16 Apr 2014

Bible Class: Bringing Teens and Parents Together

stickyfaith-parent-edition

A couple of weeks ago I published a review of the book Sticky Faith, and described how much I liked it and how influential it has been in my thoughts about youth ministry. In that post, I mentioned that I had been teaching a Bible class on that book, and I wanted to briefly share some thoughts and information about that class.

What We Did

For a quarter (roughly the beginning of January to the end of March), we had our teens and their parents combined in one class together. Each family received a copy of Sticky Faith, and was encouraged to read one chapter each week in preparation for class.

When we met together each week, the class would be divided into smaller groups—sometimes we had parent groups and student groups, and sometimes we grouped families together. Each week we would review that week’s chapter and try to cover the main points which the book had presented, and then give discussion question to our small groups to talk about.

Our small groups would then share what they had discussed with the entire class.

What Was Good About It

At times I felt that our class struggled with continuity and momentum because we missed a few weeks because of bad weather, but on the whole, I felt that the class was very beneficial for our youth group and our parents. I am glad that we did it for at least a few reasons.

First, it helped our parents become much more informed about what was going on in our youth ministry. I spend a significant amount of time trying to communicate and publicize the things we are doing as a youth group (trips, devotionals, youth rallies, etc.):

  • Every week I write an article in our church bulletin which announces and emphasizes these events.
  • A calendar of upcoming events is posted on our youth group bulletin board.
  • Events are announced publicly in our worship assemblies.
  • I tell the students over and over and over again about upcoming events.
  • On a fairly regular basis, I send out text reminders to students and parents about certain events.
  • Less regularly, I post information on our youth group Facebook page.

Despite all of these efforts, I routinely have students and parents act like they have no idea what is going on. It is a frustrating thing. But those concerns were largely eliminated, at least for one quarter. It was nice each week to be able to mention upcoming events directly to parents when I had their attention, and I noticed increased participation as a result.

This was certainly not the purpose of the class and it’s not something that I can do every week, but it was a nice side effect.

Secondly, it was good for our parents and teens to learn practical ways to build a lifelong faith. That is what Sticky Faith is all about—practical things that parents and families can do each day that help to build a faith that lasts for a lifetime instead of getting shelved after high school.

As I mentioned in my book review, there is a ton of helpful information in Sticky Faith, and a class like this was a very helpful way to ensure that our teens and especially their parents were exposed to this material.

Third, it was good for our parents to hear from their kids. It’s no secret that it can be hard for parents and their teenage children to communicate with one another. One of the nice things about this class was that it provided an environment for that to happen. As our student small groups reported out the results of their discussion, parents got to hear about things that were important to their kids and learn more about how they think.

Fourth, it was good for our kids to hear from their parents. The reverse was also true. Teens do get to hear from their parents, but a lot of times it is in the form of a lecture after they’ve messed up somehow. Getting to hear their parents publicly express their love, concern, faults, and ideas was a powerful thing for our students.

Sticky Faith class

Overall, this was a class model that I enjoyed, and I plan on using it again. It won’t become our primary educational model (there’s a lot to be said for developmentally appropriate, age-based instruction), but having our students and their parents learning side by side and learning from one another is an important thing, and one that we want to continue to develop as part of our educational program.

One final, but important note: lest you think that I came up with all of this on my own, I want to give full credit to my friend Joseph, who taught a similar class at his church and was gracious enough to give me pointers and share his (excellent) class notes and resources with me. Joseph is a great youth minister, and his thoughts have been helpful and influential for me.

14 Apr 2014

Reaching Your Spiritual Potential: Pray!

Spiritual PotentialThis is the continuation of a series which began here.

Prayer in the Bible

The importance of prayer is a basic teaching of Scripture. In the life of Jesus Himself, we see the importance of prayer:

  • He often went off by Himself to pray.
  • He took time for the express purpose of teaching His disciples how to pray.
  • He prayed with His disciples and prayed for them in their presence.
  • In the night before His crucifixion, when He faced the most difficult time of His life, He spent the night in the Garden of Gethsemane in fervent prayer.

Elsewhere in Scripture we see the importance of prayer emphasized as well:

  • The apostles would use prayer to aid in the performance of miracles.
  • Philippians 4.6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
  • James 5.14-16: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let hem pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
  • 1 Thessalonians 5.17: “Pray without ceasing.”

Prayer and You

What is your prayer life like?

A lot of very different people read this blog, and there are probably some who are reading who have an outstanding prayer life…who truly pray without ceasing…who spend a great deal of time in conversation with the Father. That’s great—keep doing what you’re doing. But I think a lot of us probably need to increase our efforts.

Some people go through most of their day (or most of their lives!) ignoring prayer, unless something really bad comes up. For them, prayer is like a parachute—something you only use in an emergency.

Others might have regular times of prayer—before meals, when they wake up, when they go to sleep—and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s a good and healthy thing to have regular times of prayer. But if we’re not careful, that can become just a pattern we fall into without much thought.

Sometimes we may struggle to pray because we feel like we don’t have a lot to say. You know, generally, when you look at your relationships, the closer you are to someone, the easier it is for you to talk to them (there are some people to whom it’s hard to say two sentences; with others you can go on indefinitely). I think the same thing is true when it comes to our prayer lives. At first, it might be hard to find things to talk about, but the more time you spend in prayer, the easier it gets.

And in the meantime, before you get “good” at it, there are plenty of things to pray for—the church, the leaders of your church, those who are sick, those whom you know who are lost, the government, the military, your family, that you avoid temptation, etc.

The Bottom Line

There’s no way that we can reach our spiritual potential and become mature Christians if we are don’t regularly spend time talking to our Heavenly Father in prayer!

Make a commitment today to be a person of prayer. Set aside specific times to pray; be on the lookout for people and causes to pray for, and consider keeping notes or a journal to help you remember those things.

Pray!

11 Apr 2014

Grammar Mistakes to Avoid

I think good grammar is important. Some people (like me) tend to obsess about it and go overboard, but in general, it is a good thing to use good grammar. Good grammar lends a sense of competence and authority to whatever you are presenting, and also shows the people who are reading that you respect them and have taken time and put effort into what you are trying to communicate.

So, I thought the graphic below was helpful, and fun as well.

P.S. If you ever catch me with a typo or grammatical error, feel free to correct me. I really do hate it when I publish errors. It drives me crazy.

15 Grammar Goofs That Make You Look Silly
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9 Apr 2014

Reaching Your Spiritual Potential: Introduction

Spiritual Potential

Misunderstanding the Spiritual

The Gospel of John is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I took a course on it in undergrad and a second one in grad school. I’m also now teaching it for the second time.

One of the repeated themes in John’s Gospel, something that you see over and over, is the idea of misunderstanding—Jesus presents some form of teaching, and His audience completely fails to understand what He is talking about.

  • This is very apparent in John 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, and Nicodemus can’t understand Him because he’s trying to imagine a physical rebirth—re-entering his mother’s womb to be born again (which, admittedly, would be pretty difficult).
  • We see it again in John 4, when Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well; Jesus talks about “living water”, referring to something spiritual, but the woman assumes that He is talking about a special kind of water which can be seen, touched, and drunk.
  • Later on in John 6, Jesus says that He is the bread of life, and that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood have eternal life. This turns off a lot of the people, because they think He is literally talking about eating Him.

There are more examples that we could give, but I think you can see the point—over and over again in John’s Gospel, people misunderstand what Jesus is saying, and the reason for this is that Jesus is focused on spiritual teachings while His audience is locked in on the physical side of things.

You know, I think we have a very similar problem today.

Oftentimes I think we struggle to do the things that Jesus calls us to do and to live the way He expects us to live because we are so focused on the physical—what we can see and touch—that we tend to neglect the spiritual.

“Reaching your Potential”

There’s a lot of talk in our world today about “reaching your potential”.

You hear it a lot in the context of athletes and sports teams. A coach might talk about how his team has a lot of talent, but how they have to work to reach their full potential. You also hear it in the context of education—a particular student may have a lot of natural ability, but a lot of work is involved to be the best student he or she can be.

Potential involves raw talent and ability, but getting the most out of it requires hard work! No Hall of Fame athlete achieved that success without committing himself to long hours of exercise and practice. No Rhodes Scholar ever achieved that honor without committing herself to long hours of study and review.

I think the same thing is true in regards to spiritual potential.

For those of us who have committed our lives to Christ and have put Him on in the waters of baptism, it is our responsibility to mature and develop spiritually, to work to follow Jesus more closely and live increasingly holy lives. Another way of saying that is that it is our duty to reach our spiritual potential![1]

But how do we do that? I’d like to spend a few posts looking at practical ways in which we can develop our spiritual potential. These aren’t new or flashy ideas; they are simple steps which require hard work and diligence. But if followed, they are practices which will help us to reach our spiritual potential and serve God more effectively.


[1]Some readers will likely feel uncomfortable by some of the language in this paragraph which emphasizes our role in our spiritual growth and development. Isn’t it God’s work (though Christ) which saves us? Isn’t it God’s work (though the Spirit) which sanctifies us? Certainly. But neither of those truths eliminates the fact that we also have a role to play. Your own personal efforts can’t make you holy, but at the same time, the work of the Spirit won’t happen without your willingness and cooperation.

4 Apr 2014

Links Between Daniel and Esther

Esther

The Book of Daniel has been one of my favorite biblical books for a while now, and I’ve always enjoyed the Book of Esther as well. A while back, I heard a lesson on Esther which got me to thinking about the striking similarities between the two: 

Faithful Living in a Hostile Environment

Many of the following similarities can be traced to the overriding similarity in the setting of both books. The Book of Daniel follows the lives of Daniel and his three friends as they live godly lives during a time of captivity in Babylon, working in conjunction with powerful kings (first Nebuchadnezzar, then Belshazzar, then Darius).

The Book of Esther focuses on the lives of Esther and Mordecai as they live in Susa under the reign of Ahasuerus/Xerxes.

Emphasis on the Physical Beauty of Young People

Daniel 1.3-6 mentions that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were chosen for the king’s service because they were, among other things, “without blemish, of good appearance.” They were taken aside and were to be given special training and a special diet to prepare them to assist the king.

Similarly, Esther was chosen as part of the harem of Ahasuerus based on her great beauty (Esther 2.3, 8) and was similarly treated with a special diet and also given cosmetic treatment (vv. 9-12).

The Changing of Names

Daniel 1.7 is clear that Daniel and his friends are given new names in Babylon (Daniel becomes Belteshazzar, Hananiah is called Shadrach, Mishael is now Meshach, and Azariah is called Abednego) which seems to be an attempt to change the identity and allegiances of the young men. Allusions to Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, were removed from their names and were replaced with references to false Babylonian gods.

The Book of Esther is not as explicit, but Esther 2.7 mentions that Mordecai was “bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther….” Hadassah is a Hebrew name, which indicates that her name must have been changed to Esther at some point while she was under Persian influence and authority.

Accusations Against God’s People

In both Daniel and Esther, we have the theme of wicked men bringing accusations against God’s people. In Daniel, political officials who are jealous of the level of authority that Daniel has achieved under Darius realize that the only way they can get him in trouble is to outlaw his devotion to Jehovah, and they then inform Darius that he has violated the law by continuing to pray to his God (Daniel 6.1-14).

In Esther 3, Haman’s rage over Mordecai’s refusal to bow before him leads him to propose a scheme to Ahasueras to eradicate the Hebrew people (Also, this incident could be compared to the refusal of Shadrach, Mishael, and Azariah to bow to King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image in Daniel 3).

God’s Ability to Save in Difficult Situations

In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Mishael, and Azariah are confident that God has the ability to rescue them from the fiery furnace. Later, in Daniel 6, Daniel seems to be unfazed by his punishment of being thrown in the lion’s den.

When Mordecai learns of Haman’s plan to wipe out the Jewish people, he reflects a similar attitude, telling Esther that the Jews will be delivered one way or another (Esther 4.13-14).*

Stubborn, Determined Faith

One awesome theme of both books is the portrayal of determined, defiant faith from the characters. Shadrach, Meschach, Abednego, and Esther all realize the possibility of dying for their actions, but are determined to remain faithful regardless. Their declarations of stubborn faith in Daniel 3.16-18 and Esther 4.16 are among my favorite passages in Scripture.

Promotion of God’s People to Places of High Authority

A final related theme of both Daniel and Esther is the way that God leads his faithful followers to places of high authority in their respective foreign lands. Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego (Daniel 1.20, 2.46-49, 3.30, 5.29, 6.1-4, 6.25) all find favor in the sight of their superiors and are elevated to positions of high authority.

Similarly, Esther and Mordecai (Esther 2.1-18, 5.1-8, 6.10-11, 10.2-3) are appreciated by their superiors and granted power and authority as well.

Conclusion

These are just some of the similarities that struck me between the two books; I’m sure there are more that could be listed. As I mentioned above, I think a lot of the similarities stem from the overall similarity in setting, as we have the stories of people trying to be faithful to God in a surrounding culture which doesn’t always support that lifestyle. In that sense, I think the books of Daniel and Esther are incredibly relevant to Christians today as we strive to live as “sojourners and exiles” in our world (1 Peter 2.11).

*Much has been made of the fact that Esther is the only biblical book which does not explicitly mention God. While this is interesting, I don’t think it is particularly significant, as the idea of God providentially caring for His people is as central to the Book of Esther as it is to the Book of Daniel.

The image above comes from a series of Esther mosaics by Lilian Broca.