. Yes, the truth is that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love. And nothing includes bad parenting, sleepless nights, unbearable guilt, regret, lost children, mistakes made or moments where we wish we could hit rewind. Even if our kids wind up mirroring our worst nightmares, God still loves us with a furious love that sent His only Son to the cross to bear our sins. Believing that God loves us less for the way our kids turn out is an utter falsehood and likely the evil whisperings of spiritual warfare in our ears. When our kids fail, God isn’t waggling His finger in disappointment at us with colossal scowl furrowing his brow.

When our kids don’t love God, we would do well to remember that God still loves us.

So maybe … Just maybe, we should relax a little bit more when it comes to Christian parenting. Training up our kids in the ways of Christ may be a serious task, but the pressure doesn’t lay squarely on our shoulders. If we truly believe only Christ can change lives, we should accept that our impact is rather insignificant compared to the Holy Spirit. The future of our kids is largely out of our inept hands but is squarely in the divine hands of our perfect Creator.

And thank God for that.

10 Launching Points for Family Discipleship

launchAs I stated in my previous posts on family discipleship (here and here), the number one question that I get from families as a Family Minister is some iteration of this inquiry: “What are some resources that I can use to disciple my kids?” So today’s blog post is going to be extraordinarily practical instead of my usual esoteric ramblings.

Right off the bat, let me state the obvious: The primary resource for the believer is the Bible. It’s the 2 Timothy 3:16-17 principle: God’s Word is God’s tool for teaching, exposing sin, correcting and training us to become more Christlike. We cannot grow to become more like Christ without the application of the Word of God to our lives and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And God’s Word is sufficient for our every need. For most believers reading this blog, we’re having a collective “no duh” moment up in here.

However, many parents are legitimately trying to work through how to use the Bible with their kids. While we might understand that our goal is to produce life-long followers of Jesus Christ, we’re not so sure about how to use the Bible to get from A to B. To make matters more confusing, many of us (including me) grew up in a “quiet time culture,” where our youth leaders taught us that the proper methodology for reading Scripture is alone and by yourself. If we get our “quiet time” right, we hike to a still place in the woods, read Psalm 42:1 or Psalm 46:10, journal how God spoke to us and wait for the deer and squirrels to dance together like a Cinderella movie. When we have runny-nosed, stinky-diapered kids pulling at our hems for attention, it’s hard to imagine just handing them a KJV Bible, telling them to go to their rooms and spend time quietly with God. Obviously, that’s a recipe for some sort of disaster. So what to do?!? Above all things, we want our kids to fall in love with Christ and the Word like we have … And we don’t want to “mess things up.”

Fortunately in our internet culture, there’s more resources than ever to help you as a parent to disciple your kids. Actually, the amount of resources is almost overwhelming. So where to begin? And what’s effective and is going to “work”?

Before I get into some suggestions, I tell my parents in my church that not every family is the same. God has made children bafflingly different in terms of their personal interests to their methods of learning to their attention spans. In addition, our family schedules are vastly different. My frenetic pastoral schedule doesn’t often lend itself to dinner table conversations, and that’s perfectly OK. One cookie-cutter, straight-out-the-box family discipleship plan isn’t going to work for every family scenario. So try something that might work for your family and see whether it works. If it turns out to be a colossal failure or just doesn’t seem to stick, no biggie … Just dust yourself off and try something else. Just stumble towards something that works for your family digging into the Word.

So without further ado, here’s 10 potential “launching points” for family discipleship:

#1. Make The Time:

As frazzled and stressed-out parents, we make time for black Friday sales, ball practices and games, NFL football, Scentsy parties, checking social media, watching Netflix, playing Flappy Bird, swearing about our kids’ homework and an untold number of time wasters. Why don’t we make the time for family discipleship? If we don’t make the time, we are demonstrating our heart and our treasure does not lie with God (Matthew 6:21). Whether its before the school bus, at the dinner table time or right before bedtime, carve out some sacrosanct time that works for your family to interact with one another, pray for one another and dig into God’s Word. And when you do get together, create a “tech-free zone” where everyone has to ditch their cell phones (parents too!) and interact with real, live people.

#2. Partner With Your Local Church:

Virtually every kids and youth ministry curriculum worth its salt already has a built-in family ministry component. Often, churches can do a bad job of sharing that nugget of information. At the end of the lesson, some curriculums include a “take home sheet,” where kids are given a handout at the end of the class of ideas how to continue the lesson at home. Unfortunately, these “take home sheets” are notorious for being left on the sanctuary seats at the end of Sunday worship for the janitor to pick up on Monday. So a quick PSA: Don’t leave “take home” sheets for the janitor … They’re an easy way to extend the lesson into the home. For many tech-savvy curriculums, apps for your smart phone have been designed to go along with the lesson. As an associate pastor in an SBC church, I know that Lifeway produces apps that go along with their kids and youth material that allow parents to extend Sunday School lessons into the home during the week (i.e. The Gospel Project app & Explore The Bible app). If you don’t know how parents can better connect with what their kids are learning on Sundays or mid-week, take the initiative and ask your church staff or volunteers.

#3. Bible Reading Plans:

I am not a huge fan of Bible reading plans, because I’ve seen many overambitious reading plans do more harm than good. Most people that I know who start their New Years Resolutions of reading through the Bible in a year are discouraged and done by half-way through Leviticus. In addition, Bible reading plans can inadvertently emphasize quantity of pages read over quality time with God. But for some (weird) type A people (you know who you are), Bible reading plans work, because they provide structure.

#4. Devotional Books:

Devotional materials are a tricky thing, because they have the propensity to go far afield of Scripture. Most devotionals recount an author’s personal experience and then insert one random Bible verse tacked on at the end to prooftext. For that reason, most kids and youth devotionals are incorrigible … They tend to kick the difficult parts of Scripture under the rug, and paint the Flood as a really fun sleepover replete with stuffed animals … They tend focus on good moral behavior instead of Gospel. For the most part, I’d steer clear of kids and youth devotionals. It takes some theological discernment to sift the good from the bad. Nonetheless, I confess that Oswald Chambers is my homeboy, and my go-to guy when I’m in a “quiet time” rut. And there are a couple decent devotional books out there:

#5. Bible Storybooks:

Right off the bat, let me say that Bible storybooks are not Bibles, and should never be used as a substitute for the Bible. What’s the difference you ask? Bibles must contain the entirety of the inspired words of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Bible storybooks use words and pictures to tell the story of Bible to a younger audience. So one of my pet peeves is when publishers pass off storybooks as Bibles. That being said, storybooks are often a good resource for younger children to learn the basic storyline of the Bible. And there’s some fabulous, Christ-centered ones out there:

#6. D6 Family:

D6 Family (short for Deuteronomy 6 Family) is a family discipleship “movement” affiliated with Randall House publishing. The goal of D6 Family is simply to offer resources that allow churches and families to fulfill God’s design in Deuteronomy 6 as the “first small group.” D6 Family does offer a couple free resources for family discipleship:

  • Splink: Splink is a free weekly email from D6 Family that provides a family devotional and opportunities for you to engage one another in conversation. Go to the D6 Family website here to get on the Splink email list.
  • D6 App: D6 Family also offers a free D6 Family app that includes a daily devotion, Splink and resources for family conversation.

#7. Homefront Magazine:

Homefront Magazine is a monthly magazine that offers ideas for fun ways to incorporate discipleship into the home. The online version and archive are free. This resource is definitely for families that like creative and crafty things to do. If you’re a fan of the whole Martha Stewart lite vibe, this resource is probably for you.

#8. Heart Connex:

Youth ministry guru Richard Ross offers a series of free devotionals online for parents and students here.

#9. Seeds Family Worship:

I confess that I have a problem with memorizing Bible verses. One of the methods that helps me learn Bible verses in music. Seeds Family Worship has basically cornered the market in producing worship songs based entirely on Scripture for the explicit purpose of Bible memorization. The songs are catchy and high quality. The Seeds website also offers free Scripture memory cards that go along with each worship song.

#10. Serve Together:

Look for some opportunities in your community to serve in the name of Christ alongside your kids. A couple summers ago, my wife and I served alongside our daughter at a church in the Atlanta area. We dare to chaperone kids and youth camps where our daughter attends. A couple days ago, we took our daughter to the local rescue mission in our community to help prep Thanksgiving meals for the disadvantaged. Service opportunities are all around you, so don’t just wait for your church to organize something. Take the initiative for your family, and let your kids see you living out the Christian life.

On Family Discipleship: A Glorious Waste

Go-Green-Lunch-BoxMy daughter’s lunchbox is a never-ending source of waste.

It’s a strange phenomenon: Our ten-year daughter likes to pack her own lunchbox every morning for school. She does a good job. She always packs healthy stuff to eat ranging from apples to fish … But never a peanut butter sandwich, because that’ll get you stuck at the anti-allergy “peanut butter quarantine” table in the lunch room.

Even though she personally chooses her lunch every morning, some form of uneaten food always falls out of her lunchbox when we’re cleaning it out at day’s end: Tubes of yogurt … Half of a sandwich … Even dessert items. And – obviously – that food is not going to get eaten hours later. It’s waste. It’s going to get thrown out. And immediately I chide her about wasting food. After all, that food cost good, hard-earned money, right?!? When confronted on the food waste, she usually tells some tale of not having enough time to eat during lunchtime. In contrast, my elementary school age self would pride himself on eating a piece of square lunchroom sheet pizza in less than a minute. Expediency in lunch can be achieved … But I digress.

Like my daughter, I believe we’re ingrained with messages about wastefulness from an early age:

  • Haste makes waste.
  • Don’t waste your money on that Snuggie.
  • You’re wasting your time trying to please anyone but yourself.
  • Don’t waste your time on that trashy girl … I saw her at a Chili’s with Bob last week.
  • Recycle those cans, papers and milk jugs and live a sustainable life. Watch the carbon footprint.

The funny thing about waste is that the concept is wholly subjective. I have been over to many homes where a mom gets absolutely hysterical about soda cans not being recycled. In my home, I have no twinge of guilt whatsoever about tossing used cans into the “regular” trash. Similarly, many tech-averse parents consider the hours their kids spend on Instagram, Halo 23 and YouTube channels as a complete waste of time. Their tech-savvy kids’ lives revolve around the interaction on these mediums. Wonderful household arguments ensue. Waste is subjective.

Unfortunately, you and I are often averse to things that are good, Godly and healthy for us because our culture and our guilty conscience considers them wasteful. I feel guilty about taking time off and “not doing anything.” I feel terrible about sleeping in. I often feel like basic exercise – like walking – is wasteful. Not working earlier in the morning and later in the evening than everyone else seems selfish. Practicing my guitar chords seems so unproductive. Taking extra time to talk with God and slowly work on a cup of coffee seems so extravagant. And here’s a weird one for a pastor to admit: Sometimes I feel guilty about reading my Bible for personal devotion time. I should be out visiting random sick people at the hospital, bringing pound cakes to widows or furiously working on a sermon, right? That would certainly be a better use of time.

In a recent video, musician Sara Groves talks about this struggle against the concept of waste in terms of her artistry. I can relate to her struggle with feeling “lazy” when taking time to craft music and art:

Here lies the crucial personal fight regarding discipleship in our frenetic, frazzled culture: Convincing ourselves that discipleship is critical to life and not wasteful. We often consider spending time with God as “one more thing to do.” And often that chore gets quickly shuffled down the list of chores when one kid is barfing, another kid is getting ready for soccer practice, the dog needs to go out, the dryer full of clothes is buzzing and dinner needs to get on the table in exactly 2 minutes. Discipleship gets de-prioritized because it seems extravagant. It seems like a wasteful thing. We feel guilty about spending time alone with God.

What a perfectly pitiful attitude.

In John 12:1-11, Mary, the sister of the resurrected Lazarus, pours a pint of the expensive perfume (called nard) on Jesus’ feet. According to Luke, the pint of nard is worth a year’s wages. Judas is stunned that something so expensive is wasted. After all, the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds could have been used to feed a great number of the poor. Or – more likely – the proceeds could have gone into Judas’ pocket. Either way, the nard could have been used for a less wasteful purpose. Jesus chides Judas’ commentary: “Leave her alone … It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:7-8). In other words, the woman’s act of extravagant worship of the Christ is not a waste.

I could (and probably will) write all sorts of “how-to” articles on family discipleship. But until we view the pursuit of Christ as the most essential thing to our life, we are hopelessly doomed. We cannot become little Judases hoarding our personal trash heaps and pig-pies while ignoring the treasure that is Christ. The pursuit of Christ cannot be just another thing to be added to our life. The pursuit of Christ must be centerpiece of our life … Everything else must be brushed aside for the pursuit. We must recover the importance of dying to self and surrendering to Christ. Possibly the greatest gift that we can give to our kids is visibly and verbally demonstrating that devotion to Christ is more important than fundraisers, ball games, music rehearsals and after school programs.

Ultimately, our attitude must match Psalm 42:1-4:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

The imagery of Psalm 42 is of a man endlessly weeping because He cannot worship God. Think about that: When is the last time you physically wept because you skipped reading your Bible or slept in on Sunday?!? Honestly, I think we treat Jesus as an add-on that we could easily do without. Instead, we must pant after Christ because we won’t live without Him in our lives. He is more essential than water … Without Christ, we die. If we convey that following Jesus is just an extravagance, we’re missing the most important lesson that we can give our children. Discipleship starts here: Christ is everything.

If the world considers following Jesus to be a waste, then I want to waste my life on Jesus.

Let my life be a glorious waste on you, Jesus.

Why Family Discipleship Seems So Weird

jellosalad“Dad … What’s that man in pink doing?”

My daughter asked me this unusual question as we were stopped at a train crossing in downtown Evansville, Indiana while returning a U-Haul van. I noted a hint of concern in her voice. The graffiti covered train blocking the crossing was ploddingly moving at a snail’s pace, so I’d put the vehicle in park with my head inattentively down in my phone. I looked up to witness the bizarre spectacle she was viewing.

Standing precariously close to the train crossing bar and the oncoming train, a clearly agitated young man dressed head to toe in pink was jumping up and down in delight. Every few seconds, he’d pull a pair of black panty hose over his face. Then, he’d take an “aim and flame” lighter, pull the trigger and try to press it against the metal hull of the passing train. He was feebly (and implausibly) trying to light the train on fire. Every once in a while, he’d pull the stocking off his face, howl in delight and attempt to generate applause from the other car drivers nervously waiting at the intersection. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait much longer until the train passed and the mysterious man in pink walked off into the sunset.

I thought to myself: “That was weird.”


Like Jello salad. Or deep fried butter. Or Cincinnati chili. Or Oakland Raiders fans.

In our church circles, there’s one other thing that people routinely consider weird: Reading the Bible with their spouse, kids or family.

Now that’s considered weirder than a platypus.

Since taking a new ministerial position as a Family Minister, the number one question that I get from families is some iteration of this inquiry: “What are some resources that I can use to disciple my kids?”

I understand the heart of the question: Those who know Christ’s love and forgiveness deeply desire for their kids to know Christ’s love and forgiveness. Just as the woman at the well ran home to tell everyone about Christ, we too want to run home to wrap our families in the arms of Jesus (John 4:28-29). From that perspective, the heart of the question is good.

On the other hand, there’s something deeply troubling about that question: Many families have lost touch with how to use the Bible to disciple their kids. In terms of resources for discipleship, the starting point should be the Bible if we’re doing it right. We believe that the Bible is God-breathed and has been gifted to us for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). But when it comes to actually using Scripture in our homes, many parents feel like small children awkwardly using chopsticks in a fancy sushi restaurant.

Why does using the Bible in our homes seem to weird to us? Here’s a couple reasons:

  1. Most parents don’t read their Bibles. As George Guthrie passionately lays out in Read The Bible For Life, a recent study by Lifeway Research found that 84% of all Protestant churchgoers do not read the Bible daily. Another 68% don’t even read the Bible weekly. Even worse, only 37% of these same churchgoers state that the Bible has made a significant difference in how they live their lives. Here’s the big question: If Christians are “people of the Book” who expect God to speak and transform through his inspired Word, then why are we so out of touch with the Bible? It’s a question that is bigger than this blog (I’d suggest reading Guthrie’s book), but let’s discuss the net result: Our kids won’t engage with the Bible if we don’t. When we bark orders for our kids to read their Bibles, to attend youth group events or to simply have less eye-rolling annoyance about waking up for church on Sunday, many of our kids look squarely back at us to rightfully call us hypocrites. We don’t walk the walk. And our kids aren’t dummies. If we aren’t actively seeking to imitate Christ and to know God’s Word, our kids probably won’t either.
  2. Most families leave discipleship to the “professionals.” Over the past 50 years, the discipleship strategy of most families has the “curbside drop off” model: Hand off your kids to the professional church staff for discipleship. Many parents feel that Seminary-trained, ministry-called, professional children’s or student ministers are more qualified to introduce their kids to Christ. After all, the “professionals” don’t have all of the rough edges, hang ups and skeletons hiding in closets, right? To other parents, the professionalization of our churches is driven by the same consumer-minded convenience of taking our clothes to the dry cleaners: Drop ‘em off dirty … Pick ‘em up clean! It’s an easy out. Other times, the “curbside drop off” model of ministry is driven by the colossal fear of not wanting to mess up our kids. Here’s the problem: The issue of parenting is mentioned very little in the Bible, but it’s always discussed in the context of discipleship. The Biblical responsibility for discipling kids largely rests on the parents and not trained professionals (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). In the end, a student minister probably can’t fix in one hour per week what is broken for the majority of the week.
  3. Most families are over-extended. From the first morning light when we yell at our kids to get out of bed to the evening time when Jimmy Fallon signs off, we’re completely on the go, go, go. We’re over scheduled and stressed out. We’re rushing back and forth to school … PTA … Soccer practice … Baseball practice … Grocery store … Forgotten lunches … Doctor appointments … Homework … Folding laundry … Fixing pre-packaged dinners. And our obsession with smart phones just makes life busier – not simpler. When we finally sit down, we’re so exhausted that we need toothpicks and Starbucks lattes to hold our eyelids open. Many parents fall into the trap of believing that our kids need to be scheduled to the max for our kids to be successful or “normal” like the other families. Cramming activities in feels like good parenting. So we end up stuck in a stank gym in Timbuktu eating stale concession popcorn and half-heartedly cheering on a mixed martial arts competition for 3 year old girls in the name of our child’s social advancement … All the while wishing we were simply resting at home with a warm blanket and a bowl of hot soup. In the middle of our booked up calendars, who gets bumped to make way for the next peewee flag football game? God does. There’s a Biblical word for this phenomenon: Idolatry. When an activity consumes our devotion to God, it’s time to start calling a spade a spade.

Weirdness largely has to do with familiarity. In my new hometown of Evansville, Indiana, one of the most inexplicably beloved dishes is the pig brain sandwich. (No lie … A dude almost picked a fight with me at the Evansville Fall Festival for accidentally jumping in line at the brain sandwich concession booth.) Now most folks that I know would find the concept of a pig brain sandwich weird, since you won’t find brain in the meat section of your local Kroger or on the $5 footlong menu at Subway. However, many older farmers, who are used to digesting all parts of the animal, find that delicacy a completely normal. I recently met a nurse practitioner, who grew up on a farm and ate pig brain and eggs every morning for breakfast. Pig brain is only weird if you’re not accustomed to eating it.

So too, reading our Bibles with our families is only weird if you’re not accustomed to doing it. Once the Bible becomes a regular part of our daily family lives, these times become an old family friend that is dearly missed when its not around.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about some simple strategies that families can use to make the Bible a daily part of their family routines.

On Fools and Social Media: Click On This Blog and You Might Win $1 Million

dont-believe-everything-you-see-on-the-internetIn the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on homosexuality, my social media sites have been plastered by a litany of blogs expounding on this timely topic. Some pro … some con … All opinionated. Last week, one headline in particular circulating on Facebook caught my eye: “Gay Man Files $70M Suit Against Bible Publishers Over ‘Homosexual’ Verses.” I was intrigued. I fell for the clickbait. The story was about an ex-con, Bradley Fowler of Canton, MI, who filed suit against Zondervan and Thomas Nelson Publishing for publishing Bibles containing verses and commentaries condemning homosexuality. The lawsuit claimed that Mr. Fowler suffered from emotional distress resulting from the position of these Bibles on homosexuality. To boot, Mr. Fowler was also going to represent himself in court.

After reading the story, I immediately thought: “Is this story for real?!?” A basic search of the Internet revealed the story’s veracity. It’s a true story.

But here’s the rub: Mr. Fowler filed lawsuit back in 2008 … Seven years before this year’s Supreme Court decision. A dubious news website called Truth Uncensored re-published the original article about Mr. Fowler’s lawsuit this week, but quickly printed a retraction that the story was originally from 2008. However, the meager retraction didn’t stop other websites from running with the story as well. Why allow the truth to stop a good story, right?!? (Check out snopes.com for more info on this story.)

So why is this story resurfacing now? The story is spreading like wildfire because it preys upon Christians’ fears regarding systematic government persecution following the Supreme Court ruling. As a result, many believers are virally spreading the article to play gotcha: “Aha! This is what happens to Christians now that gay marriage is legal in the Unites States! The black helicopters are coming for you!” It’s fear mongering disguised as news. I mean … On the Tea Party News Network, the article is actually accompanied by a picture of random, half naked (presumably) gay men holding hands! It’s encouraging believers to crouch in fear of a culture quickly shifting away from “Christian values.”

It’s also blatant gullibility.

Or as the Bible calls it: “Foolishness.”

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about foolishness. Proverbs is not a Dear Abby column of helpful advice to take or leave like a Gump-esque boxful of chocolates. In The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner likens Proverbs to a colossal pebble beach, where the individual grains of wisdom collectively form the signposts from God towards blessing and life. In Proverbs, wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a noble woman standing at the crossroads, calling all travelers in this life to the haven of wisdom (Proverbs 8). And all believers – who receive wisdom by the Spirit – should heed proverbial wisdom and forsake worldly foolishness (1 Corinthians 2:8-16).

The Hebrew term for “fool” (כְּסִיל) used in Proverbs plainly means stupid or ignorant. One of the primary themes of Proverbs is that Godly people are urged to pursue Godly wisdom and to forsake worldly foolishness. Many of these Proverbs about fools and foolishness read as if directly written to the social media generation:

  • The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” – Proverbs 14:15
  • A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” – Proverbs 18:2
  • Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” – Proverbs 28:26
  • Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” – Proverbs 13:20

According to Proverbs, foolishness is not Godliness. Believing everything you read is not a sign of spiritual maturity. Spreading gossip about untruth is contemptible. Being a blowhard that recklessly spouts hurtful opinions without seeking to understand others is not laudable behavior. Being quick to speak, slow to listen and quick to anger is flat-out sinful (James 1:19). Trolling, insulting, bullying and gossiping reflects worldliness – not Godliness. Our nimble fingers can spark a conflagration just as well as our tongues (James 3:5). And – worst of all – our lack of wisdom simply demonstrates that we don’t fear the God that created wisdom itself (Proverbs 1:17, 9:10; Psalm 111:10).

I’m not saying that we should become social media Luddites, who act like we live in the pre-technology 1700s. But I am saying that our spiritual maturity should help us recognize that social media is a factory that encourages and rewards our foolishness:

i-saw-it-g7yhz3I once chided a former church member for re-posting a Facebook meme that roving gangs are staging crime scenes with bloody carseats with fake injured babies on the side of the highway in order to lure unsuspecting concerned motorists into traps. The notice supposedly was issued by the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC). Common sense would tell us that TDOC has nothing to do with either gangs or highway patrols. The TDOC patently denied issuing any sort of notice about bloody carseats death traps. I shared information on the hoax on snopes.com. Not only did I NOT dissuade this former church member from spreading this false rumor, more and more people chimed in to defend the post as the honest-to-God truth!

Even worse, many professing believers affirm theologically ignorant statements on social media:

  • Jesus says, ‘If you really love me, share this picture”: Does it affirm in Scripture that we will be known as Christ followers by our social media shares? Certainly, social media shares are the highest level of works for Christ, right?
  • Click ‘like’ for Heaven … Ignore for Hell”: So your eternal destination is based on your personal preferences on social media?!?
  • Share this picture and special blessing from God will come your way”: Yup … Keep waiting on that one.
  • Repost this message if you love God”: So you’re insinuating that I don’t love God if I don’t repost this message? Hmmmmm.

hoaxes3When we affirm such statements, we are affirming a different Gospel than Scripture: A God who craves our attention instead of His glory … A faith watered down into personal preference … A salvation based on “shares” an “likes” alone instead of faith alone … A Christ that panders for our peanuts like a circus monkey.

Social media shouldn’t make believers lose their sound judgment and – more importantly – their sound doctrine. Paul warns his protege Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Not only have we wandered off into the forest of myth, we’ve been kidnapped by Bigfoot to boot. Gullibility is one thing … Using social media to promote false doctrine is wholly another thing: Unconscionable.

One of my favorite Bible verses is 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” I think we fall into the trap of thinking that our behavior on social media doesn’t matter. It’s a hobby disconnected from real life. It’s a lark. It’s an alternate reality. Or it doesn’t matter. But social media still falls into the “whatever you do” of 1 Corinthians 10:31. And if social media can be used to glorify Christ, what we do on social media really matters.

So let’s stop our foolishness.

Let’s stop spreading false doctrine.

And let’s glorify God in whatever medium He has given.

Whatever you do … Do it to the glory of God.

And if you read the title of this blog and expected to win $1 million, you really are foolish.

The Most Common Fear In The Bible

I love horror movies. My wife … not so much.

When my wife was elementary school age, her brother was assigned to take her to the movie theater to see cute little orphan Annie singing about the sun coming out tomorrow. Instead, her brother took her to see Poltergeist … Because taking your little sister to see a movie about demonic attacks on children is a fantastic idea. To this day, my wife is deathly afraid of horror movies. She also goes full out Jean-Claude Van Damme on any spider that dares infiltrate the house, but that’s another phobia altogether.

When I was a kid, my fear was the monster that I was convinced was hiding in the closet. Every night when I went to my bedroom, I’d burrow down under the covers and hide … Because certainly a thin layer of sheets would shield me from a slobbering, buck-ugly, child-kidnapping beast. Today, I no longer crouch in fear of imaginary creatures … Instead, I’m pant-wettingly afraid of climbing extension ladders.

Before you start chortling too hard at my fear of ladders, may I point out that you’ve certainly got your own fears too? Just watching the evening news is enough to induce any number of phobias, ranging from train derailments to suicidal airline pilots to ebola. In 2014, Chapman University conducted a large-scale study on personal fears, determining that the top five personal fears that Americans have are: (1) Walking alone at night; (2) Identity theft; (3) Internet security; (4) Mass shootings; and (5) Public speaking. The same survey determined that 8.9% of Americans are scared of zombies … 7.6% are scared of clowns … 7.3% are scared of ghosts. And many of our fears today are driven by – you guessed – television shows. Thanks The Walking Dead.

But there’s one fear that every single person throughout history has shared in common: The fear of people.

When we speak of the term “fear,” we typically think about nightmarish creatures and blinding anxieties that make us shudder and break out in a cold sweat … Like something out of Poltergeist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre … Like zombies, clowns, ghosts and cannibals (oh my!). The fear of people is far more subtle and insidious. Simply put, the fear of people really means worshiping people instead of God. If we allow people to control us … If we functionally “need” other people … If we constantly compare ourselves to others … If we crave the respect of other people, we are actually worshiping them. In professional circles, this fear is rationalized as “self esteem” or “co-dependency.” In High School, our guidance counselors label this fear as “peer pressure,” and we unwittingly believe that we grow out of that pressure when someone hands us a diploma. Instead, that fear in adulthood simply takes other guileful faces that are often socially acceptable: Demanding respect … Professional jealousy … Habitual anger … White lies to protect our image … Hiding in our homes while cuddling up with a Snuggie, Papa Johns and Netflix while hoping the whole world fades away. The narcissism of social media only exacerbates our fear of people as we’re constantly checking our smart phones for the number of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “re-tweets” on our accounts. The fear of people is the monster with a million heads. Before you know it, you’re throwing a metal folding chair after hearing the results of a paternity test on the Maury show.

The most common fear observed in the Bible is the fear of people. Although God exhorts His people to fear the One who spoke the world into existence and parted the Red Sea, His people always seem to cower like a cornered rabbit before mere lowly people. In fact, the most of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets gave in to the fear of people in one form or another:

  • After the cold-blooded murder of his brother, Cain was more afraid of the judgment of people than God (Genesis 4).
  • When Abraham sojourned in another country, he passed off his wife as his sister for fear that people would kill him to take his wife (Genesis 12:10-20). Abraham did this twice and somehow remained un-divorced afterwards (Genesis 20).
  • Lot was afraid of his nightmarish sodomy-obsessed neighbors and offered up his own daughters to be raped, molested and deflowered (Genesis 19).
  • Isaac repeated the fearful mistake of his father, Abraham, by passing off his wife as his sister (Genesis 26).
  • Jacob twice tricked his brother Esau and fled in fear of Esau’s death threats (Genesis 27). Then Jacob flees his uncle Laban’s household for fear of Laban taking Jacob’s wives back (Genesis 31:31). When Jacob returned to his homeland years later, he was still in deathly fear of his brother (Genesis 32:11).

And that’s just the book of Genesis, folks. Most of the patriarchs and prophets – particularly Moses and Elijah – had moments where the fear of people brought them crumbling to their knees. The conflict of whether to fear God or men might be the most common conflict of the Bible.

Just like the patriarchs and prophets, the church and its leadership is no stranger to falsely (and often unwittingly)fearing people instead of God. In terms of pastoral ministry (or any church member’s personal ministry), the fear of people can be a crippling issue that takes a variety of forms in the church:

  • When no one is willing to dethrone the reigning dictatorial church bully …
  • When exceptionally talented or extremely generous church members remain un-confronted over spectacular sins (“What would we do without them?”) …
  • When churches won’t kill sacred cows of church programs …
  • When “not making waves” is loved more than Biblical convictions …
  • When “it’s always been done that way” is the church’s central core value …

As a pastor, I’m guilty of committing all of these sins in one form or another … And likely much more. One common pastoral joke hits the “fear of people” nail on the head: “My church would be a great place to work if it weren’t for all the people.”

In my Seminary’s Pastoral Ministry class, I was assigned to read Ed Welch’s book on the “fear of people” entitled When People Are Big And God is Small. Frankly, I skimmed through the book, thinking “I’m not afraid of people … This book is going to be fairly worthless to me.” After all, I’d come out of working in the local government, which essentially consisted of listening to folks complain 24 / 7. Nope … no fear of people here.

I wished I’d paid more attention.

Case in point: During the course of my ministry, I’ve come to hate Mothers’ Day. Not that I hate mamas … I hate all of the complaining. Around Mothers’ Day every year, the blogosphere and church pews turn into a virtual complaint-fest about who is being insensitive to whom. The childless and the single complain that Mothers’ Day is disrespectful to them, and churches should be more compassionate. Those whose mothers are deceased wax sentimental about the difficult feelings of the day. The “restless and Reformed” crowd complain that Mothers’ Day isn’t Christ-centered and shouldn’t be celebrated at all. So how does a pastor respond to all of these competing voices? Last year, I tried to be sensitive to the childless and the single in my church, and didn’t make much ado about Mothers’ Day … Which led to a truckload of extremely nasty complaints from most of the moms and grandmoms. Even more painful, several families actually left the church as a result. So I dreaded what to do for Mothers Day this year. Certainly my decision was going to torque off somebody.

After prayer and deliberation, I came to the following simple and satisfying conclusion about Mothers Day: Who cares what people think?!? Be more concerned about honoring God than people. As long as I honor God and stay faithful to His calling, the complaints don’t matter. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to say that churches should be intentionally insensitive to the plight of the motherless and the childless … I’m saying that honoring God is more important than what people think … Or how much people complain … Or whether someone gossips about the pastor … Or even whether someone else quits the church as a result. If I’m basing my decision-making on how much people complain, I’m shepherding Christ’s church totally wrong.

Unfortunately, the pastor’s problem with the “fear of people” doesn’t just end with the conviction of church leadership: Our churches have been Petri dishes breeding the “fear of people.” In pastoral circles, we know this phenomenon by another name: Consumerism. Many of our church cultures have grown into grotesque Frankensteins, where members are trained that they are the ones calling the shots. He who complains loudest typically gets their way. And if church members don’t “get their way,” they’ll hold the church hostage by withholding their offerings or their attendance. Or they’ll just jump ship to other church where leadership will cow-tow to their megalomania. Whether by passive aggressiveness or by just plain old aggressiveness, many churches are drowning slowly under the weight of the fear of people.

I recently found some encouragement on the subject of the fear of people while doing sermon prep in the book of Jeremiah. When God called the prophet Jeremiah to prophecy to the nation of Judah, Jeremiah’s initial response was: “Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). Jeremiah politely declined God’s request: “Deuces! I’m out!” But God’s response to Jeremiah is fascinating. You see, Jeremiah isn’t really concerned with his public speaking prowess or his age … He’s afraid of how people will react. So God sees Jeremiah’s heart and responds directly to his fear: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:8). After this moment, Jeremiah would go on to speak on God’s behalf to the nation of Judah for 40 years. The messages that God laid on Jeremiah to preach were bold, counter-cultural, condemning and devastating. No one listened or repented. Jeremiah was rejected by friends, neighbors and family (Jeremiah 12:6, 20:10, 26:8). False teachers laughed off his message (Jeremiah 28:1-17). He was held captive in prisons and cisterns (Jeremiah 37-38). Often, Jeremiah was incredibly depressed with only God to lean on. Every time Jeremiah doubted, God responded with the same comforting words from His initial calling: “I am with you to save you and deliver you” (Jeremiah 15:20).

Through Jeremiah’s life and ministry, God’s encouragement to pastoral ministry is thus: If God called us, He won’t abandon us. And nothing can separate us from the deliverance and hope that we find in Christ. No matter how hard the soil or how thorny the ground, God has called us to work His field for a purpose. We might face a situation similar to Jeremiah or (a more modern example) William Carey, where we have scant few real tangible evidences of “progress.” But as long as we are faithful to His calling, we can trust that He won’t abandon us where He sent us.

Ultimately, we must learn to fear God more than people. When Jesus sends out His disciples in Matthew 10:28, He speaks to them about the fear of people: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” As we are similarly sent out to serve in Christ’s kingdom, we might face the occasional mean and persnickety church member who seems to have perpetually woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Or the deacon who seems to think you’re total nincompoop, who can’t do anything right. Or the incessant complainers that make us want to cover our ears and sing “la-la-la-la-la-la.” Or the self-righteous critics who manipulatively dance like Salome to have our figurative heads on a platter. At the end of the day (literally), we don’t answer to any of them. We find ourselves accountable to the One who called us out of darkness and into His glorious light. No matter what people think, our Father in Heaven loves us and hold incomparably more power and majesty than any mustache twirling enemy.

So find hope friends: If our God is for us, who can be against us?

Yes, even deacons.


* This post leans heavily on Ed Welch’s awesome book When People Are Big And God Is Small. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

613: Do Christians Need To Follow The Old Testament Law?

chainsDo you eat bacon?

I love bacon. I have the collection of bacon t-shirts to prove it. After my heart attack, I wore a bacon t-shirt to my cardiologist appointment as an open protest.

So as a Bible-believing Evangelical, why do I bother to eat bacon when Leviticus 11:4, 7 commands: “Nevertheless these you shall not eat . . . the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you.” It would appear that the Bible says no to sweet swine meat. So I am consigned to an eternity in fiery condemnation for willfully violating the Old Testament commands? I mean – I’m not going to stop eating bacon regardless of my cardiologist’s absurd musings.

Everyday, Christians seem to ignore a bushel of blatant Old Testament commands:

When is the last time that you stoned an adulterer? Consider Leviticus 20:10.

Why are you wearing clothes with mixed fibers? See Deuteronomy 22:11.

Have you sat where a menstruating woman has previously sat? If you’re adhering to Leviticus 15:20, you probably shouldn’t.

For many casual Christians, this topic is often a hugely confusing stumbling block to meaningfully interacting with the Bible. For many atheists and agnostics, Christians’ ignorance of the Law represents a log-filled eye of hypocrisy. If Christians are nutty enough to take the Bible literally as THE Word of God, then it seems to be highly hypocritical for Christians to virtually ignore the seemingly archaic Levitical laws. Aren’t Christians just picking and choosing what seems good and practical to obey and sweeping the embarrassing stuff under the carpet?

Back in 2007, Esquire Magazine writer A.J. Jacobs embarked on a year-long journey to be obedient to every single command in the Bible. As a self-described agnostic Jew, Jacobs approached the challenge with fairly unbiased eyes. In the best-seller that he wrote based on this experience (The Year of Living Biblically), Jacobs concludes the following about the Bible’s commands: “The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion… But the important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se… the key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones.” Jacobs comes to the same conclusion that many uninitiated to Christianity believe: Christians pick and choose.

But the widely held notion that Christians pick and choose betrays an ignorance of the New Testament. Christ and the apostles have given us a framework for the interpretation of the Old Testament, and Christians cling to that framework. The New Testament is largely a commentary on how to interpret the Old Testament.

When we speak of the capital “L” “Law” as the New Testament speaks, we are referring to the revelation God gave to and the covenant God made through the prophet Moses (Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:44). As part of that covenant, the prescriptions and prohibitions that God gave to the Moses and the Exodus generation of Israelites are recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Deuteronomy represents a second giving (or reinforcement) of these covenant requirements as given to a new generation of Israelites. Although the New Testament refers to “Law” in the singular, the “Law” is technically comprised of 613 unique commands that God gave to the Israelites to follow. The commands of the Law represent the terms and conditions of the special covenant (think: contractual) relationship between God and His chosen people, the Israelites. These commands range from the famous (10 Commandments) to the infamous (the aforementioned Leviticus 20:13).

Fast forwarding thousands of years to New Testament times, the Law was so revered that an exhaustive system of oral laws had been developed by fanatical rabbis and zealous Pharisees to protect and “build a hedge around” the Law. In essence, more man-made commands and principles were created to bubble wrap the ones that God had already given. The protecting God’s commands had become an OCD-like obsession. According to Jesus, the Pharisees apparently went to incredulous extremes, such as tithing (or giving 10%) of their spice racks and straining gnats out of their drinks (Matthew 23).

Now, 613 is a huge number of commands. Add thousands more oral laws to protect the original 613 commands. I can hardly remember to take my blood pressure meds in the morning, so I’m pretty sure that I’d be a colossal failure at remembering (much less breaking) all 613 commands. Except for the one about not boiling a goat in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21). Pretty sure I don’t have the butchering expertise (or the milk from a goat’s baby momma) to carry that one out.

After the resurrection of Christ, the debate over the Law was THE most controversial argument that dominated the life of the apostolic church. Through the persecution of the church, Christianity quickly began to spread from majority Jewish Jerusalem to non-Jewish (a/k/a Gentile) regions, such as the Samaria (Acts 8:27), Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19). Then, missionaries were sent forth from the Antioch church to intentionally spread the Gospel message of Jesus northward to Galatia (modern day Turkey). As Christianity spread like wildfire, a faction of Christians – called the “circumcision party” (think: political party and not fiesta) – also grew, arguing that all Christians – including Gentiles – must be circumcised and follow the Law to be saved (Acts 15:1). After all, God’s covenant people had been getting circumcised, following dietary laws, practicing religious festivals and all of the 613 commands of the Law for thousands of years. It’s always been done that way.

In light of brewing controversy in the church body, the leadership of the church came together to settle the controversy at what is called the “Apostolic Council,” recorded in Acts 15. Among the opponents of the circumcision party were some unlikely advocates. A converted Pharisee turned missionary named Paul recounted to the Council about the miraculous work that God had been doing amongst the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). In addition, the Jewish apostle Peter made critical arguments opposing the circumcision party:

Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. – Acts 15:7-11

At the core of Peter’s argument lies the sovereignty of God. By the time of the Apostolic Council, God has already done a miraculous work amongst the Gentiles, and has given the Holy Spirit as evidence of that work. And none of these Gentiles are faithfully adhering to the Law. So do the gathered apostles challenge or tweak what God is already doing by telling him: “Hey God! You’re saving people all the wrong way! They’ve got to follow the Law first, right?!?” If God is saving Gentiles apart from following the Law, certainly man has no place in telling God that He’s wrong. God is God after all. In addition, Peter questions the need to burden Gentile Christians with 613 commands that Jews have never been able to follow. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are “Exhibit A” that Israel could not obey the Law as God’s covenant people.

In essence, Peter argues two of the central themes of the New Testament: (a) No one has ever perfectly complied with the Law; and (b) All believers – both Jew and Gentile – are saved by God’s grace and not by the impossible task of obedience to the Law. The Law was given to Israel and Believers are now under Christ’s “new covenant” of grace and love. The corpus of the New Testament reiterates these points over and over:

  • For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. – Romans 3:20
  • For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. – Romans 6:14
  • Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. – Romans 7:4
  • There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:1-2
  • For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4
  • Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. – Galatians 2:16
  • For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. – Galatians 2:19
  • But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. – Galatians 5:18
  • For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, – Ephesians 2:8

So does that mean that Christians just should ignore the 1st five books of the Bible? In Read The Bible For Life, Old Testament scholar J. Daniel Hayes answers that question this way:

As the New Testament makes clear, we should acknowledge that we are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant. Therefore, although the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy are still Scripture (God’s powerful, inerrant and infallible Word to us, to which we are to respond in obedience), they are no longer law for us. If someone breaks one of the laws today, they are no longer punished by the community as they were in ancient Israel. Thus we should read and apply the Old Testament legal material not as direct law but in a similar manner to how we would read the Old Testament narratives (stories) that contain the law. We need to understand the principles in the passages we are reading. What do they teach us about God? What do they teach us about human nature? What guidelines do we find here that can help us live for the Lord in the world today?***

Too many of the finger-waggling and mocking militant atheist crowd try to brand Christians as hypocrites by – quite correctly – pointing out that Christians don’t follow the Old Testament Law. Thank you, Captain Obvious … Of course we don’t. Following the Law is a fruitless exercise. No one has ever perfectly complied with the Law. No has ever earned favor with God by following the Law. Christ has set believers free from the burden of attempting to please God through the Law. That’s the central theme of the New Testament.

Perhaps here’s a better question for those same hate-fueled atheists: Do you think that you could be fully obedient all 613 commands of the Law?

Or better yet: If the 613 commands are God’s measuring stick of what it means to be “good,” how could anyone possibly please God by their actions?

That’s why we need God’s grace and forgiveness. In spite of our abject inability to please God or follow His commands, He still loves us with a furious and boundless love (Romans 5:8). He forgives our failures, our fake-outs, our rebellions and our sins. He adopts weak, broken and repentant people as his beloved children with a glorious eternal inheritance. Because of God’s forgiveness expressed on the cross of Christ, a great exchange takes place between what we deserve for our rebellion and the gracious treasure of forgiveness that we receive from God. The grace of God through the work of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit enables and empowers us to love and become obedient to God.

For the believer, God’s 613 commands should remind us of the thousands of reasons and ways that God has forgiven us. The capital “L” Law should remind the believer that we are now under a new law of Christ’s love. The number 613 should drive us to our knees in thankfulness that God is merciful, gracious and forgiving. The number 613 is the ghostly reminder of a prison cell that we no longer call home. The number 613 point us to the one Savior sent to us free.

Praise God because the number 613 no longer has any power over me.

*** George Guthrie’s Read The Bible For Life is a fantastic introductory book to the interpretation of the Bible, and I highly recommend it for any level of experience with Christianity.

Loving The Old Testament Without Dying of Embarrassment

hebrewscrollEvery church has them: “Spare” Bibles. You know the Bibles your church keeps around for the absent minded, the lackadaisical and the stray atheist. Most of these “spares” are just copies that church members left at church and forgot to pick up again.

I vividly remember the “spare” Bibles from my youth Sunday School room. These “spares” were “reader versions” of the Bible, meaning that they only contained the New Testament and (occasionally) Psalms. Maybe Proverbs if you’re lucky. I used those “spare” Bibles a lot. So when the youth leader told you to take out your Bible and turn to the book of Exodus, you’d have to awkwardly read over the shoulder of your unsuspecting buddy in the folding chair next to you instead.

Now I fully understand the purpose of publishers printing copies of the Bible containing New Testament and Psalms / Proverbs only. Many outreach organizations (which I dearly love), such as Gideons International and the Navigators, hand out introductory (and free) “reader” copies of the Bible designed to point non-believers to the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. If you’ve got five minutes to make someone an evangelistic presentation, you want to point them to the solution to their problems without having to exposit Lamentations.

However, most Christians often treat the Old Testament like these “spare” copies of the Bible: We believe that the Old Testament is non-essential to the Gospel story. Or it’s filler that keeps you from the “good parts” of the Bible … It’s incomprehensible with its bloody sacrifices and levitical ceremonies … It’s boring with all of the strange names and tribes … It’s unnecessary so we take our mental scissors like Uncle Joey and cut … it … out.*

Moreover, my concern is also that most Christians simply don’t know what to do with 37 out of 39 books of the Old Testament. We treat the Old Testament like that odd uncle with a record that no one wants to talk about. Or like an unwashed child that must be immediately thrown into the bath to get cleaned up and presentable. We’re embarrassed by the levitical laws about mold and menstruation. We’re horrified of and perplexed by the violence perpetrated by God and His people, such as random judges killing Philistines with ox goads. We’re uncomfortable with the tawdry and morally ambiguous stories about the sex lives of the patriarchs. And we’re bored to tears by Chronicles, because … well … nobody likes Chronicles except my Seminary Hebrew professor. When atheists ask Christians fairly straightforward questions about Levitical food laws or the genocide found in the book of Joshua, we’re completely stumped to the point of stammering. We love our babies’ nurseries decked out in cute Noah ark themes but have no comprehension of the sheer carnage of the Flood narrative. Honestly, we’d rather just change the subject to the love of God instead of confront the messiness of the Old Testament.

Shame on us.

As a result, Christians often read the Old Testament in a variety of crazy (and incorrect) ways. Case in point: One of the retired pastors of my current church told me the mind boggling tale of how a former congregation member vehemently argued during an Old Testament Bible study that Jesus was – in fact – not Jewish. And – by osmosis – didn’t obey the Jewish festivals and food laws. I kid you not. Oy vey.

However, there are other quite popular methodologies that Christians commonly use to poorly interpret (or even attempt to make sense) of the Old Testament:

  1. Legalism: Legalism dumbs down the Bible into a laundry list of rules and regulations that mankind must comply with to keep oneself right with God. In this vein, every Old Testament command is taken extremely seriously, because one cannot be righteous in God’s sight without obeying every command. Like modern day Pharisees, the Old Testament commands are subsequently transformed in monstrous behemoths of legal hurdles for believers to navigate. Passages like Deuteronomy 22:5 are transformed into rules about women wearing dresses in worship. Essentially, the Bible is “life’s instruction manual,” and God will be pleased if you can just follow the rules. Of course, the Gospel informs us that people simply can’t “follow the rules,” so legalism winds up being complete non-sense (see Galatians in its entirety).
  2. Moralism: As a close second cousin to legalism, moralism communicates that the grand message of the Bible is one of self-improvement and good moral behavior. Moralism is rampant in Christian children literature, where the Old Testament narratives are routinely mashed up and remixed into Grimms’ fairy tales: Ruth is about family sticking together … Ester is about a proto-Disney princess … David vs. Goliath is about overcoming “giants” in your life. The grand Biblical narrative of God’s saving activity through Christ is ignored altogether. Of course, moralism faces the same fatal flaw of legalism: No one is moral or righteous apart from Christ (see Romans 3).
  3. Prooftexting: An agenda-driven interpretation where a snippet of obscure text is hijacked to make what you want it to say. Any shred of context must be ignored at all costs. Think Jeremiah 29:11 printed on all those coffee mugs and doormats at Family Christian bookstore.
  4. Bad Devotional Reading: Because randomly flipping to any given page of the Old Testament is a surefire recipe for confusion.
  5. Oddball Prophecy: Similar to Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, many Christians string together out-of-context Old Testament passages to justify their paranoia that (insert name of current president) is the anti-Christ and we should all build Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt bunkers. From Joseph Smith to Ellen G. White to Harold Camping, the history of Christianity is littered with charismatic leaders predicting the exact date of the end times based on obscure Old Testament passages, which – ironically – Jesus said is a pretty terrible idea.
  6. Patriotically: Many Christians cannot remove their cultural blinders, and apply the promises of the Abrahamic covenant to America. Tell me you haven’t seen 2 Chronicles 7:14 slapped on a bumper sticker surrounded by an American flag and a bald eagle in flight. Many believe that if only America could be more like ancient Israel, God would bring his covenant blessings upon America. Never mind that God never made a covenant with America. Or that God sent ancient Israel into exile. Certainly American exceptionalism can prevail where the Israelites failed, right?!?
  7. Complete Ignorance: When you don’t understand it … Just ignore it. Unfortunately, this ignorance can come from a very honest place. I have met many new Christians burning with desire to understand the Bible, so they start at Genesis 1 … Get confused by Leviticus … And give up by Deuteronomy. Like the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8, the church needs more mature believers to come alongside those yearning to learn.

Christians would do well to remember that Jesus revered the Old Testament. And – accordingly – so did Peter, Paul and the rest of the early Christian church. To reiterate the title of Philip Yancey’s popular book, the Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus (and the apostles) read. Christ never minimizes or apologizes for the Old Testament like that odd uncle that you have to invite over for Christmas. Christ never shies away from authoritatively quoting the Old Testament to disciples, Pharisees, rulers and even the Devil. Jesus publicly preaches that He came to fulfill every aspect of the Law – down to the smallest character – and not to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). And when Paul states that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he’s referring to the Old Testament and not making a self-referential comment (2 Timothy 3:16). Similarly, both Jesus and Paul defended the message and the integrity of the Old Testament against Pharisees, Judaizers and anyone else who would defame its methods or message.

Moreover, there IS a proper methodology for Christians to read and interpret the Old Testament: Christ. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, Jesus is principally unveiled as the same Word of God that spoke creation and command into existence … now taken human flesh and tabernacling amongst mankind (John 1:1-14). In the beginning of Luke, Jesus reads a scroll containing Isaiah 61:1-2 and then tells a shellshocked crowd: “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:17-21). In the midst of John’s Gospel, Jesus brings the smack down to a bunch of legalistic Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Similarly, Jesus taught the Emmaus Road disciples and the apostles that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms were about Him and found fulfillment in Him (Luke 24:27, 44-49). Every sermon given by the apostles in Acts is a masterful exposition of how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament.

To get theologically nerdy for a moment, the proper hermeneutic (or interpretation) of the Old Testament is the lens of Christ and apostles. Of course, this Christocentric approach does not mean that expositors must wax allegorically about Song of Solomon or traverse a scavenger hunt for Christ in every minute detail of the Old Testament. But there is an overall Gospel narrative that frames the entirety of the Bible, and that grand story of man’s depravity and God’s gracious salvation cannot be ignored or minimized. Christ is the apex of God’s rescue. From start to finish, the New Testament is awash with the beauty and color of the Old Testament.

It’s time for Christians to stop treating the Old Testament like an awkward first date. Or a distant relative that we never go visit. We cannot understand what we don’t engage. And much of our failure to properly comprehend or interpret the Old Testament is simply an abject failure of engagement. The Psalmists’ passion for the Old Testament is described as a “deer panting for water” (Psalm 42:1) and as honey on the lips (Psalm 119:103). It’s essential for life as well as addictively sweet. In sharp contrast, our lack of passion for the Old Testament is like a child turning up his nose at broccoli … We know it’s good for us but we can’t bear digesting it. We’d rather stare at it sit on the plate, nibble around the edges and surreptitiously throw the majority out to the dogs under the table.

Is it any wonder why we treat the Old Testament as an embarrassment?

* Yes, that was a Full House joke. #sorrynotsorry

Praying For Blessing Without Jabez Prayers, Circle Making and Suns Standing Still

prayerBack in 2010, I was asked to preach at a small, traditional church in Virginia that was considering to call me as their pastor. I had a well-rehearsed and “tried-and-true” sermon all planned out to preach, and was decked out in my best “preaching suit” (yes, that’s a thing). My wife even made sure that my socks matched that day. I was ready to knock it out of the park, and wow the audience with my adept preaching. I was meditating on my sermon when interim pastor stood up to conduct the “prayer time” of the worship service. He asked the audience for requests. After each request, the interim pastor took down a written note in his bulletin. I was so focused on rehearsing the sermon that I tuned out the 20 or so requests that seemed to drone on forever.

So to my surprise, the interim pastor turned to me and politely asked me: “Pastor Higgins, would you be willing to specifically pray for each of these requests?” And the emphasis was on the word “specifically.” As in pray for each one of these requests that I hadn’t been paying attention to whosoever. What followed was probably the most awkward (and shortest) prayer in the history of pastoral prayers:

“Oh Lord … um … You’ve heard everything these people have said … um … Please answer their requests … um … Yeah … Amen.”

Lots of awkward looks at the end of that prayer. So much for my well-rehearsed sermon.

That worship service was really my first initiation with a sacred cow entrenched in many traditional churches: The mid-week “prayer meeting.” Why so many Christians have such an inexplicable warm sensation about these crazy leviathans I’ll never know, because most of these meetings seem to have a rather loose connection to Biblical prayer. Many meetings seem to devolve into “organ recitals,” where the emphasis of prayer is healing so-and-so’s hearts, belly buttons, appendixes and other remarkably vital organs. At other times, prayer meetings can devolve into glorified opportunities for gossip: “I know you haven’t seen sister Suzie around church in years, and I know you’re all really, really concerned and need to know what happened … So I really need to tell the church to really pray hard because she’s run off to Paris with a Swedish romance novel model … At least, that’s what I heard at the hair salon.” And then when the act of prayer actually begins, there’s always one or two people keen to pray long-winded Shakespearean prayers laced with 1611 KJV “thees” and “thous” that seem more attuned to impressing the congregation than moving the heart of God. Now, I’m all in favor in bodies of believers gathering to corporately pray, but much of the perfunctory of the traditional “prayer meeting” is a theological headache.

So let me get to another related admission (and the point of this blog): I don’t really pray for myself much. That might like a strange admission for a pastor, but go with me here. I think that response has been a knee-jerk reaction to what prayer has become in many churches: Unadulterated selfishness.

The biggest proof of the church’s obsession with the selfishness of prayer is found on the shelves of our Christian bookstores. Over the past twenty years, some of the biggest sellers in the Christian book genre have been books that (supposedly) inform believers how to get stuff out of God in three simple steps. The easiest target is Bruce Wilkinson’s 2000 book The Prayer of Jabez, which transformed an obscure prayer for 1 Chronicles 4:10 into a best-selling formula for getting consumer goods out of God. For other popular books on prayer, the teaching is often clumsily grounded in obscure Bible passages (i.e. and Stephen Furtick’s Sun Stand Still) or extra-Biblical stories (i.e. Mark Patterson’s The Circle Maker), but these books continue to be gobbled up by Christians. Similarly, prosperity Gospel books claiming you can have $60 million dollar jets or have “every day a Friday” (whatever that means) if you simply have faith or “claim God’s promises” sell outrageously. But don’t blame the writer … Blame the readers buying these $20 hardcovers. Such works only tap into and legitimize our sinful desire to infuse selfishness and consumerism into our prayer lives.

Back in 2006, Derek Webb wrote a scathing song, entitled “Wedding Dress,” about the church’s warm embrace of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez. The song is based on Ezekiel 16, which describes the people of God as engaging in prostitution against her honorable husband, God. It’s a common theme of Scripture (see Hosea 1-3). The accusation was that the church tends to pursue material possessions through prayer instead of simply seeking the treasure of Christ alone. Honestly, the controversy over the song had more to do with Derek’s use of the provocative (but Biblical) words “whore” and “bastard” to describe the church. Frankly, I love the honesty and sound discernment of the song. The interview below featuring Derek about the writing of this song (and the actual song) is compelling:

Convicted by the Gospel and own human depravity, I identify with the faithless bride of Ezekiel 16 and “The Wedding Dress” song. I often desire earthly treasures and personal comfort in prayer over the simplicity of having the love of Christ. So I must repent of my faithlessness to God.

But there’s also a danger in unwittingly believing the oddly equal inverse of The Prayer of Jabez: As an unrighteous sinner, I should not ask anything from God in prayer. It’s one thing to believe that our own faith and righteousness merits a response from God in prayer … But the inadvertent polar opposite is believing that our lack of faith and unrighteousness merits no response from God in prayer. In both circumstances, the false belief is that the heart of God is moved simply by our belief, doubt, righteousness, sinfulness or works. Both circumstances are wrong … But the inverse deceptively seems Gospel-centered, because it emphasizes the remnant of our sinful nature. Either way, God simply becomes a glorified vending machine: If we have the right change (or behavior), out pops whatever we desire.

I think I often fall into this second category of false belief whether I admit it or not. Sure God is my Father in Heaven … But why bother to ask the Father for anything if His child has messed up in so many ways?!? As an abject failure of a pastor, husband and father, I have no right to stand before God until I get my act together. I’m not worthy.

Essentially, I do not ask because I don’t deserve to ask for anything.

That belief is wrong too. Because it represents only “bad news” portion of the Gospel. The Gospel is incomplete in this view of prayer.

Here’s why it’s wrong: Yes, we are unrighteous and unworthy sinners apart from Christ (Romans 3). But our standing before God is based on Christ, who is our meditator and advocate in Heaven (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15). Because of the work of Christ, we have been also adopted as the children of God (Galatians 3:26-4:7). So our adopted Father in Heaven longs to hear from His children, because He cares for them like a perfect Father (Matthew 6:5-6, 7:7-11). Our Father listens to His prodigal kids, and never gives them snakes, stones or destructive presents. Therefore, God does not act like a crabby neighbor at midnight who won’t get out of bed to answer the door when his children knock on the door of Heaven (Luke 11:1-13). All because of Christ, we now have a new relationship with God.

And so the effectiveness of our prayer is based on what Christ has already done and not what we do. In his fantastic book about prayer It Happens After Prayer, H.B. Charles Jr. declares:

I believe in the exhaustive sovereignty of God, which is just a fancy way of saying that God is God. That is, God is God alone. This means that our prayers do not God under obligation to do whatever we ask. It does not matter how long you pray. It does not matter how loud you cry. It does not matter how many verses you quote or promises you claim. It does not matter how many so-called positive confessions you make. As you pray, you must remember who God is.

So much of modern Christian teaching about prayer is wrong because Christ is not the foundation. Instead, the foundation is whether we behave … Whether we get the words right … Whether we have enough faith … Whether we claim promises … Whether we hold onto our special double-blessed “prayer shawl” … Whether we financially give … Whether we spend 3+ hours in a “prayer closet” … Whether we say “thee” and “thou” … Whether we can “pray well” (whatever that means) … Whether we’re fervent and get our “prayer sweats” on … Whether the kids would just shut up enough for us to think … Whether we jump up and down and dance the Watusi … Whether I stubbornly and petulantly draw a circle around what I desire … Whether we’re our “prayer posture” is correct. As a result, our church members tend to be more focused on the gory sausage-making mechanics of prayer instead of the person of Christ. If the process of prayer is more dependent on our persona than Christ’s performance, we make a mockery of prayer. As with all of the Christ-life, prayer is truly dependent on Christ alone.

Sure, some might argue from James 5:16 (“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”) that our righteousness leads to the efficacy of prayer. However, the Gospel argues that our righteousness is wholly founded the work of Christ on the cross. If prayer were answered apart from Christ and solely based on my filthy rags of unrighteousness, I’d be doomed … And so would you. But Christ brings hope to our prayer.

Getting the whole Gospel message correct is the solid foundation of prayer. Yes, we don’t merit asking anything from God due to our own unrighteousness … But we can freely ask from God because of Christ’s imputed righteousness. The efficacy of prayer is based on Christ. Therein lies the checks and balances of prayer. Knowing that you are unworthy to approach the throne of grace but being still bid to come is thoroughly humbling (Hebrews 4:16). And so we humbly genuflect to God’s kingdom and His perfect will in prayer while still being bold enough to ask in prayer. And there’s nothing wrong with asking for blessing as a prodigal child so beautifully loved and forgiven by His faithful Father in Heaven.

So come let us approach the throne. Our Father is waiting there to listen to us and love us.

All because of what Christ has already accomplished.