Thursday, September 9, 2021

A Moral Duty: Youth on Social Media


Recently, author and priest Tish Harrison Warren wrote an article for Christianity Today, titled “Don’t Quit Twitter Yet. You Might Have a Moral Duty to Stay.” The article does well in posing the questions surrounding what we Christians could and should do within the realm of social media. But do we teach our youth to simply just limit their screen time for the sake of their own spiritual health? Or do we teach them to use their phones and reach out to others for the sake of the lost? Warren explains, “the unavoidable fact is that people today find a public voice, in part, through social media. This goes for Christian writers, artists, and public leaders as well. These online spaces are where people—those whom Jesus loves—are talking about important things. This is where people share their work.” Yet the author acknowledges that the topic is complex. While it is an important space for our voices to have a forum, social media also is known to “decrease our ability to think critically, increase rates of depression, and fuel anxiety and distraction.” And for those voices that do begin to gain traction and to generate a following, “the authority that comes from being popular online can subvert institutional health and accountability.”

We have learned much about the psychological impact that the virtual world can have on our minds, for it has been a decade since smart phones arrived on the scene and since the usage of social media apps like Instagram reached critical mass. The minefield of fleshly-driven messages that social media brings to our youth is an unavoidable reality for Gen Z and for future generations to come. Thus, just as the church has helped to train its adults on how to engage the world within the family, the workplace, and the world, it now is being called to incorporate into its mission a need to teach its youth about the intricacies of how to live as digital Christians. Here we will briefly explore a few areas where this can be applied within our respective youth ministries.

Giving Youth a Platform
Since our students will almost certainly download social media apps and participate in the online community, why not equip them on how to use it for the benefit of the kingdom of God? For previous articles on ideas of how to accomplish this, check out what it means to be a micro-influencer and some of the ways that a Social Media “Empower Team” can be established within your youth ministry.

Focus on Creating More than Responding
Too many times have our responses to other content creators come back to haunt us when the influencer stumbles and generates enough negative attention to get themselves “cancelled.” To the critics that rummage through our digital archives, it doesn’t matter that we did not know about that influencer’s sexism or political affiliation; a tweet or comment from us that agreed with one of their past posts is now in the spotlight and our character can suddenly be questioned alongside the character of the recently "cancelled” individual. But do we go silent and completely refrain from commenting on anything on social media? No, such a thought is unrealistic and unhealthy. However, we must also think twice before clicking that “submit” button on our replies. Is the comment that we want to make a life-giving and kingdom-contributing comment? After all, what we do online is forever; what is said or shared or sent is locked in the digital archives of the internet and can never go away (even if we might try to delete it). Rather, let us encourage and teach our youth that we don’t have to wait upon the creativity of others in order to feel that we can be given the chance to interact with the world. When we focus more on creating God-inspired content, it provides an even greater opportunity for the world to hear our distinct voice. It is then that the Lord can use us in the best opportunities where He has always meant for us to serve.

Youth Retreat
A sermon on social media is great, however the temptations of this world may cause our students to easily forget the message that prodded their heartstring a few Sundays ago. Sometimes, immersion into a topic can create a series of memorable experiences that can help students break away from the world’s distractions and focus on what the Holy Spirit is trying to communicate to them. Because of this, dedicating an upcoming youth retreat to social media may be the perfect opportunity to address a large amount of material in a short amount of time. Perhaps on opening night, the retreat can introduce “Tik Tok Workshops,” where the youth break out into teams (each led by a youth leader) and then create Church-friendly Tik Tok videos (feel free to add a competition element as well, where prizes are offered for the best videos). Pause for a quick exercise to have each student make 5 positive and affirming comments on their friends’ content. Youth pastors can take advantage of the opportunity to discover their students’ spiritual gifts and work with them to identify ways where they can be deployed within the digital realm. Finally, perhaps the team can wrap up one of the evenings where the speaker addresses the heavy topic of pornography and then initiates a “phone altar call.” Here, each person is invited to lay their electronic device at the altar and the youth ministry leadership prays over the devices while they are dedicated to the Lord. Rather than an ineffective attempt to get our students to merely decrease their screen time, the goal of such a retreat would be to educate and train our students on how to utilize technology to help transform lives and bring glory God.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Small Groups are a Sealant


The process of waterproofing a basement can vary from house to house. For some homeowners, the task lasts a mere few days. For others, the battle could drag on for a span of multiple agonizing years. Various factors contribute to the journey, including the craftsmanship of the home’s original builders, the characteristics of the plot of land that the house was built upon, the weather conditions of the area, or even the age of the house.

While my wife and I have not experienced any waterproofing concerns in our time of owning a house, I nonetheless made a bit of extra effort these last few years by sealing the perimeter of our home. While there is a concrete driveway and some concrete slabs that surround the entire perimeter of our house, time has taken its toll on the hardened cement and gaps have emerged. To lessen the amount of water that seeps into the foundation and to help prevent an increasing water table from developing, I decided to purchase and apply self-leveling sealant along the cracks between the house and the adjacent driveway/concrete slabs.

Attending a small group within the church is a bit like waterproofing our homes. A small leak through the basement walls, while tolerable at first, could over time cause more structural and foundational damage to the home. This, in turn, can lead to more cracks, more leaks and more flooding (alongside other concerns such as mold buildup, damage to belongings, or depreciation of the property’s value). Similarly, sinful habits that begin as an occasional occurrence may start small. However, the spiritual reality that we experience on this earth is that the slow fester of sin has the potential to snowball into an uncontrollable force that can lead us to ruin (James 1:15).  

When pouring the sealant, some sections of the perimeter can have small gaps, while other sections may have gaping chasms that need to be filled by rocks and/or sections of backer rod first before proceeding. We can relate, as certain seasons require only a thin line of sealant to cover the gaps in our spiritual lives, whereas other times we find ourselves in need of a drastic overhaul of our behaviors and /or environments in order to recalibrate our relationship with the Lord.

Sealant doesn’t likely come in many colors, and depending on the brick color of the house that we have, pouring a sealant that doesn’t match our home’s colors may end up negatively affecting the curb appeal of the property. Yet just as how it is more important to have a dry basement than a pretty exterior, it is crucial for our souls to have a holy vitality that thrives in the Spirit and is allowed to live free, unburdened by any mold or rot of heart. Even though the driveway may not look as good as the day that the cement was poured and even though our fellow group members see a bit more into our past when we share our hearts, our lives will grow more righteous and we are able to weather the heavier storms of life that would have otherwise flooded our houses.

Yet sealant isn’t forever, and as time passes, cracks begin to emerge. One day when doing yardwork, we are surprised to discover a weed growing out of the tiniest hole that had emerged within the layer of sealant. Indeed, homeowners are well aware of the fact that one’s yardwork is never done and such a weed can serve as an indication that it is time to dig it out and pour some new sealant over the area once again. Similarly, the busyness of the day-to-day can sometimes pull us away from community for a year or two at a time. The weeds that sprout within our lives can serve as key indicators to inform us that it is now once again time to return to fellowship, thereby allowing us to enjoy life with one another as God had intended: in community, nurturing and pursuing transformational relationships with one another as we together give praise and glory to our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Building Upon a Solid Foundation of Faith


In the first apartment that my wife and I had lived in, there was a basement within the unit where the tenants could do laundry and also access extra storage in their own assigned sections. However, during heavy rains, it was common to find areas of the basement floor covered in a thin layer of water. Our storage section of the basement was especially susceptible to the floods that would occur. Perhaps because the amount of water in the basement wasn’t alarming, our appeals to the apartment complex to address the issue would not yield any results. Nevertheless, we had to do something to protect our belongings within the storage section. As a result, we ended up implementing a strategy where we would place our storage tubs on bricks to elevate them a few inches off of the ground. While such efforts may have been a good strategy in theory, the method was anything but sound. Not only did I have a limited number of bricks, but the bricks that I had in my possession were the smaller kind of decorative bricks that were often used for patios and landscaping. So to protect our belongings with the resources we had, I would artfully balance each tub upon only two smaller-sized decorative bricks. From there, anytime I would stack another tub or box upon one of the base-level tubs, I first had to test the weight of the load and then maneuver the storage bins in such a way where a successful state of balance was achieved within the respective column of bins and boxes.

It’s amusing to reflect upon this now, for I couldn’t tell you why I did not secure our belongings in a more proper manner by simply purchasing a few more bricks for each column of tubs and boxes to rest upon. Perhaps it was my stubborn attitude that believed that nothing bad would happen and that I always keep everything in perfect balance. Now as I look back upon this season of our lives, I can’t help but realize how similar my spiritual journey was to this feeble method of balancing and maneuvering. At the time that my wife and I got married, I was shackled by sinful habits that were impeding my ability to grow more in the Lord. Rather than repenting, I would try to balance both my sin and my faith, believing that my artfully balanced lifestyle would never be at risk of falling over and causing damage to the areas of my life that I highly valued.

But as we get older, life grows more complex, and we end up needing to juggle more responsibilities and needing to care for more individuals. If my wife and I would have continued to live in that first apartment, we would have inevitably acquired more stuff and would have needed to stack the storage bins higher. And if I continued to use my shaky foundation of small bricks, it would have only been a matter of time before everything would have crashed to the ground and gotten damaged by the next batch of water that would have leaked into the basement. Such a scenario reminds me of James, who says in his epistle, “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (1:15). Indeed, whether it is a slow decay or a sudden event, spiritual and/or physical death is the inevitable result of leading a sin-soaked life; in hindsight, I believe that this was in fact the path that I was living on.

If we layer and stack our lives upon a shaky foundation of faith, the slightest nudge can tip the balance of the storage bins of our lives and the contents of our heart can become damaged. Is such damage irreparable? It’s tough to predict the scope of the hurt that we will carry with us. Similar to a book that absorbs water into some or all of its pages, it will never look or feel the same again (even after the pages once again become dry). Too, a heart that is ravaged by sin may be able to forgive and be forgiven, but the scar tissue remains and the past can come back to disrupt our emotions when we least expect it. For me and my situation, I gratefully praise God. Even though I will not be perfect and even though there is some scar tissue, I know that I am saved and the sins that used to impede my relationship with Him have been given over to the Lord and He has since declared victory in my life. I share this with hope and pray that you too may encounter the incredible person of Jesus and continue to develop a close relationship with Him. Grace and peace from our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Being a Navigator of Discussion


During my undergraduate studies, I pursued a degree that required me to take some of the more challenging math courses that the university had to offer. One particular course I had to take was Calculus 3 (also known as multi-variable calculus). After a few weeks in, I quickly realized that my instructor for the course was terrifying. Not only was his teaching style unapologetically abrasive and unsympathetic, he would laugh at and criticize his students who answered his questions incorrectly in class. In my stubbornness to try to see it through, I unfortunately ended up failing the course which meant that I had to take it once again. The next semester, I chose a different professor, who was arguably the kindest, gentlest, and most sympathetic math teacher I had ever had the pleasure of studying under during my undergraduate career. I’m happy to say, the semester ended up with a completely different result and I ended up acing the course.

Becoming involved within a church’s small group ministry can sometimes feel similar to this. Oftentimes, the small groups we join will yield an incredible experience that is exactly what we need in our lives from week to week. Yet there are times when we hear of an individual who mentions that their small group leader is not allowing enough time for group conversation or that the group that they had signed up for is not aligning with the expectations that they held. While the good times in our groups can help transform our lives for the better, the less-than-positive experiences can leave us wanting to try another group. But this does not have to be the case, and we small group leaders can implement some strategies that can help lessen the number of negative experiences that occur within the church’s small group ministry.

Adhering to Group Expectations
Revisiting an older article from our archives, a reflection on expectations can help us pause and meditate upon what exactly our group is trying to accomplish. By establishing the levels of Love, Learn, and Serve ahead of time, there becomes less of a chance for confusion or dissatisfaction as the group continues to meet throughout the span of its life.

Navigators of Discussion
In their book Creating Community, Andy Stanley and Bill Willits encourage group leaders to promote participation, explaining that “since shared participation creates broader ownership of the group, all group members should be encouraged to participate often in the facilitation and leadership of the group meeting. This essential also reminds leaders to promote participation by being navigators of discussion, not teachers of curriculum. The difference is critical. Every time leaders ask open-ended questions, they are inviting participation. More than sharing the right answers, we want people to share their lives” (emphasis mine). In a post-Covid world, we stand to benefit more from a community that gives us a space to share our story and to let us live out our faith. This key point ties in directly with the “Love/Learn/Serve” breakdwon, where there are distinct differences between how a class is led versus a small group, or how a community service-oriented group is organized versus a prayer group.

Balancing Content with Life-Change
For new group leaders, being at the helm of a group can at times feel daunting. What if no one wants to open up and be vulnerable when answering my questions? What if I feel that I don’t know enough about the topic to lead a conversation? This is the beauty of a discussion-led small group that leans on materials like sermon discussion notes or a community book: leaders have the content to fall back onto. If it occurs where there are not that many individuals who care to open up a given week, then that’s okay. In such a case, the group is able to use the book (or sermon notes) as fuel to help drive the interaction between the group members. While answering the previously prepared questions, group members can slowly open up at their own pace and eventually come to the realization that they are establishing connections with one another. Nevertheless, life and its challenges still occur (even in the midst of us attending small groups). If the discussion at the beginning of a group meeting reveals that a member of the group is experiencing some major life changes and that they are in need of prayer, then the group can shift gears and minister to those who can benefit from an extra helping of grace and love. Exploring multiple options like these of where to take the group can encourage the group leader to be in alignment with the Holy Spirit’s direction and also help foster an environment that can generate more organic positive life-change to occur within the lives of each group member.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Prayer and Jesus, the True Watchtower


In his writings, legendary evangelist Smith Wigglesworth said, “The Word of God is not to be prayed about, the Word of God has to be received. If you will receive the Word of God, you will always be in a big place. If you pray about the Word of God the devil will be behind the whole thing. Never pray about anything which is ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ It has to be yours to build you on a new foundation of truth.” If you paused for a moment there to make sure you were reading that right, then you’re in good company. When I first had read that, I too had to double back and try to understand what he had meant. I remember thinking, “Why should we not be praying about the word of God?” Yet as I paused further to reflect, I eventually realized that although the difference between the two appears to be subtle, it becomes a bold and powerful perspective on prayer once we understand it and apply it to our lives.

In our last article, we discussed how Satan is like a circuit court judge and how Jesus’ authority and ruling will always be able to overpower the efforts of the evil one. In addition, it was mentioned that a case must be filed and submitted to a higher court before any review and overturning of ruling can be declared. In the Christian context, this method of spiritual “appeal” for us is our prayers, and if we believe that the wrong judgment was made upon our lives by the devil, then we confidently appeal to the Lord in our time of prayer.

But if we are to appeal to the Lord with a Wigglesworth approach, what might that look like? For example, if  the devil is trying to make a judgment that brandishes us as a hopelessly lost person who is forever enslaved by our past sins, we don’t just simply pray: “Scripture says in Isaiah 1:18 that ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool…’” Rather, a prayer that receives and imbues Scripture into our hearts may instead sound like, “Lord, my sins were red as scarlet, but God, you have made them as white as snow through the perfect sacrifice of your Son Jesus Christ so that my crimson red sins can be made as wool in the realm of the eternal!”

Or if we feel that the devil is trying to make a judgment upon us that tries to disqualify us from serving in the kingdom of God due to the insecurities we hold over ourselves, we don’t just simply pray: “Scripture says in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Rather, a prayer that receives and imbues Scripture into our hearts may instead sound like, “Lord, I believe your word and your word says that I have been blessed with a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good of the kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit empowers me in one or more areas of my life to be more than a match for Satanic forces.”

This is what Smith Wigglesworth meant in the difference between praying about Scripture and receiving Scripture within our hearts so that we own our faith within our prayers. Praying with such conviction bolsters our hearts and our minds as it allows us to reach for levels of holiness that are essential in today’s day and age. 2020 clearly made it known that the path ahead is slated to be challenging journey for the world as a whole. Similar to a group of travelers who decide to venture into the wilderness, they will look at the surrounding landscape from a higher vantage point in order to get a proper view of what to expect. Once they climb into an outpost or a watchtower, they are able can see not only a proper path to pursue, but they can also be aware of any alarming situations like predators that are lurking about. In a large field with tall grass, a lion can successfully remain unseen and prowl without being noticed, but the same lion looks quite foolish to any onlookers if they can easily see it from a watchtower. This is precisely what we are called as Disciples of Christ to do: to operate on a level that is completely different than the evil one. Because we are lifted up and protected by Jesus who is our outpost and solid foundation, the devil’s attempts at spiritual warfare are unable to be hidden from us and we can then clearly see his presence and any dangers that may lay ahead.

To help us capture this essence and this passion in our prayers, allow me to leave you with one last quote from the writings of Smith Wigglesworth: “I never saw a man get anything from God who prayed on the earth. If you get anything from God, you will have to pray into heaven; for it is all there. If you are living in the earth realm and expect things from heaven, they will never come. And I saw, in the presence of God, the limitations of my faith, there came another faith, a faith that could not be denied, a faith that took the promise, a faith that believed God’s Word. And from that presence, I came back again to earth, but not as the same man. God [gives] a faith that could shake hell and anything else.”