Engaging our children’s world

OK. Let me say at the outset of this post that I am aware that what I’m talking about isn’t a simple equation where y+z= x and y-z=a. It’s not a simple as that. But if we as parents and churches want to help our young people grasp hold of the gospel for themselves, come to trust God’s goodness for themselves, and wholeheartedly love God for themselves because of Jesus we would do well to listen to God’s word.

I’ve just finished a couple of weeks teaching Deuteronomy 6, that well loved mainstay of the ‘family devotions’ devotees. It’s been helpful and challenging but maybe not in the way I thought. First of all v7 which is so beloved by publishers of family devotional material follows from v6 where I think the heart of the matter literally is; the words Moses has taught are to be in the parents hearts before they repeat them to their children! Our children can spot fakes, and we can’t give them what we don’t have. If we don’t love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength then whatever devotions we do will be deficient. Our children are to our love what a geiger counter is to radiation. They spot what we love and how we love and why we love – I dare you to ask them what you love most?

But secondly in this passage there is the encouragement to put God’s word before our eyes and before our families eyes. That may be devotions, either sporadic due to the chaos or more ordered if that’s the way your family roll. I think they’re helpful but I also don’t think they are a burden we should feel weighed down by – we do them but definitely fall more into the sporadic category. What definitely must mark our families is discussion about God’s word and what it means to live as his people – we should be talking about these things wherever we are. This is where we have tried to put more weight and emphasis.

But thirdly is the final part of the chapter, after a warning against three dangers (comfort, idolatry, suffering based doubt) that will cool the Israelites love for God faster than a zero food hygiene rating sticker cools your desire for a kebab, Moses encourages the Israelites to answer their children’s questions about why they live differently not with a because God said so but by telling the story of salvation and explaining how God’s laws lead to the good life.

If you are a parent or grandparent today, or you are just over 25, we simple don’t understand what it’s like to be a child today. We don’t really understand the social media pressures they face everyday, both outside of the home and increasingly due to their mobile phone in the home. We don’t understand the cultural currents they swim in. We probably aren’t totally aware of the values they are being taught and are imbibing in school and from their friends. And all these things, all these pressures mean quite simply we were never there age. “Back in my day” is ancient history in terms of relevance to our young people.

We need to work hard at helping our children not just hear God’s words and commands but in teaching them why they are good. Showing them the community building concern that lies at the heart of them, how God was really showing his people the good life. We need to work hard to draw out what they are learning elsewhere and the assumptions they then make when they hear God’s word about his character and his wisdom and we need to counter it, ask questions of it. In fact its a great chance to ask ‘why?’ To expose the sandy foundations so many of the world’s ideas are built on or the Christian foundation that lies buried deeper than most are prepared to go.

Do our children know the story of our coming to faith in Jesus? Do they know what he has been doing in our lives since, how we can testify to his goodness? If not is it any wonder they question his goodness? Are we explaining why God says what he says? How it is good, the fruit that flowed from his word that we still enjoy today in our society? Are we questioning and unpicking the stories and narratives and ideas they are told and comparing and contrasting them to what God says in his word?

I pray for my boys regularly, aware of my sin, my failure as a parent. Apparently if he was rag coding our parenting my 16 year old tells me I’d get an amber – he was more shocked that I was quite pleased with that. None of these things will produce devoted disciples of Jesus, but it is tilling the ground in which I am praying the Spirit plants and brings a seed to life in all the children in our church.

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Grasping Grace

I’ve been really struck by Luke 7 and the scene Luke records as Jesus eats at Simon’s house over the last week. It’s an image I can’t get out of my head, as proven by the fact that I kept returning to it when preaching and teaching 3 times over the weekend. As Luke sets the scene there’s lots of good religious people around, no doubt doing their best to give the impression that they are sorted. After all there is Jesus to impress and other religious leaders to keep up appearances in front of. Then suddenly a whispered hush spreads around the room and all eyes are drawn to the new figure who has entered, head bowed, tears dripping off the end of her nose. As the tension begins to build in the silence she bends down, and begins to wash Jesus feet with her tears, before using her hair as a towel to dry them and then breaking open her alabaster jar of perfume and anointing Jesus newly cleansed feet with perfume. As the beautiful smell of the perfume wafts around the room so doe the murmurings of discontent. How could he? Doesn’t he know who she is? What she’s done?

It’s a telling and tragic picture of the state of Israel in Jesus day, that someone in desperate need of the gospel of good news, of the hope that the prophets proclaimed, or God’s compassion did not find it among the religious elite of their day. Instead she is shunned, judged, condemned, and it’s made clear that this isn’t the place for her. I found myself wondering last week, and still thinking on it this week, as I re-read those words of Jesus to Simon in Luke 7 if they aren’t the same words Jesus would say to us in the UK?

The religious who gathered around Jesus at that meal would never have invited this woman. They would only have spoken words of judgment to her assuming they knew who she was, why she lived as she did, simply writing her off. But Jesus words are arresting as he addresses Simon: ” I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Simon’s problem was his little love – little love for God that led to little love for the lost because he thought he was pretty good, he didn’t really need much forgiveness. But the contrast between Jesus and him shows how very wrong he was. Simon’s self understanding is woefully deficient, he would have been able to speak about sin as a theological concept but he had no appreciation of the depths of his sin and the sheer scale and cost of forgiveness. Jesus confronts him with that deficiency in understanding.

It made me ponder on a number of questions. Are we overflowing in love or has our self-righteousness got in the way? Is the reason why we so often struggle to reach out to the poor and needy because we have forgotten that we are no different to them in our need and that the gospel offers us all freedom in Christ?

It also made me wonder how would I react if someone reacted like this in church on Sunday. If full of awed amazement at the grace of God someone broken down and wept? When did I last react like that? When was I last broken by the horror of my sin and freshly awed and amazed at the grace of God to me a sinner?

Christian cynicism?

It’s hard to get through life without becoming cynical. Without becoming distrustful and convinced that people are just out for themselves or their own ends. Without becoming hard bitten because we often see people act without integrity or concern for others. But can you be a christian and be a cynic? Cynicism and it’s half cousin apathy are rife in society and in the church, I was going to write about apathy, but I can’t be bothered, so today I want us to think through some of the outworkings of being cynical.

We need to acknowledge that there are reasons we become cynical. People do let us down, in a world marred and scarred by sin, even those closest to us don’t always have altruistic motives or act out of love. I wonder if the root of cynicism in the Christian is that we haven’t fully worked out the doctrine of sin in all humanity and of progressive sanctification in our believing brothers and sisters that doesn’t naively expect perfection but holds out grace and forgiveness. And so we live in this world blanketed in a miasma of cynicism, breathing in its fog, until eventually we inhale it and breath it out too without even realising it. But it has real and dangerous consequences for us, our church and the unreached.

God is not cynical about humanity, his creation or his purposes. God has a plan and it is unbreakable. He knows it’s timeframe, he knows the milestones, and it is on track and it ought to suffuse us with abundant hope! One of the first casualties of our cynicism is our faith in God. Cynicism makes us doubt God’s goodness – a doctrine we need to recover in its robust gloriousness. God is almost too good be to true and so because others we thought that of let us down we turn our weary cynicism on God and assume he will too – when suffering hits isn’t that part of the weariness and the worry? Cynicism warps God into less that his holy, holy, holy trustworthiness and loving kindness. Cynicism allows us to wrongly believe that Jesus didn’t face what I’m going through – he didn’t have a smart phone with all its attendant pressures and temptations, he didn’t have my working week, my family, to navigate Christian online dating, face the choice of gas for heat or hot food. Cynicism isolates us from God, robs God of his majesty, and importantly sinfully fails to believe in the hope that we have been given. Cynicism will mean we don’t pray because we’re not sure God has the will or the power to act. Cynicism separates us from God and the joy that is found in resting in him.

Secondly we become cynical about the church. If we’ve been hurt once we become more sensitive to being hurt again. And let’s be honest the church has done its fair share of making mistakes and inflicting wounds on people. There are things the church needs to repent of, abuses that need calling out and dealing with in the light because sin festers and spreads in the darkness. And there are pastoral situations mishandled which aren’t at the level of abuse but are hurtful mistakes or missteps that pastors need to repent of and ask specific individuals for forgiveness for – I know because I’ve had to do just that. And that does not please God. Cynical Christians will respond by leaving the church, withholding forgiveness, and viewing every Church and even God’s glorious picture of his people through that cynicism tainted lens. But I think in our cynical society we’re seeing cynical Christians who are becoming cynical about church because of what they hear about churches rather than what they experience. Predisposed to cynicism and isolation and fearful of community they are easily shaped by what they hear from others which knocks the church. I’m not suggesting covering up things, absolute not, the gospel means we contend for those who are oppressed and abused and harmed, we seek justice, we want to see the church changed to become a haven of hope and healing. But second hand hurt, third hand hurt, and salacious devouring of such things further shape a heart already preprogrammed towards cynicism.

As pastors and church leaders we’ve played a part in that, we set grand visions for our churches – almost but not quite sanctifying it with a ‘thus says the Lord’ that kind of align with scripture but are more prescriptive than scripture is because we buy into the corporate target driven nature of the world around us. When we fail it fuels cynicism. Wouldn’t it be better to just stick to what God calls us to do – makes disciple making disciples by teaching all of scripture applicably to all of life to everyone? Or we fuel cynicism in the idealised way we talk about church and the picture the bible paints of it which is as lopsided as Quasimodo. Rather than drawing out the beauty of the church and the reality of the fight for that to be realised which we see in the Epistles as the believers in Corinth struggle to live out their faith and throw off the cultural sins of their day, as the Galatians are in danger of becoming enmired in legalism and losing the gospel, as the Ephesians need the gospels full impact on race relations explained to them and applied in detail. The church in the New Testament is beautiful but it is beautiful because of the grace and shed blood of the one who died to redeem it, because of the work of grace that is constantly being done again and again in the church as God hangs his ‘Spirit at work’ sign over his church. It is not the beauty of finished perfection, but the certain hope of finished perfection being worked on by the God who can and will accomplish that. Pastors lets preach that far more glorious vision of God’s church so that we don’t create Christian cynics and so that weary people find rest for their souls in Jesus not just more performance management targets to hit.

Lastly, one other area I think christian cynicism injects its deadly venom is in our outreach. Cynicism makes us fearful of failure and wary of risk. We are cynical about peoples response to the gospel. Pastor be honest when did you last preach the gospel and expect (not hope) souls to be saved? Be honest with yourself. When did we last go to work or the shops, or school and expect to have a conversation with someone about our faith? We are deeply cynical about people’s response to the gospel because the world shapes us to be deeply cynical about the gospel. Even now you’re thinking – but they don’t want to hear – your cynicism at work. We hear again and again about the unchurched nature of the UK, about how hard it is to reach people with the gospel and that makes us cynical, we may have shared the gospel and been rejected, we may have faced hostility from family or friends and that makes us cynical. It’s brilliant strategy by Satan because he’s shut our mouths before we open them. But part of the problem is that we think of sharing the gospel as a one shot hail Mary not a long slow walk in the direction of Jesus. I remember someone in a previous church who’s wife and the church witnessed to him for 23 years before him came to faith, but then he found Jesus and the next day went into the yard from which he drove lorries and told everyone about Jesus. 23 years of being loved, seeing the gospel lived out, seeing church live out life together with grace, ask questions, be disinterested and even outright hostile sometimes before he came to faith. Cynicism would have written him off long before then. Have we?

The cynicism in outreach also plays out in our failing as churches to reach the unreached. We look at the council estates of the UK, we hear the stories of knife crime and chaos, and a culture we just don’t understand. We hear the prejudiced and jaundiced reports in the media about such estates and assume the gospel could never win a hearing there. That’s in part why the church has largely abandoned the deprived and working class communities of the UK. It’s why we plant churches in student areas and in University towns and among the middle classes with a regularity and ease that ought to shame us when we compare that to the number we fail to plant in areas of deprivation and working class. Our cynicism means we don’t really think the gospel is for them, or we haven’t really thought through what the gospel and discipleship will mean in those areas. As church leaders and denominations we fear the failure which is a very real possibility if we plant in such areas, especially if we plant without a long term strategy and commitment for ongoing decade by decade support of churches in such areas.

Christian cynicism? It is an oxymoron, it ought not to be. So how do we fight it. We need to call it out for what it is and the be honest about the devastating impact it is having on us, our churches and the lost in the UK. We need to repent of it – all of us if we look deeply enough or ask others to examine us will find it lurking in our hearts. And we counter it by holding a robust realistic view of sin and it’s impact in the world, and a robust and glorious view of the hope to which we are being called and kept certainly for, and an honest and awed view of the church in which God is at work by his Spirit so that we are transformed into the image of his Son and shine light into the darkness.

Don’t write sermons for your week

One of the biggest draw backs of being a pastor is that in many ways we retreat from the shared frontline of the very congregation we are to equip for ministry. Instead of being in the office, building site, classroom, warehouse or shop floor we find ourselves in the church building or spending most of our time meeting with believers in their, or our, homes. There’s a subtle creeping danger with that.

It is that we prepare sermons that equip people to live out their faith in our working week, not theirs. We answer the theological questions that we are aware of in our reading, not the issues they face of hostility and opposition, stress and pressure. We preach about the problems other pastors share with us in their churches rather than being aware of the factors pushing against discipleship on our congregations frontlines. So many of our congregations are facing outright hostility because of their biblical beliefs, not because they’ve expressed them badly but because our society sets up a false dichotomy and conflict with Christians. They face conflict at home. Resentment because their faith pulls them away from their families and their expectations. They are under pressure at work to adopt a public persona, to leave their faith in the glove compartment when they park the car. They are expected to teach what they are told to teach regardless of their conscience, the millstone of professional standards weighs heavy on many in professional jobs. And then there is all the pressure everyone is under and the added anxiety of navigating society, work, family in a pandemic that seems to just rumble on.

As we preach we need to be aware of those very issues. Don’t assume you’re aware of them because you spoke to someone for 5 minutes over coffee after the service, that will just have scratched the surface of the presentable problems and pressures. We need to dig deeper to discover the pressures and fractures, the things that are pulling against their faith, that make discipleship hard. And those issues need to be addressed, or our congregations will gradually assume the Bible has nothing to say to them, that it is about your week not theirs. They need to see that the very issues they face are the issues the Bible so often addresses for the Israelites and the early church. But are we as pastors aware of those issues? Could you honestly tell me where those pressure points are for your church family? Who is particularly feeling which pressures at the moment? How they are manifesting themselves and how people are responding?

I’m increasingly challenged that I need to get out of the Christian rabbit warren and into the real world. It’s why I still serve as a governor in the local Primary School, so I face some of those same pressures, not daily but I’m at least aware of some of them in that specific context. It’s why time to meet and walk and talk with those in our church families is so key. It’s why elders that are investing in and aware of families in church and supporting them where they are under pressure – who can in love feed that into elders meetings for prayer and wider support are worth their weight in gold.

What if the thing that would improve your sermon most wasn’t another hour or two in the office, or with the commentaries, or listening to whoever your go to preacher is on that passage. but a deeper awareness of the connection points between the Bible and the life of your congregation that resulted in prayed through application to those in our flock? That doesn’t magically happen, it doesn’t come through reading about social trends, or scanning social media, it comes from shepherding – spending time living life alongside those in our care.