Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Insights from the Early Church

Whether in time or in physical proximity, those who were closest to Jesus had a once-in-eternity opportunity to tell humanity the most essential information that is needed in order to build a proper understanding of the Christian faith. Due to their positioning within time and history, it is fascinating to acknowledge that their writings will continue to be referenced and widely consulted for the remainder of the time that humankind will reside upon this earth. While the collection of retained works from the first few centuries is not as large as the texts and writings that would eventually be written during the centuries that followed, two early Christian works in particular stand out as noteworthy and exceptional when capturing a glimpse into the teachings of the early Church: The Didache, and The Shepherd of Hermas.

The Didache
Along with its catechistic tone in providing guidance on items like how to appoint bishops and deacons, how to pray over the Eucharist, and how to confirm when a prophet is genuine, The Didache calls heavily upon an amplified interpretation of the Ten Commandments and the two commandments that Jesus gives us in Matthew 22:37-39. After a brief read, it becomes evident that the Church was convicted during this time to maintain a level of morality that was in stark opposition to the cultural climate of the time. Indeed, the author(s) of Didache comments on the end times in a way that harkens to Matthew 24:22-30 and 2 Timothy 4:3-5, saying “For in the last days the false prophets and corrupters will abound…and love will be turned into hate…as lawlessness increases, they will hate and persecute and betray one another. And then the deceiver of the world will appear as a son of God and will perform signs and wonders.”  However, all hope is not lost, as the text reassures its readers that “those who endure in their faith will be saved by the accursed one himself” (Jesus).  Considering this somber message that was written so long ago, one can’t help but wonder if we as a world have made much progress in knowing what it means to love one another, these past 2,000 years.

The Shepherd of Hermas
Yet The Didache wasn’t the only writing from this period that was concerned about making an intentional effort to love one another. To help emphasize the generous nature that Christians were called to pursue, The Shepherd of Hermas also exhorts us to “not hesitate to give, nor grumble when giving,” and to “give generously to all who are in need, not debating to whom you will give and to whom you will not…for God wishes that from his own gifts, gifts should be given to all.”  Until we Christians do this, the text makes note that we will effectively be rendered “useless” for the kingdom of God until we make the choice to exhibit a spirit of community that benefits those who do not have.  In fact, according to the author of Shepherd, we were made rich by the Father for that sole purpose: to be able to utilize our spiritual gifts and pursue the calling that the Lord has impressed upon each and every one of our lives.

Upon reading these two works, I was impressed by how well they spoke to the responsibilities that God extends to us (even to this day). These texts from so long ago embolden us to be courageous when carrying out our respective ministries. They help to give us confidence when introducing others to Jesus, the only person who is able to rescue individuals from the deep anguishes of life that they may be experiencing. Let us not walk in uncertainty. If we fear the devil, then that means we believe that the devil has authority over us and it gives him permission to admit more evil and/or sin into our lives. Instead, if we fear the Lord (who actually has real authority and power), it is here where we are able to tap into the power of the Lord and stand against the attempted advances of the devil. Let us walk in alignment with the Holy Spirit and confidently proclaim the Lord’s name in everything that we do.  Amen.

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.