Thursday, September 24, 2009

Youth Groups

When I was a kid it was very important for my parents to know we were attending a church with a good youth group. Sometimes just having a youth group was as good as it got. We lived in some pretty small towns. Once, my parents drove us over an hour away every Sunday evening so we could attend youth group. Needless to say, we could never be too involved in it.

It is very important for churches to know they are providing a youth group for teens. Somehow, they feel like a failure if this program is not in place. Even small churches struggle to make sure they have a youth group. Youth groups are important and everywhere I have pastored I have tried to make sure we had one. But more important is the issue of what happens in youth group and how that is incorporated into the larger question of how youth group fits into the church as a whole. It is important for youth to feel like they belong to the whole church.

Some surprising new studies are saying that as many as 70% of young people leave church by the time they are 22. One problem is the segmentation of age groups that has increased over the years. Youth groups have become so big and important in themselves that many youth attend them as their church. They do not participate or have a sense of belonging to the church as a whole. So, when they graduate from youth group and head off to somewhere else on their own they don't have a clue what to look for in a church.

Kara Powell of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Seminary is studying this trend. She says that we have become so youth oriented we have segregated youth from the rest of the church. We have youth pastors and youth worship teams and youth worship services and youth mission trips and young people almost never get a chance to interact with other aged people. They never get a chance to serve other people in the church. They never get to participate in a meaningful way with the whole congregation. Two things, she says, help young people stay involved in church after they graduate: intergenerational worship and relationships. We need to involve kids in the worship of the church on Sundays as greeters, ushers, worship leaders, scripture readers, etc. And young people need to participate in events where they can engage older Christians in meaningful ways and vice-versa. We can have short term intergenerational Sunday School classes, work days and mission projects. Kara sees smaller churches of around 100 having a real advantage here.

So do I. As I look at our church I see us doing some of what she is talking about. We have a good youth group but we are also involving kids in meaningful ways in worship and in relationships with other Believers. We need to be encouraged to continue to find ways to be involved in our teens lives. Kara says she encourages churches to practice a ratio of 5 to 1. That is, 5 adults to one young person. 5 adults in the church who care about each and every young person. Those adults know something about that one young person so they can ask weekly how things are going and are aware when the young person has a big event or test coming up. The adults pray for this young person daily. Each adult can make one young person in church a special focus.

We still have work to do. We need to continue to find other ways to involve our youth in worship and other church events. We could plan a month of intergenerational Sunday School or a mission event. Jared and Michelle, our youth leaders, are doing some creative things with our youth. One Tuesday a month they plan a tenabrae service. It would be cool if more adults came to their! worship service!

Smaller churches do have many advantages in our increasingly segmented society. Smaller churches are usually more relational than large ones. We can all be "youth workers" as we care for the youth in our midst and encourage their involvement in church life. In this way, they will know that they have a place in church now and when they move on.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mirror to the Church

Emmanuel Katongole is a Ugandan born of Rwandan immigrant parents. His father was a poor Tutsi who worked for a wealthy Hutu which is the opposite of the stereotypical images of Tutis as rich and Hutus as poor. He married a Christian Hutu and converted. Then they moved to Uganda. His father died when Emmanuel was 12 but he was raised in the evangelical faith of his parents. Later on he became a priest in Ugandan Catholic Church. For the past 6 years he has taught theology at Duke and co-directed the Duke Center of Reconciliation. In particular, he has been involved in the reconciliation movement in Rwanda. He believes what happened in Rwanda poses serious questions for the whole church. That's why he called his book Mirror to the Church. He tells the story of the Catholic Cardinal Roger Etchegaray who visited Rwanda on behalf of the pope in 1994. He asked the assembled church leaders if the blood of tribalism was deeper than the waters of baptism. One leader answered, "yes, it is." That is the challenge.

Emmanuel says he sees many American Christians who are eager to go to Africa to do mission work. They are coming to Africa to "save" it. He says they miss the point. Christian mission is not about delivering sermons or aid or services but it is about the transformation of identity. "We learn who we are as we walk together in the way of Jesus." Rwanda teaches that our mission is to be a new community that bears witness to the fact that in Christ there is a new identity. It is only by being such a unique people "from every tribe and nation and language (Rev. 5:9) that we can both name and resist the spells that want us to live as tribalized people.

Much has been asked of Rwanda. How could such a Christian nation be a place of such brutal killing, Christian against Christian? Emmanuel says Christianity made little difference in Rwanda. It was like an add-on. It did not radically affect people's natural identities. He says before we can start serving God we must experience a renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2). A new identity must be shaped within us. We are part of a new community. This did not happen in Rwanda and you can say that the western missionaries did not know enough or knew too much to make it happen. They simply accepted the racial categories that were put into place by the European colonizers.

Speaking prophetically to the Church in the West, Emmanuel says that the Biblical story has little consequence for the way we live our lives. When we ask why Christianity seemed to have little impact on the way Rwandans responded to the violence, we need to ask ourselves what difference Christianity makes in the way we live our lives, too. He finds many western Christians ready to blame Rwandan genocide on tribalism while taking for granted the tribal divisions (of race, or economics, or social status) right in our own churches. "Christianity without consequences is a problem Rwandans and Westerners both share."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Strength in what remains

Deo was in his 20s when he arrived in NYC. He was Burundian and spoke his native tongue and French but no English. He had less than $2oo in his pocket. He knew no one. In two years he had enrolled in Columbia and was working on a medical degree. His goal was to return home and be part of the rebuilding process that was needed after the devastating civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. When Deo fled Burundi (borders Rwanda and shared the genocide with it), he was completing his studies to be a medical doctor. His first job in NYC was delivering groceries for a few bucks an hour plus tips. He lived in a abandoned tenement for awhile until he was robbed at knife point. Then he moved into Central Park. His life was marked by amazing instances of Providence.

He lived through some of the worst and most brutal killings. He saw horrific violence. His life on the run for six months was surreal. For years afterward he would suffer nightmares and stomach pains. He escaped death, barely, many times. Each time there was someone there to help him. A Hutu woman (he was a Tutsi) who shepherded him past the Hutu militias that were slaughtering Tutsis; a French student friend whose father bought him a ticket to NYC; an African who was working at customs in the airport and helped him find a place at the tenement and begin to learn to navigate NYC; a Christian woman in a rectory where he delivered groceries who gave him money, and got him to a doctor, and finally, found a place for him to live; the couple he lived with who helped him get an immigration lawyer so he could get his green card, and who helped him learn English and pass the exams to get into Columbia and helped pay for his education; and Dr. Paul Farmer, who has pioneered studies on diseases of poverty, and was instrumental in getting Deo into medical school at Dartmouth.

It is compelling story that is told by Tracy Kidder in the book called, Strength in What Remains. Kidder wrote an earlier book about Dr. Farmer and I imagine that is how he heard of Deo's story. Kidder tries to tell the story non-religiously. He would probably have preferred it that way. But, that was tough to do. Church was an important part of Deo's life just as it was in his country. Much has been made of the fact that Burundi and Rwanda were predominantly Christian countries where Christians fought and brutally killed one another. Deo struggled with how God could have allowed it to happen. Yet, in the midst of the violence, Deo's life was spared and he came back to do good in his devastated country.

The violence in his country has its roots in the brutal colonial regimes that ruled Burundi in 1900s. There were Hutus and Tutsis before colonization but they were not racial categories. Hutus and Tutsis intermarried and shared many of the same features so one could not be told apart from the other. Tutsis were mostly cattle herders and Hutus were farmers. Once the European colonial powers of Germany and then Belgium got involved in this part of Africa, the stakes increased as well as the violence. They also brought with them a mythology to explain what they found. Tutsis, they taught, descended from Ham, the banished son of Noah. They were really Caucasian under their black skin. They were destined to be the rulers. The Hutus were the subordinate black race. So, the Belgians placed most of the power to rule in their stead in the hands of the Tutsis. They counted the "races" in a 1930 census and gave every Burundian an identity card that marked them as Hutu or Tutsi. Now, one's opportunities depended on race. Educational opportunities, power, privilege was reserved for Tutsis. Hutus were not only locked out of power but they were forced into labor and were taxed more severely. By the end of colonization most of the country was "Christian".

Burundi and Rwanda became independent in 1962. In Rwanda, Hutus took power; thousands of Tutsis were killed. Many Rwandan Tutsis fled to Burundi. The Tutsis took over power and ruled Burundi until 1993. There were Hutu uprisings and brutal Tutsi reprisals. In 1972, at least 100,000 Hutus were killed. The massacre was aimed at eliminating any potential Hutu leaders. Things simmered until the 1988 revolt and government repression which forced Deo and his family to hide out for a week or so. Burundi's civil war followed in 1993 when over 50,000 died, almost equally Hutu and Tutsi. This was the war Deo miraculously escaped and fled to NYC.

The experiences of civil war were etched deeply on Deo's psyche. It would take years to work through and some of the memories would never be erased. The country, too, will take years to heal and rebuild trust. Families were torn apart. Priests murdered their parishioners and principals their students. The fabric of communal trust was gone.

In the next blog I want to look at how an African theologian and pastor tries to make sense out of what happened in his country and how it is a mirror to the church.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Apologies Accepted

If you are keeping up with the background noise in our culture this week you know that Kanye West dissed Tyler Swift at the MTV awards (which I did not watch - I don't know that I could pick out one of those singers songs if I heard them, no, I know I couldn't) and then West apologized to Leno, not Swift apparently, on Leno's new show which the tv reviewers (what a job! having to watch all that tv!) dissed and Swift accepted the apology made to Leno on the View tv show ( I did not watch either show). And Serena Williams apologized for not only cussing out a line judge but threatening to kill her! She was fined 10,000 bucks which is pocket money for Serena. Roger Federer cussed out the judges too but as far as I know he has not apologized. The estimable congressman from South Carolina apologized for his incredible rudeness during President Obama's speech to congress last week. He was chastised by his peers, but only by about 2/3 of them. The rest thinking his oafishness was ok. He has refused to apologize to his colleagues. After all, his rude move is helping out with fundraising in South Carolina. Where the governor recently apologized for running off with his soulmate who was not his wife, and most of his governmental colleagues called for his resignation. His wife and four kids have moved out of the governor's mansion. He apologized to them, too.

What about those American public schools which protested having to listen to the President's "Let's Study Hard" beginning of school speech. How rude was that? Refusing to listen to it. Keeping students home or making sure they were released from those classrooms which were listening to the speech. I can't imagine such a thing happening back in the day when I was in school. As far as I know, no one has apologized, yet.

( I refer to a previous blog called Blount Words. How is it fair that Serena Williams who threatened a person with murder is fined pocket change while Blount who punched an opponent in the heat of battle, and later apologized, is fined his whole entire senior season? If we all make mistakes, and own up to them, and move on, why not punish the young football player but still let him play half the year, anyway? Maybe he is not famous or rich enough?)

BTW, the shoe thrower was released from prison this week, way early, for good behavior and is not apologetic in the least. He came out of prison saying he would do it again in a heartbeat.

All this drama of reconciliation in the news! But, you have to wonder if some of these guys really mean it, don't you. I mean one won't apologize to the person who was wronged, another won't apologize more than once, and another said I am sorry for telling you I was going to kill you! Then, there is the gov who carried on with his mistress for over a year and thinks his apology is going to make the difference in getting his family back, not to mention his job.

The way it all plays out in the media is pretty slick. It can make you think that giving and receiving apologies is pretty easy. We know the real work of repenting and forgiving is much harder. An apology may be a good place to begin but it is not all that needs to be done. Most of us have some apologizing to do and it won't be in front of the cameras. So, hopefully, it can be more real. It must be shown as well as said. Apologies are not just sound bytes but promises to change our hearts. Then, comes the hard work of giving and receiving forgiveness. We can accept all these public apologies at face value, but the true value can only be known in the heart.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I finished watching the tv series "24" on dvd recently. Season 7, I think it was. All 24 hours of it. As you know "24" was a breakthrough show that follows the action over a 24 hour period, in real time, as they say. You can't imagine how much stuff can happen in 24 hours. The country totters on the brink.... You can get into a lot of trouble if you don't sleep. Much of the action that goes wrong may be because everyone is sleep deprived. No one sleeps on this show! No one is chugging 5 hour energy drinks either. Come to think of it, no one takes any kind of break! Eugene Peterson has said that God made us to need 8 hours of sleep so he can put the world back together after we have been up for 16 hours making a mess of things. That is one of the lessons of 24.

Up until the end of this series I had never seen anyone pray, either. You would think with the world near destruction, year in and year out, someone would be praying. But, no. More shouting, and shooting but not praying. However, at the end of this past year's series (spoiler alert!), someone prays. Jack Bauer, our hero, is dying after ingesting a toxic biological agent. He got hit with it about hour 12 and struggles to save the day the rest of the way. Until, he is coma induced in the last hour to relieve his pain and waits to die. Before that happens, he makes a call to a spiritual leader, who he met earlier in the series, and who talked to him briefly about spiritual things. The spiritual leader shows up at the hospital and they sort of pray or have a moment of silent spiritual meditation together (what do you expect? It is still tv!). The point seems to be that Bauer, at life's end, seeks some kind of spiritual closure. He wants forgiveness. Actually, he wants to be able to forgive himself, as well as know he is forgiven, for all the bad stuff he has done in his life (so is he praying to himself? Its kind of hard to tell, but I am not quibbling here.) My point is that there is prayer. And it comes because Bauer is at the end of his life and he feels the need to get some things in his life sorted out. Once he does this he is able to die, peacefully (although there is a reason to believe he will be around for season 8!).

We should not expect too much spiritual depth from tv and this series, in particular. But it was interesting that as Bauer had time to consider his own death, he reached out to spiritual realities beyond himself. Bauer is the ultimate I - can - do- it - myself - hero. He is the only savior this program has needed. But even Jack Bauer cannot save himself from death. There is a hint here (and in President Alison's character who says in the last segment of this series that justice may not come in this life but it will in the next one!) of spiritual truth. As tv mirrors culture, it keeps showing us that no matter how secular we try to become, there is some part of us that keeps reaching out to God.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Blount Words

I was watching the last quarter of the first college football game of the new season last night. It was Oregon vs. Boise State, two nationally ranked teams and the pre-game buildup had created a bowl- like atmosphere. Boise State had upset Oregon last year and both teams had been pointing to this game all year long. Several Oregon players whose trash talk was picked up by media sources predicted a "buttkicking (you can supply the word actually used). Boise State was equally up for the game. It was a sloppy game showcasing the nervousness on both sides. There were many incidents of unsportsmanlike conduct. After the game, tempers flared. There were taunts from the Boise State players and fans. One Boise State player approached LeGerrette Blount the star running back for OU, who was largely a non-factor in the game, and put his hand on Blount's shoulder pad causing him to turn into the face of the Boise State player (defensive end Byron Hout who had tackled Blount in the endzone for a safety during the game). Hout taunted Blount who responded with a punch to Hout's jaw knocking him down. This was in full view of the Boise State coach who was talking to Hout and several OU coaches and staff. Of course, the excellent camera work of the ESPN crew captured it all. While the coaches intervened and pulled Blount away, an ugly scene of taunting from the Boise State fans and Blount's attempts to get into the stands and after the fans ensued.

In the aftermath, several sports columnists including one from the Oregonian called Blount to be flagged with a heavy penalty -even suspension for the rest of the year (ending his career at OU). No where was anything said about Hout's behavior or the ugliness of the Boise State fans. Later, it was reported that Hout's coach will have a talk with him to see what he learned from this experience. So, at most, the coach sees this as only a teachable moment. Meanwhile, today Blount was suspended for the entire season, including any post-season bowl games. This was his last year and he had been mentioned as a Heisman candidate.

Certainly, Blount deserved some punishment for his behavior, but to penalize him so severely and to let everyone else off the hook is just scapegoating. The fans were unruly and mean spirited and Hout instigated the incident with Blount. The entire atmosphere of big time college football should be flagged for their complicity in this ugliness. Leading up to the game fans and media hyped this game. Everyone was aware it was payback time for OU. There was lots of talk about "killing" the opponents. Both coaches had their players ready, emotionally, to play. Which means they were ready to hit and hit hard. Afterward, only Blount is faulted for letting his emotions get out of control. Football is a game played with your emotions out of control. It is a game watched by many fans whose emotions are out of control, as well. It's a toxic mix.

Sometimes, someone, gets flagged for his inappropriate conduct and he is penalized but the situation that created his behavior is unquestioned and remains unchanged. Blount should have been suspended for a few games but so should Hout and the Boise State fans.

Heads Up!

As I have had my head down this week working with some members of the church to find ways to staff our Sunday School and Junior Church ministries, I have been discouraged. Even though our church is small, we still need many people to teach, provide childcare, lead youth groups and worship and mission outreach. Too often the responsibilities of ministry are shared by too few. The good news is that the people stepped up again and we have a solid staff of servants in place for the fall programs. When I went to bed, at last, after the final meeting this week, I was still discouraged. Why was it this hard? When was the next meeting at which we would be scrambling to find other people to fill other ministry slots in the church? I was tired and on edge, as I had my head down (not so much in prayer as in discouragement). As I had my head down, I was focused on one small congregation in one small town in one very large state. As we went over and over the names of people in this church, I was wondering how so few people can be expected to do so much. Maybe the answer was to just do less. To cut out and cut back. To make things easier.

This morning I picked up my head and found a new book that I began to read and it lifted my spirits. Mark Noll is a historian who teaches at Notre Dame. His newest book states that - with all the startling changes that have taken place in the last century -nothing less than a new history of Christianity is needed. He does not purport to write that history, yet, so much as make Christians aware of what has happened while we have been doing other things (like having our heads down looking for Sunday School staff). In the past 50 years, the shape of worldwide Christianity has shifted dramatically: This Sunday more Christians will attend church in China than in all of "Christian Europe ( think: in 1970 there were no legal functioning churches in China); this Sunday more Anglicans will attend church in each of several African countries than in Britain, Canada and Episcopalians in the USA combined, and Nigeria will have several times the number as those other African countries; this Sunday more Presbyterians will attend church in Ghana than in Scotland and more will attend the Uniting Presbyterian Church in South Africa than in the USA; this Sunday more people will attend Brazil's Pentecostal Assemblies of God than will attend all the Assemblies churches in the USA; this Sunday eight times more people will fill the Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea than will attend Canada's largest ten churches.; this Sunday Roman Catholics in the USA will worship in more languages than at any other time in American history; this Sunday the largest church in Europe will meet in Kiev pastored by a Nigerian Pentecostal; this Sunday more Catholics will attend church in the Philippines than in any European country; this week 15,000 foreign missionaries were hard at work evangelizing people in Great Britain; the largest chapter of Jesuits in the world is no longer in the USA but in India.

Then this: More than half of all the Christian adherents in the whole history of the church have been alive in the last hundred years! Close to half of all the Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now!

If that doesn't lift your head up to praise God.... knowing that in our small place on the planet we are part of one of the most amazing and magnificent movements of God in our history .... and we get to be part of it!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sunday School

Sunday School has not been around since the days of Jesus. It was started in 1780 by Robert Raines in England. He started it because he was concerned about all the poor children who were roaming the urban streets without supervision or much of anything. Sunday School was a school where these kids could learn to read and write using the Bible as their textbook. It was held on Sunday because most of these kids worked in the factories every other day of the week.

Sunday Schools were introduced in America in the early 1800s. At first, there was much resistance. Pastors thought Sunday Schools would weaken the parent's resolve in teaching their children the Bible. Gradually, the idea won over most churches and the Sunday School movement grew rapidly. In the 1970s this growth stopped and some churches even dropped their Sunday School programs. Most churches today struggle with declining attendance in Sunday School and difficulties staffing it.

Has the day of the traditional idea of Sunday School passed by? It may have. Yet, the need for sharing Biblical truth in a teaching setting different from the worship service has not. It may be time to explore other ways to meet this need. Some churches are using small groups in place of Sunday School. We can't be afraid of dealing with this "sacred cow". After all, it hasn't been "sacred" all that long!

Whatever form Sunday School takes, there is a need for teaching the truths of our faith. Christian Education has been around much longer than Sunday School and we should not equate the two. Christian Education can and does take many forms. Sunday School can still be effective as a means for communicating Christian truth but it is a mistake to put all our eggs in this basket, alone. It is important to provide learning experiences at each age level.

Smaller Christian Education experiences promote Christian community which is difficult to experience in a worship service. It also allows for Christian personal interaction among different age groups. Persons older in the faith can serve as role models for the younger. Younger Christians can really get to know some other "real" Christians.

Christian Education ideally works in partnership with Christian parents. They are the ones who have the responsibility to train up their children in the faith. Sunday School or children's groups are not babysitters. Parents need to be involved in their children's learning. They need to be in Sunday School or some similar learning environment, as well.

As we discuss our struggles with Sunday School, I hope it will be a catalyst to step back and look at the larger picture. What forms will our ministry of Christian Education take in the church?

Here's What I Don't Know

Here are a few things I don't know: I don't know why so few Christians read/study the Bible or other Christian books. We love our Bibles and love to lug them around but we don't seem to spend much time reading them.

Related I don't know: I guess it follows that Sunday School is a hard sell in most churches. Lots of churches have already dropped it. I don't know why that is. It may be related to the above I don't know. It's just not a high priority. Maybe it takes too much time (45 minutes?) or maybe people have been too bored by Sunday School in the past ( I have been at times). But, if the subject is the Bible or theology or church history.... how bad can it be? Also related is this: I don't know why it is so hard to get people (Christians!) to teach or spend time with kids in Junior Church or the nursery. As a pastor I know I have said all I can creatively say (nagged...?) to build an interest in teaching and it falls on deaf ears... he/she that has ears to hear, let him/her hear.... If these are truly God's children and if we are called to teach all Jesus has told us (MT 28), then where have all the teachers/children's workers gone?

We have entered an era of church history where most people just want to be ministered to. It has been pointed out numerous times that Americans are commitment shy and that has carried over into the church, as well. We have bought into the entertainment model and we expect to be entertained in church as well.... and to be served. We surely can complain when our needs are not met.

The small church of about 100 people is the ideal size for a church. It may not be large enough to provide all the amenities some people expect from a church. But where does it say churches are supposed come with coffee shops, gyms and all manner of sports teams, bookstores and cafeterias. All these can be found in our local communities. And better we are out there in the midst of the community than in our Christian ghettos. If, as I take it, the purpose of the church is worship, fellowship (koinonia), teaching and outreach (service, mission), 100 people is plenty. You can get to know people and there are lots of opportunities to practice Christian compassion which we are called to do. This is the pattern we find in the book of Acts but we seem to have forgotten it today. Might have something to do with the I don't know section above.

I don't know why Christians continue to beat each other up the way they do. The ELCA this past week endorsed the ordination of practicing homosexuals. I am aware of lots of Lutheran bashing from other Christian pulpits. Better to withhold judgment or if we do - begin in our own houses. The book of James, chapter 2, teaches Christians that practicing favoritism of any sort in the church is a sin as serious as adultery, or murder or practicing homosexuality. We Christians seem get all hepped up about our favorite sins while we overlook the logs in our own churches..... Jesus said something about that, too. Seems like we have plenty on our plates so we don't have to look (and judge) the sins in other households of faith. Also, if the body of Christ is one, why so much one-upmanship? So much competition in the body of Christ, among bodies of Christ. It almost looks like we enjoy it when one household of faith is struggling so ours looks better. "My church is better than your church..." Better we should be praying for the flock, ours and others. We certainly need it! We would all do well to spend some more time with the book of James. Again, maybe this is related to the first concern listed above.