It’s Not About Us: The Prosperity Gospel In our Homes Pt. 3

Boromir wanted it to be about him, he wanted to be the main character, the great king, the one entrusted with the ring.  If you’re not following Boromir was the character Sean Beam played in the Lord of the Rings movies (or at least one of them).  He was the future placeholder king of the kingdom of Gondor and like his father he believed he was destined for real greatness.  Boromir joined the fellowship of the ring to stop the evil Sauron but he quickly found himself jealous of Frodo who was entrusted with The One Ring.  Eventually Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo and become the central character before repenting of his self glorifying ways and taking his place in someone else’s story.  In the movies he dies almost immediately afterwards, but in the books he eventually redeems himself by committing to protect and ultimately sacrificing himself for two characters he had previously seen as beneath himself (literally).  Many American Bible readers are modern Boromirs, they make the Bible a book about how they can be their best selves.  They take a great story of salvation from a terrifying enemy and they try to make themselves into the central character, the hero of the story.  We shouldn’t be shocked to much by this, adult Christians today were raised in children’s ministries that made the feeding of the 5,000 a story of a boy who shared and they went to youth ministries that called God their co-pilot.  Even the Christian kids shows they grew up on told them how important they were each week.  The problem is we were meant to be Boromir in the Two Towers not Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring.

boromir

The past few months I have released a few blog posts related to how we see a surprising doctrinal error in the default American Evangelical approach to Next Gen ministry.  This blog is the final in my short series.  John Piper famously has outlined six keys to detecting the prosperity gospel:

  1. The absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering, the absence of a doctrine of suffering.
  2. The absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial is a tip off that something is amiss.
  3. The absence of serious exposition of Scripture.
  4. The absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture.
  5. Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles.
  6. A prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God.

Previously, we looked at the first six keys outlined by Piper and today we will look at the final one and consider some Biblical solutions.

The final key to identifying the prosperity gospel according to John Piper is somewhat of a capstone point that can encompasses the other five, so in some ways if you want to see how our children and youth ministries have promoted this aspect of the prosperity gospel the first two articles of our series fully demonstrate it.  Several years ago David Michael was hired by Bethlehem Baptist Church and asked to instill a children’s curriculum with as much of a focus on the glory of God as John Piper’s preaching.  Pastor Michael after great effort found that nearly all of the curriculums available focused far more on moral lessons that centered the Bible on man rather than the great story of salvation in Jesus.  David and his wife Sally decided to rent a dumpster to get rid of the man centered stuff they were teaching and start writing a new God centered kids curriculum that stopped promoting self and started showing the greatness of God.  In the years since Children Desiring God first came into existence several other God centered curriculums have been released but far more moralistic man centered ones continue to be created every year.

Youth ministry can be equally guilty of this type of error.  A hugely popular Christian musician wrote a decent bit about the influence of his youth ministry on his adult life.  The great takeaway this man got from his youth group is when you get a dream don’t let anyone ever doubt it or stand in your way.  This kind of attitude though pretty normal on MTV or Instagram is frankly selfish.  An overemphasis on human potential and a focus more on how we can do great things for God than how God did great things for us can be par for the course in youth ministry.  This was certainly exemplified in the failed purity movement of the early 2000’s.  Even if that movement I have written about before made promises of doing great things for God instead of self like the self-help books, the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks strongly against such things because they try to make ourselves the main character rather than God.

Should we throw the baby out with the bath water?  Is there any hope for next gen ministries or should we give it all up lest we teach a harmful doctrine?  Some have indeed responded to all of this by cutting away everything the local church does apart from the worship service but I think next gen ministries can make much of God and outpour from the true Gospel.  Many healthy churches throughout the world have shown there is a remedy for this approach to youth and children’s ministry but that remedy must be patient and absolutely needs to define success by faithfulness.  We live in a “what have you done for me lately?” world but churches and parents that desire to reject the prosperity gospel dangers must start seeking long term future transformation.  If we want the biggest crowds now or the least bored sons and daughters now, the soft prosperity gospel will always take the cake.  Next gen ministries and parents with a high view of God seek fruit that they may not see for ten thousand years, fruit that they can only be confident will come if parents and pastors trust God’s word.

A far better approach to next gen ministries is one that neither makes the youth leader or even the teens themselves the hero of the story but rather realizes we have the Boromir task to point to the real hero who we sadly to often regard as less glorious.  You never cure a sickness by inducing states opposites of the symptoms but by sending antiviruses and antibiotics into the system that will destroy the pathogens or at least hinder the bad growth.  You need to find the underlying issue and send in something better to get rid of it.  As every good Sunday School kid would say, the answer is Jesus.  Martin Luther dealt with an early form of the prosperity gospel that he called a theology of glory and his solution to this problem was always a theology of the cross; a theology of God doing great things in weakness but more than that a theology of the constant centrality of Christ.  Sovereign Grace Music has a great kids song called “All About Jesus” that I encourage kids to belt out; this song and just that term give us our fix.  We need youth and children’s ministries that make much of Jesus and never much of ourselves.  We need to use each of our opportunities with kids and teens to simultaneously enamor them only with His grace and call them to humbly take our undeserved role in pushing His story forward.  This All About Jesus God Centered approach doesn’t just repeat the four spiritual laws each week but glories in God’s revelation of His son in all of scripture.  A Christ centered next generation ministry carefully studies both Obadiah and Romans to see truths of God’s great story in each.  If a next gen ministry takes this Christ centered approach, we won’t see certain attractions or certain styles of leaders as right or wrong but frankly pretty insignificant like Boromir had to realize of himself.  Far more important is that our ministries make much of Jesus and the leaders be people that walk closely with Jesus no matter what they are like.

You might think this seems to simple.  You might react, “sure we tell our teens about Jesus and ask them WWJD, but this isn’t going to keep their interest, this isn’t going to attract them; we need some way to reach our young people, we need some hutzpah, some power.”  I agree with you in this case, we need power.  Fortunately, the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1 the Gospel is the very power of God to save souls.  The gospel isn’t powerful with the right attractions and personality and it isn’t a power of God, it is THE unadulterated power of God by itself.  Exciting music might pack concert halls, promises of fun might sell tickets to Hershey Park, and cool personalities get you YouTube subscribers.  None of these can bring someone from death to life, none of our strategies are capable of this.  Only the Gospel can do the spiritual act of changing our kids and teens from the inside out.  Let’s apply the antidote of the Gospel to all of our worldly thoughts that a prosperity gospel even in it’s most faint version is needed in next generation ministry.

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Spider-man or Spider-boy?

My kids are obsessed with Spider-man stuff.  We have Spider-man clothes, place mats, toys, and my kids would even tell you we have a Spider-man car seat.  They actually bought a Spider-man video game for me for Father’s Day.  That video game goes alongside the 7 Spider-man movies I own, my Spider-man watch, and a Spider-man onesie I have as a Halloween costume.  As you can tell I am more than a little to blame for the Spider-man obsession under my roof.  Spider-man isn’t just my favorite comic character as an adult, this fictional superhero was an important part of my childhood.  As an awkward kid trying to pretend I wasn’t as dorky as I was, Peter Parker was an inspiration to me.  The cartoon and comic adventures of the wall crawling superhero made me feel less alone in my awkwardness and reinforced in me the value of doing the right thing even when the cards are stacked against me.  As a Christian now I recognize even the Amazing Spider-man represented an imperfect worldview and we shouldn’t overstate the impact of these kinds of stories largely created to make a buck.  That said, Spider-man was and is important to me; so much so that frankly if they cast Adam Sandler as the new Peter Parker I would see that movie opening night even while knowing it would ruin my week and I would hate every minute of it.

Last week my unhealthy Spider-man obsession came to some benefit.  My senior pastor and I were discussing various Spider-man movies and Spider-man’s adolescence came up.  I explained that originally in the earliest comics Spider-man was always a fairly young teenager.  Pastor Paul then asked me the very logical question of why he’s not Spider-boy.  That question is a fascinating one as even a youth of ours a few years older than OG Peter Parker called himself a boy rather than a man in a conversation I had with him.  Most people would certainly call a 15-year-old a boy or at most a young man but 15 year old Peter Parker was Spider-man.  In the comics there were tons of reasons for this over the years from Peter Parker finding it better hides his identity to suggestions it is more intimidating to the villainous scum.  The real main reason boils down to an important word in the Spider-man lore: responsibility.

Whether you love Spider-man in a way that adults clearly should have grown out of like me or just saw him in an Avengers trailer there’s a decent chance that you know the iconic phrase Spider-man lived by “with great power comes great responsibility.”  Peter Parker’s uncle Ben taught him this phrase to show him what it meant to be a man even when people expected far less of him.  In Peter’s case the great powers were superpowers but the phrase was intended to be more broad.  This slogan was an encouragement for Peter as he prepared to take on the world that manhood means taking care of others (especially those more vulnerable).  Many societies throughout history have accepted teens as men when they use their physical prowess to get what they want for themselves.  The writer Stan Lee made Spider-man into a teen who would take on manhood through using whatever gifts, abilities, or opportunities he finds for the good of others.  Peter Parker took on the role of being Spider-man rather than Spider-boy by seeing his gifts both God given and spider given as obligations to help others.

The Spider-man comics demonstrate unusual high expectations for both teen boys and teen girls.  Peter Parker is not the only Spider person that swings beyond age expectations.  The young Miles Morales version of Spider-man shows unparalleled bravery at times and the Spider-woman known as Gwen Stacy makes sacrifices greater than even adult superheroes at times.  I fear this stands so at odds to the low expectations we have of young people in our broader society and even within the church.  When I was more actively focused on children’s ministry, I knew several next generation ministry pastors and church leaders that highly preferred working with young children because they felt the seven years olds were far more mature than the seventeen year olds.  When a teen guy does something stupid, we chock it up to the old phrase “boys will be boys.”  Some youth ministry specialists enforce the assumption that teens are capable of about as much responsibility as a goldfish.  The Christian songwriter Andy Gullahorn wrote a comical song called “Teenagers” in which he asserts we “might think they’re (teenagers) being selfish, that’s cause they are.”  Often Andy Gullahorn is right but we can expect more.

Sandler-manNone of our teens or preteens can web up The Hobgoblin but they can do significant things as young men and women.  One of the greatest kings of Israel began great reforms before his voice dropped.  Charles Spurgeon took a pastorate at the age some teens graduate high school.  Alexander the Great started building an empire at sixteen; not that he’s a great example for teenagers.  Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat because of the color of her skin when she was too young to get a driver’s license.   The teens we minister the gospel to, love, or even parent probably will do none of these things but they can take great responsibility.

We shouldn’t be shocked by teens being dopey if we treat the teenage years as a time to be dopey.  We should expect more; after all our Savior asked much of His strange group of disciples that certainly included at least one teenager.  We should expect them to boldly step into being men and women rather than irresponsible children.  Christians should see teenagers the way Uncle Ben saw Peter Parker.  If we regularly and repeatedly stop making excuses for our young people and provide them opportunities for maturity once in a while they will cease it.  Once in a while they will be more than what their peers expect of them and those moments will wow you.

Peter Parker wasn’t accidentally called Spider-man.  No writer slipped up in having a fifteen-year-old go toe to toe with the most heinous mob boss and a thug in a rhino suit.  These comics depicted manhood less as a stage of life and more as a commitment to doing the hard task that needs to be done.  I don’t write this to convince anyone to join me watching the upcoming Spider-man movie that I’m far too excited about.  I write this so the Christian community can commit to doing the work of Uncle Ben and our Savior and my youth pastor years ago; showing young people they can be something far better than immaturity.  Let’s help the young Peters and Gwens to be superhuman by embracing everyday maturity.

Will Eleanor Rigby Belong?: The Prosperity Gospel In our Homes Pt. 2b

Eleanor Rigby may not be the best song by The Beatles but it has to be the most underrated.  Rolling Stone magazine ranked Rigby as their 22nd best song twenty spots behind I Want To Hold Your Hand; this is practically criminal.  Eleanor Rigby is memorable, profound, dreamy, and a bit chilling.  Unlike some of the other cerebral songs written by Lennon and McCartney, the meaning of this song is fairly straightforward.  Rigby tells the story of a lonely woman fantasizing of a beautiful wedding she never had and the lonely pastor who painstakingly prepares to preach Eleanor’s unattended funeral.  Amidst this short story The Beatles keep observing all the lonely people and wondering where these lonely people come from or belong.  The answers of course are that lonely people are all around us and sadly our society has not allowed them to belong anywhere.  The song seeks to provide no real solution to this dark reality, but there has always been a place for the lonely people to belong or at least there should have always been.

Over the past month or so I have written a few articles comparing Next Generation ministry in the broadly evangelical American church to John Piper’s signs of Prosperity Gospel.  This article sort of continues that series as a short excurses in hopes to make this a little more personal.  In our subtle everyday Evangelical prosperity gospel that I have previously argued exists, where do the lonely people belong?

In my most recent sermon I mentioned a misguided “Christian Counselor” who told me that people with certain types of mental illness shouldn’t go to church because church is not a safe place for them.  I STRONGLY disagreed with his suggestion anyone shouldn’t go to church but sadly he could be right that for all the lonely people church is not where they belong.

The Christian church of the 1st century looked very different from the average Sunday morning assembly today.  The preacher didn’t make sure he perfectly timed jokes based upon what he learned from communication class.  The deacons weren’t wealthy business owners in three-piece suits.  The music wasn’t led by a GQ model in skinny jeans.  The youth pastor didn’t swallow a goldfish during the Sunday School hour.  For the record none of these things (apart from the last one) are inherently bad or in any sense necessarily a compromise but nonetheless this wasn’t the church of the first century.  The 1st century church grew largely from the people on the fringes; the tax collectors, women, and even slaves.  1 Corinthians 1:26-30 even shows us God chose the early church to mainly consist of the weak and lowly (though not exclusively of course).  These early Christians were sufferers, even those who had some semblance of success suffered for following Jesus as Lord rather than Caesar.  Two thousand years ago the Christian church would be right where Eleanor Rigby belonged and where she would find identity and family.

The statistics heavy website FiveThirtyEight a few years ago did a fairly comprehensive study of the themes in modern worship music vs hymns and concluded modern Christianity is “cotton candy” Christianity, it’s exceedingly positive and does not adequately grasp darkness in life.   When modern American Christianity does attempt to address pain, sorrow, and loneliness it all to frequently comes across as shallow and lacking in substance.  This kind of prosperity singing is fairly new.  Generations ago the reformer Martin Luther with a penchant for deep soul consuming depression began a hymn “From the depths of woe I raise to thee the voice of lamentation.”  Martin Luther’s Christianity provided a place for all the lonely people to belong, cotton candy Christianity does not.

I know of a former pastor who still intellectually believes in Christianity but has vowed to never darken the door of a church again in his lifetime.  This man was chewed up and spit out by the people that call themselves Christians in ways he has never seen pagans behave.  This former pastor was day in, and day out surrounded by a community that was created to give life and found it was only killing him.  How many church members or church leaders even find the local church to be far more a collection of different homogenous social circles that fight dirty to maintain what makes them homogenous rather than the healing holiness community we claim to be?   A friend who drifted away from the faith told me that churches that talk much of sin hurt the broken and weary.  I think the opposite might be true.  The only way we can really grasp the darkness that hurting people are overcome with and try to be a help is through being far more bothered by sin.  Liberal and conservative churches talk about sin but typically we talk mostly about the sin outside our doors.  We might rage against the sin of destroying the planet or the sin of abortion but we hardly talk about the sins that make church hard for the hurting or even the ones that cause more hurt to happen at church.  If we want to be a place where Eleanor Rigby can belong we have to be a place where we gently call each other out for the respectable sins of gossip, lying, pride, anger, and selfishness.  If we don’t become serious about healing ourselves into a healing community we will only have more leave because church people stab open wounds and less hurting people come in because we earn a reputation for judgementalism.

This is far from removed from next generations ministry.  According to the widest studies available not only does modern youth ministry in no way decrease teen suicide rates, teens with difficult social and personal lives leave church notably earlier than their peers.  This should be anything but true based upon the success of the first century church.  Hurting young people frankly don’t feel the church is much of a help to them and often they feel it actually hurts them.  I’m not really surprised as nearly every youth ministry I know of struggles with bullying nearly exactly along the lines found in the local high school.  Struggle may in some cases unfortunately even be to strong a word as I think many youth ministries through compromise into that soft prosperity gospel actually promote adolescent social hierarchy.  When I was a senior at my Christian school a local popular youth leader spoke in our chapel.  At the end of the service a friend that was spiritually struggling stormed out hurt and deeply bothered.  In a later conversation this friend told me he had left that man’s youth group because the most popular teens were “making my life hell” and the youth leader in his opinion was “pretending to be one of those guys who made my life hell.”  In my arrogant prideful teenage angst I confronted the youth pastor and he told me he never really paid attention to this student on the lower end of the hierarchy and he wasn’t aware he had ever left.  All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

I wonder if the American church even wants the Eleanor Rigbys at all or if we just don’t want the hassle and baggage all the lonely people will bring.  Churchleaders.com acknowledges all the lonely people (not their term) are the people most receptive to the gospel today just like they have always been.  I suspect we are all somewhat aware that the best way to reach the lost is to show the Eleanor Rigbys they can belong but when we think church growth we think very differently.  If your church grows by sharing the gospel with Eleanor Rigbys not only will this fail to bring in the tithe money of “successful people” you may have to redirect financial resources to help meet the needs of new Christians that may have substantial financial and emotional struggles.  A youth ministry that reaches “all the lonely people” will have to be ready to compassionately and intelligently deal with the doubts and darkness that young people frankly feel they are expected to suppress at church.  To bring it back around even our music may have to be mindful of their pain and struggles.  I was a teen in the early 2000’s where half of the teens were into that mopey emo music (much of which was admittedly awful).  It always baffled me that churches thought they would become relevant to my generation by essentially only doing 1990’s soft rock music.  Far more important than any of this, reaching the Eleanor Rigbys will often mean opening up our homes to those to whom family is not a happy word.  We may not want this but honestly if the Christian church in America wants to do anything other than slowly move to the fringes, we need the Eleanor Rigbys.

EleanorrigbyI don’t know if this article will persuade any reader and it assuredly makes far less cohesive points than the rest of this series.  This said, I write this as something closer to home than much of my ministry.  I have been through difficulties in a recent time that left lasting scars, scars that turn me to the Psalms of Lament and the great cries of weary Christians.  More importantly, I was a lonely hurting teen years ago.  Both before and after coming to know Christ I was plagued by doubts that kept me up most nights and I was usually miserable throughout my teen years.  I praise God that a Christian teacher told a lonely person the Gospel and that a church made a lonely person belong.  When we come close to Jesus the Christian church even in its failings can embrace the Eleanor Rigbys in ways that shock the world.  Let’s be the place where the hurting can find home and by doing so let’s reach this world for the Gospel of the man who was broken for the broken.

What we Impress them With:The Prosperity Gospel In our Homes Pt. 2

A friend told me a tale of two youth pastors.  When the person we will call Jenny was a teen at her church she had two different youth pastors at different times (probably actually less than the average teen).  When Jenny describes the youth pastor who drew the most momentary excitement, she describes his personality, sense of humor, and the loads of fun everyone had.  When she describes the other youth pastor she doesn’t actually talk about him much at all.  When she describes the second man she talks about the Bible skills she learned, the deep truths she learned in the Word, and the God-centered approach of the youth ministry.  Jenny doesn’t mention the second youth pastor’s personality or the games he led because the second youth pastor believed he was merely an instrument through which God’s Word can impact the next generations.  If Jenny even remembers the little the first youth pastor taught her, it was very clear in his case the message took the back seat to the messenger.  For the first youth pastor, he was the attraction, for the second the Word of God was the attraction.  Unfortunately, the common approach Christian churches and families take to discipling the next generations today often resembles the first youth pastor rather than the second.

A few weeks ago I released a blog showing the failure of next generations ministry and families in America to adequately teach young people the normalcy of suffering and self-denial.  That blog was the first in a series of blogs demonstrating the impact of the prosperity gospel primarily in parenting and youth ministry.  This blog is the second in my short series.  John Piper famously has outlined six keys to detecting the prosperity gospel:

  1. The absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering, the absence of a doctrine of suffering.
  2. The absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial is a tip off that something is amiss.
  3. The absence of serious exposition of Scripture.
  4. The absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture.
  5. Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles.
  6. A prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God.

Previously, we looked at the first two keys outlined by Piper and today we will look at the last four.

John Piper rightly sees a low view of scripture and ignoring tensions in scripture as signs of a prosperity gospel and I fear these are readily seen in both the home and next generation ministry.  One of my favorite books on youth ministry (Giving up Gimmicks by Brian Cosby) recalled a time the author attempted to lead his youth group through a study of scripture only to be told by another pastor a Bible study wouldn’t be relevant to teens.  Looking through the bestselling youth ministry curriculums on the site of the world’s biggest youth ministry publisher only four of the top fifty curriculums are built upon a study of scripture rather than a supposedly more relevant topic.  Even when youth ministries make some effort to teach from scripture, they are frequently stuck in the same handful of Bible chapters.  Intentional or not we have taught both children and youth that much of the Bible is just not relevant to them at their stage in life despite scripture itself telling us the whole Bible is relevant to everybody (2 Tim 3:14-17).  We shouldn’t be all that surprised in this as churches invest far less effort into ensuring they bring on a youth leader with a depth of Biblical knowledge than they do for the preaching pastor.  Youth ministry today and probably for the past several decades has been far more built towards entertaining young people than it has been built towards educating them in the Word.

Even some of the most theologically dangerous children’s curriculums teach Bible lessons.  It’s hard to imagine a kids ministry that doesn’t teach kids creation, the flood, or the battle of Jericho.  While modern children’s ministry might include more Bible verses, it most certainly does not get off the prosperity gospel hook.  Piper notes that when the prosperity gospel teaches the Bible it just contorts it to fit the preacher’s (or curriculum author’s) beliefs that are contradicted elsewhere in the Bible.  When I first entered full time ministry within one month I reviewed a curriculum that tried to teach good deeds make up for bad ones from the story of Zacchaeus and tore down a picture outside of my daughter’s Sunday School classroom that read “shh I’m trying to learn to be good” above a Bible verse that had nothing to do with that heresy.  A high view of the Bible in the discipleship of the next generations sees the Bible as the center of our teaching and the authority over our teaching rather than a spring board to whatever we want to teach people.

Instead of the Bible being the main focus of ministry, prosperity gospel makes the visual leader the focus of ministry.  John Piper describes this symptom of a prosperity gospel as church leaders living an exorbitant lifestyle.  In the sermon from which these points are taken Piper clarifies that it is more than the pastor taking a gigantic paycheck but this symptom is mainly about pastors pastors taking on an image of a glamorous lifestyle.  This can be seen in the popular Instagram account Preachers n Sneakers that highlights the pastors who convey a luxurious lifestyle through wearing thousand-dollar sneakers.  Ironically some churches that might be the quickest to criticize preaching pastors driving luxury cars would be thrilled to have what young people call “an influencer” lead the youth group.  A senior pastor skeptical of charismatic senior pastors told me a few years ago, “you have to be cool to be a youth pastor.”  This established church leader isn’t alone in this mentality as the majority of full time youth pastors fit a very particular personality mold and they are willing to pay to keep up an image.  When I was in high-school the leader of the largest youth ministry in our city would dress in the most expensive clothes from the store in the mall all the teens saved their money to shop at.  This youth pastor didn’t have a gold watch or a vacation home but he dressed up to the highest aspirations of his teens.

This pursuit for coolness and relevance never stops as the cool uncle youth pastor type tries to find every new gimmick and trick to keep the young people fascinated with him.  If nothing else this keeps the youth ministry machine going as it attracts young men who long to perpetuate their high school popularity into a career of impressing teenagers.  Maybe youth leaders of these mold are not living the dream of the thirty year olds they are but they are living the dreams of the teens they are working with.  Youth leaders of this ilk are more court jesters than sheep herders but apparently they are fine with that and so are many Christian parents.cool guy

Seeking leaders who have what the Apostle Paul would call the wisdom of this world can certainly build some momentum, but it also teaches our young people some really dangerous doctrine.  This teaches teens popularity and success in the eyes of their peers are good, Christ honoring goals to pursue when James said, “friendship with this world is enmity with god.”  This also gives young people an appetite for spiritual leaders that prioritize style over substance.  Could it be the “preachers n sneakers” pastors are filling up their pews with young adults who were more impressed with how cool their youth pastor was than by the deep and abiding truths from scripture he probably didn’t teach.  If we want our teens to be deeper in the faith in ten years we look for someone to help us shepherd them but if we want them pumped when they go to church now we just take them to the best court jester.  I think too many Christian families have favored the latter.

Parents don’t get off the hook in this style over substance problem.  It’s hard to blame church leaders for the lack of Bible focus in the discipleship of our young people when you consider Biblical literacy in America was far more prevalent in the 18th century before Sunday School or youth pastors were on anyone’s mind.  The Protestant Reformation brought the Bible into the home and into the language young people develop.  For hundreds of years after the invention of the printing press the Bible with varying degrees of faithfulness the Bible was read verse by verse in homes of the devout and the doubters.  If you drive through America’s oldest towns and cities, you will find a startlingly high number are named after Biblical places modern Bible readers would find obscured.  Founding fathers and European nobles who denied Christ’s divinity still studied scripture with their households and deep Biblical knowledge is evident in the writings of deists like Jefferson and Franklin.  Today many parents believe the way to instill Biblical knowledge in their children and teens is to drop them off in the most exciting children’s ministry or youth group and assume the experts will take care of it.  That kind of glamour and glitz is just as much emphasized by the parents that rely upon our soft prosperity gospel as it is with the cool uncle youth pastor.  Parents see dropping of as the alternative to diving deep for a reason and that reason is very much theological.

In each of the keys to identifying a prosperity gospel we have seen glaring errors in the way we approach discipleship of the next generation and Piper’s last key that in some way is the capstone point we will see the problem most evidently.  Fortunately, Piper’s last point gives us a taste of a deeper and more God honoring approach to discipling the next generations.  The final article in this series will seek to provide Biblical solutions in contrast to a prosperity gospel and will show us the beauty of God’s great work even through our bad methods.

Avoiding Suffering and Sacrifice: The Prosperity Gospel In our Homes Pt. 1

I suspect if you’re reading this you’re not a fan of the Prosperity Gospel or the Health and Wealth Gospel.  You are probably aware of some well-known pastors and authors who teach this dangerous doctrine.  If your pastor started preaching giving more money will make you wealthy or that your cancer is because you lack faith you would probably rebuke him and look for another church.  Nevertheless, I wonder if you have bought into some lies of the prosperity gospel in a hugely important area without you ever noticing.  I think we have bought at least a bit into the prosperity gospel in the discipleship of our kids both in the home and in the church.  Further, I fear that we have built a model of discipling young people that at its very core assumes the prosperity gospel.  I fear I have bought into these lies as I have partnered with parents in the discipleship of the next generations.

John Piper famously has outlined six keys to detecting the prosperity gospel:

  1. The absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering, the absence of a doctrine of suffering.
  2. The absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial is a tip off that something is amiss.
  3. The absence of serious exposition of Scripture.
  4. The absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture.
  5. Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles.
  6. A prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God.

I like this outline of the prosperity gospel as it avoids the caricatures and gets to the heart and beliefs that are behind the prosperity gospel.  I am not going to suggest that children’s ministries are telling kids that if they have faith they will never get the flu or that parents are telling their youth God will give them a yacht.  The problem is more nuanced and I think requires a deeper look than those simple stereotype abuses of that well known heresy.  If we look at these keys one by one I think it will be easy to find the prosperity gospel under our noses and hopefully correct it.

The first key Piper sees is an absence of a doctrine of suffering.  In prosperity preachers on tv this is evident as suffering is portrayed as something to overcome not something to ever understand.  Suffering is in a strange way at the core of the Christian life.  A theology of suffering takes us back all the way to the beginning pages of Genesis and Revelation is full of suffering for both Christians and those who reject our savior.  Most importantly Jesus promised His disciples if they follow Him they would suffer just like He did (John 15:20).  It’s hard to teach much of the Bible without seeing Christians will suffer and often will at the hands of their friends and classmates.  Nevertheless, many young people leave church when they get to the age at which they notice Christianity isn’t exactly the center of popularity.  Studies have shown “Christian teenagers” are confused by suffering and even youth pastors at some of the healthiest churches this side of the Atlantic will attest almost none of their youth have any kind of expectation of suffering.

Sociologist Christian Smith has often effectively noted American religious teenagers see God as their therapist who is there to give them good feelings and drop good times out of that great vending machine in the sky.  This is hardly a shock if we truly think about it.  A friend recently told me how a seasoned “effective” former youth pastor recently advised him that if teens aren’t having a great time whenever they’re at church my friend is doing something wrong.  The “seasoned pro” is far from an exception as an overwhelming percent of most church youth leaders (and some children’s leaders) time goes into crafting positive experiences for those in attendance.  It’s right and good to be welcoming and fun is not sinful, but this focus is teaching something.  Teenagers in churches are taught that Christianity is about the ups of life, the good times and when we feed them this day in and day out that’s what they come to expect from their faith.  Its little wonder teens raised in this mentality seldom have the patience to do the hard work of studying the Bible and are bored of prayer and the worship service.  The expectation of a good time so clearly negatively impacts their adult church involvement as they realize the normal church service every Sunday can’t get them stoked like youth group used to and the historic Christian songs written from great sorrow become buzz kills.  Church in this model of ministry isn’t the place for answers in our sorrows in sufferings in this model, it’s the place where they are hidden and bottled up.  This dagger stabs both ways.  If the young people in our church are not prepared for suffering it means the little bit of home discipleship that happens today rarely addresses the difficulties of life and presents Christianity as the key to the good life.

The second key to identify the prosperity gospel is the absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial.  This key flows out of the first and has similar implications.  An aspiration of nearly every American family is to raise children to have it better than mom and dad did, to pass on a progressively greater ease of life with each successive generation.  This is not inherently bad; in fact it is loving and good of parents to seek the welfare of their future descendants.  Far more than we want our children and youth to have much, we should strive to raise our children to deny themselves much in pursuit of the glory of God.  In Matthew 16:24 Jesus stipulated those that wished to know Jesus as Lord and Savior must be willing to count the cost and deny themselves to follow Jesus.  Self-denial doesn’t merit salvation but it is at the core of the repentance that alongside faith is the Christian response to God’s grace not only in the moment of salvation but all throughout the Christian’s life.

Are we teaching self-denial in the Christian home in any substantial degree?   We may tell young people that following Jesus means no sex until marriage but in more significant ways we often implicitly teach Christianity is about self-indulgence.  The most common reasons people give up on family worship in the home is their families are too busy or their kids are too bored.  Both of these reasons buy into the prosperity gospel at least a bit.  The family too busy for family worship is giving their kids the impression that following Jesus is all well and good until it gets in the way of the sports club that little Johnny wants to join or the scholarship opportunity for teenage Suzy.  Denying self doesn’t always mean missing an opportunity it can also mean embracing the hard but good thing.  It’s discouraging when mom and dad try to teach the kids about the Lord only to see glazed over eyes and feet ready to run off and play Fortnite.  This discouragement makes many parents think family worship and things like it aren’t worth the hassle and that it might make the kids see the Christian life as boring and laborious.  Newsflash!  The Christian life is full of things that our fast paced society sees as boring and though we have the Holy Spirit within to guide us and encourage us, sanctification is absolutely supposed to be laborious.  Instead of dropping family worship in these moments it may be worthwhile to address the boredom (maybe even admit when you get bored in the pews or serving in the nursery) and challenge the next generation to self-denial in the face of their very human disinterest.

Sadly, in the American Evangelical world it has become the default that when Johnny’s sports game falls on a Sunday morning church is skipped and when family vacation rolls around no effort is made to find a church by the beach.  This might be a worse version of the same problem.  It’s easy to be faithful in attendance and giving when the family has plenty and the choice is church or yard work, this kind of faithfulness is hardly self-denial.  Real self-denial in the family comes when your vacation shifts to a campground so you can financially support the church food pantry.  Real self-denial is taught to our kids when we acknowledge it stinks that going to church on Sunday may lose them a spot on the varsity team but obeying Jesus means giving up some of the things we like the most.

Some time ago I led a Bible study with some teens that had grown up in a great church.  In that Bible study I asked that group of mostly regenerate teens what they have had to give up to follow Jesus and a few minutes later I asked them to give a time when the Christian life was painful.  Those teens couldn’t give me an answer for their life.  They were quick to answer questions related to how Christianity made their lives better but the concepts of Christian self-denial and suffering for Jesus seemed completely alien to them.  The next day I called several Gospel centered children’s pastors and youth pastors I know to find they all have observed this same concern.  I don’t think any of those teens are heretics but they most definitely have bought a bit into the subtle prosperity gospel they have heard preached all around them for more than a decade.

This disease has saturated our ministry to minors, so much so that subsequent blogs will explore the other four keys to detecting the prosperity gospel and their shocking prevalence in ways we have seldom thought about.  There is hope and it doesn’t require us to burn everything down and start again.  In the final blog in this series we will see how rightly understanding the cross gives real solutions to all these problems.

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Confessions of Someone Who Made It

I was led to the Lord in the height of the purity movement of the early two thousands. I remember as a brand new teenage Christian going to the local Christian bookstore to buy some worship cds and immediately being surrounded by the best seller list that consisted of end times novels and short books that extolled the values of sexual “purity.” I didn’t think about it then but now I realize those two seemingly unrelated genres were both an expression of a theological lens that had influenced Christianity in America at the time and to a lesser degree still does. That lens which was surprisingly fundamentalist from those who deny fundamentalism was antagonistic towards the world, immersed in legalism, and promoted shame over Biblical conviction. When I was sixteen and a baby Christian I didn’t think about any of this stuff, instead what I did was consume as much of it as I could in my busy life. Prior to coming to Christ I actually had a great deal of familiarity with what has been called the purity movement as I went to a Christian high-school that championed it (maybe more than the Gospel sometimes) and I had a very close friend who’s wonderful Christian family talked about it a fair bit. All of this purity movement stew I swam in shaped the form my early faith would take both for good and for bad. High-school Tony very much had the thought life and struggles of the average teenager but God did use that purity stuff to keep me from sinning through sex outside of marriage. I was actually led to the Lord within days of a date that would have likely ended my virginity. After that event I almost bought myself a “purity ring” but was too embarrassed. I made it through high-school pure by the purity movement standards if you can ignore my private sexual sins which were far less condemned by the purity movement.

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I made it by hook or by crook through high-school but according to studies from the time I went to college the vast majority of the 40 or so percent of young people to graduate high-school as virgins would lose their virginity in college. College was actually more of the same for me. In high-school I swam in the waters of the purity movement but in college “purity” was the air I breathed despite the movement quietly beginning a massive decline. My college stressed “purity” hard. We could never be alone with a member of the opposite sex we weren’t related to even to the point that my now wife had to have a letter written and signed by my parents when she visited my parents over winter break. Our college was pro-life but would expel girls that got pregnant out of wedlock and didn’t cover it up through abortion. Ironically this school also made it hard to get married without being punished apart from summer breaks. For many people these things only caused them to hide their sexual sins but for me along with some others it allowed me to switch out the sin of premarital sex with the sin of scornful pride towards those who make it a mistake. In college I think my path to purity was probably less costly than most for multiple reasons surrounding my amazing wife Danielle. Firstly, I was engaged at 21 which is not the reality for most young people in the 21st century. Secondly and more significantly, Danielle was super committed to purity to the point that she was determined not only to marry as a virgin but to only marry a virgin. Both of us have evolved away from this pedestal of virginity but for me if I wanted Danielle (which I very much did) the only way to get her was through virginity. On top of that, out of our own knowledge of self weakness we set physical guidelines that were not authoritative scripture but were healthy for us. Those self imposed rules undoubtedly had far more impact than the rules our college set but that kind of principle doesn’t sell books to parents or private school boards very well.

After we finally made it and got married we learned that the promises of the purity movement were mostly lies. There was no virgin couple fairy dust sprinkled during our wedding day and for our friends that didn’t wait there were no ghosts of girlfriends past at their ceremonies. Our wedding was a beautiful union and so were the weddings of our friends; no more, no less. We quickly learned that even though the Bible does rightly hold up the ideal of waiting for sex within marriage, non-Christian experts are still right that intimacy gets better over time. I got married and lost my virginity while still in college but surprisingly over the next ten years or so I grew more and more bothered with the purity culture that held my kind of story as a model of it’s success.

It wouldn’t be long into grad school that I would learn most of my friends that claimed they would wait didn’t actually wait until marriage. In seminary I also met some people that are far more Godly than me that made commitments to wait in the past and subsequently failed. Around that time sociologists were able to pretty definitively prove the purity culture and all of it’s token staples didn’t actually work for the majority of people unless their goals were to add shame and lying to the sin of sex outside of marriage. The denomination that I have over time come to align with even acknowledged around that time that their expensive, giant purity conferences didn’t substantially decrease sex outside of marriage and may have even promoted sex into an idol for young people. Seminary also forced me to see that scripture does not really treat sex outside of marriage as worse than other sins like lying. It also taught me that shaming people who have repented of their sins starkly contradicts a Christian Gospel centrality that views our past sins being as far as the East is from the West. My unease with the purity movement that I supposedly lived out was heightened all the more during my ministry when an engaged couple opened up to us about their sexual failures. I realized that the Tony that had stayed “pure” at seventeen and nineteen was far less spiritually mature than either of these individuals that fell into sexual sins. I also realized that my “purity” had a couch quarterback element to it; I was “pure” when it was easy to be pure and it’s impossible for me to know if I would have stayed a virgin in their much harder circumstances. I think the purity movement to some degree or another did help me stay a virgin when my flesh wanted anything but that but my case was the exception rather than the rule. People were hurt and still battle shame because of the elevation of this sin over other sins like gossip and pride. One could amplify all of this times one thousand in the ways the purity movement hurt those who were raped or otherwise sexually violated.

The purity movement does still exist and may be growing again right now but my guess is it will never have the hold on the church it did in the late 90s and early 2000s. This said, I think the truths that God forced me to see are so relevant to Christians today. If we are honest with ourselves, do we think our churches would be more scandalized if one of our teens got pregnant after a regretted high-school hook up or if one of our teens got fired from their job for always playing Fortnite on their phone? Would Christian parents of a college students be more angry if they found out their son lost his virginity in his door room or if he was skipping church each week asleep in that same dorm room? I suspect we know the answers to those questions and they aren’t really what the Bible teaches. Further, some false assumptions magnified by the purity movement are still assumed harmfully today. A white wedding dress historically has nothing to do with being a virgin and even entertaining this kind of mentality does a whole lot of harm to Christians that might already deeply regret sin.

I want to close this somewhat random musing by communicating with any Christian who could read this. Unwed Christians who are still virgins; praise the Lord that he has kept you from this sin! Keep faithful and watch your soul not only to stay away from sexual sin but to stay away from the pride that doesn’t realize there by the grace of God go you. Unwed Christians who have fallen into sexual sin; if Jesus is your Lord and Savior God has forgiven you for this sin no matter who it happened with or how often it happened. Open up with a more mature Christian who won’t condemn you about your struggle as you should with any sin battle but never accept the idea you are a second class Christian. Parents and married relatives of unwed Christians; your loved one might sinfully lose their virginity outside of marriage no matter what you do. Commit to love them and if they are brave enough to tell you, commend their bravery and offer them kind helps in their battle against sin. Christian leaders; recognize purity is something we are given in Christ because none of us are truly sexually pure by God’s standards. Stop giving a far higher percent of your attention to this sin than the Bible does and combine the confrontation of sin with deep compassion just as the Holy Spirit does for us.

I honestly don’t know if I would have been married as a virgin had I been surrounded by different people and been in different contexts. I do know that though I made it according to the purity movement it wasn’t because I’m better than those who fell or the youth that I work with that fall today. God has been kind and patient towards me when I sinned in ways that still allowed me to claim virginity before marriage. God is equally kind and gracious towards those who sinned in ways I didn’t and had victory where I fell.

That Creepy Anti-Christmas Elf

More than ever I love the Christmas season.  It’s not just the beautiful hymns or the birth narrative, I’m all about the secular stuff too.  As I write this a Jazzy version of Let It Snow is playing on my Echo, I am anxiously awaiting my first ugly sweater in the mailelf and I am lusting for a warm peppermint mocha.  I think being a dad for several years now has made me a festive guy.  I also like seeing on Facebook and Instagram the sweet pictures of my friends and their kids cozied up between the fireplace and the Christmas tree.  I can be cynical sometimes but a little less so with Christmas wonder.

That all said, I hate and I mean HATE The Elf on the Shelf and always will.  Elf on the Shelf is shame inducing, privacy creeping, and of course quite creepy.  Full disclosure:  our family doesn’t do the Santa Clause thing.  We like to read The Night Before Christmas and wear Santa hats but we have always taught our kids Santa is pretend for a variety of reasons; primarily concerns about undermining Jesus’ message of grace.  If you want to hear more on that I did a podcast episode on it a few years ago.  While we don’t do Santa in the way many do, I like Santa plenty and I think some things are far worse than teaching your kids the jolly fat man is real.  One of those far worse things is Elf on the Shelf.

Don’t dismiss this take as a personal grudge against the literally untouchable Elf on the Shelf, plenty of non-Christian child psychologists and thinkers share my detest for EOTS.  Hank Stuever at The Washington Post described it as “just another nannycam in a nanny state obsessed with penal codes.”  The Atlantic published a take down of this tradition it describes as dangerous in which creepy was probably the kindest descriptor.  Most significantly Psychology Today labeled it a “dangerous parental crutch.”  Psychology Today’s Canadian counterpart has published multiple similar articles.  A staggering number of child psychologists have lamented the tremendous growth of Elf on the Shelf.

I believe Christians should have the absolute harshest criticism of this analogue nanny cam.  Elf on the Shelf’s stated design is to watch and report a child’s good or bad behavior to report back to Santa whether or not the children are worthy of coal or a Nintendo Switch.  The reason why parents spend hours on Pinterest to find the perfect place to put him is because Elf on the Shelf is designed to give the impression he might be watching at anytime.  This behavior spying is further reinforced by the main rule children must follow, don’t touch the Elf.  If children touch the Elf the kids might realize he is just a doll and return to lose the guilt motivation for behaving right during the holidays.

The problem is that scripture repeatedly shows us true obedience and character is fundamentally others (especially God) focused.  Obedience done to get the benefits that come when others see one’s good deeds is nothing but being little Pharisees.  Of course occasionally giving a young child a reward for their obedience is quite beneficiary but when they are taught to live for rewards a moralist you have made.  Christian morality teaches we are who we are when no one is watching us, The Elf on the Shelf makes sure we are always watched and just bottle up the demons we need to face head on.  Christian parents are supposed to teach their kids to do the right thing because it honors God and brings joy to others, Elf on the Shelfers are taught to do what mommy says because if they act up in their room when dinner is on the stove Elfy’s gonna snitch.

Another problem in this is The Elf on the Shelf is a thief, a thief that steals away a child’s privacy and robs parents of the opportunity to offer their kids trust.  Elf on the Shelf is strangely one more way we are putting off letting children grow up.  Part of growing up and having a private (and public) relationship with Christ is being given the opportunity of privacy.  Parents that use Elf on the Shelf are quite content taking that away from their children.  If we make sure our kids are never in situations in which their behavior is between them and God we are implying we aren’t willing to trust them to make their own choices.  Trust is an important cog in any healthy relationship and even Christian parents with the meanest 2nd grader ought to show Christian mercy by extending some level of trust even when it backfires.  These private times when we trust our kids is frequently when even young children can find for themselves who they really are and who their God truly is.  A friend was surprised a few months ago to find his young son praying privately in his room not long after being given the opportunity to go off and play.  How much would The Elf on the Shelf have tainted that moment?  My friend would never know if his son prayed because God was at work or because doing so may get the Elf to put in a good word with Santa.

Brothers and sisters, this year let’s hide The Elf on the Shelf permanently.  Let’s teach our kids real obedience and surprise them with trust.  The Christmas message is a message of God loving us rebels deserving of eternal coal by sending the God man who bought us everlasting life.  The Elf on the Shelf who counts our good and our bad is antithetical to the real message of Christmas.  Go find a new tradition that exalts Christ or is just harmless cute fun this Christmas time.  Get rid of that elf and probably don’t replace him with the Mensch on the Bench.