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The glory days of event-driven, program-focused youth ministry are over.  Sad? Have a small funeral service if you wish. However, before you bury your beach-balls, youth ministry game books, and your calendar of events realize this change is going to take time and it doesn’t require an immediate purge of everything that has gone before.  The number one way for a youth minister to lose their job is to try and make the youth ministry a family ministry overnight.  Youth ministers are notorious for getting excited about something, but not thinking things through.  Often they will take ideas that others have processed through for years and steal their conclusions in seconds.  I believe that everyone must mentally process all of these changes and recognize it is a multi-year strategy in order to shift towards more family-focused model for youth ministry.

The purpose of this multi-year strategy is two-fold. (1) The church or youth ministry must CHANGE the expectation of parents to accept responsibility for the faith development of their own children and teens.  Parents will not magically take on the role as the primary disciplers of their children if the youth ministry disappears. The church and youth ministry must slowly and patiently assist in this transition. (2) The church must CHANGE to embrace their role to become a community of faith that takes responsibility for a portion of the faith development of teens and children rather than assuming the youth ministry will handle it.

In this article, we will focus on how to change the routine of parents to take responsibility for the faith development of their children and teens. Here lies the tension: If parents continue to feel like the youth ministry/children’s ministry will take responsibility for the faith of their children, then they will not change their routine at home.  However, if youth ministry vanished out of the lives of unchurched teens, many current students will struggle to find any connection to Christianity.  Those who demand the immediate deletion of all things “youth ministry” don’t understand the culture of abandonment that exists within the lives of teens. The teenage world doesn’t need another available adult eliminated from their lives.

It is actually not difficult to convince families and churches that the way they have been passing down faith isn’t working.  It has actually been refreshing to encounter so many families who freely admit that they must change the way their family approaches faith.  The most challenging part is for families to TAKE ACTION to change their routine. Typically when a church wants to address an issue it will plan a seminar, lectureship, event, or sermon series to address it.  These seminars are great in order to raise awareness to an issue, but don’t help much in the process of ushering people toward genuine change.

It isn’t enough to simply raise awareness that parents need to intentionally pass down their faith.  It isn’t enough for parents to simply understand that the youth ministry isn’t the primary method for the faith development of their children. Their awareness must lead them to action. If youth ministry is serious about equipping families to change the way they pass down faith, they need to consider a unique way to spark the type of change that is necessary.  When people are faced with the option to change, they can generally be placed in several different stages.

The following information is an adaptation of a well-researched model of change. The Trans-theoretical Model of Behavior Change1 includes five major stages. In order to help families take the action required to pass down faith, it is necessary to understand this process of change and for churches and youth ministries to work within each step.

5 STAGES TO CHANGE

Each family will go through each of these stages as they take more responsibility for the faith development of their children and teens.  Several families will be motivated and will quickly implement changes into their daily routine that reflect their commitment to pass down faith.  These families need very little to get started.  Others need more time to change, and the church will need a multi-year strategy to patiently walk parents through these different stages.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

Stage 2: Contemplation

Stage 3: Preparation

Stage 4: Action

Stage 5: Maintenance

THESE ARE THE 4 ROLES FOR YOUTH MINISTERS/CHURCHES TO WALK PARENTS THROUGH THESE STAGES

Stage 1: AWARENESS: Raise awareness through education & information.

Stage 2: SELF-REFLECT:  Help families self-reflect through discussion groups and self-evaluation.

Stage 3: PLAN: Assist families in developing a plan for creating a healthy spiritual environment.

Stage 4: COACH: Equip, remind, listen, and encourage families to continue faith activities in their homes.

YEAR #1 RAISE AWARENESS AND COMMUNICATE

In the pre-contemplation stage parents will need to learn more about the importance and benefits of passing down faith to their children in an intentional manner and begin to recognize how their current approach may be insufficient. Raising awareness about the problem and the solution is very important here and a gentle influence is key. These parents should not be pushed to make big changes in their regular routine, but to simply become more aware of the the problem, and how a better approach about how faith-at-home will impact their children in the long-term. If a parent in this stage feels pushed to change before they are ready, they are likely to become defensive and begin avoiding faith-at-home discussions or activities. Leaders will be more effective with parents in this stage if they listen empathically and try to understand where the parent is coming from or what they have already attempted in their families. Once the parent accepts that intentionally passing down faith is important for their family and feel some fear that doing nothing is worse than remaining the same, they will move on to the next stage.

Helping parents from the pre-contemplation stage to the contemplation stage is one of the few stages that can be done in large groups. Increasing awareness through education is one of the best ways to get parents between the pre-contemplation stage and the contemplation stage.

YEAR #1 WHAT THE CHURCH/YOUTH MINISTRY SHOULD DO

  1. HOST A SEMINAR: Having a sermon series to communicate the problem, the solution, and the expectations of families is a great place to start.
  2. WRITE IT DOWN: Provide something written to communicate the problem, the solution, and a brief description of expectations.
  3. DISCUSSION GROUPS: Start discussion groups to get parents talking about the change they must make within their homes.

AWARENESS THROUGH EDUCATION: ONE-ON-ONE

One must also realize that not everyone will move from pre-contemplation to contemplation via group education.  It will be helpful for the youth minister to follow up with families to identify those who have not begun to consider making this mental shift. Not everyone will be familiar with faith-at-home because there are always families absent on a Sunday for a seminar, or during a class.  Getting coffee, lunch, or dinner, with families who haven’t begun actively thinking about making changes is a great way to help in this process.  I have found if a minister asks to get coffee or a meal, that family begins to think about what the minister wants to talk about with them.  It is a little like being called into the principles office.  Many times just asking to meet starts the contemplation stage.  During these conversations with families, ask how their family is doing and listen for about 15 minutes to 30 minutes while asking clarifying questions to understand where they are coming from. This will help build rapport and trust.  They are more likely to accept a different point of view from someone who truly understands their situation. Youth ministers are there to serve families and to help in whatever way they can.  Many times families will become apologetic if they haven’t begun faith-at-home activities.  I generally express that it is normal for parents of teens to struggle to do faith-activities in their homes.  I will talk briefly about its importance and generally let them reflect upon the conversation.  Conversations like this are effective in helping those who have not yet begun thinking about doing faith-at-home.  The goal of conversations like this is not to get families to do faith activities immediately, although, it would be great if they did.  This conversation is just to get them to begin thinking about doing faith-at-home and considering making the change that is necessary in their family.

Our church introduced these faith-at-home principles to our entire congregation.  This is important because the younger the family the more receptive they are.  After 4 years we are just starting to graduate families into our youth group who are used to doing faith things with their parents.  After 1 year about 60 percent of families of children infant- kindergarten had been doing faith activities regularly.  40-50 % of families who had 1st graders to 5th graders had been participating in faith activities regularly.  Only 26% of youth group parents were doing faith activities on a regular basis.  Many had not yet begun.

IMPARTING FAITH

Imparting faith is a non-profit company that we started in the beginning of 2012. We saw a need to provide churches with the resources to guide their families through the stages of change. Imparting faith has produced several resources: a 50 page book for communicating faith-at-home expectations, a 3 lesson seminar (available on DVD or to host one live at your church), a discussion groups guide, a book that helps families evaluate and plan to create a spiritual environment at home, and a DVD of families describing their experience with faith-at-home.  You can find these resources at impartfaith.com 

No matter who does the seminar or what resources you use, follow up is important to get families to the next stages of change.  Once parents know what faith-at-home is, and begin thinking about it within their family context, then they are ready for the contemplation stage.

YEAR# 2 GETTING FAMILIES TO SELF-REFLECT AND PLAN

STAGE 3 CONTEMPLATION

In the contemplation stage, parents recognize passing down faith to their children is important; however, they may not feel confident in their ability or they see many obstacles in their way. They may doubt that they can do a better job than the church leaders and teachers. They need to be provided with a clear vision of what their family can look like if they begin imparting faith with more intentionality. They may need to evaluate their own faith and commitment to living a Christ-filled life. They need to see how overcoming their initial obstacles or worries about this process can provide a more meaningful family life and ensure the future faithfulness of their children. Furthermore, parents also need to learn more from people who have already begun intentionally passing down faith. Parents need to know that other families have made significant changes amidst challenges and have found faith-at-home to their children a rewarding endeavor that is not as impossible as it may seem.

SELF-REFLECTION THROUGH EVALUATION

The youth ministry’s goals within the contemplation stage is to help parents consider becoming more active with faith in the home by evaluating how they currently pass down faith.  The youth minister should help families slow down and think about the state of their family.  Families must accurately see the way they currently interact so they can see how it affects their family’s spiritual life.  Once they understand the link between the way their family currently passes down faith and the faith development of their teens they can begin to reconsider their family routine.

YEAR #2 WHAT THE CHURCH/YOUTH MINISTRY SHOULD DO

  1. HAVE ANOTHER SERMON SERIES/SEMINAR:  Remind parents and the church of the important of faith-at-home.
  2. DISCUSSION GROUPS: Host a second round of discussion groups for small grouping of parents to talk about successes and failures in their attempts to pass down their faith in their family.
  3. SIMULATION GROUPS: Provide a time for a small group of families to do a faith activity as family at church. It allows families to do a faith activity as a family in an environment where they are used to talking about God.  It allows some families to get over the discomfort of having their first faith activity as a family at home. (some will not have started their first faith activity even after a year)
  4. FAMILY INVENTORY: Provide a inventory to your families for them to evaluate how they are doing in creating a spiritual environment conducive for growth in their family.  Imparting Faith has created one called E4 Families (E4 stands for Ephesians 4).  It is a family inventory that serves as a starting point for families to understand the strengths and weaknesses in their current faith-at-home approach.  E4 Families allows the youth minister and family to talk about things in a positive way.  It avoids a negative tone for these conversations between young ministers and parents.   The E4 inventory also leads families into planning phase for their faith routines.  Within the E4 inventory the youth minister has the chance to help families evaluate and troubleshoot what they are doing as well as make future plans about what they should do

If your families are offering significant resistance to doing faith within their homes it may be wise to implement E4 Families or other inventories in year 3 instead of year two.  It essential that families get to the preparation stage .

YEAR #3 COACHING FAMILIES TO ACT,  AND PULLING BACK THE YOUTH MINISTRY

In the context of faith-at-home action stage, parents have begun intentionally passing down their faith. They need to remain committed to their new mindset and routine as they combat the impulse to stop trying or become casual and/or idle. People in this stage need to learn more techniques for keeping up their intentionality and purpose in imparting faith. Seeing positive benefits in their family will help them keep their commitment to faith-at-home.

In the action stage the youth minister will become a coach to help families troubleshoot through the problems they may have within their home.  The youth minister needs to begin to think about what families need from them in a coaching role to continue.  There are many things that families may face that will discourage them from continuing faith-at-home.  There is no one-size fits all manual for their family, that is why a youth minister is there to guide them through the various challenges that they may face, especially during the early months of the action stage.

Most families need someone to listen to them and encourage them. Listening is one of the most important things a youth minister can do during this stage.  It allows one to slow down, and without another agenda, simply understand where someone is coming from.  Most of the time ministers aren’t good at this. Many times one’s first inclination is to step in and solve problems when a family may just want someone to listen to how they feel. Failing to listen frustrates those who are being helped.  Families also need encouragement to continue with this process.  They need someone to tell them what a great job they are doing with the things that they have been doing well. It is better to avoid pointing out all of the things they may not be doing well, if it is clear that they need encouragement.

PULLING BACK

Once many of the parents understand their responsibility to pass down their faith, every youth ministry must make it unmistakably clear is that the youth ministry will not be taking over the parents responsibility to pass down faith.  Even if parents know the truth about Deuteronomy 6, many parents will not take this responsibility upon themselves until the youth ministry gives it back to them.  The youth ministry must empower them and inspire them about the opportunity God built into parenthood and how rewarding faith in the home can be.  The student ministry can no longer enable parents to shirk their faith responsibility, but it must help them take ownership of it. It can be hard for some youth ministers to let go and let families do what God intended for them to do.  Families do not need to be babied once they get past the early part of the action stage.  If the responsibility to pass down faith is going to rest on the parents shoulders, the youth minister at this point needs to let go and leave the parents to experience their own successes and their own failures.

This leads many to ask what is the youth minister to do after families take ownership of their responsibility to pass down their faith?

(1) Families never stop needing coaching to pass down their faith.  There are new families that move in, and family difficulties that can easily derail good intentions. There is always room for the youth minister to support and coach families.  (2) Create a youth ministry environment that has a direct parent involvement, but room for teens to have their own time.  Our youth ministry has a weekly parents and teens class on Sunday morning.  We have been doing it for over a year now and it is going great!  Parents hear the announcements, the lessons, the comments, and are given faith-at-home ideas that correlate to the lesson.  The teens still have a weekly time apart from their parents on Wednesday nights and many events that are teen-only.  We do have family events that further support the idea of faith being a family affair.   The youth minister widens his circle of influence to become the go-to minister for teens, parents, and sometimes younger siblings of the families who are a part of the youth ministry. (3) The youth minister must become or recruit faith mentor(s) for those students whose parents have a faith-at-home inability.  Parents with a faith-at-home inability include those who struggle with their own faith, or have substance abuse, psychological issues, or are contributing to an abusive environment in their home.  If the youth minister has created an environment where parents are a regular part of the youth ministry routine he will have a much large pool of quality mentors to choose from. (4)  On top of these 3 significant responsibilities the minister will still be teaching classes, organizing events, and outreach opportunities.

COACHING IN THE MAINTENANCE STAGE

In the maintenance stage parents need to be aware that consistency is the key in passing down faith. It is recommended that parents continue to seek support from other families who have been pursuing the same change. It will be important that they share experiences and ideas with each other in order to renew their commitment and feel encouraged to continue. If a parent finds themselves falling back on their commitment to passing down faith, becomes less involved in their children’s lives, encounters personal faith challenges, or simply feels too busy to intentionally impart faith, they need to seek assistance from their church family and church leaders.

If families are going to successfully navigate through the stages of change, it is during the maintenance stage that the church and the youth ministry must take the training wheels off and allow families to discover a routine on their own.  During the maintenance stage the youth minister needs to check-in every few months to see how it is going. The greatest tool a faith-at-home youth ministry has during this stage is educational reminders. It is helpful for the youth minister to continue to send articles or ideas to families within the maintenance stage to keep faith-at-home from feeling stale.  Tools that educate or motivate parents are ways to remind and reshape the way they do faith-at-home on a consistent basis. There are plenty of articles on faith-at-home that are on the web that are easy to share.  If the church is open to having yearly campaigns, this can be a great way to keep families going with faith-at-home.  Families still need to be supported and encouraged, but they require much less time and energy than families who are in the early stages of this transition.

It is within these 5 stages of change that a clear path emerges for a shift between a teen-focused ministry to a faith-at-home focused ministry.  This gives youth ministers a concrete plan of action for each family within their group. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for youth ministry regarding working with families.  The families in each student ministry are different.  Some student ministries work with an abundance of healthy families, some struggle to find one family that is healthy.  Most youth ministries, however, see families with a combination of unbelievable strengths and glaring weaknesses coexisting together.  The youth ministry that can support the family and the church at the same time is a youth ministry that will contribute toward making mature disciples.

1The Trans-theoretical Model Behavior of Change is an well known psychological model. General information can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transtheoretical_model, accessed March 2014.

It isn’t just statistics about young people leaving the church that cause alarm.  What is equally concerning is the lack of Christian maturity that exists within young Christians who remain in the church.  Ephesians 4 begins to paint a picture of what mature Christian believers look like.  How do today’s young believers measure up to the standard of maturity we read about in scripture?

Ephesians 4:11-16
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Today’s young adults are a generation raised primarily by school, sports programs, internet, T. V. and video games. They may have had only a few spiritual moments with their families and with youth groups throughout their lives.  Even a cursory reading of Ephesians 4:11-16 shows there is a great distance that exists between God’s expectation of the maturity of adult Christians, and the realized maturity of young adult Christians today.   Many young adults today are not mature contributing members to the body of Christ.  Many young Christians even in their early twenties are a decade away from having an understanding of God, a life that seeks the full measure of the fullness of Christ, convictions that are wise to the deceptive ways of the world, and a realization that the body of Christ (the church) is depending on them.  Ephesians 4 not only paints a picture of Christian maturity, it also portrays church and it’s role in contributing toward maturing believers.  God has gifted his people as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Younger generations cannot adequately grow unless they connect with the spiritual influence of the entire church.  Ephesians 4 clearly shows how “option two,” the church, is God’s plan for growing a generation of faith.  God’s plan for “option one,”  goes back much further into the biblical narrative.

Deut. 6:4-9

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.

For thousands of years faith in God has been primarily passed down in a singular fashion . . . through family.  It was passed from father to son, mother to daughter, grandparents to grandchildren, uncles to nieces and nephews. Faith was advanced through family.  Even within ancient Hebrew culture followers were not primarily made at the temple, synagogues, or at the hands of any other organization.  Families banded together as a unit to instruct and model what was important, namely, God.  It was their life, not merely a ritual or weekly gathering at the synagogue.

When one considers Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 4:11-16 together, a comprehensive plan for faith development emerges.  If we view Ephesians 4 through the lens of Deuteronomy 6 we see faith development through the everyday faith practices of the family.  Godly maturity happens first at home!  When we view Deuteronomy 6 through the lens of Ephesians 4 we see how the church equips families and includes them in a larger community of faith that shares a unity in thinking, direction, and support.   Faith in the home is critical to the development of young believers.  Young Christians today will rarely attain maturity without the daily faith practices of their family.  Likewise, Christian families and their children will not attain maturity without the influence of the entire church in their lives.

TODAY’S SAD REALITY FOR FAITH DEVELOPMENT

Most Christian families do not have a Deuteronomy 6 environment at home.   In many cases, Christian families cannot imagine what a Deuteronomy 6 life would look like in their home.  They see it as unrealistic within today’s busy culture.  Families often respond with blank stares when asked how they are leading their children toward the picture of maturity found in Ephesians 4.  Many parents have taken a more casual approach to faith development.  This casual approach looks something like bringing children to church once a week, talking about faith if it ever comes up; and if the family gets really serious, enrolling them in a Christian school.  A casual approach to faith development may have worked in years past, but it is not working in this culture. This culture is relentlessly promoting its lifestyle and a casual plug for a different way of life will be too small to be noticed among the barrage of distorted thinking that is entering the lives of children and teens.

In addition, most churches don’t know how to consistently involve the entire church in the faith development of children and teens.  Churches have been content to relieve the whole body of Christ from the maturing process of young believers by placing them in vibrant children’s or youth ministry programs.  It seems like a good idea to hire a professionals to raise young Christians in their faith, but as a result, most church members have relinquished their influence in the lives of students.  Children are missing the influence of a body of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to shape them and develop their own spiritual gifts.

All hope is not lost.  As it stands now,  youth ministry, “option three,” is uniquely positioned to lead families and the church to rediscover “option one” and “option two” as the primary methods to grow a generation of faith.  This seems a little unusual at first.  Youth ministry is, in many cases, the only group that has enough influence to connect teens, families, and the church together in spiritual relationships.

1. The youth ministry has enough influence to help the teens see that faith discussions with their parents are important.  Since teens trust the success of the youth ministry, it is much easier for them to listen to a youth minister/volunteer who says that talking to their parents about faith is important and is something that God expected of them.

2. The youth ministry has influence with parents, because of its relationship with the teens. Before this transition, I had never realized the inherent trust that parents placed in a good youth ministry.  They trust the youth ministers to teach, and lead their children on trips, it isn’t that far of a stretch to instruct parents in how to teach their children about faith.  Most mature youth ministries have enough respect to help families create a spiritual environment at home.  Don’t misunderstand; most youth ministries will quickly find themselves over their heads if they try to tell parents how to raise their children.  However, youth ministries are experts at creating environments for teens to listen to biblical messages.

3. Youth ministry also has a strong enough voice with the church to communicate what is expected of the church as a whole to contribute toward the lives of teens.  Teens are often separated for years into age-segregated programs.  Youth ministry can be a bridge connecting teens to the larger community of faith that exists in the church.

As a result of this approach, our youth ministry found itself in a new role to coach parents to disciple their teens at home, to leverage the relationship the minister had with teens to accept several potentially awkward faith moments with their parents, and to challenge the church to get involved in raising the next generation in faith.  A youth ministry apart from family cannot be effective.  A youth ministry isolated from the church as a whole cannot be effective.  Don’t get me wrong.  All of the fun and games don’t have to disappear in order for a youth ministry to work, but it should be clear that youth ministry has a much greater challenge ahead of it than making the next calendar of events.

In case you aren’t aware, the recognition of the limitations of youth ministry being a viable means of instilling and growing faith in our youth is among the most discussed topics in youth minister over the last few years. This conversation is a direct result of the explosion of articles and books on the mass exodus of young adults from churches. No one likes seeing this generation walk away from church, much less walk away from faith. People are searching for more than theory…they want real solutions that can work in real churches and real youth ministries. That is why we have asked Joel Singleton (this being his first in a series of 4 articles) and Duncan Campbell (whose articles have already been posted) to write about their experience in how they have actually made this shift.

The popular opinion of modern youth ministry is divided.  On one side, several authors and church leaders are dramatically demanding the death of youth ministry altogether.  They are using phrases like, “youth ministry is a 50-year failed experiment”1, or youth ministry is “a weed in the church”2 that must be pulled immediately.  On the opposite side, many churches have not stopped long enough to evaluate whether they still believe in traditional youth ministry.  They routinely fill the youth ministry position merely because their history drives them toward a normative path.  It is between these two divergent perspectives that we have found a brighter path for modern youth ministry.

I have been doing youth ministry at the same church for 9 years.  My first 5 years were rooted in what I would call traditional youth ministry.  I led an event-based, peer-focused, fun-seeking youth ministry with a strong element of biblical teaching.  In my last 4 years our church made major shifts in the way we approach youth ministry.  I’m not saying we have found all of the answers.  We have not arrived at a perfect model for a new season of youth ministry, but my prayer is that our journey away from the traditional model can help you find the first few steps toward the discovery of a brighter future for raising a young generation of faith.

I was asked to speak at a neighboring church about our transition toward a more family-focused youth ministry.  After I had finished my third talk for this church I was approached by a woman who served me a loaded question.

She asked, “What do your teens think about your new-found focus on families within your youth ministry.”

I replied, “Most of them are ‘okay’ with it, a couple of them don’t like it at all, but several actually prefer it.”  The woman I was speaking with liked the “idea” of a more family-focused youth ministry, but she didn’t think the teens would like it at all!

She objected by saying, “What if they don’t like it and they don’t come back?”

(I entered into full-blown analogy-mode)

I asked,  “If you gathered a group of four-year-olds and gave them cookies and Kool-Aide each week and told them to invite their friends do you think they would come?”

“Yes, they would probably beat down your door,” she replied.

I continued my line of questioning by asking, “If you suddenly stopped giving them sugar and explained that it isn’t good for them, would they be upset?”

“Yes, you might have a full blown mutiny on your hands,”  she exclaimed!

I guessed at a possible reaction and asked, “We would probably see those kids stop coming over time huh?”

“Yep,” she quickly responded as if I had just made her point.

I inquired further, “What if those kids weren’t getting any food at home; would it be right to keep feeding them only candy each week?”

“Oh no, “the mother inside of me would not let that happen. We would have to get those kids a home-cooked-meal,” she explained as she beamed with pride.

I pushed her thoughts a bit further by asking, “They would love that for one day of the week, but what about the other days?  What about for breakfast and lunch too?  It seems like there is no way we could keep up with all that cooking, could we? If we are going to keep them fed we might even need to purchase a couple of snacks, too! What could we do?”

Overwhelmed by the thought of feeding a large group of children on a daily basis she paused briefly to explore my question.  “If those kids weren’t getting fed at home I would call their parents!”

“And what would you say to them?” I asked, itching to make my point.

“You need to feed your kids at home! All we are giving them at church is sugar, and you can’t expect us to feed them every day of the week! We can give them a solid meal here and there, but you cannot expect us to be the only ones who feed them!” She stopped briefly for air and continued,  “You can come to church and get food from the pantry, if you need to, but you need to feed them at home!”

I paused to see if she had just realized that her last outburst had made my point for a family-focused ministry.  It finally “clicked” for her.  She realized that we could give spiritual nourishment one or two days of the week, but the real spiritual nourishment had to come from home.  She understood that many teens wouldn’t like the change, but the goal isn’t to make christianity likable, it is to raise a mature generation of faith by providing enough spiritual nourishment for them to grow.

I explained to her that, “We have been raising several generations in youth ministry who have been fed spiritually on cookies and Kool-Aide one or two days a week. Even if youth ministry works hard to provide steak once a week, it still is not enough. Students are starving and, in some cases, are dying spiritually. If we are going to raise a generation of faith, we have two options. Option one, we can call home and convince moms and dads to regularly feed their teens spiritually at home. Option two, we can raise up around the teens a multi-generational community of faith (the church) that loves them, cares for them, and leads them to become life-long disciples of Christ.”  She thanked me for my thoughts and we parted ways.

SETTLING FOR OPTION 3

Later I began thinking about how most churches try to raise a generation of faith.  Most churches are pursuing a third option . . . youth ministry.    Youth ministry was never intended to be the primary way by which we raise a generation of faith.  It was designed as a supplement for what happens at home.  It should be at least third on the list of options.  If the church continues to rely solely on youth ministry, it will fail to raise a generation of faith.  Youth ministers are typically young and inexperienced and in extreme cases their job description is to spiritually feed a generation of young teens nearly on their own.  Armed with a budget,  a few volunteers,  and a 4 year degree they are often asked to mentor the most vulnerable group in the church.  This is not realistic, biblical, sustainable, nor is it working.

STATISTICS

I am by no means an alarmist.  I do not think the sky is falling and everything will fall apart unless . . .  (fill in the blank). However, if churches do not begin to wake up to the reality of the modern-day family, and to the limitations of youth ministry, we will see the continuance of a steep decline in young Christians who develop into life-long believers.  Below are striking statistics about generations whose primary source of spiritual nourishment was provided by youth ministry.

“In fact, the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings – 61% of today’s young adults – had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying). Only one-fifth of twentysomethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences.”3  These percentages are among the most optimistic; others studies suggest between 60 to 90 percent of youth involved in church reject the Christian faith when they are young adults.4

“We discovered that in a typical week, fewer than 10 percent of parents who regularly attend church with their kids read the Bible together, pray together (other than at meal times) or participate in an act of service as a family unit.  Even fewer families–1 out of every 20– have any type of worship experience together with their kids, other than while they are at church during a typical month.”5

After examining our church’s youth group retention rates I found that over 90% of our students whose families had some sort of faith-at-home routine were still faithful years later.  While slightly over 30% of our students whose families did not have a faith-at-home routine remained faithful.  This clearly outlined a new job responsibility for our youth ministry.  If the job of the youth minister is to raise a mature believing generation of Christians, the answer was not found in event-based, peer-focused, fun-seeking youth ministry.  The best way for youth ministry to retain a generation of faith was to make it more likely that families would pass down their own faith to their own children.

The next several posts will further outline: (1) a new role for youth ministry including a biblical theology that supports this new perspective,  (2) A tested multi-year strategy to implement a more family-focused youth ministry.,(3) Tools that will help families improve their spiritual family environment, (4) as well as two stories from our experience that illustrate the success of this new perspective.

1. Alex Murashko,http://www.christianpost.com/news/church-services-separated-by-age-un-biblical-say-former-youth-pastors-52964/, 2011.

2. Scott Brown,  A Weed in the Church, (Quotation above is a reference to the title)

3. Barna Group, “Most Twentysomthings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” http://www.varna.org/barna-update/article/16-teennext-gen/147-most-twentysomethings-put-christianity-on-the-shelf-following-spiritually-active-teen-years (accessed January, 2012)

4. Mark Holmen, Church + Home (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2010), 28

5. George Barna, Transforming Spiritual Children into Spiritual Champions (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 78

One of the best ways I’ve ever heard the Holy Spirit described is “The Wild Goose.” The Celtic Christians called the Holy Spirit this, not to be irreverent, but because they knew something I think we’ve forgotten.

They know that the Holy Spirit is wild.

A few years ago, Leslie and I led a team of college students to work with an orphanage in India for a few weeks. At one point, the leader of the Orphanage took us to see the place where Apostle Thomas was thought to have been martyred. We thought we were going to a museum.

We were wrong.

Turns out that the orphanage we were working with was taking us to a Prayer conference at the site where Thomas was  martyred.  Hundreds of Christians from around Southern India had gathered, including…I kid you not…Benny Hinn’s mentor.

Everyone called him Apostle Bob (not his real name) and at one point during the prayer time, A.B. said he wanted a representative from every nation up on stage to pray for them. I didn’t like where this was headed, so I just kept my eyes on the floor and tried to pretend like I was deep in some kind of spiritual focus that shouldn’t be interrupted.

They actually picked Leslie out of the crowd to be the American representative. She joined a line of people on the stage, taking her place at the far left, and then it happened. Apostle Bob started at the right side of the stage and starting putting his hands on people’s head saying “Fire” and then they would fall back into some designated catcher’s arms.

I remember thinking, “Thank God they didn’t choose me.”

That was premature.

Because my sweet wife, didn’t want to do this alone, and so about half-way through the prayer session, she comes off the stage, down to me, cuts right past my spiritual shoe-staring, and takes me back to stand in line with her.

Thanks Les.

I got in place just in time to be popped in the head by the man, and fell back, more pushed and pulled, than slain.

I’m laying on the floor in a Church in India thinking about all the college students I had brought here, and what they must have been thinking. But I was sure I knew what it was, I had grown up thinking it.

A few years before, I had been to Sri Lanka with a team of people from the Hills Church to do Tsunami disaster relief. We served the area of the world that had been hit the hardest, and to this day some of our Church members are still there.

But what I remember about that trip was the blind woman who was healed. One of our shepherds had gone with us, and during the Sunday morning church assembly, a woman had come up asking for prayers, because she had been blind for years.

The Shepherd prayed, and God healed her.

That same day, I prayed for a 4 year old boy with a heart murmur. The next year when we went back we learned that the blind woman still could see, and the young boy had died.

Recently I wrote about a major shift that I’ve had in how I think we are called to relate to God and His Spirit. I have learned that most Western Christians try to talk about the way the Spirit works in two different categories. Either Magic…or Deism.

But neither of those does justice to the Bible or to most of our own experiences. The Spirit of God is not something that we can control or commodify. Listen to how often we talk about the Spirit and say things like “I want more.”

I get the sentiment behind that, but on one level it can be the greedy result of having gotten much of what we want for our entire life.  God is an experiential God, but that might not mean what you think, and it certainly doesn’t mean that God works on our terms.

But then the other danger is the one that our fellowship has been far more guilty of than we know. We came by it honest. The Restoration Movement is a product of good people trying to make sense of God and Church in the boom of Western Enlightenment. A movement that was built on the understanding that God made the world, wound it up like a watch, and then stepped away.

So we ask questions like “Can God do the supernatural?” never realizing that those are not words we are given by Scripture or the earlier Christians. Or we try to “Name the blessing and claim the healing” somehow missing the humility that seems to characterize the prayers of the early church.

And all along we miss the one thing the Spirit is trying to do in us.

Help us to let go of our deep desire for controlling outcomes and even our own life.

I believe that preparation is a friend, not enemy, to the Holy Spirit, but there is a world of difference between preparation and manipulation.

I believe that if Jesus and the Disciples needed the Spirit than I most certainly do and I still believe on many levels what the Churches of Christ taught me to believe, that the book of Acts is not a book of exceptions, but examples.

But I also believe that a life filled with the spirit is primarily known by fruits of the Spirit. And one of the more disturbing parts of this conversation between Christians is that it is most often marked by condescension. Certain groups define the other as primitive or weird, and themselves as enlightened or orthodox.

Frankly, I’ve seen more ugliness in Christians when we are talking about the Holy Spirit than almost any other topic.

One group thinks they’ve got God figured out, and another thinks they’re crazy.

Which is why my favorite description of the Holy Spirit is a Wild Goose. Because if you think you can put God’s Spirit in a well-defined box, it’s probably not God you’re chasing.

This winter has been colder than most.

Those who heat by electric or gas are probably seeing a big difference in their bills.

We see it in a mostly depleted fire wood shed because, we heat our house entirely by burning logs in a wood stove.

It puts out lots of heat, and some places like the balcony/ loft are extraordinarily warm.

But even though I said we heat our house with wood, the truth is we don’t heat every room nearly as warm as you might like it. Especially at night when it is down in the 20 degree Fahrenheit range.

There is after all, only so much wood that can be burned in one night.

So what do you do?

First, you learn how to wear warm clothes, particularly layers. Second, you wear socks at night. (I dislike socks at any time, and wearing them at night has been a big adjustment. Well, maybe calling it a big adjustment is over stating the case, all things considered, but I digress.) And third, you recognize that sleeping well on an icy cold night requires a nice, big, thick, and fluffy comforter.

I bet you know the kind.

There is something wonderfully comforting about a comforter. Pulled up to your chin, a comforter gives warmth. But more than just warmth, there is a sense of bliss, peace, and wellness when under a favorite and much loved comforter.

Ours is a down-filled, heavy, white affair… and I wouldn’t trade it for much of anything.

There is no comfort like that of a comforter…

But this isn’t really about exalted blankets no matter how much we might love them.

This is, however, an issue of our understanding about God.

We are accustomed to expressing God in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirt. The knowledge of Abba, Father gives confidence and assurance. The sacrifice of Jesus as the Son of God allows for mercy, grace, and salvation.

And the Holy Spirit? If the truth be uttered, from the perspective of the Christian in the pew, we are not quite so sure about the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter told those who would listen that they should Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Christians have discussed, debated, and argued over this gift, what it means, how it’s received, and what we might possibly do with it. I confess. I don’t have all the answers. I am not the go-to-guy to compare and thrash out differing theologies—at least on this topic. On the other hand, I do believe in the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of every Christian.

How does that work out?

Here’s one aspect in particular:  If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (John 14:15-17 KJV)

Other versions use words such as counselor, helper, advocate, and friend where the KJV uses comforter.

Whichever you prefer, they all speak to a presence in our lives that gives strength and encouragement—comfort if you will.

In the aftermath of the double murder that devastated my world, comfort was a hard thing to come by. I saw peace nowhere. I felt hope nowhere. I only could see and feel unrelenting pain and horror.

Eventually, I began to again recognize the comfort of God. That comfort grows stronger even still. But for the longest time, I also struggled mightily with where God was as Karen and Cole suffered through that final agonizing fifteen minutes of fighting for their lives. I tormented myself day and night wondering what Cole understood and needing to know how much terror Karen felt.

Several people tried to get me to understand that in the fight to survive, there wasn’t much time or place for reflecting on fear. That helped, but wasn’t quite the comfort I desired.

As time passes and opportunity to reflect is easier to do, I have begun comforting myself with a particular vision of the Comforter. I don’t know how accurate my take might be in the final analysis, but this is what I have chosen to believe:

In those final graphic moments, I am certain the Comforter was there. They were not alone. I believe that somehow someway, they were being shielded from the pain. And, I hold on to the hope that in those final moments, they were already on their way Home.

I long to continue knowing and feeling the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Until the Lord returns, I trust we will somehow experience the comfort only the Comforter can bring. Our helper, advocate, counselor, and friend…

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone! – who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe.
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine –
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand:
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

Stuart Townend & Keith Getty

Copyright © 2001 Thankyou Music

 Thank you for reading,

Les Ferguson, Jr.

http://lesfergusonjr.com

Note from the editor: I appreciate Jimmy and Les tackling this extremely difficult subject and sharing with us what they have learned about the dangers of pedophilia so that we can all take steps to protect those who are most precious to us and be more aware of what is going on around us. This is not an easy subject to discuss and there are some things said in the accompanying video that are very, very difficult to listen to. But this information needs to be shared, even if it just protects a single child from going through the nightmare of being abused by a pedophile. Please share this with your elders, your family minister, or anyone you think needs to get this information (use the Facebook share button at the top of the post if that is helpful). We can’t let kids suffer for our lack of boldness and courage to say and hear what needs to be said and heard. – Matt

I conducted a 3 hour workshop and webinar on child abuse in the church on February 22, 2014 with Les Ferguson, Jr. as my guest.  It is a subject that is very personal to us—Les because his disabled son Cole fell into the hands of a sexual molester from church who not only sexually abused Cole, but also murdered him and Les’ wife Karen.  And it’s personal to me because at about the same time in 2011 our family was devastated to find out that my father had sexually abused 23 children over the course of his life.  Les and I, both ministers in the churches of Christ and unknown to each other at that time, were faced with the very strong reality that sexual abuse of children in the church is very real and, sadly, way too common.  For 27 years my dad preached at the same congregation where I currently preach.  Many of the members I had to inform (before the newspapers informed them) about my dad’s allegations of abuse were the very people he converted to Christianity years before.

Dad is now serving a life sentence in a PA state prison for his crimes, but the Ferguson and Hinton families are all serving our life sentences of grief.  Here’s the catch—we were meted out our sentences of grief simply by being ignorant and uninformed.  This is why Les and I do what we do—to educate and inform other people of this dark evil, and to give them tools for keeping their children safe.  If you don’t think it could happen to your child, you better reconsider.  Church is one of the most appealing places for predators, precisely because we are not expecting it to happen.

Here are just a few points to highlight what we discussed in this seminar.  Please take time and watch the entire video.  It’s free.  And it’s too important not to arm yourself with the knowledge needed to protect your kids and the children that are in the church’s care.

#1 We Christians Are Over-Trusting

We want to believe that the assembly is a safe place for our kids—free from the threat of any innocence being stripped from them.  Unfortunately, churches that have not taken drastic measures to protect their kids are one of the most unsafe places we can put our kids.  Dad once wrote me from prison, “Churches are the easiest place for pedophiles to offend.  And there are a lot of us in the church.”  We trust adults to watch our kids.  We allow access to our children.  Yet 93% of pedophiles describe themselves as religious.  That’s important, because religious people go to church.  And, as the famed Dr. Anna Salter personally told me, “Churches are such inviting targets.”  Yes they are.  I’ve lost count of the number of discussions I’ve had with people, just in the churches of Christ, over the last 2 years who tell me stories of pedophiles abusing children in their congregations.  Keep in mind, these stories are only stories about those getting caught.  Why is this not front page news in our religious papers?  Why do we feel obligated to keep silent about it?  Why are our colleges, seminaries, and churches not conducting background checks on ministers or teaching them how to protect children?  Which leads me to the next point:

#2 We Are In Denial or We Don’t Want to Believe It

Perhaps most people are where I was prior to 2011.  I’d never noticed the daily barrage of news stories.  Who wants to hear about a 2 year old child who’s been raped by a 60 year old church member?  Or an 8 year old boy who was forced to perform oral sex on a deacon?  Yet this is the reality our children are facing in the church.  There are an estimated 42 million survivors of child sex abuse in the US alone.  Most of them will never disclose to anyone, including their spouse, that they were abused as children.  The scars victims of abuse carry is overwhelming.  Over 90% of perpetrators are known by their victims, adding insult to injury.

Adults are groomed by perpetrators just as their children are.  We parents are groomed to believe that the man from church who offered to baby sit our kids just enjoys helping overworked parents out.  We don’t want to believe that he really offered in order to isolate our child and gain access to their bodies.  We’ve got to stop denying that this is a problem in the church.  My heart breaks every time I’m contacted by someone in the church seeking advice because their kids have been sexually abused.

#3 Churches Need to Be a Place of Protection, Healing, and Justice

I long to see the day when children and survivors of abuse feel safe in our churches.  One young child, after disclosing abuse to her mother by her minister, was not believed by the mom.  The mom spoke with the minister—the alleged perpetrator—and was convinced that her little girl was mistaken.  The minister recommended that the mom visit another church just to get a second opinion.  When the mother and girl showed up to the other church, the girl was forced to go into a room alone with 4 men, including the preacher who had molested her!  I grow weary of the stories I hear when pedophiles have groups of church supporters in the courtroom while the victim takes the stand alone.  What message is this sending?  And the stories of children being forced to face their abuser and forgive him. . . it’s unbearable.

We have to stop giving a free ticket to the plethora of abusers sitting in our pews.  We have to very vocally let our children know that, when they are in our care, they—not the abusers—are safe.  We’ve got to develop protection policies that change the landscape of our church buildings.  We’ve got to develop crystal clear reporting methods, know mandated reporting laws, and have shepherds who boldly announce that protecting the flock will take precedence over budgets.  God couldn’t have said it any better when He said, “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:4 ESV).

I have repeatedly said from the pulpit, “If there is anyone here who is thinking about abusing children, we will find you, we will report you, and we will call for the full extent of the law to be carried out against you.”  We let people know that our congregation is not a safe place for would-be abusers.  Some will think that this is too drastic an approach.  I disagree.  We’ve got to expose the deeds done in darkness and protect the innocent.

Please take time to watch this video.  Listen to the voices of wounded people who have been devastated by the effects of child molestation.  Join us in our journey to expose this evil in the church and to protect our children.

http://vimeo.com/user25627401/2ndannualsexabuseworkshop

Jacob wrestled with God…the Restoration Movement has wrestled with the Holy Spirit. Generally speaking, we have been a movement fond of absolutes. Traditionally and historically we have been a very logical and analytical movement that has put great emphasis on knowledge. Even though God is beyond our comprehension, we have still felt more comfortable with our understanding of God than we have with the Holy Spirit. We feel far more comfortable with Christ than the Holy Spirit he sent us. The Holy Spirit and rational, logical, analytical reasoning just don’t seem to work out as easily for us as it has with Father and Son.

The question of our past has traditionally been “What do we do with the Holy Spirit?” But that is changing. We live in a world that is more open to spirituality than in generations past. We live in a world that is hungry for experience and intimate relationship with God. Information and knowledge is still important but it isn’t on the pedastle for post-moderns as it was with modern generations. The question for this generation isn’t, “What do we do with the Holy Spirit?” but the reverse, “What is the Holy Spirit doing with us?”

This issue on “The Work of the Holy Spirit” will explore the relationship of the Holy Spirit with Christians and congregations today. How is the Spirit moving and working? How desperate are we for the Spirit, to partner with the Spirit and rely whole-heartedly on the work of the Holy Spirit? These are important questions and not always easy ones to pin down. It is vitally important that we wrestle through the relationship we have with the Spirit and cast a real, biblical vision forward for the church’s embrace of the presence and work of the Spirit.

For many the Holy Spirit is an impersonal, imperceptible, and indiscernible force.  Cloaked in mystery, many find it difficult to “get a handle” on the Spirit. The Spirit has no “face” like Jesus nor any personal metaphors, such as parent or husband, like Israel’s God.

Our desire, of course, is not so much to control or manipulate the Spirit as much as it is to have a way of conceiving or visualizing the Spirit’s identity. Without any framework for understanding, we are at a loss to even identify what the Spirit does in our lives much less experience God through the Spirit.

Our pneumatic imagination needs a little help. Paul, I think, offers such. The Spirit appears in practically every chapter of Paul’s letters, and saturates his theology. While “God in Christ” is the center of Paul’s theology, the Spirit is a living, enabling, and enriching presence that connects redeemed humanity with the Redeemer God. We have access, Paul says, to God in Christ “by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).

Without some understanding of the Spirit, then, our experience of God remains in a conceptual wasteland. That is not only lamentable but dangerous. Spiritual discernment entails that we “see” the Spirit at work in our lives or else we will mistake other spirits for the Holy Spirit.

So, what does Paul offer us by way of a conceptual landscape that will help identify the Spirit in our lives. I “see” in Paul a three-fold typology for thinking about the Spirit’s work. This typology is not a box in which to enclose the Spirit, nor is it a gizmo to manipulate the Spirit. Rather, it is a tool to unmask our eyes so that we might “see” what the Spirit is doing–to recognize the Spirit in our lives.

Communion

The Spirit’s foundational is to facilitate communion between God and us. Our communion with God is the “communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:12).

Jesus did not leave us as orphans; instead, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church. This out-pouring is the gifting of God’s presence among us. We are inhabited by God through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22); we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:19). The Spirit is the one through whom we experience God in the present. The Spirit’s presence enables our communion with God; more than that, communion in the Spirit is communion with God.

This presence, which is the fulfillment of God’s presence in the temple in Israel and anticipates the fullness of divine presence in the new heaven and new earth, is how we now live in fellowship with God. We worship in the Spirit (Philippians 3:3), we pray in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18), and we are washed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11).  We are “in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells” in us (Romans 8:9). The Spirit is the air we breathe, and every breath is communion with God.

This communion, of course, is not merely vertical. It is also horizontal, that is, we commune with each other by what we share in the Spirit (Philippians 2:1). We love each other in the Spirit (Colossians 1:8). Because we have all been baptized in the Spirit and have drunk of the same Spirit, we are one body where ethnic, economic, and gender barriers are transcended (1 Corinthians 12:13;  Galatians 3:28).

We “see” the Spirit when we enjoy the sweet fellowship of others, experience the peace and joy of the Spirit in communion with God, and encounter God in the assembly of God’s people as we worship in the Spirit. We must not secularize these moments as if they are produced by our own internal powers. Rather, we relish them and delight in them because we know, by God’s promise, that the Spirit is present to generate them. They are moments where heaven and earth meet in the Spirit.

Transformation

The Spirit communes with us, and this communion is transformative. The Spirit is no passive presence. On the contrary, the Spirit is an active, enabling and transforming presence. The Spirit dwells within us so that we might live in the Spirit.

Salvation involves transformation. Because we are children of God, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts and we experience the intimacy of divine communion. But this is not the end game; it is not God’s goal. This intimacy includes a shared life, and it transforms us. We are increasingly, by the Spirit, transformed (metamorphized!) into the image of Christ from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Holy Spirit is the presence of divine holiness within us, and this holiness bears fruit. Paul called it the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). This is what it means to “live by the Spirit,” that is, it is to manifest a life of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit leads us into a such a life by renewing our hearts, empowering our souls, and moving our wills.

The presence of the Spirit is a necessary first step for such a life, and without that presence there is no transformation that images Jesus who himself was led and empowered by the Spirit. The reality of that presence, however, is evidenced in a holy life as we are “sanctified by the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

We “see” the Spirit when we are patient with the stubborn, when we are kind to the ungrateful, when we are at peace in the midst of the storm, when we are generous with the poor, and when we are gentle with those who disagree. We must not secularize these moments as if they are self-actualizations. Rather, we give thanks that the Spirit is at work in our lives to empower them. We credit the Spirit rather than our programs, our will power, or our own goodness.

Giftedness

God gives the Spirit as a communing and transforming presence. God created to commune with us, and God redeems to transform us. And God goes one step further. God gifts us so that we might participate in the transformation of the world.

“Through the Spirit,” Paul writes, God gives the body of Christ the capacity to serve each other and the world. These “manifestations of the Spirit” are for the “common good,” and the gifts are “activated” and distributed by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:7-8, 11).

It is important, however, to note that presence comes first, then transformation, and finally giftedness. We might think of this as a spiral of activity where there is reciprocity but also movement toward a goal. God dwells in order to commune. That communion transforms us, and, as people in the process of transformation, God gifts us so that we might participate in the mission of God. The gifts are best used by transformed people. This is why 1 Corinthians 13 comes between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Giftedness without love is useless; more than useless, it is detrimental. Transformation must shape the use of the Spirit’s gifts.

Too often the lists of 1 Corinthians 12 become the focus when talking about gifts. Romans 12 also has a list of gifts. The two lists are not the same; in fact, there is little overlap. Neither are exhaustive, and together they are not exhaustive. They are illustrative.

Gifts are whatever capacity we have to participate in the mission of God. Whatever “talent” we use to further the mission of God–whether it is software programming, musical ability, environmental passion—they are divine gifts. Too often we talk about “talents” as if they are natural dispositions independent of God’s work among us. One of the reasons we feel so distant from the Holy Spirit is because we secularize our gifts; we minimize the Spirit’s role. Giftedness, inclusive of “talents,” is a manifestation of the Spirit!

We “see” the Spirit when transformed people (or, better, people in the process of transformation) use their gifts in service to the mission of God, which is the transformation of the whole world. We “see” the Spirit when an environmental biologist cares for the creation, when a nurse compassionately cares for the sick, when a debt mediator reconciles a creditor and a debtor, and when an actor embodies the gospel in a drama (even if the drama never mentions God at all). We “see” the Spirit’s gifts in action when brokenness is healed.

Conclusion

Often we don’t “feel” the Spirit in our lives, and sometimes we misinterpret what the Spirit is doing. There is no promise that we will always “feel” the Spirit, and there is the persistent danger that we will misinterpret what the Spirit does. This is why is it is important to “see” the Spirit through the lens of the biblical narrative, the story of God. Whether we feel the Spirit or not, God has promised the Spirit’s presence, and God has provided a narrative that frames our understanding of the Spirit’s work so that we might “see” the Spirit.

The most significant danger we face, I think, is the minimization of the Spirit. We minimize the Spirit when we secularize what is, in fact, the Spirit’s work. We often fail to “see” the Spirit because we attribute whatever goodness, joy, or warmth we experience to powers other than the Spirit. We fail to “see” the Spirit because we are blinded by our own pride.

The Spirit is personal, discernible, and visible. The Spirit is God among us to transform us into the image of Christ and to gift transformed people with good works for the sake of the body and the world. We “see” the Spirit every day, if only we have eyes to see what God is doing.

For many the Holy Spirit is an impersonal, imperceptible, and indiscernible force.  Cloaked in mystery, many find it difficult to “get a handle” on the Spirit. The Spirit has no “face” like Jesus nor any personal metaphors, such as parent or husband, like Israel’s God.

Our desire, of course, is not so much to control or manipulate the Spirit as much as it is to have a way of conceiving or visualizing the Spirit’s identity. Without any framework for understanding, we are at a loss to even identify what the Spirit does in our lives much less experience God through the Spirit.

Our pneumatic imagination needs a little help. Paul, I think, offers such. The Spirit appears in practically every chapter of Paul’s letters, and saturates his theology. While “God in Christ” is the center of Paul’s theology, the Spirit is a living, enabling, and enriching presence that connects redeemed humanity with the Redeemer God. We have access, Paul says, to God in Christ “by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).

Without some understanding of the Spirit, then, our experience of God remains in a conceptual wasteland. That is not only lamentable but dangerous. Spiritual discernment entails that we “see” the Spirit at work in our lives or else we will mistake other spirits for the Holy Spirit.

So, what does Paul offer us by way of a conceptual landscape that will help identify the Spirit in our lives. I “see” in Paul a three-fold typology for thinking about the Spirit’s work. This typology is not a box in which to enclose the Spirit, nor is it a gizmo to manipulate the Spirit. Rather, it is a tool to unmask our eyes so that we might “see” what the Spirit is doing–to recognize the Spirit in our lives.

Communion

The Spirit’s foundational is to facilitate communion between God and us. Our communion with God is the “communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:12).

Jesus did not leave us as orphans; instead, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church. This out-pouring is the gifting of God’s presence among us. We are inhabited by God through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22); we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:19). The Spirit is the one through whom we experience God in the present. The Spirit’s presence enables our communion with God; more than that, communion in the Spirit is communion with God.

This presence, which is the fulfillment of God’s presence in the temple in Israel and anticipates the fullness of divine presence in the new heaven and new earth, is how we now live in fellowship with God. We worship in the Spirit (Philippians 3:3), we pray in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18), and we are washed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11).  We are “in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells” in us (Romans 8:9). The Spirit is the air we breathe, and every breath is communion with God.

This communion, of course, is not merely vertical. It is also horizontal, that is, we commune with each other by what we share in the Spirit (Philippians 2:1). We love each other in the Spirit (Colossians 1:8). Because we have all been baptized in the Spirit and have drunk of the same Spirit, we are one body where ethnic, economic, and gender barriers are transcended (1 Corinthians 12:13;  Galatians 3:28).

We “see” the Spirit when we enjoy the sweet fellowship of others, experience the peace and joy of the Spirit in communion with God, and encounter God in the assembly of God’s people as we worship in the Spirit. We must not secularize these moments as if they are produced by our own internal powers. Rather, we relish them and delight in them because we know, by God’s promise, that the Spirit is present to generate them. They are moments where heaven and earth meet in the Spirit.

Transformation

The Spirit communes with us, and this communion is transformative. The Spirit is no passive presence. On the contrary, the Spirit is an active, enabling and transforming presence. The Spirit dwells within us so that we might live in the Spirit.

Salvation involves transformation. Because we are children of God, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts and we experience the intimacy of divine communion. But this is not the end game; it is not God’s goal. This intimacy includes a shared life, and it transforms us. We are increasingly, by the Spirit, transformed (metamorphized!) into the image of Christ from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Holy Spirit is the presence of divine holiness within us, and this holiness bears fruit. Paul called it the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). This is what it means to “live by the Spirit,” that is, it is to manifest a life of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit leads us into a such a life by renewing our hearts, empowering our souls, and moving our wills.

The presence of the Spirit is a necessary first step for such a life, and without that presence there is no transformation that images Jesus who himself was led and empowered by the Spirit. The reality of that presence, however, is evidenced in a holy life as we are “sanctified by the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

We “see” the Spirit when we are patient with the stubborn, when we are kind to the ungrateful, when we are at peace in the midst of the storm, when we are generous with the poor, and when we are gentle with those who disagree. We must not secularize these moments as if they are self-actualizations. Rather, we give thanks that the Spirit is at work in our lives to empower them. We credit the Spirit rather than our programs, our will power, or our own goodness.

Giftedness

God gives the Spirit as a communing and transforming presence. God created to commune with us, and God redeems to transform us. And God goes one step further. God gifts us so that we might participate in the transformation of the world.

“Through the Spirit,” Paul writes, God gives the body of Christ the capacity to serve each other and the world. These “manifestations of the Spirit” are for the “common good,” and the gifts are “activated” and distributed by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:7-8, 11).

It is important, however, to note that presence comes first, then transformation, and finally giftedness. We might think of this as a spiral of activity where there is reciprocity but also movement toward a goal. God dwells in order to commune. That communion transforms us, and, as people in the process of transformation, God gifts us so that we might participate in the mission of God. The gifts are best used by transformed people. This is why 1 Corinthians 13 comes between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Giftedness without love is useless; more than useless, it is detrimental. Transformation must shape the use of the Spirit’s gifts.

Too often the lists of 1 Corinthians 12 become the focus when talking about gifts. Romans 12 also has a list of gifts. The two lists are not the same; in fact, there is little overlap. Neither are exhaustive, and together they are not exhaustive. They are illustrative.

Gifts are whatever capacity we have to participate in the mission of God. Whatever “talent” we use to further the mission of God–whether it is software programming, musical ability, environmental passion—they are divine gifts. Too often we talk about “talents” as if they are natural dispositions independent of God’s work among us. One of the reasons we feel so distant from the Holy Spirit is because we secularize our gifts; we minimize the Spirit’s role. Giftedness, inclusive of “talents,” is a manifestation of the Spirit!

We “see” the Spirit when transformed people (or, better, people in the process of transformation) use their gifts in service to the mission of God, which is the transformation of the whole world. We “see” the Spirit when an environmental biologist cares for the creation, when a nurse compassionately cares for the sick, when a debt mediator reconciles a creditor and a debtor, and when an actor embodies the gospel in a drama (even if the drama never mentions God at all). We “see” the Spirit’s gifts in action when brokenness is healed.

Conclusion

Often we don’t “feel” the Spirit in our lives, and sometimes we misinterpret what the Spirit is doing. There is no promise that we will always “feel” the Spirit, and there is the persistent danger that we will misinterpret what the Spirit does. This is why is it is important to “see” the Spirit through the lens of the biblical narrative, the story of God. Whether we feel the Spirit or not, God has promised the Spirit’s presence, and God has provided a narrative that frames our understanding of the Spirit’s work so that we might “see” the Spirit.

The most significant danger we face, I think, is the minimization of the Spirit. We minimize the Spirit when we secularize what is, in fact, the Spirit’s work. We often fail to “see” the Spirit because we attribute whatever goodness, joy, or warmth we experience to powers other than the Spirit. We fail to “see” the Spirit because we are blinded by our own pride.

The Spirit is personal, discernible, and visible. The Spirit is God among us to transform us into the image of Christ and to gift transformed people with good works for the sake of the body and the world. We “see” the Spirit every day, if only we have eyes to see what God is doing.

In the fall of 2007, the Lord began to do a fresh work in my family’s heart. My wife and I had been married for just a couple of years. We both loved our jobs, our church, and the community of people that God had raised up around us. Our first little house was constantly full of friends and family. We hosted Bible studies, cookouts, game nights, and frequent out of town visitors. In those early years, our home was a revolving door of friends and strangers (soon to be friends) alike. It was a fantastic season of life.

As we reflect back on that season, we feel nothing but a deep sense of gratitude for all that God was doing.

It  was in the midst of that season that God began to give birth to a new dream. We sensed God was inviting us to help begin a new expression of His Church through that community that seemed to be accidentally forming all around us.

So in the fall of 2008, along with a handful of close friends and family we started Ethos Church.

The last five and half years have been exciting, exhausting, satisfying, and joy filled. We have celebrated success and picked ourselves up after failing. We have seen many come to Christ, relationships healed, the poor served, and many missionaries commissioned both locally and globally. It has been an amazing adventure, and only God can take credit for what He has done.

There are countless stories and decisions that have shaped our church’s culture over the last 5 years, but for the sake of brevity, I want to share 3 choices that continue to shape us deeply.

ONE : WE WILL BE OUTWARD.

First, we have decided that if our church was in the shipping business, we would be in the business of exporting not importing. In other words, our primary goal is to export our people for the good of our city not merely import the people of our city for the good of our church. As I look at the scriptures, the marching orders of Jesus to his followers seems to be quite clear — “we go to them.” Jesus has not called us to build a great church. That is his job. Jesus has called us to reach a city.

This understanding of Christ and His mission has shaped virtually every aspect of how our church family functions. It shapes the way we gather on Sundays, spend our money, organize our time, and hire our staff. When it came time to find the spaces in which our multiple campuses and services would gather each Sunday—our goal was simple. We wanted just enough space to gather our people around God on Sunday for the purpose of then deploying them into the city for mission. We wholeheartedly believe that when Jesus Christ is the Lord of our lives, the arrows of our church’s heart will always face outward.

TWO : WE WILL BE MOBILE.
Second, we have decided that in order for our church to be effective in sharing the gospel, we must fight hard to stay mobile. In a culture that is rapidly changing, to be anything but mobile is nothing short of a death sentence. Although our church is quite large, we have intentionally chosen to operate in a way that is simple and small. If our church were a boat floating down a river, we want to be more like a pack of tugboats traveling together than a giant barge. Although a giant barge can carry more freight, it is far too cumbersome to turn or maneuver. A tugboat is quick and responsive, and more importantly it is strong enough to pull something much larger than itself into port.

This imagery has helped us continually find ways to keep a unified mission while constantly decentralizing ministry. After 5 years of ministry, we still have a week to week lease on the buildings we gather in for worship. This might sound crazy, but we find it liberating. We use a small staff to mobilize and release hundreds of volunteer leaders. If our volunteer leaders can’t drive the ministry, we aren’t ready to start it. These leaders pastor house churches, care for people, visit the sick, preach weddings and funerals, lead ministry opportunities locally and globally, and so much more. We’ve discovered that a lot of people carrying a little bit of weight, can carry much more than a few people trying to carry the whole load. This mobility has been essential as we continually try to reach a changing culture with an unchanging Gospel.

THREE : WE WILL BE CENTERED.

Finally, above all else, we strive to be centered on the person, presence, and promises of Jesus Christ. We firmly believe that every trend, fad, and methodology will pass. We know that even our tiny expression of the local church will eventually close its doors, but the name of Jesus will never fade. His church will never be stopped. His kingdom will never be slowed.

So for us, every choice we make revolves around keeping Jesus at the center of our church and our lives. We preach Jesus boldly. We listen for his voice with expectancy. We invite people to Jesus unashamedly.

We believe our mission as followers of Christ begins with the finished work of Jesus. He has paved the way. He has paid the price. He is present with us. He will teach, guide, correct, encourage, rebuke, and protect. He will draw men and women to himself. He is our great shepherd, and our deepest source of joy and comfort. When Christ is at the center, everything else will be quite alright.

Dave Clayton loves God, his wife Sydney, and his two boys Micah & Jack. In the late fall of 2008, Dave & Sydney, along with a small group of friends, planted Ethos Church in the heart of downtown Nashville. Ethos Church is a young, urban church passionate about reaching the lost, serving the poor, and planting churches all over the world. Ethos Church currently meets in a variety of locations and has congregations in Nashville, TN and Eastern India. Dave is passionate about helping a new generation of men and women love God, love people, and awaken the movement that Jesus began.