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Archives for April, 2014

April has been a very busy month for this over-committed preacher/student/teacher/writer/mother/wife, so I wasn’t able to write something new for this month’s issue of “Being Church” like I had hoped. Instead, I’ve included below the text of my talk from the Sunday that the Stamford Church of Christ announced that I was going to start working there as an Assistant Ministry (July 7, 2013). This text already exists on the web at Gal328, and the audio can be heard on Stamford’s sermon player if you scroll down far enough.

I’m including it as part of this issue of Wineskins because it does begin to get at an aspect of “what it means to be church” that is important to me, which is “staying put.” It is *very* important that you understand that I am not saying that *all* people ought to stay in Churches of Christ specifically, although that is the decision I have made. I am only speaking personally: for me, being church means staying put in the tradition that raised me even though that has not always been easy. And for others, I think being church means at least listening to the voices of those who may experience church differently than you, regardless of whether you agree with them. For that reason, I think this (but more importantly, the other “voices of experience” available at Gal328), are an important part of an issue on the topic of “Being Church.”

My call to ministry has been less like a Burning Bush or a Damascus Road situation, and more like an awareness of personal skills and life situations that make a particular path a good fit. My path is made up of steps that, only in retrospect, show that God was leading me to ministry, to what turns out to be this moment. Dale has already given you a sketch, but I’d like to share more with you about a few of those formative moments.

I was raised in the Church of Christ. My parents gave me a love of church. We were there Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Saturday youth group, summer church camp, potlucks (though we called them fellowship meals), small groups, picnics, work days…you name it, we did it. And church wasn’t just somewhere we went, it was what we did and who we were – you can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ’cause the church is you – you know. My parents’ best friends were from church and my best friends were their kids. We lived in community. Churches of Christ were my people. And these were the people who gave me a love of Scripture: reading it, studying it, memorizing it, Bible Bowling it – even teaching it (to other girls and in children’s church, of course).

When I was deciding where to go for college, I only considered Church of Christ schools; I chose Rochester College (in Michigan). I started out as an English major, then became a Bible major because those were the classes I was most excited to attend. But I was intentionally “just” a Biblical Studies major, decidedly not a ministry major. My intention was to go on to get a PhD and teach college Bible courses. But even Biblical Studies majors have to take a preaching course, which I put off literally as long as I could, until my Senior year. And in that class I discovered that I loved preaching, that I was good at it even. But at this point, I didn’t think it was worth fighting over or fighting for. Upon graduation, I planned to pursue the M.Div., but, again, for the purpose of going on to a PhD and teaching college Bible courses.

For my M.Div., I chose another Church of Christ school, Abilene Christian University. This was the first time I had female classmates who wanted to minister in Churches of Christ; at Rochester the only other female Biblical Studies major was also “in it for academics” – at least at the time. So my first passion regarding gender justice in Churches of Christ was advocacy-based. It wasn’t for me; it was for my friends. Again, I put off taking the required preaching course until my last semester. Again, I found that I loved it. And again, it was confirmed that I was good at it. But this time around, I also found that I wanted to do it, that it was worth fighting for. What had started out as advocacy had turned into hope. Abilene is also where I met and married Jamey, who was planning to do a PhD and teach Bible at the college level.

These two factors led me to reconsider my long-held plan of doing a PhD: First, since it is unlikely that Jamey and I would receive tenure-track teaching positions at the same university in the same department. But second, and mostly, because I was ready to admit that my plans to teach were at least partially denial. (I was also able to teach a few undergraduate courses at ACU, and found that to be something that I enjoy and have skill in as well, so this is not to say that teaching is nowhere in my future; just that I was hiding behind it.) I was afraid that being honest, with myself and with others, about my desire to preach would open the floodgates, that it would consume my life and make it impossible for me to both be faithful to who God had made me to be and to continue to love God’s people. It turns out there was good reason for this fear. My initial steps toward speaking out for gender justice in Churches of Christ were met with anger, resentment, condemnation, judgment, disappointment, and confusion – by complete strangers and, more painfully, by some very close to me.

It was in the midst of this that we moved to Princeton for my husband’s PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary. In this time of transition, as we searched for a church home, I thought of leaving Churches of Christ so that I could more easily find work in a church. In fact many people suggested that I do just that – some suggested it to get rid of me, others suggested it out of concern for my spiritual health. I thought of it, but I never really considered it. I could no more leave Churches of Christ as I could leave my family. Just as I will always be my parents’ daughter, I will always be Church of Christ. Even if I stopped attending a Church of Christ and attended another church, Churches of Christ would not stop being my people. They are the tribe that formed me, that instilled in me the very gifts I now want to use for ministry. Although I am certainly not what my church intended or could ever have imagined, the fact remains that it made me who I am.

And, again, there’s the question of advocacy. I have other female friends who want to preach. I have nieces. I have friends with daughters. Maybe someday Jamey and I will have a daughter. There are women, young and old, many of whom I have never met, who have been silenced and ignored. If everyone who wants Churches of Christ to change leaves, what will become of them? I felt – I still feel – that as long as God gives me the strength to stay, in fact even on the days that I’m not so sure I have that strength, Churches of Christ are where I’ll be.

This commitment is what brought us here to Stamford, even though it is a two-hour drive from Princeton. I had heard about Stamford in undergrad at Rochester from my friend and fellow soccer player, Hudney Piquant, who attended here. I had heard about Stamford while at ACU, that it was one of the few Churches of Christ in the country who had welcomed women into its pulpit. I had heard about Stamford from Justin and Kat Burton, who Jamey knew in undergrad. So we visited, and we could tell from just one Sunday that things were different here. This is the type of church that we wanted to attend. In fact, this is the type of church that I wanted to work for and work with in embodying the mission of God in the world.

Those are the steps that brought me here. Like Jonah, I ran and hid and denied a little bit along the way; I’ll even admit that I have cursed my share of leafy trees. But it is clear to me looking back on my story so far that God was shaping me – through parents who modeled community life and gave me a love of church, through a community that encouraged in me a love of Scripture, through preaching classes I did not want to take, through professors and mentors, and through a hundred other people, skills, and situations – to minister to God’s people.

And it’s clear to me from Dale’s story that God was shaping you to be the kind of church that would provide space for me to minister – though it may be risky socially for all of us, though it may be costly monetarily for all of us, though it is always difficult to commit to live together in community.

So, as I stand here today, I have many emotions. I am excited. I am grateful. I’m a bit scared. But I’m confident that God will use you in this next year to shape and challenge me in ministry, and I’m hopeful that God can use me to shape and challenge you as well. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but I can’t wait to see what the God who clears a path through roaring waters, who reveals a way in the wilderness, who makes a stream in the dessert, and who provides a ministry position in Churches of Christ for a woman (!) will do among us in the next year.

It was hard for many to imagine this day would come. But, to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory in the church – in this church, in you, and in me – to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen!

One of the main words that comes to mind when reading Acts is the word “fluid”…they were on the move and they were nimble. They were adaptable…able to move and shift in necessary ways to continue being and doing the things they had been called to be and to do. When persecution broke out, they scattered. When they scattered, they took the Gospel message with them (Acts 8:1-4). It didn’t take a quarter long class in how to reach your neighbor to reach the lost. It doesn’t appear they needed that because their faith in the risen Lord was everything to them. Like the mustard plant, the kingdom reflected by the early believers, was invasive…it couldn’t be contained. It spread…and spread…and spread…just like Jesus said it would.

It didn’t spread as much by brick and mortar as it did by organic, relational outreach.

Paul vs. James
When I think of someone who was very fluid in his approach to ministry in the book of Acts, I can’t help but think of Paul. There were seasons Paul stayed put and ministered for several years, like in Ephesus and Corinth. But Paul was very much like the people of Israel in the wilderness…moving when the cloud moved and stopping where it stopped. Only with Paul, replace the cloud and the fire with the Holy Spirit, a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16) or even Jesus Christ giving him direction (Acts 9 – Saul’s conversion). Paul ran into Lydia by a river and Onesimus in prison. He met people like Aquila and Priscilla who were tent makers like he was. He ran into people on boats, in synagogues and in marketplaces like in Acts 19.

Church wasn’t a place to Paul…it was a people. When you see church that way…the potential for “church” is all around us…in every single person we meet lies the inherent potential for kingdom impact and growth. When you see church that way it isn’t as institutional as it is adaptable.

This doesn’t mean everyone has to be nimble or that we should all transition from whatever ministry we are doing to be church planters. James spent his whole ministry building up the church in Jerusalem…he never followed up on the rest of Acts 1:8 (Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth) but died a martyrs death still in Jerusalem where the whole thing began. He was more static than he was fluid…and he accomplished a lot as well.

We need both, while still addressing the very real imbalance
The point is we need both. The problem is not that one is more important than the other…the problem is imbalance combined with an insufficient definition of what church is. I believe the definition of “church” of the typical Christian is far more shaped by tradition than it is by scripture. This is something we need to work on and allow the New Testament room to tell a better story of what church is all about than the definitions we arrived at while preparing our talking points against other Christian groups.

So when the vast majority of what you do is static and we no longer have enough flexibility to adjust, much less a Gospel culture that was as invasive to the world around them as it was in the first century…we need to reclaim our nimbleness…our flexibility and fluidity…not to the exclusion of those who root themselves in one place for decades but in partnership with them. Some send and some go. Some plant and others water. But we are all still serving the same God and working in the same kingdom.

So what do we do about this? One word – stretch. We need to stretch our comfort zones. We need to stretch our love for God and others. We need to stretch our knowledge of scripture and the story God is telling through its pages. We won’t become fluid and nimble until we stretch. So let’s put on an audio version of the New Testament and begin our stretching routine, starting with the next person God puts in front of us.

There are a few things we wanted to make you all aware of looking ahead. First is the site. Our current site is a magazine style platform that allows us compile articles and issues together in some really great ways. The downside of the way it is structured is that RSS doesn’t recognize new articles. An additional issue has been that email subscriptions only work with posts, not articles. That is why, if you have subscribed to the site, you haven’t gotten notifications of new posts.

We are working on a new layout and new post types that will allow us to keep the magazine functionality while also getting the articles to you via email/RSS. I am sorry for any inconvenience that has caused you and I am happy to say that we are aware of this and are making the necessary changes to address it in the near future with a complete site re-design that will highlight more than just the articles but also the other features we have built and continue to build for the site. Some of the things we have included in the site are:

Job board – a place for churches to post ministry openings
Forums – a place to discuss a variety of issues
Monthly issues – just like in the past, we continue to host monthly themes that we write toward.
Archive of past issues – go and read any article from past issues of Wineskins all the way back to the beginning!

And something brand new – Commentary from our writers. We are building a scripture index of all of the posts so that if you want to see what any of our writers past or present have written on a given verse you can easily look it up.
Old Testament “commentary”
New Testament “commentary”

Thank you for reading Wineskins! Let us know if you have any feedback!

There are a few things we wanted to make you all aware of looking ahead. First is the site. Our current site is a magazine style platform that allows us compile articles and issues together in some really great ways. The downside of the way it is structured is that RSS doesn’t recognize new articles. An additional issue has been that email subscriptions only work with posts, not articles. That is why, if you have subscribed to the site, you haven’t gotten notifications of new posts.

We are working on a new layout and new post types that will allow us to keep the magazine functionality while also getting the articles to you via email/RSS. I am sorry for any inconvenience that has caused you and I am happy to say that we are aware of this and are making the necessary changes to address it in the near future with a complete site re-design that will highlight more than just the articles but also the other features we have built and continue to build for the site. Some of the things we have included in the site are:

Job board – a place for churches to post ministry openings
Forums – a place to discuss a variety of issues
Monthly issues – just like in the past, we continue to host monthly themes that we write toward.
Archive of past issues – go and read any article from past issues of Wineskins all the way back to the beginning!

And something brand new – Commentary from our writers. We are building a scripture index of all of the posts so that if you want to see what any of our writers past or present have written on a given verse you can easily look it up.
Old Testament “commentary”
New Testament “commentary”

Thank you for reading Wineskins! Let us know if you have any feedback!

A year ago our congregation was visited by a family of five – wife, husband, and three kids. They looked like the kind of family every church secretly covets; good-looking, educated, well-ordered, and young. From all accounts they enjoyed our fellowship. They were already familiar with several members of our church and their energy was obvious. After three weeks, I felt confident they would join our congregation and mission.

They didn’t.

After three weeks, they never came back. I can’t say why they left.I suspect that after a lengthy questioning of me after worship service, I didn’t dislike the same people they disliked and I didn’t read the Christian books they read, and I didn’t listen to the same preachers they listened to.

The same event occurred when a gentleman left our congregation because he couldn’t find the Bible I preached from, The Voice, at the local Lifeway Store. What’s more, collecting the offering before the sermon was a bridge too far for him. After all, if the sermon was good that day, he might be inclined to give a little more.

If you suspect my stories are wild outliers, sit down with your preacher or church leaders and have them share a few stories of their own.

Church can be a mixed-up, confused, and debatable entity – mostly because it means so much and can mean so many different things to different people.

Standing Ovations
For most people, church is a place where particular “performances” occur – singing, preaching, communion, and, good heavens, announcements. We don’t like to call them performances, but that’s how we think of them.

Performance – in part – is why preachers podcast, worship bands record and tour, and parishioners “join” churches they “like.” Performance-thinking has almost solely produced the contemporary imagination of the American church. From the blessings and ills of mega-churches, to the rise of celebrity pastors, to conference groupies, to small church anxieties about being “good enough,” to the revolving door of church members groping for a church where they are “fed” and “fits their learning style,” American churches are experiencing performance anxiety.

In short: If we like the performance then church is a benefit, if we don’t, we’re out. Collectively, American Christians have transformed church life into an episode of Iron Chef; let’s sample the offerings then declare a winner based solely on our taste.

But our tastes are the precise disease the church exists to cure.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of church and worship, he never speaks of performance. He doesn’t even speak of membership or joining. Paul’s language is much more gritty. Paul uses the word “body.”

In Paul’s oft-quoted, but seldom lived words about worship, the Apostle connects true worship with transformation and the renewing of the mind.

“Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete. ”

-Romans 12:2

Over the last 20 years or so, this connection has helped many of us understand worship as more than what happens on Sunday. We eagerly proclaim that worship is connected to all of life,the day-to-day, the routine and mundane. Yet even in this acknowledgment, we somehow manage to cut Paul off at the knees and fail to grasps the deeper, more meaningful message.

For Paul, worship is not merely connected to daily actions, it’s connected to transformation and transformation is the aim of church.

He writes,

“Because of the grace allotted to me, I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are; devote your minds to sound judgment since God has assigned to each of us a measure of faith. For in the same way that one body has so many different parts, each with different functions; we, too—the many—are different parts that form one body in the Anointed One.  Each one of us is joined with one another, and we become together what we could not be alone.”
– Romans 12:3-5

A Church At Odds

When Paul writes to churches in Rome, he pens his letter to Christians at odds. The Jewish and Gentile believers don’t care much for one another and if it were up to them they’d just as well go their own way. Like us, they’d select a church of their own liking, one, presumably, filled with folks that looked like them, talked like them, and fit their needs.

Paul is not concerned about their needs. He’s consumed with their transformation.

And before we hoop, holler, and cheer for transformation, we need to be honest and remember that when it comes to transformation, we seldom like it. We remember well our attempts at previous transformations – losing weight, getting out of debt, beginning to take God seriously, re-imagining our marriage amid hard times, readjusting to the management of our children when required, and the like.

Transformation, by its nature, is stressful, uncomfortable, and difficult. It ask us to submit to an alternative way of being — an alternative way of being that we could not and would not choose.

This being the universal case, perhaps the worst decision we can make when contemplating our church life is choosing one we like. An overweight, out-of-shape man has already chosen how many sit-ups are appropriate: None. That’s the way he stays overweight and out-of-shape.

Choosing a church (or non-church) where we “fit,” may be the strongest guarantee that we will never be asked to change. This, I suspect, is why we do it.

In church, as in the rest of life, we don’t want transformation as much as we say we do. We’d rather have comfort.

Being Church

The best thing many of us could do is envisage church as an opportunity to embrace that which is outside of us, that which does not – at least on the surface – appeal to what we already are.

Being church requires actions and activities that we wouldn’t otherwise choose. While being church, we are placed among people we might not like to participate in activities we may not choose at a time we might find inconvenient in a manner we may not fit our style, in order to become, in the words of Paul, “what we could not be alone.”

After Jimmy Hinton’s previous article on “Protecting Our Children from Pedophiles” I asked him to write a follow up piece about what we can do as Christians to continue to understand how to interact with people who struggle with this as they are people just as in need of Jesus as anyone else. This article is Jimmy’s response to that question. Jimmy just presented on this at Tulsa last week and has some recommendations for churches in this article. We may not all agree on how this is handled but the conversation is as relevant and necessary as ever. Last, like Jimmy’s first article, there are some difficult things to read in this article but they are left in because this conversation is so vitally important that we are able to provide space to have an open and honest conversation on these things. – Matt

This is a subject that is deeply personal to me and I write from the perspective of someone whose dad is currently serving a life sentence for sex crimes against children.  To make it more personal, my dad is the former minister at the same exact church where I now preach.  To make it even more personal, I was the one approached by one of his victims three years ago.  Three days later I reported my own father to the police, which eventually led to his confessions and subsequent 30-60 year prison sentence.  My dad and I still communicate fairly often and have frank conversations about how he was able to abuse over 20 children and keep it hidden from us his whole life.  He once wrote from prison, “You have no idea how many pedophiles there are in the church.”  But there’s where he is wrong.

Now that I write and speak on this subject, I encounter stories of pedophiles in the church on a regular basis.  It literally is an epidemic.  We are fooling ourselves to believe otherwise.  I just returned from Tulsa, where I spoke on abuse.  Nearly ½ of attendees stayed after and told me stories of their or close family members’ abuse. . . horrible stories.  Did you catch that?  50% of my audience had either been abused themselves or had a close family member who had.  This is my experience everywhere I speak.  There have been no exceptions.

There seems to be a nagging question to a private problem in the church—“Is child molestation the unforgivable sin?”  I’ve heard a wide range of answers to this question.  Some liken it to Paul who approved of the murders of Christians but then had a “Jesus moment” and became an apostle of the Lord.  “Who are we to judge them if they’ve repented?,” the argument goes.  Others argue that, since there is no cure for pedophilia, they will never be able to change.  Therefore, we should not allow them in the church at all.

And so I offer my perspective—not to spark debate, but because I am in a unique position.  I know some of my dad’s victims personally and have heard their stories.  I am haunted by that.  I listen to similar stories everywhere I go, and they are always equally painful to hear.  I do not write as the final authority on this matter.  Each congregation must make its own wise decisions.  But I offer you my perspective as a minister of the Gospel and as one who knows the thought patterns of both pedophiles and their victims.

I will state my view upfront, then explain why this is my view.  I believe that, while pedophiles can and should repent, the church is not in a position to welcome them into the assembly where children are present.  In fact, we have written into our policy that any known sex offenders will be removed from regular worship and will be offered an alternative worship with a group of adults only.  This can be at the church building or in a home.  But for them to participate in worship with children present is an act of sheer insensitivity and irresponsibility.

Let’s begin with pedophiles (I am limiting the scope of this essay to pedophiles only).  The medical definition of a pedophile is (1) someone who is aroused by, has intense, recurring fantasies, or is involved in sexual behaviors with prepubescent children (13 or younger), (2) someone who is aroused by, has sexual fantasies, or is involved with a child for at least 6 months, (3) someone who is at least 16 years old, and (4) at least 5 years older than the child(ren) he or she is attracted to.  Pedophiles generally have cognitive distortions (self-lies) which they truly believe.  While they groom their victims to think that the victim initiated sexual contact, ironically the pedophile also tells himself that the victim came on to him.  There is a flat-out denial of responsibility here.  Put another way, pedophiles tend to view themselves as the victim of the children who “came on to” them.  One man, after assaulting his young daughter, told investigators, “I slipped on a bar of soap and my penis just went into her.”  Another man, who repeatedly assaulted his 4 year old daughter, said that his daughter liked to rub her foot up and down his penis.  He went on, “She ‘loves’ to orgasm.  I’ll get her a vibrator.  She’ll hold the handle against her peepee and giggle until she climaxes” (Salter, 18).

It sounds too extraordinary to be true, but these types of stories are the norm.  And they don’t seem to change with therapy or verbal repentance.  And they are prevalent in the church.  Listen to this excerpt:

I want to describe a child molester I know very well.  This man was raised by devout Christian parents.  As a child he rarely missed church.  Even after he became an adult, he was faithful as a church member.  He was a straight A student in high school and college.  He has been married and has a child of his own.  He coached Little League baseball.  He was a choir director at his church.  He never used any illegal drugs.  He never had a drink of alcohol.  He was considered a clean-cut, all-American boy.  Everyone seemed to like him.  He was a volunteer in numerous civic community functions.  He had a well-paying career job.  He was considered “well-to-do” in society.  But from the age of thirteen years old he sexually molested little boys.  He never victimized a stranger.  All of his victims were friends…I know this child molester very well because he is me! (Salter, 36-37).

Mr. Raines, the man quoted above, was in prison for a short time then was let out on parole.  He almost immediately infiltrated a church and became the director of the children’s choir.  He was incarcerated two more times after this.  Dr. Salter, who met him in prison says, “I believe in my heart the next time Mr. Raines gets out of prison, he will successfully ingratiate himself in youth activities in a church once more.  He will do this even though he now has at least three criminal convictions for child molestation and likely more, all of which any church could have discovered.  But who will check criminal records for such an outstanding, polite, well-spoken young man?  After all, volunteers are hard to come by” (Salter, 37).

I could go on and on and give example after example of this.  Perceived repentance, tears of sorrow, promises to never do it again, stories that minimize what actually went on during the abuse—these are ploys to gain access to children.  Pedophiles successfully molest children without us adults knowing it.  This is what makes them successful.  And here’s the catch—churches are welcoming them with warm embraces in the name of Jesus.

Let’s talk about victims of abuse for a moment.  An estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys has been sexually abused as a child.  I thought this number was exaggerated until experience told me otherwise.  At every place I’ve spoken, more than ¼ of the audience revealed to me that they were molested or raped as children.  And these are just the ones who are talking about it.  I suspect there are more.  I’ve heard firsthand the horror stories.  “I tried to tell people—my mom, people at church—but nobody believed me and my dad continued to molest me until I was 16.”  Another one, with tears rolling down her face, says to me, “I was forced to forgive him and was told that if I didn’t I would be kicked out of church.”

The gospel I read gives a different picture.  Victims and the vulnerable—not the attackers—are supposed to be protected.   Jesus did it with the woman caught in adultery.  He did it with the woman at the well in Samaria.  And don’t forget his infamous fightin’ words: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6 ESV).  I know that we could go round and round with verses, some on forgiveness and mercy, others on judgment.  That is not the point here.  Believe me, I wrestle with this on a daily basis.  I wish we could see a clean-cut version of crystal-clear repentance and redemption where we don’t have to question whether someone is still abusing children.  But I also know what reality looks like with abusers, and it’s not promising.

What’s worse is that many churches are unknowingly siding with child abusers by allowing them into services with children.  Imagine, for a moment, that you are in the shoes of a survivor of abuse.  At 3 years old (my daughter’s age), you are forced to perform oral sex on your uncle when he takes you out for ice cream.  You are told, as many victims of abuse are, that this is what good little boys and girls do, and that this is what God wants you to do.  You believe that the sex is your fault, and that if you tell everyone else will think it’s your fault.  So you keep it inside, as 95% of abused children do.  Fast forward a few years.  You are (reluctantly) at church.  An elder gets up and tells the church that brother George has had attractions to children but has repented and we need to love him as Jesus does, no questions asked.  “Forgive and forget,” he says.  Warm hugs are exchanged and tears are streaming down their cheeks.  Meanwhile George, as he’s walking back to his seat, tussles your hair along the way.  In an instant, you begin reliving your childhood abuse all over again.  These are the things that re-victimize children all the time.  A survivor of abuse once told me, with her head in her hands, “How the hell can I ever trust God or the church again?”  Until we protect our children and the vulnerable, it’s not going to happen.

In conclusion, experience and education prove that pedophilia is a strong evil.  Manipulation, lies, and secrecy drive the engine of sexual abuse.  Because it is so secretive, it is impossible to gauge whether a sex offender is ever truly repentant.  Good hard statistics show that the vast majority of sex offenders re-offend when put back into a high risk setting, such as a church.  Why?  Because they are tempted by children and because we give them access to the drug of their choice.  I believe that, with good treatment and lots of prayer, pedophiles can repent.  But make no mistake—they will always be attracted to children.  And because they are attracted to children, and because they have successfully offended in the past, and because survivors of abuse fear their presence, and because we are called to protect the vulnerable, when we invite them in a gathering with children, and because there is no true test to know if they’ve repented, and because they prey on the naivety of church members, and because sexual abuse has such devastating spiritual, mental, and emotional effects, we owe it to everybody to keep children and sex offenders separate.  Period.

So what place do pedophiles have in the church?  Repentant pedophiles have no place with children any more than drug addicts have with drugs.  But they do have a place in the kingdom.  They still can volunteer in activities that exclude children.  They still can serve, pray, even teach in the alternate service.  Pedophiles need community the same as everyone else.  God designed us to desire community.  To exclude sex offenders from redemption is to play the part of God.  We cannot decide whether God’s grace has covered them or not.  We pray for the redemption of pedophiles the same as every other one of us sinners.  We serve the same God.  But to not take measures to protect the innocent is Christian malpractice.

It doesn’t take long on the internet to find a negative view of church. The criticism runs the gamut from atheists to ministers…it seems as easy as ever to be critical of church. We have far more people casting a negative view of the church than we do proactive and intentional people who are casting a positive and healthy view and vision for the future of the church. Maybe that’s because it is easier to criticize than it is to do the hard work…week in and week out…of dealing with the difficulties of ministry and real people.

It is vitally important that we give a platform to hear more from people who are doing the later.

That doesn’t mean criticism is unimportant or unwarranted. It is important that we listen to the criticism and learn whatever we can from it, especially when we hear the same things over and over again. But it is even more important that we assess our ecclesiology to make sure we are adequately holding an ecclesiology that is both biblical and relevant. It is important that we listen to those who have found a positive path for the church in a culture that doesn’t have a positive view of church. We need to be telling and hearing stories of how God is still at work among us so that we can learn to rely on God to lead us through difficult times. This heightened since of negativity doesn’t negate the fact that God is still at work through the church…we need to do a better job of highlighting and celebrating those moments.

In this issue of Wineskins our intention is to paint a better vision of church. The reason church gets a bad wrap isn’t because the Bible isn’t relevant or that God isn’t present and working among His people but because real people are involved and when real people are involved life gets messy…If we are willing to dive into the messiness of real life, just as Jesus was willing, and bring peace and wholeness and love and life and light into those dark situations we will find a life and vitality in the church that may be lacking.

Last, it feels at times like we have lost our way, even our identity…Sixty years ago we knew our distinctives and it seemed the world cared. Churches of Christ were on the fast track and one of the fastest growing Christian groups in America. As the world changed to care less and less about how different groups of Christians were distinctive or more right than the rest we have struggled to find our footing. What we valued no longer seemed to matter. Thriving ministry quickly turned to nostalgia and questioning. What is interesting is the path our Movement took is a very well known path that congregations take as outlined in Robert Dale’s book “To Dream Again” where he outlines the life-cycle of congregations. His diagram shows how churches begin with a dream and goals and as they attain the dream through their maturation of their ministries that if the church isn’t able to re-dream and re-vision a new future for the congregation that the congregation will slide into nostalgia, questioning and death. Here is his chart,

ToDreamAgainDaleChart

Where are we on this chart? Where is your congregation on this chart and what needs to be done to keep moving up and not take the turn downward? The bigger question is not how many churches are in these stages but how do you find the healthy path forward depending on what stage you are in? It is vitally important that we are able to dream again. It is important that we know in our hearts that our better days are not behind us but before us. It is important that we listen to those who have been in established churches and made the transition through the nostalgia, through the questioning and even through the polarization, dropout and near death to thrive once more with new dreams goals and ministries that honor and glorify God. It is also important that we learn from our church planters and the lessons and experiences they have had in starting new ministries.

So let’s listen in and see what we can learn, what dreams we can capture and what trails we can blaze and/or discover from others.

councilofelders

When I mention “elders” in a Church of Christ forum, I immediately receive a negative reaction, as though all elders in the Churches of Christ are just awful — troll-like, even — just like in the illustration.

And yet our elders don’t ordain themselves. Every church I’m familiar with requires the members to nominate candidates and to comment on the scriptural qualifications of the elders — and yet it appears that we keep ordaining unqualified men. In fact, I get the sense that there’s a desperate unhappiness within many of our congregations regarding whom we’ve chosen to be our elders.

In short, we picture our elderships as much like the Council of Elders in World of WarCraft — a roomful of trolls who’ve been granted powers that make them into enemies who ought to be defeated — and certainly not submitted to. Read more »

This is the last in a series on how one traditional church and traditional youth ministry took steps to transition to an approach where the parents were equipped to disciple their children. We are including all four parts in a pdf that you can download and/or pass along to any ministers or churches you know who are trying to figure out this transition. The more youth ministers I talk with the more I am hearing this conversation come up. It may be the most widely discussed topic in youth ministry circles at this point in time. Our hope is that these articles from Joel Singleton and previously from Duncan Campbell (also in this issue) will help spark some insight into how to actually make this work. Download the PDF of Joel’s articles here and Download Duncan’s here.

In the last 3 posts I have written about: (1) the state of youth ministry and the family, (2) a philosophy of ministry, (3) a theology of youth ministry, (4) and the nuts and bolts of a multi-year strategy.  In this last post I’d like to tell two stories that highlight the difference between traditional youth ministry and what I would call “faith-at-home youth ministry.”

I had been doing ministry for 5 years when I had my first “youth ministry is broken” epiphany.  I had been doing what I had considered my best ministry, but the walls of traditional youth ministry began to crumble.  One student’s fall from faith caused a painful rupture in my belief in traditional youth ministry.  This student had a poor family life and was someone who I had considered at-risk for losing their faith in God.  As the youth minister, I had become a replacement parent to this student in many ways.  I would regularly be called for advice, counseling, support, and biblical perspectives on life.  This teen desperately needed stable adults because of difficult relationships within her family.  I had become the proud adopted parent of a 6th grader.  I had watched and guided this student from a young student into a junior in high school along each arduous step.  She was a mainstay in our youth ministry.  She was present for almost every event and for nearly every class and worship service.   However, in what seemed like an instant this student’s commitment to God and church vanished. This student chose to disconnect from church altogether.  This teen rejected youth group, Christian peer influence, my influence, and the influence of almost every caring adult at church.  There was no warning nor any explanation of her departure from faith.  There was nothing I nor anyone else at church could say or do about it.  We were cut off.  This teen had become involved in a sexual relationship at school and couldn’t face me or others at church.  It was at that moment that I realized how quickly a youth minster, youth group, and a church could be sidelined at the whim of any teenager.  I spoke to the parents of this teen. They were unwilling and unmotivated to help their teens see God or their faith differently.  They were unwilling to have a conversation challenging her choices and decisions to walk away from church and from God.  They wouldn’t even entertain the thought of challenging her sexual relationship that had many implications for her and for their family.  For years I had been working with this student growing her faith, and her parents had been undoing much of the growth over her 5 years.  Somehow I failed to see how this was a time-bomb waiting to lay waste to the years of youth ministry support.

I foolishly overestimated my influence and the influence of the youth group, and vastly underestimated the influence of her parents. Why was I surprised that her parents wouldn’t help her back onto the right path?  They considered themselves “Christians,” however, this student’s Mom was emotionally distant from anything spiritual, and Dad had strained relationships with everyone in the family.  Mom didn’t want to talk about faith with her children, and Dad didn’t know how.  How could I expect the student to become a genuine disciple if her parents weren’t genuine disciples themselves?  I had assumed that the best ministry practice was to leave the chaos of this student’s home-life untouched, while I transformed her spiritual life apart from her home.  This is the normal practice of traditional youth ministry.  The phrase,  “Disciple the teens, despite the family,” is an unspoken truth embedded into bedrock of traditional youth ministry.   The more I processed this student’s past the more I realized that traditional youth ministry was broken.

If this student’s story was an isolated incident, I would carry the scars of her story, but would continue ministry as normal.  I know that every minister has regrets and lessons that they have learned.  Yet this student’s story isn’t isolated. Every youth minister I have talked to has a story just like mine.  The names were different, the family make-up was varied, but the endings of these stories were all the same. The students from Godless families, who the youth ministry thought would be glaring examples of what their ministry accomplishes, had instead turned into glaring examples of the limitations and failure of traditional youth ministry.

It took me the better part of three years to make what seemed like minuscule changes within our youth ministry.  Yet the moment when I realized how far we had journeyed came in a remarkably similar situation to the story of the student told above.

We had another student in our youth ministry who had a difficult home life. Her Mom was spiritually and emotionally distant and her Dad had a strained relationships with her and her siblings.  Yet within this family context our new plan for ministry began to increase the likelihood that this student would remain in faith.  I knew I couldn’t fix all of the family dynamics. The reality was by the time our church knew about the family problems, talks of divorce had already begun in the home.  This student’s mom wouldn’t meet with me, but her Dad was motivated to help the faith of his children.  He didn’t know how to talk to them about faith or where to start.  He had been shut out of many of the details of his daughter’s life because of prior conversations that had escalated into heated yelling matches. He hadn’t given up.  I met with him for a few hours and talked about the dynamics of their situation at home, and how to repair his relationship with his daughter.  We discussed strategies for sharing faith in a way that she would accept.  I began talking to her about being open to faith conversations with both of her parents.  She was resistant at first, but kept thinking about this possibility.  Many of our classes and sermons at church were on faith and family.  The biggest obstacle between her relationship with her dad was her dad’s assumption that his role as “the dad” was to teach her the correct view on scripture whether she agreed or not.  Their talks were doctrinal in nature, instead of relational.  Unfortunately, this idealistic view of faith in the family had exploded numerous times before leaving scars in the life of this student.  I explained that he was trading his “faith relationship” with his daughter for “being right” in his views about faith.  He valued good arguments and discussion, but she did not share his enthusiasm for debate. We talked about how to value her opinion even if he didn’t agree with her perspective. It didn’t happen overnight but slowly their talks began to go better, and she began to appreciate that her dad was really trying to do things differently.

Late one night I got a text from her that said, “I just wanna thank you for talking to my dad about talking to me about faith… and for talking to me about talking to my dad and my family about faith. I don’t think I would have opened up to my parents about faith by myself even though I needed to.  I don’t know what it was in me that made me push my own dad away but I’m happy to say I’m done with that now.”

She continued and said “I think even though my family may not even be all together soon I’m getting more and more comfortable talking to my parents about my faith! :)”

Those words instantly brought me to tears.  She had gained a faith relationship with her parents that she appreciated and valued amidst the destruction of her traditional family environment.  Our message had made its way through all of the hurt and chaos of a family that was being torn apart.  Instead of blaming God for the destruction of her family she found God among the rubble.  Weeks later she was baptized and began to live her life for God.  All the work to help families put faith back in the home is worth it when you experience moments like these.  I know that years after she graduates from the youth group she will still have a relationship with her parents that supports her faith rather than diminishes it.  The influence of the youth group will vanish, but the influence in the home that was sparked from the youth ministry will stay with her indefinitely.

The backgrounds of these two students were remarkably similar, but the change in our approach to ministry had changed drastically.  We had rediscovered God’s plan for faith in the family and we had discovered a role for the youth ministry to help this dad and this student discover God’s plan for faith in their home.  It had changed the second student’s life and even she realized its significance!

I was scared of the Holy Spirit for a large portion of my life.

Scared.

Fearful.

Even terrified.

It couldn’t have helped that the name for the Spirit I heard was “The Holy Ghost.” As a child, I had this vision of a ghost, not nearly as friendly as Casper, who could come and go through the walls of my house, checking on me. For a time, I was sure that it was the Holy Ghost who reported to Santa about who had been naughty and nice.

Ghosts, holy or not, were not to be trusted and should be avoided.

As a high school and college student, I was taught that the Holy Spirit played a part in the early church and in the work of the writers of the New Testament, but that the Holy Spirit did not work in the miraculous ways we saw in Scripture anymore. That was something that “died out” with the first apostles. As the concept was presented, the Holy Spirit’s place was on the pages of Scripture, and since I thought the Holy Spirit was dead, the ghost thing sort of fit with the dead part.

The problem was that when I read the Bible, I kept running across passages about the Spirit that didn’t jive with these explanations. I read about the fruits of the Spirit. I read about the gifts of the Spirit. I read about the Spirit’s work in the body of believers. There were significant clues that the Spirit might not be dead.

And when I looked around at God’s people, I learned to recognize the work of the Spirit in flesh and blood people.  I learned to see the miraculous work of the Spirit to create community, to bring healing, to transform lives, to produce fruit in my friends and family –

The love for the church God has given Josh Graves.

The joy that oozes out of Nola Cucheran, who chooses joy despite the daily challenges of Multiple Sclerosis.

The peace that filled Patrick Muto, as he suffered and died as a victim of AIDS.

The patience in Mike and Diane Cope as they nurtured their mentally-disabled daughter, Megan.

The kindness shown to my family by my neighbor, Beth Fuhrman, who is a better neighbor than I’ll ever be.

The goodness in my husband, John.  He’s a truly good person, even when no one’s looking.

The faithfulness of Ida Bazonoona, who is steadfast and faithful to God whether in faith’s valleys or on the mountaintops.

The gentleness in Jimmy Cone, whose heart is bigger than the outdoors he loves so much.

The selfcontrol in both my brothers, Troy and David Gaston, who have overcome alcoholism and chosen God and family instead of self.

God’s people live by the Spirit.

They are guided by the Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is tangible in them.

That’s how I know the Holy Spirit is alive and well– when I see the work of the Spirit in God’s people.

I am not so sure the Holy Spirit can even be discussed apart from the communal stories of Holy-Spirit-filled human beings. Saint Patrick helped us consider the Trinity with his shamrock. My Sunday school teacher once explained the Holy Spirit to us with an apple: the skin, the flesh, and the seeds, each distinct but a part of the whole.

But, those descriptions fail to acknowledge the human element. The Holy Spirit dwells in people!

God has given us a mysterious gift.  It’s understandable that we may experience some confusion about how to explain or teach about this mysterious presence.  The most harmful teachings about the Holy Spirit, some I described above, are those that attempt to reduce the Spirit to manageable explanations, to put the Spirit in a box, or we might even say a coffin.

The Holy Spirit is

alive

active

transforming

empowering

dwelling

enabling

gifting

leading

acting

healing . . . the page cannot hold all the verbs or all the possibilities.

I hope to spend a lifetime trying to keep in step.